With its unique blend of real time tactics and grand strategy, the Total War franchise is practically a genre unto itself. No other game allows you to embroil yourself in the politics of a nation at war quite so thoroughly while also letting you command your troops at ground level. The dynamics of combat are also dramatically altered by per-troop simulation of morale, which changes the focus of warfare from killing enemies to breaking their ranks. But where most grand strategy games thrive on their multiplayer, Total War has always been built firmly on its single-player campaign mode. RTS skirmishes aren’t all that fun on their own, and playing a campaign against friends can be downright grueling due to the intensity of the combat system. With Total War: ARENA, Creative Assembly aims to change that – and they might end up inventing another genre in the process.
Total War: ARENA shares a lot of DNA with MOBAs. You take the role of a single heroic figure on a battlefield, and must coordinate with a team of ten to either wipe out the enemy forces or capture their base. The difference between this and your standard online arena game is that instead of controlling a single character, you’re given command of three military units. Traditional RTS fans might find this a little underwhelming, but between using special commands and abilities and managing your troops’ morale you’ll probably find you have your hands full micromanaging one battle at a time. Being a small part of a greater army in an RTS is a unique experience, and coordinating with a team of ten presents an engaging challenge on its own.
I spent my time with the game fighting across a single mountainous map over and over again, and between all of the different routes and the various options for configuring units the game seems to offer a great deal of replayability in that alone. Terrain has always been one of the most vital factors in Total War’s combat system, so map variance just in terms of mountains and forests can make an immense difference in determining the outcome of a match. There’s a lot to learn here, both in the layouts of the maps and the various roles you can take in combat (ranging from scouts to front-line forces), and I expect to see hardcore players invest a lot of time in getting good at it.
That learning curve will hopefully keep the game interesting through its long experience grind. Persistent army development has always been part of Total War’s charm, and that certainly holds true here. As you win (or lose) battles you’ll earn currency that allows you to buy new weapons and armor for your units or new abilities for your commanding officer. You can earn these over the course of regular play, but you can also toss a bit of real money in to expedite things. As freemium models go, ARENA’s take seems fairly even-handed.
It goes without saying that the game is gorgeous – this is Creative Assembly we’re talking about after all. They’ve long been pioneers in 3D graphics, especially when it comes to scenery, and the vistas in arena are gorgeous. The soldiers are too, for that matter, even though you rarely see them close up. The same crazy voodoo that lets regular Total War games display thousands of characters at once is in full working order here, and this is just an early build. Battles feel huge and visceral, and troops move in a very believable manner. Spectating pro games should be a real treat.
Well, it could be. Whether Total War: ARENA can make it in the eSports scene is still up in the air. Ten players is a lot to coordinate, and it’s been proven time and again that five is more or less the “sweet spot” for a good competitive playing field. The game’s designers have expressed hesitance to split their audience, but they are looking in to creating a five-on-five mode for players who take Arena more seriously. With its sweeping shots of pitched battles, Total War would certainly make for an exciting spectator sport, but it does need some changes to work.
Fortunately, those changes are presently underway, and you can be a part of them by signing up for the Total War: ARENA closed alpha. Creative Assembly has always been good about listening to player feedback, so your thoughts could have a dramatic impact on how the game shapes up. Not to mention, I’m going to be sinking a lot of my time into the alpha, so if you’ve ever wanted to kick my butt at something, this is your chance.