Hands On: Total War – Arena

Total War: Arena reminds me of Magicka: Wizard Wars, a game that I’m extremely fond of. Wizard Wars took the chaotic elemental combos of Magicka and directed them into a team-based multiplayer showdown. If it had simply been a team deathmatch iteration of Arrowhead’s original concept though, it wouldn’t have captured my attention for quite as long as it did. Arena strikes a similar chord because it presents one aspect of Total War intelligently re-imagined as a short-form multiplayer game that hasn’t forgotten its strategic roots. After an hour of play, I’m eager for more.

The new rules that control the flow of a match are the key to Wizard Wars’ appeal, designed to encourage last minute heroics and to enable dramatic turnarounds on the scoreboard. Total War: Arena might just find a similar sweet spot in its clever commingling of competitive teamwork and strategic battles.

Built on the foundation of Total War’s enormous historical battles, Arena pits two teams of ten against one another, giving each player three units to control. The current build, with which I played four rounds at a recent press event, is part of a closed alpha, and a closed beta is due in early 2015. As someone who enjoys the management and map-moulding of Total War far more than the combat, I wasn’t convinced that a free to play multiplayer formation-fiddler was particularly desirable, but Arena seems smart, benefiting from the tight focus and well-designed maps.

There are only two maps at the moment, one fringed with forest with teams at opposite ends of a killing floor that is divided into three main battlefields. You might call those battlefields lanes, each providing a different route to the enemy’s base which must be controlled for a set period of time to win the round. If several players occupy the base at the same time, the victory counter rises rapidly, but if the defenders manage to drive them out it will drop away again.

The second map has city streets in the bottom left and more open areas to the right. There are plenty of choke points in the city, which makes it ideal for the sort of rock, paper, scissors confrontations that are at the heart of Total War. Your three chosen units are likely to be a split between melee and ranged types to begin with, and my early melee troops were spearmen as were my opponents’ on the whole. Throwing spearmen against spearmen reduces the possibility of feints and baiting to draw in cavalry, concealing counter units in the constantly updating blindspots in the visible lines of sight, but my most successful moments still involved deception.

Plant a row of tempting javelin-lobbers with light armour at a crossroads and one of your ten human opponents is likely to bite. As soon as they close in, your other units, armed to the teeth and clad in the strongest chestplates that money DELETE experience can buy, will be waiting to pounce. Flank, surround, crush morale and overcome.

A familiarity with the way Total War’s battles work is helpful because the system at play here really is remarkably similar. The graphics may not be as fancy and the physics less physical – ensuring less pressure on the servers handling all of the data and a broader playerbase – but engagements play out just as they would in the core series. There are even commander units (one per player) secreted within units and losing them causes dismay to spread through the ranks. Formations have been simplified and everything moves at a faster clip, but positioning, elevation and careful timing of orders are as important as ever, as is an understanding of the big picture.

I find it hard to organise a trip to the cinema or the pub with ten people. Turns out military engagements in the classical era are even tricker than social gatherings. Our first two attempts were disastrous. On the forest map, we failed to use the cover of the trees to conceal our positions and found ourselves in a huge blob at the map’s centre, surrounded on all sides. Massacred, I believe, before our enemies had even bothered to chip away at our base.

We’d all rushed straight into the fight, left no defenses and failed to consider the possibility that it might be sensible to utilise the terrain to our advantage. But put that down to enthusiasm. The next attempt was a definite improvement.

Fighting on the outskirts of the city, a plan coalesced even though we weren’t exchanging strategies. Being very British, we rolled our eyes and chunnered about the disaster we’d just been a part of but didn’t actually dare to instruct one another as to how it might be avoided during the next encounter.

That’s when I realised that Arena is extremely well designed. Simple as they seem, there’s an elegance to the design of the maps and it begins with the choice of starting position. When everyone has selected their commander and units, and pressed the button that tells the world they’re ready to play, ten possible starting locations are displayed. As people select them, their name is attached, and because each spot has a clear objective – whether it be to defend a certain passage or form a perimeter around the base – it’s entirely possible to evaluate each players’ potential contribution and tactical approach by looking at the position they’ve chosen.

I planted myself on the outskirts of the city, between two allies. We would, I expected, move through the streets carefully, attempting to surround and overwhelm any enemies that approached. To my astonishment, that’s exactly what we did. Not a single word was exchanged but we were able to read each others’ intentions and work as a team. Because each player can see whatever his or her allies can see, separating into small groups within the confines of the streets allows for the greatest possible oversight. It also has the advantage of presenting a smaller visible front to the enemy.

As soon as we’d mopped up everyone in the area, we knew that the opposing team couldn’t see any of our movements in that part of the map and, on top of that, they’d never had a clear idea of our numbers anyway, because we’d attacked from all sides, holding units back in reserve.

