Total War: Three Kingdoms is the best Total War game and the best Three Kingdoms game ever. I do not make this claim lightly; I’ve been playing various incarnations of both this setting and franchise for two decades. But the setting excellently lends itself to how Total War works, and developer Creative Assembly has adapted the series to Three Kingdoms to make everything fall into place.

Before getting into the game itself, it’s worth discussing what the setting of the Three Kingdoms means, as a whole. In the most superficial sense, it’s a series of civil wars that ended the Chinese Han Empire from the late second century CE into the third. But more than that, the Three Kingdoms era has become a defining event of the literature and culture of civil wars, the way that the fall of the Roman Republic, the Wars of the Roses in England, or the American Civil War create legends for their cultures. This is the story of larger-than-life figures, engaged in a titanic war not just for territory but for strategy and politics and morals, perhaps reaching its pop cultural peak in John Woo’s filmĀ Red Cliff.

Thus you have a setting where heroes like Liu Bei and Cao Cao stand for as much as Pompey and Caesar, or Neville and Richard III, or Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee … or, to take a recent fictional example of civil war literature, Cersei Lannister and Jon Snow do. This is the story of superheroes, something that games like Dynasty Warriors manages, and that the Total Warhammer games, with Malekith and Karl Franz, have primed that franchise to be ready for.

More than any other Total War game, and more than just about any other strategy game save Crusader Kings 2, Three Kingdoms is about characters. And Total War: Three Kingdoms makes that essential its experience.

What you’ll like

They’re people, not units

At its core, Total War: Three Kingdoms is about people. When you create armies, you do not start with a general and then add 20 units, as has been the case with every Total War since the original Shogun. It’s different in this game, where you have a character in charge of a retinue of up to six units big, of which three are allowed per army. This adds up to full armies being normal-sized for Total War, but with huge amounts of personality added, because each third is attached to a person, and each has their own identity and interaction with one another.

Above: Deng Ai in Total War: Three Kingdoms

Those characters? They all get along with each other in certain ways. Each ends up with Crusader Kings-like traits, where Indecisive characters dislike Decisive characters, and Fiery characters piss off almost everyone around them. The more they interact with each other, by being in the same army, or by being in the same province as each other strategically, or being on the ruler’s council together, the more those characters start to like — or hate — each other. This can lead to you building armies to match characters who get along with each other as people as well as characters whose retinues have units who mesh well together. So you’ll find a strategist with her archers, a vanguard with his cavalry, and a sentinel with his infantry, as well as corresponding personalities.

The colors, children, the colors!

This isn’t a difficult or complex process. But it is a satisfying one, with comprehensible and interesting causes and effects. It’s not the only one in the game, either. Total War: Three Kingdoms is built around a clever and aesthetically satisfying set of intertwined systems based on the Chinese elements. Each of the five elements — Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire — corresponds to colors: yellow, purple, blue, green, and red.

Each of these connects to character classes, buildings, and unit types. So, for example, green is the color of Champion classes — the best duelists — which corresponds to agriculture and peasantry in building types, and spear infantry. A Champion will generally have spear infantry accessible for them to recruit to their retinue, whereas sending them to help build infrastructure tends to be in ways that increase food, population, or taxes.

This all folds back into the way Three Kingdoms does its tech tree — a literal tree! — where each major branch corresponds to one of the elements/colors. Progressing down the green branch will improve your Champions’ happiness, get you more money from your peasants, grant new spearman units, and improve food production both directly and via buildings. It’s a superbly elegant system; it’s not essential, but it’s helpful for understanding at a single glance how every part of the system fits together.

Above: The tech tree of Total War: Three Kingdoms

It’s also tremendously aesthetically appealing — when was the last time a tech tree made you happy just to look at? — in a way that matches the rest of Total War: Three Kingdoms. Almost everything about this game is gorgeous and smooth. The UI is smooth and attractive at almost every level; the music is delightful; and the campaign map is beautiful across all four seasons.

Perhaps most impressive, given how much the Total War series has been built on being the most technologically advanced strategy game on the market, Three Kingdoms runs smoothly — more smoothly than the recent Warhammer incarnations. On my SSD, loading times switching between battles and the campaign map were 15 seconds or fewer, and the battles themselves, until they got massive, tended to avoid slowdowns.

Playing the map

And … all that isn’t even the best part of Total War: Three Kingdoms. The series has always struggled with maintaining a strong campaign from beginning to end, but in this incarnation, Creative Assembly seems to have solved the issue. Its Chinese civil war is dynamic and fascinating, with almost every playable faction having their own strategic decisions to make with far-ranging repercussions.

As Cao Cao, who historically set up a power-base in the center of China and then took over the north, I pushed south to see what happened — which ended up with me as a power, but not quite a superpower. I was surrounded by smaller factions, and I found it easy to end up at war with everyone around me. This ravaged my economy thanks to a lack of trade partners, forcing a constant dance of diplomacy to knock out what rivals I could as fast as I could before losing key territory to my true enemies.

