Total War: Arena preview: War sometimes changes

Total War: Arena

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Imagine you're a general. You've trained all your life in the arts of war. You see troop movements and terrain and pincer movements and cavalry charges in your sleep. You're the ultimate killing machine—not by your own hands, but as an extension of thousands of others.

A day comes that will determine the course of the future. The opposing army stands on the other side of a small canyon, evenly matched with your own. You ride up and down the ranks of your soldiers, giving them some sort of rousing speech about how, "A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day."

Total War: Arena

The horns blow. You go to charge into battle and...all your troops break off into different directions. Ten of your lieutenants are giving contradictory orders. Some of them just stand in place confused. One group heads into a forest where they're promptly slaughtered. Another group walks into a narrow pass and is murdered from above. Within seconds the other army is in your base pulling down your flag.

Welcome to Total War: Arena.

Keep your friends close

I like the Total War series when it's not a broken mess. Its blend of real-time and turn-based strategy keeps me interested far better than pure 4X games, and I've put a lot of hours into various entries over the years.

Total War: Arena attempts to make the series into a more viable multiplayer game though by stripping out the turn-based component entirely. After all, in the age of e-sports it's hard to compete with something as fast-paced as a MOBA when your game takes thirty hours to play.

Total War: Arena

So instead of lifting the real-time component wholesale from the core series, however, Total War: Arena reimagines it as a team-based experience—basically a MOBA in disguise. No longer is it two generals squaring off across a table, directing troops from on high. Now it's ten players on each team, with each player taking on the guise of a famous historic general and three legions of troops.

The generals fall into assault, defense, and support roles and are taken from across history. The game encourages you to pick a character and stick with it, as you level him up, so I spent most of my time in the shoes of Germanicus, the Roman assault specialist.

Then you choose troops appropriate to that general. Troops are tiered and you'll have to unlock various upgrades to open up newer, better versions. Your basic melee class may soon become Hastati if you win enough glory on the battlefield, and from there you can evolve into Principes, et cetera.

Total War: Arena

It plays like Total War. The same rock/paper/scissors-style "Swords beat spears, spears beat horses, horses beat swords, and archers are a pain in the ass" gameplay still exists, although now with the added chaos of nine other people at your side.

Or not at your side, as things may be. I think the greatest challenge with Total War: Arena will be finding nine other people who want to play together regularly and actually enact some sort of strategy. The three rounds I played, there wasn't strategy as much as there was "Oh thank goodness the other team screwed up harder than we did."

The map has various lanes paths to the other team's base, all of which feature benefits and drawbacks. A stretch of forest allows you to sneak close to the opposing base unseen, but it also slows you down and is perfect for ambushes. A deep mountain pass is a perfect chokepoint to hold the enemy off, until they send their archers up above and rain arrows from on high.

I should know—I used both tactics at various points.

Total War: Arena

It's a fun little game, though it suffers a bit from its roots in Total War. The real-time component of that series has always been fun as an addition to the 4X empire building, but it lacks the precision and predictability of something like StarCraft. In a singleplayer experience that lack of precision can be a frustrating setback. In multiplayer, with nine other people depending on you, it can be devastating.

Creative Assembly's also made some changes to how troops work which I'm not a fan of—for instance, you can't change the shape of your troop layout. There's no way to drag your archers into a long, thin line. Abilities are also managed by your commander, not your troops. A charge is now an ability, not a simple matter of double-clicking, which takes getting used to.

But as a fun little aside for Total War fanatics, Arena is surprisingly fun. I don't know how it'll be once you've played through a ton of rounds—whether there are flaws that we haven't seen yet. I also don't have a ton of faith in the free-to-play model, and while we seemed to earn enough XP for upgrades early in the game we didn't progress far enough to see if things throttle down later in the progression (or whether you could effectively pay-to-win).

I liked it though, even as someone who auto-resolves a lot of Total War's combat. Adding in nine other players on a team might not make strategic sense, but it makes for some great moments—even if the generals of old are shaking their heads in dismay.

Sound like fun? The closed alpha sign-up is here.

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