When you lose track of enemy units, you’ll find yourself flicking to the map, trying to see where the fog of war has descended and then trying to calculate how many troops might be concealed in a particular blindspot. Essentially, the main feedback loop is about control of sight as much as territory. You want to fool your opponents into committing troops where they’re wasted, or vulnerable to a counterattack, while keeping their eyes and arrows away from your main assault force.

Of course, you’re trying to do all of that while struggling to keep a lid on the enemy’s own surge toward your base, and while herding all of your allies.

Our second round ended in defeat but I did manage to occupy the enemy base, which was completely undefended. Unfortunately, I had one unit of (almost literally) decimated spearmen left, which meant the victory counter would have taken five minutes or so to reach 100%. Our base was occupied by seven or eight units and was due to fall in a few seconds. A heroic last minute retaliation pushed the enemy out of our base when the counter was at 99%, which led to actual cheers in the room, but the reprieve was shortlived, as were all of our soldiers.

Arena has lovely flow and sound strategic decision-making, which I hadn’t expected at all. There aren’t a hundred different unit types and specialisations to memorise, which is a relief. Simplicity of content and strategic complications seem to be the key and on the basis of this early and controlled playthrough, the game is on the right track.

Upgrades are earned through experience and the commander can use these to purchase special abilities, based on his traits. Most of these are triggered through a button press and they often have a cooldown. I had a charge skill for my spearmen, which caused them to smash through enemies like a bowling ball through pins, and a ranged ability that concentrated fire on a single point on the map for a few seconds. Later, I acquired the ability to drop shields mid-battle, lowering ranged defense but raising melee abilities.

Individual units rise through tiers, evolving into new types like Pokemon as they gain experience. They can spend their own collection of experience points, which is tied to their performance in each round, or they can spend the commander’s own experience.

Along with experience and abilities, there is equipment and silver. That’s where the monetisation comes in and, again, it’s impossible to judge how it will work until the game is released. Equipment provides buffs – a stronger sword means your unit causes more damage in melee combat, better armour means it takes less damage.

I was earning silver quickly enough to buy every equipment upgrade available but there are also boosts that last for a certain number of rounds. The developers told me, in an interview to be published later this week, that paying for silver is only necessary for those who want to speed their way through the tiers. Whether the amount of currency needed will rise steeply between tiers, I can’t say, but at the lower levels the sense of progression seems to be well-tuned. There’s a ‘Gold’ currency as well but it’s purely for cosmetic items and units.

Arena will need a decent community if it is to flourish, and plenty of tech support to ensure it can accommodate the enormous battles it’s aiming for. The design is good though, taking one component of the parent series and tweaking it in all the right places. It’s far more pleasant than the MOBA-esque clash of heroes I suspected I might be stuck with for an hour. It’s fast but intelligent, with a good central flow and strategies that are easy to read and implement. It’s handsome too, avoiding clutter to present battles that are clean and instantly legible.

A surprise, and a very pleasant one.

We’ll have an interview with the team behind Total War: Arena later this week. Signups for upcoming alphas/betas are open now.

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22 Comments

  1. CundC says:

    The singup is not available at the moment for “normal” people.
    link to totalwar.com

  2. padger says:

    I’m sure most of the comments on this article will read along the lines of “great, but who plays Total War for its multiplayer?” And the reason for that will be that the Total War community – the one that plays MP – is one of the many, many large yet quietly hidden PC gaming communities. Most people, and likely most RPS commenters, will see the series as a single player strategy game they dip into a couple of times a decade, but there’s a lot more going on than that, and I’m pleased CA are able to acknowledge that.

    Whether Arena will prove to be the right way to do it, well, less certain. Does seem we’re not in Kansas anymore when it comes to these kinds of rebootings for online.

  3. Tecnocrat says:

    Not falling for this again. Fool me once CA…

  4. Okami says:

    The graphics may not be as fancy – ensuring less pressure on the servers handling all of the data – but engagements play out just as they would in the core series

    Actually the servers don’t care about how fancy the graphics are (as long as your definition of fancy graphics doesn’t include physics effect that affect gameplay, since these would need to be calculated by the servers). I guess this has more to do with making sure the game runs on as many machines as possible and to keep production costs down (since fancy graphics are usually the biggest cost factor in game development).

    • Adam Smith says:

      I’ll fix that, aye. It’s the physics gubbins that have been pulled out and you’re quite right about them targeting broader spec machines.

    • padger says:

      Mmm, I don’t think that’s entirely true for TW, because it’s all a big deterministic simulation where one dude dying has an effect etc. They might actually need to simplify it to sync that stuff?

      • Adam Smith says:

        Either way, I’ve edited and the interview has more details about all of the tech stuff that my brain doesn’t handle very well.

      • ScubaMonster says:

        Graphics quality still wouldn’t matter for that. Server side calculations are just numbers. The amount of polygons, etc are completely irrelevant in client/server communications. In your instance of one man dying affecting things, the only thing you could do to offset server load would be to reduce the amount of actual soldiers to be calculated. Which would still have nothing to do with graphical quality.

