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Remembering Total War Three Kingdoms, 5 years later – a game too good to be left behind

Five years since it launched, I pour one out for the turn-based strategy that could have been.

If there's one Total War game I keep coming back to, on those late nights when I hunger for the series' beloved brand of tactical management gameplay, it's Total War Three Kingdoms. A delve into the romantic depiction of China's great history, a time where acts of heroism placed generals and tacticians in the pantheon alongside gods. A great revolution thwarted, legendary betrayals and alliances, and a country engulfed in flames. It is one of my feel good games - the great stress diluter - and it stands today a butchered pariah. A game whose life was cut short, and ultimately resigned to history.

But how did this happen? Well, back in 2022 the Creative Assembly team behind Three Kingdoms announced that development on the game's post-launch DLC would cease in favour of a sequel of sorts.

This new project, set within the Three Kingdoms universe, was met with some skeptisism. Many enjoyed the Three Kingdoms they had, and weren't ready to move onto a new game only two years after its release. Others, myself included at the time, were excited at what a sequel could bring. In my mind the team had proven themselves, and while I was bummed out to here the game I loved would be cut short of DLC, I could live with that as long as an exciting new game would come in its place.

This sequel never happened. According to reports shared with press and select influencers the game was canned (Belluar News has a brilliant overview of the situation). The sequel apparently wasn't up to snuff and concerns surrounding Chinese markets - where a vast number of Three Kingdoms' players resided - resulted in the door being closed on the sequel. This essentially left Total War Three Kingdoms as this unfinished black sheep.

No, it's not Dynasty Warriors. | Image credit: SEGA

And that's a real shame. It's a tricky thing, capturing the Three Kingdoms era in a video game. Many have tried, most leaning into the big characters who roamed the battlefields, but only Total War Three Kingdoms brought these champions to a life on both a micro and macro scale.

Take Lu Bu. Everyone loves Lu Bu. In combat he's a monster - a 1v1 powerhouse able to charge in and wipe out almost any enemy general with ease. He's an aggresive character that encourages an aggresive playstyle, so more often than not you'll find yourself pulling units that can charge in and make use of the dent he bashes into enemies' health and morale. But, charge in too deep, and Lu Bu can be surrounded. Enemies on all sides, fighting for his life.

This is brilliantly emulated on the world map. In the base game's campaign he's your spear tip, charging out into enemy territory and taking on the brunt of the damage while Dong Zhuo is sat back doing the easier work. Hang on, you may think. If Lu Bu is doing all the work, why is he not my faction leader? That's a wonderful question - one Lu Bu probably asked before he stabbed the guy and set his body on fire. Total War Three Kingdoms manages to brilliantly reflect the characters in all aspects of the game. Your army composition, the buildings in your settlements, your approach to deplomacy, and more. All characters get the same treatment as Lu Bu - it's a tale told on the fields of battle and the territory screen.

Makes your Red Hare stand on end. | Image credit: SEGA

Many of these merits can be found in Total War Warhammer 3 - you can spot bits of Three Kingdom's DNA spread around that game here and there. But Three Kingdoms in its ultimate form will never appear. I can only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor, what beast was left dormant as the team moved onto the doomed sequel we'll never seen. More than that, it must feel awful for those who worked on the project. To see your baby left out in the cold like that, and the cool new baby you had as a backup ferried off somewhere forever out of reach. I can only hope that one day, stories on what could have been seep out into the public.

Nevertheless, I'll still boot the game up every now and again. Even in its state, it's got some real charm to it. Objectively speaking, I'd struggle to call it Total War at its best, but damn it this is Total War at its most earnest. A real curveball into a new setting, knocked out of the park. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a Yellow Turban playthrough to lose hair over.

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