Total War: Three Kingdoms is already making me paranoid, and I’ve not even played it yet. Spies have always been a minor part of the Total War series, but the number of options for espionage in Creative Assembly’s take on ancient China is making me dizzy. Characters can leave your service under false pretence, acting as double agents after being hired by a rival faction. Play your cards right, and they can rise up the ranks, be adopted into a rival leader’s family, usurp rule and even turn over control of a kingdom to you. See how it all works in the video breakdown below.
The espionage system in Total War: Three Kingdoms builds on the complex web of interpersonal ties that we saw in its more overt diplomatic aspect. Every character, no matter how big or small, has a name, goals and personal loyalties. Double agents and spies, once installed in an opponent’s court, can gather information or enact more overt influence. Want to slow down an enemy army? Delayed supply shipments might be written off as just a clerical error, but troops dropping dead after eating poisoned rations puts a spy more at risk. There’s degrees of subtlety available.
If an agent gains enough influence, they can even cause a faction to splinter, leading army regiments and generals astray. At the highest levels of betrayal it’s even possible to throw a kingdom into outright civil war. One of the things in the video that most intrigues me is Dong Zhuo returning a caught spy back to the player unharmed. Has the agent been compromised? If so, then you’d want to keep them away from the levers of power. But if they’re still loyal, refusing to promote or support them might lead them to leave and rejoin your foes in earnest, and that’s just one man – imagine trying to keep track of hundreds of them.
While there are some exciting possibilities attached to this wildly complex espionage system, I do have some concerns. First, I’ve my doubts in the AI’s ability to handle subterfuge. Secondly, it might make the game just that little bit too complex – the interpersonal politics side of the game is already adding a lot more weight to the strategy map layer. If everything does work well, a third concern rears its head – I’m going to be a nervous wreck playing this game, and absolutely sure that everyone and their historical Chinese dog has it in for me.
Total War: Three Kingdoms launches on March 7th. You can find it on Steam and Humble, priced at £45/€60/$60, with early adopters getting the Yellow Turban DLC faction free. It’s published by Sega.