  5. Hypocee says:

    Built on the foundation of Total War’s enormous historical battles, ARENA pits two teams of ten

    Annnnnd out, even before learning it’s a desperate F2P gamble lane bandwagoner. Because matchmaking can consistently provide four functionally human teammates in the two largest player bases on Earth, let alone NINE, in a niche also-ran.

    Obviously there’s the individual knockabout arena FPS. I guess Tribes and Battlefield, games with strategic layers but still primarily about running around shooting dudes and occasionally interacting with teammates, could handle the grounds in the coffee. Has any other game credibly pulled ten-on-ten?

    Rotten at the root.

    • drinniol says:

      Pretty much every popular PC shooter with a Team DM mode?

    • blastaz says:

      I guess the more team mates you have the less one of them sucking hurts and the greater the chance the other team is having to carry someone too.

  6. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Very interesting concept, will be keeping an eye on this one. For a while I’ve found RTSs increasingly overwhelming in terms of how much you need to manage on your own. Real armies use subcommanders and chains of command, and real military officers don’t have to manually give orders to anything like the number of units/troops some RTSs ask you to. I’ve been waiting for a game that works like a real army would (multiple officers each looking after a few units) for a while, and it sounds like this could scratch that itch.

  7. 3Form says:

    This does actually sound awesome, if it can capture the carnage of pre-radio-communications… Cassius committing suicide because he believed Brutus had been defeated, etc… Or Amompharetos refusing to retreat…

    Well if it can capture that without being ruined by pay to win micro-transactions (FFS just make the purchases cosmetic. Let people buy crests for their Legionaries, or fancy lorica segmentata instead of chain mail, purely for the looks. It’s not hard and people will pay for bling) then it could be a really awesome team-based game. I’m not sure I’d want to play entirely with randomers though if World of Tanks is anything to go by.

  8. sventoby says:

    I wish TW would bring back online free for all, that was my favorite mode in Rome 1.

  9. horsemedic says:

    This looks a little like the old Myth games so I peed my pants a little.

  10. froz says:

    Formations have been simplified and everything moves at a faster clip, but positioning, elevation and careful timing of orders are as important as ever, as is an understanding of the big picture.
    What a shame. Recent TW games have much to quick battles to my taste. It’s been really bad since Shogun. Units can run constantly and they run so quickly that in any bigger battle I had to play at half speed all the time. Now this is even faster? :(

    I also really dislike all those special abilities. They are exactly the opposite of clean, simple strategy you praise in another part of the article. I would much prefer if each player had 6 units and no special abilities.

    Nevertheless, I signed up for access. I keep playing TW games and I keep getting disappointed. They really have so huge potential and most of it is soo terribly wasted in each game of the series.

    • J-Force says:

      Currently TW is – in my opinion – looking stronger than it has in a long long time. Shogun was great, with a good level of required strategy dealing with the introduction of gunpowder to the samurai laden Japan. Rome II, with a hell of a lot of patches, is quite fun, I just wish I could play on the smaller scale – one battle winning me half of Greece is a little fustrating at times. However the battles in Rome II (with a pile of patching and a Darthmod) are fantastic and challenging, there is usually a ‘oh…. this is not about to end well, and I’m out of pikemen’ moment every other battle or so.

      But I share some of your concerns. I fear that the battles in Arena will just become too like a rock paper scissors game with the abilities – something that did not welcome in Rome II, how a general can make two of my units suddenly nearly double their weapon damage I do not know, a sword is a sword regardless of whose army you are in. I agree with you there, the abilities should perhapse be toned down a bit to make it a little more tactical.

      Fortunatly, I may be mistaken. Still not getting hopes high for Atilla though.

  11. Shardz says:

    So, is this going to be yet another 18 Gig game again? I refuse to install anything that large as I feel it’s ridiculous and silly taking up 2 TB for a 3D strategy game.

  12. SpacemanSpliff says:

    I love TW, but this feels like a p2w cash in to me.

    • BooleanBob says:

      I’m intrigued for now, but it’s definitely going to depend on the fairness of its business model. I think they won’t be anticipating LoL-like numbers, so will try to turn the screw on those who they do drag up in the nets. For example if there’s no tier-dependent matchmaking it’s hard to see how paying for silver won’t very obviously be pay to win (I wish game journos would stop giving the ‘it’s just a time-saver’ line the dignity of even being printed).

      But then I’m the worst kind of pessimist (one that mixes metaphors).

  13. bill says:

    It sound kinda fun to me. I’ve always wanted to get into Total War, but the epic scale and time needed tend to make it impossible. Being able to just drop in for a quick battle sounds much more accessible.

    That said, 10 vs 10 sounds like a weird choice. Seems like you’d need a huge community or a big group of friends to get the most out of that. Is it only 10 vs 10, or can you choose other sizes or control more units per player?