by Sean Martin
previewed on PC
A long time coming, Creative Assemblyís free-to-play game Total War: Arena has finally been released as a beta. While CAís previous free-to-play effort, Total War: Kingdoms felt more of a typical RTS, with town building and resource management, Total War: Arena essentially sums up what has always been unique to the Total War franchise; the battle system. Each game takes place on a large battle map, where two teams of players face off against each other. You choose an ancient general: ranging from Hannibal of Carthage to Alexander the Great, and then you choose three units to follow them into the fray. This limitation of three units is a great design choice, as it means you always rely on the players around you in terms of co-operation and in creating tactical opportunities for you to take advantage of. I also found that you had to remain wary; other players on your side might also decide to use your units as collateral, firing arrows into a tightly packed infantry battle for example. This reliance creates an interesting dynamic between players which is often selfless, but sometimes selfish.
BREAD AND BUTTER
The goal of each battle is to either eliminate all enemy units, or capture their stronghold. Generally, capturing a stronghold means you must navigate your way across the map, which usually necessitates killing most enemy units anyway. Also it takes a while to capture a stronghold, so itís not as simple as just running a unit of cavalry in there. If you want to take it, youíll most likely have to hold it. The map design is also excellent; thereís lots of terrain variation such as hills, woods and choke-points, allowing for a great deal of strategy. This strategy is the bread and butter that Total War players know well: infantry vs. cavalry, archers vs. Infantry, cavalry vs. archers, and the numerous variations upon this formula, depending on circumstance and specific unit type. Itís fairly simple in essence, but when you add a varied battle map and eleven other brains trying to get one up on each other, it is magnified to a whole other level. In this sense, Total War: Arena is one of the better strategy simulators I have played; it knows what itís about and keeps the classical strategy we know and love at its most basic level.
As you level up your general, you gain experience and silver, as well as access to new units and new unlockable abilities/equipment for those units. As Total War: Arena is a free-to-play, there is also an in-game currency. This currency can basically be used to buy experience and level up your general faster, thus giving you access to higher tier units quicker. This is strange to me, as it seems like a way of basically paying to not play the game, when the amount of silver and experience you do get post-battle is fairly generous anyway. Also the higher tier units donít matter as much as they would in a game where you were facing only one opponent. More often than not, the times youíll die in a battle, will be when you are attacked by more than one player. If that is the case, having slightly better units wonít save you. On the whole, Total War: Arena is a fun little strategy simulator; most of the content will be familiar to Total War players, but it manages to produce focused strategy gameplay, often more simple than many of the other Total War games manage to be.