The Total War franchise has been responsible for some of the most engrossing gaming hours of my life. From the earliest days of Rome: Total War, to the most recent title Total War: Attila, I must have too many thousands of hours invested in the deep strategy Creative Assembly have been lovingly crafting for well over a decade. So when CA first announced that they were going to be making a free to play title called ‘Arena’ just prior to the cataclysmic release of Total War: Rome II, I was sceptical. A week in to playing Rome II, I had all but forgotten Arena. I thought CA had as well. But recently I picked up the Total War humble bundle and included was closed beta access to Total War: Arena. I went in to the game a sceptic with very little idea how they expected to pull this off. I’m now 100 hours into the game. Have I been converted?
Total War: Arena is a free to play team based strategy title developed by Creative Assembly. What exactly is the gist of the game? Well… for those of you who are familiar with Total War titles you’ll know that there are two aspects to the game. On one hand you have the grand turn based campaign map where you manage your cities, armies, agents, and everything else you expect from a turn based strategy title. It’s what CA give you in the other hand that really makes Total War stand apart from pretty much every other strategy title. Armies that clash on the campaign map clash in real time on an actual field of battle. If you make an army with 20x horsemen and attack an army with 20x various units, those exact units load into the battle. And you control your 20x units (each unit having multiple men – so battles can have thousands of individual men in it) and attempt to defeat the enemy army. This is where much of Total War strategy really shapes up, on the battlefield. This is where, for instance, you learn that horsemen don’t ever, ever charge a wall of dropped pikes (thanks for that bit of advice, LotR).
So TW: Arena has taken that grand real time battle element and decided to make this a massive multiplayer experience. And by Odin’s beard, does it work! Essentially the player has access to a Commander and 3x units from that Commanders nation. So for instance, you can pick Leonidas and 3x hoplite units. You then load into a battle with nine other players, which essentially means that each battle is a 10v10 battle with each army fielding 30x units. There are only a few maps available on which to randomly fight, but once you load into one you see who your nine allied commanders are and what their load out is (i.e. which three units they have picked). Each commander has its own unique skills/talents that can be used in battle. These work well with very specific units, most of the time. For instance, if you pick up Alexander the Great you have access to skills that really you’re your Greek cavalry give one heck of a punch. But if you pick up Leonidas (also Greek faction), enemy infantry are not going to enjoy trying to break your phalanx.
Other available commanders include: Miltiades (Greece), Julius Caesar (Rome), Germanicus (Rome), Scipio Africanus (Rome), and Arminius (Barbarians). Each commander belongs to a faction (Greece/Rome/Barbarians) and each faction has its own unique roster of units which start at Tier I and end at Tier X. Matchmaking is done by Tier rather than commander level, so if you load in Tier II units you should expect to face off against other Tier II units. This is sometimes not the case, but the player base isn’t large at the moment so this will no doubt be ironed out once greater numbers can access the game.
A battle in Arena pretty much goes like this. One, you load into the game and pick a starting position for your part of the army. If you’re smart (and your team mates are too) you’ll leave the good vantage spots for your artillery. If they’re smart, they’ll take it. Every now and again they’ll load on the front lines and instantly be run down by the enemy light cavalry. Some men were just born to die. Arena makes you feel less upset about this. That artillery probably would have killed more of you than the enemy anyway. And that actually brings us to a rather interesting point about TW games. Friendly fire. TW has always been unforgiving to players who wanted to use ranged units and/or artillery units to fire on units engaged in melee combat. This is because these weapons are historically not very accurate and almost never used once armies engaged in melee combat. You were far more likely to indiscriminately kill everyone. This is true for Arena as well. You can force your siege units to attack the ground and for a TW title they are REALLY accurate, but not accurate enough to fire on engaged lines. But you’ll see (I promise you’ll see this) range units as well as artillery decimating friendly melee troops time and time again. This adds an abundance of strategic options into the game that isn’t present elsewhere. For instance sometimes you can send your three melee defensive units into overwhelming odds and watch enemy artillery pound the lights out of their own army in an effort to “assist” their allies.
Using observations you make on the battlefield like this really make the title come alive in ways I’ve not experienced before in TW. Additionally, you can now actually stage effective ambushes (using long grass, strategic choke points, light and heavy forest) and watch players react in very human ways all around the map. Sometimes players panic. Sometimes they rally and solve their problems. Either way, it’s a fantastic experience.
Again, if you have ever seriously played a Total War title before you probably have a custom loadout of units in an army you really prefer. For me, I like running with 12 defensive infantry, 3x cavalry, 2x siege, and 2x ranged units. This obviously changes a little title to title/cultural group to cultural group, but the recipe generally stays the same. It’s the way I play and gives me enough versatility that I can adapt on the battlefield no matter what is thrown at me. But play enough Total War and you’ll see army compositions that are just walking dead men. You would never go to battle with 20x artillery, for instance. Or 20x peltasts/archers. And so when you load into a Total War: Arena game unit composition is very much the first thing you look at. Okay. We’ve got no artillery? No big deal. We can make that work. However, when you see you have nine artillery units and no one on your team listens to you that you really need to play defensively? Well. You’re in for a pretty rough day. So sometimes these games can feel very one sided just because the enemy army had better balance.
Each battle has a timer of 15 minutes by which you must either defeat the enemy army, or capture its sole camp. You would imagine that this allows for a lot of strategy between players and armies. And in many games, it does. But in some, you’ll see no one bother to defend and get caught out by six cavalry units that rushed your base so that you lose after two minutes. That is just part of the territory of playing with nine other people. Just like you will watch in horror as three of your armies cavalry units will charge head first into three units of enemy pikes. Sometimes you’ll even watch as an allied pike unit drops its pike wall and casually marches through a few idle allied units on the back line, killing everything. Total War Arena is not some dumbed down battle mode or a quick cash grab. This is a well thought out multiplayer experience that brings the best parts of Total War together and makes them better. The result? Total War.
And war never changes.
Last Updated: October 29, 2015