As a free-to-play, online-focused game, Total War: Arena is a step in a new direction for Sega’s strategy series. Made by franchise creator Creative Assembly and announced more than four years ago, Arena pits teams of 10 against each other in a real-time experience that moves faster than past entries in the series. This change is significant, and after playing a handful of matches this weekend at an event in Taipei, it seems that Arena’s changes to the core formula are both well-executed and smartly designed for a new audience. At the same time, there are some issues that will hopefully be addressed before it is eventually released.
If you have been intimidated by the time commitment required for past Total War games, Arena is a refreshing change of pace. In the matches I played, the round timer was roughly 10 minutes, ending either after all units had been vanquished or one side captured the enemy’s base. Players start off by choosing a Greek, Roman, or Barbarian commander from the past (Cynane and Julius Caesar are two of them) with three groups of units to control. The gameplay will feel familiar for Total War veterans, as tactics and positioning remain of paramount importance. But everything in Arena seems to move at a faster pace, something that appears to be an intentional design choice to offer a new type of Total War experience.
One of the thrills of classical-era battling with 20 total players is the unpredictability of what can happen and the impressive scale of battles that can play out. In one particular match, my team bombarded the enemy in a city setting with what felt like hundreds of units on screen at once, smashing and clashing like a scene from Helm’s Deep. It was awesome. But unlike Total War: Warhammer, there is no magic or fantasy in Arena.
Given the new pace of play, death can come quickly if you don’t employ the right tactics or execute as a team. In one match, I tried to get my catapult unit in place atop a hill to rain rocks on my enemies below, but I was met with a fierce charge from an opposing cavalry unit–and that was that. My second and third units stayed alive, but it was a painful defeat for what I hoped would be my strongest unit for that match. (A side-note about the catapult units–there is friendly fire, so watch out for collateral damage. Catapults are also good for taking out archers at range, particularly when they are hiding in deep brush if you can spot them)
You earn upgrades through experience that is unlocked at the end of matches. Upgrades come in the form of things like special abilities like a mega-powerful rush that your infantry units can use in a do-or-die scenario. Another is for Roman units to group their shields together, known as the Testudo formation, to allow them to avoid oncoming projectile damage.
Arena is still all about strategy and tactics, of course. Working together with your team, you have the tough but thrilling task of controlling territory and deploying units to attack at places and during points in battle where your enemies are susceptible to the most damage. The maps, at least the three that I got to try, are smartly designed, featuring options for teams of different configurations to have success. You will want to make use of environmental features such as forests or tall grass to hide your units (a group of archers hidden in bushes can be particularly effective), moving them forward when it’s most advantageous. You stand to have more success when you work together. Assuming your enemies are up to task, the wrong move can mean getting flanked, leading to what the game refers to as a “rout.” You don’t want to see that word pop up on-screen. If you lose your commander, the morale of your units will drop–and that is never good.
Arena remains in development, and producer Jose Edgardo Garcia tells me that Creative Assembly is constantly poring over feedback to make the game better. One issue that I experienced in my preview was my projectile unit failing to build a catapult on command. It eventually worked, but not in the way it should have, Garcia said. Additionally, friendly units are marked in blue, with enemies displayed in red. In its current form, there is no further designation as to which units are yours and which are other friendlies. When I didn’t move all three of my units together at the same time, it became difficult to locate where a specific group was at a glance. Garcia says he’s aware of this feedback and reminded me again that Arena is in alpha. These are small issues in what was otherwise an overwhelmingly smooth and enjoyable experience.
Players will surely have some amount of concern about Arena being a free-to-play game. In my preview session, I was given a generous allotment of in-game currency to spend on upgrades. As with other free-to-play games (and looking at World of Tanks, specifically, as a model), it can be assumed that Arena’s microtransactions will let you speed up your progress by spending real money. Wargaming, whose Wargaming Alliance unit is publishing Arena, told us that Creative Assembly is focusing on getting the gameplay refined and polished before making decisions about monetization. But for now, we’re told that Arena is taking steps to avoid a “pay-to-win” scenario. That’s a good thing to say, but we will have to see how it plays out in practice.
“We know our audience; we definitely get their feedback,” Garcia said. “We make sure that the game is for their enjoyment, their entertainment. We want to make happy players, not pissed off players. We are very committed to keeping players happy.”
If Arena takes off and becomes the hit that Creative Assembly, Sega, and Wargaming hope it can be, that doesn’t mean free-to-play, online games will become the norm for Total War. In addition to Total War: Warhammer 2 (and Warhammer 3), Creative Assembly is working on a new historical entry in the series, though it has yet to be announced. These games are expected to be in the vein of the past core entries in the core paid series, featuring single-player and multiplayer. This is to say, Arena will exist as a new option outside of the core series, not a replacement for it.
Another interesting element about Arena is what’s going on outside of the game. It’s the first title that Wargaming’s Alliance label is publishing. Representatives for the studio teased that they are already speaking with other developers about potential partnerships to help them extend their traditional games into online, free-to-play space. If all goes well with Arena, Wargaming could be seen as the go-to publisher for helping manage these kinds of transitions.
Provided the free-to-play elements are not anything gross, Arena feels like a new and exciting direction for the series. Like any other free-to-play game, its success will be dictated by whether or not it can attract and retain a playerbase.
In other news about Arena, Wargaming told us this week that a console version is possible, though it has yet to be confirmed. You can read our full interview below. Arena is currently without a release date, but representatives said they are hopeful the game will come out soon.
Disclosure: Wargaming paid for GameSpot’s flight to Taipei and accommodations.