Total War: Three Kingdoms

Above: Killing Liu Bei doesn’t necessarily improve matters in the campaign. …

The entire campaign had this constant push-pull. I’ve never played a Total War that maintained such strategic dynamism from beginning to end. And although I got the furthest with Cao Cao, pretty much every other major character I started a campaign with was pointed in the same direction. Total War: Three Kingdoms has a superb campaign from beginning to end, and is not merely a vehicle to get cool battles out of, as many previous incarnations it have been.

I’d also like to praise the balance on the economy, something that’s easy to not think about, but in general my cash flow almost always matched how I felt the campaign should be feeling at that point, and I consistently had to make interesting decisions on the best ways to spend the money I got.

Fighting it out

Speaking of the battles, which I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about, I still wish they were like Shogun 2. In that game, the goal was to rout enemy armies, a process that tended to occur fairly quickly and involve rigid formations and key attacks to trigger a cascading rout. In almost all the Total Wars since, the goal has been to destroy enemy armies, a process which makes battles tend to be scrummier and slower, often ending with small groups of units bashing each other in the face until one comes out.

That said, if that’s the direction Total War is going, Three Kingdoms is the best incarnation of this kind of tactical battle, with the possible exception of late-game combat in the Warhammer games. The addition of the general units, who can turn battles with their skills or their straightforward combat prowess, makes watching those battles end still be entertaining, and tends to hurry it along before it gets interminable.

Above: Xu Huang single-handedly sways a battle in Total War: Three Kingdoms

An odd byproduct of the retinue system is that it tends to make battles consistently occur between equal-sized armies, which means that you’ll be fighting a lot of reasonably fair fights. It’s exhausting at times, but pleasantly so. You’ll be spending a lot of time in combat, and it won’t feel bad.

What you won’t like

Lack of info, a bit of a political breakdown

Well, that isn’t quite true. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a huge, complex game, so of course there are aspects of it that don’t quite fully work. But the parts that don’t entirely work seem like they’d primarily be enhancements of what does work, and could be patched-in or expanded.

The biggest issue I have with Three Kingdoms is information, particularly about the overall trend of the story. For people who haven’t read the novel, or spent their lives in Dynasty Warriors, it’s hard to tell who’s who, and why certain events, whether scripted or emergent, might be important. Having a Crusader Kings-like button to take you to a character’s Wikipedia page, for example, or more prominently linked to the excellent comic Creative Assembly did.

Above: A cutscene from Total War: Three Kingdoms

For those of us who have been fully immersed in the story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, more macro-level information about who’s winning, where, and when would help a lot. Like most Total Wars, when you start the game, you only have information about your neighbors, and slowly build intelligence about the rest of the map. But while that might make sense for world-spanning games like Warhammer, a China that’s in a slowly escalating civil war should have more information about, say, what’s happened to Ma Teng out west. Civilization-style power charts would be amazing.

The big choice offered at the beginning of campaigns of Romance or Records mode ended up being much less interesting than I expected. Romance mode, where generals were individual units with superpowers, both fit the setting and made combat so much more interesting that I found myself quickly bored with Records games I started. Since the game defaults to Romance, this isn’t a major issue, but it was one that surprised me a bit.

The internal politics, where defections and rebellions seem possible, also could use a slight buff. Or perhaps just that playing as the ridiculously strong personality of Cao Cao inherently tampers those down, and I’m more likely to see them with other factions. The game is plenty fun without them, but could really shine with a bit more internal dynamism.

I’d also love to see the southern part of the map fleshed out, more unique heroes, and a better political map mode. But given how aggressive Creative Assembly has been with Warhammer and what the studio has already announced, these are things I can probably expect via patches, expansions, and mods. It’s a great game with room to get notably better.

Total War: Three Kingdoms

Above: Cao Cao’s army forms a battle line

Conclusion

Whenever I’ve played Three Kingdoms-set games in the past, I’ve always wished for an ultimate game in the setting. Dynasty Warriors but with more tactics, Dynasty Tactics with more emergent narrative, Romance of the Three Kingdoms but with better balance and more action. This always felt like a pipe dream — but Total War: Three Kingdoms manages to accomplish it.

Likewise, whenever I’ve played a Total War, I’ve always wished for a campaign mode as good as the battles, an endgame as fascinating as the early game, and a difficulty that matches my skills. Not impossible, but not expected — until Total War: Three Kingdoms.

So I really don’t have sufficient superlatives to use here. Beyond best-in-setting and best-in-franchise, Total War: Three Kingdoms is a game that instantly contends for best of the year, or best in its genre. The setting and franchise here give it high expectations, and Three Kingdoms surpasses those expectations at almost every level.

Score: 97/100

Total War: Three Kingdoms is out May 23 for PC. The publisher gave GamesBeat a digital code for the purposes of this review.