One of the 200 Total War games being released this year, Total War: Arena is an attempt for Creative Assembly to transform their tried and tested grand strategy gameplay into a team based multiplayer arcade-ey game. It is currently in an open beta, which I have had a look at this week. The game draws heavily upon Rome II: Total War, as all the units are taken directly from there, but instead of commanding a nation, the player instead controls only a few small units.
So, how is Total War: Arena different from every other Total War game out there? Well, instead of playing the ruler, building up your armies and striving to take down your AI (or human) opponents by commanding vast forces against them, now you just level up a few select units and commanders. Instead of controlling a multitude of varied units against a single opponent doing the same, you now order around just three. Instead of planning out your battle plans meticulously ensuring victory before the first arrow has been fired, you are now thrown into the mix and have to rely on other players own aims coinciding with yours. If all of this seems like a step back to you, that’s because it is.
See, the important bit of the grand strategy and RTS genres is the word “strategy”. The fun comes from the player devising plans to beat superior enemies and overcoming foes, but in Total War: Arena this is made nearly impossible. Sure, you might have the great idea to plant your archers on top of the ridge to fire down at the enemy infantry lines and soften them up for your allied cavalry, but if XXX_WEEDSMOKERZ_420_XXX wants his peasant infantry to suicidally charge into your firing line, you don’t have much say in the matter. Additionally, you can’t even rely on your ally with the cavalry realising you’re trying to help him, so there’s nothing to stop him charging off somewhere else.
When you have an entire army of captains, it’s a good idea to have a general coordinating them all, but Total War: Arena demotes all the players down and just hopes you will all get on with it. You could try to coordinate with the other players, but trying to work cooperatively with random players is like trying to teach a bunch of monkeys synchronised swimming: nigh impossible and you’ll likely just get covered in wet poo.
“Well”, I hear you say, “you could always just get a bunch of your friends together to play?”.
Sure thing, except organising a bunch of adults to play a video game together at a set time is even harder than getting apes to swim in a circle because you can’t even bribe them with bananas. Additionally, who actually knows a big group of people who a) like you, and b) like grand strategy games? I know maybe five or six, but getting them all together leads to the aforementioned problems.
Communication itself is also a bit of an issue, as currently there is only a small chat system to allow players to discuss their plans for the upcoming battle. Whereas in reality commanders have several hours or even days to discuss these plans, players only have a few minutes to talk with often silent companions. Hopefully, one of the changes to come in Total War: Arena will be to give players a better way to communicate with each other and to give them more time to organise their strategies.
The gameplay itself is the standard Total War affair: big beautiful maps and stunningly detailed units fighting off in the standard rock-paper-scissors style. Cavalry beats archers beats infantry beats cavalry. Nothing new and innovative there. There really isn’t too much to add, the game does not innovate at all on the actual battle side of things barring limiting each player to three units. This is not usually an issue with Total War games, however, as while they usually all play the same they make up for it with a different setting, different armies and different maps.
In Total War: Arena, however, the units, settings and maps are reused from Rome II: Total War, so that defence is no longer valid. Still, the Total War model is functional, and you won’t hear yourself cry out in frustration about the gameplay, just about the other players. As you win more battles, you unlock more upgrades and higher tiers of units for your chosen army (Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks or barbarians) in the same vein as online games like War Thunder or World of Tanks.
So, overall, I think the main issues of Total War: Arena lie in the grand strategy genre not mixing well with the cooperative and team-focused elements of multiplayer. That’s not to say Total War doesn’t work in multiplayer; it absolutely does, and I have had a lot of fun battling other armies with friends online. The difference is that in the older games you still commanded an individual army, along with the other players, but now you are forced to act as part of one cohesive force but have up to ten commanders present in the field. I feel that the game is an interesting experiment in what can be done with grand strategy and multiplayer, yet experiments can often yield poor results.
However, the game is free to play, with the standard “micro-payment to unlock units early like a scumbag” model that most free multiplayer games (or not free, looking at you EA) use these days. It being free, it can be hard to criticise too harshly. After all, I might not really think that this multiplayer model gels too well with grand strategy games, but if you enjoy these kind of games and are interested to see how it works you can always just give it a go.
Total War: Arena is currently in open beta, and if you want to sign up to try it follow this link here. The more input they receive, the better the end product might turn out to be so I’m sure Creative Assembly will appreciate it. There is no definitive release date for the full game yet yet, but it should be later this year.