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Total War: Arena – First Look

Total War Arena finally had its official launch on the 22nd of February, and naturally, I had to check it out. Here’s what I found after just over 5 hours of gameplay time.

Total War Arena is an interesting beast; it tries to bring some light MOBA elements to the more hardcore RTS genre. The game opens with a very brief tutorial. Once you’ve learned how to control the camera and move units around, you’re almost ready to play. You just need to pick a faction leader and you’re set. The four major factions you have to choose from are Roman, Greek, Barbarians, and Carthage. You’re given the base commanders for each faction (except Carthage), and newer commanders are unlocked via XP or Gold, the game’s cash currency.

Each faction has a specialty, which is even further diversified with the individual commanders. Germanicus, the first Roman commander, specializes in balanced melee units with good defense. His abilities involve shield and other formations. Greeks, particularly Cynane, specialize in archers and other types of ranged units. She can force her troops to march in double time for short bursts and focus their ranged fire on specific targets. These were the two commanders that I spent the majority of my time with the game on.

The game certainly has the look and feel of a Total War game. Maps sprawl on for ages with a surprising level of detail given how many units can be seen on screen at once, although when brawls got especially hectic I did notice a mild bit of slowdown. It’s not ultra-impressive visually, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as it works and the gameplay is fun, that’s really all that matters, right?

In that regard, Total War Arena gets it right. I have to be honest: I’m not the biggest fan of the Total War series. I’m not great at micromanagement, and so RTS games have never been a big draw for me. With that said, I was surprised with how much fun this game was. For those of you who may find large-scale strategy games daunting, here’s how it works.

Once you’ve selected the units that will make up your squad and joined a queue, you’re placed in a match. Before the fighting begins, you’re asked to choose a deployment zone for your squad. There are 10 players on a team, each with a three unit squad. There’s also no real resource management other than your health and morale. You just join up with your allies and try to completely eliminate the enemy squads or capture their base by occupying it.

This may seem like a simple premise, but like with most things, the devil is in the details. If you blindly charge into combat without a plan, you’re most likely going to die. Communication is critical to success in Arena. Traditional pings are available to help you communicate as well as the ability to draw on the mini-map to illustrate plans.

Unfortunately, as it is more of an RTS than a MOBA, combat isn’t too involved beyond positioning and using your commander’s abilities to get an edge. There will be times when you’ll need to reposition during a fight or disengage, but once you’re dug in and locked into an engagement you can’t really do much other than observe. This is also true for the early game moments when your units are traveling. There are portions of matches that were just waiting for things to happen. For people who want a more action-oriented experience, this can really take the wind out of your sails. If you’re into longer, more strategic matches though, you may really enjoy this.

Another interesting point is that Ranged units like Archers can’t fire into enemy units that are fighting friendly units. The game penalized your contribution score for friendly fire, so if you’re planning on running ranged units you’ll have to be very careful with how and when you use them. I felt like any time I tried to really put them to use I was being told I was firing on allies, so I switched to a melee focused squad and never looked back.

Your performance in matches grants you both unit experience and free experience. As you may have guessed, unit experience is bound specifically to the units that earn it whereas Free XP can be used for anything. Mostly you’ll spend these points on upgrading your units with armor, weapons, and entirely new unit types. Free XP can also be used to unlock new commanders as mentioned earlier, as well as forcing them to automatically advance to the next commander level which allows for more ability unlocks.

Of course, this is Wargaming as a publisher, so you know that that influence is going to be felt in the monetization. For the most part, however, they manage to keep it limited. You can use real world money to unlock new commanders to play as, but you can still unlock those with Free XP so that’s not a bad thing. If you look at the tech tree, though, you’ll see that there are high tiered units that you can only unlock with cash. Naturally, these units have much higher stats than the units you can acquire for free, so the paid advantage is there.

In the time I’ve spent with the game, I didn’t encounter many paid units that I’m aware of. The fact also remains that paid units aren’t a substitute for skill. Still, it’s a little disappointing to see free-to-play companies try to coerce players into spending money by offering blatant advantages.

All told, though, Total War Arena is a competent and fun MOBA RTS hybrid. It takes some of the complexity and stressfulness of RTS games and drills it down into a more simplified and accessible format. The monetization is a bit troubling but typical for something with the Wargaming logo slapped on it, and doesn’t seem to be causing problems in the short term. The five hours I spent with the game were quite good, but I don’t know how much staying power it will have for those of us outside the hardcore Total War fandom. Still, if you like Total War and want to try something a little bit different, it’s worth booting up at least once.

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