One of the major advantages Total War Arena has going for it is the fact that is draws upon decades of history thanks to the Total War franchise. The idea of playing a Total War game gives you a certain expectation not many other game franchises do - you know this will be a game about smashing through the defences of your opponent, and you know you’ll be commanding armies of some kind. Total War takes the tried and true army mechanics from the series and puts them in an arena format (hence the name). However, there are many wrinkles in the design which make this formula not as appealing at first glance.
Total War Arena puts players against either other human combatants or AI opponents in multiplayer, large-scale Total War style battles. Each player controls an army of three units and the two teams work together to either annihilate the opponent or capture their base on the map. With many different unit types and commanders to choose from, there are a lot of different ways you can contribute to the overall goals of the army.
There are multiple commanders from different factions and time periods in history, from the Greek Illyrian Princess Cynane to the ruthless Roman dictator Sulla. Each commander has a distinct playstyle that will help determine the best units to have in your army. Cynane has abilities that help archers excel, while Boudica showcases the brute force and fury behind the barbarians she leads into battle. Picking your commander, though, is only one part of the job - your commander must lead an army into battle.
I say army, but these are more like battalions in the larger army on the map. You have three slots to choose from, and the selections you make will dictate how you play in battle. Melee units, such as Hoplites and Legionnaires, shine depending on the engagement. Heavy infantry are phenomenal at close quarter engagements, while light infantry are more of a skirmisher role. Ranged units support the melee troops from the background, providing a barrage of arrow, javelins or other deadly projectiles to soften the enemy or control an area of the map.
Cavalry really plays an important role supporting the army, using their mobility to get behind enemy lines and distract archers harassing your troops, or to sound the charge blasting through the flank of an enemy unit too engaged to defend themselves. Artillery gets the job done decimating armies at great range, but leaves itself vulnerable to attacks if your opponents get in too close.
During the course of a battle, you and your teammates will have to work together - not doing so makes victory all but lost. This is one of the fundamental issues with Total War Arena. Communication consists of a chat box and using drawing and pinging tools on a map. There is no way to really strategize before the battle starts on how to best use the terrain. No real way to set up the best troop deployment to protect the flanks - you’re dropped into the deployment screen, given a few seconds to decide where you want to go and the match starts. The last thing you need to be doing during the heat of battle is stopping to type into a chat bar if things go south. Total War Arena does feature a radial menu with quick commands or replies, but nothing as robust as it needs to be. There is also no in-game voice chat, making it so you have no real way to coordinate in real time the second you need to.
In a game that thrives on working with other players, there is a real barrier preventing you from being able to do that to its fullest. Less experienced players will fall victim to making mistakes, and without a real way to tell someone how to fix their placement before it’s too late - it makes me wonder how the developers expect anyone to really work as a cohesive army unless they are all friends and playing together. After all, Total War Arena is a free-to-play game, so the barrier of entry for anyone to join in is simply the right PC and the time to engage in the game. Another glaring omission is the ability to see what your teammates are using unit-wise and adjust your own strategy based on what the whole army needs.
Performance-wise, during the heat of a battle, I experienced no issues at all on my PC specced with an i7-6700K @ 4.3ghz, GTX 1080 and 16GB DDR4 RAM. Load times were nonexistent with the exception of waiting for others to connect, thanks to installing the game on an m.2 SSD.
Because it’s a free-to-play title, Total War Arena makes its money off microtransactions. And Arena has quite a few different currencies. You have Silver, Free XP and Unit XP, all of which is earned during the course of a battle. However, you can also buy Gold, which can be converted to Silver in game. You use these currencies to unlock items such as spears, swords, helmets and more for the units in your armies to wear, as well as the next tier of the unit or commander themselves. Free XP is used to level up your commander and his or her abilities. The higher the tier commander you have, the better units you can eventually field. However, you can’t just unlock the next tier unit when you unlock a new Commander level. You have to purchase the necessary items on the previous unit incarnation before you can unlock the next tier. This step ensures that you are going to be in more and more battles - or if you have the money and not the time, you can buy gold to buy the silver you need to equip and unlock some of the weapons as well. There doesn’t seem to be a way to buy experience points using Gold, which is nice meaning you will still have to play the game to progress, but there is still an air of “pay to win” behind the system I just can’t shake.
You can convert gold into silver, and unit XP into the overall free XP you need to unlock abilities, commanders and so on, and the Wargaming store does sell units and gold to help you along once you hit the right Commander tier. These units can’t be upgraded, but they are slightly more powerful than the base level unit in their tier as well, and they cost you no silver to slot into your army if you choose.
There are also premium account time you can unlock in game using gold or paying good old real-world dollars. Premium accounts get 50% more bonuses during their account time, meaning they progress faster than someone who didn’t spend the money on the premium currency.
Matchmaking also has some issues, but I was able to find matches easily with the exception of one or two nights the past week. I sat in a queue for 15 minutes once using a leveled up Boudica and was unable to find a match, however switching to a slightly lower leveled Sulla I found a match within 30 seconds. It simply could be because there weren’t enough players around the same commander level as my maxed out Boudica (Disclosure: PR gave us an account with currency pre-loaded to test out the progression and unlockable features).
You can also make parties and play with friends, which I think would be the best way to go. Matches I won easily typically had parties of two or three people in them and the coordination was simply better. You can also set up a private match, but in order to do so you have to spend in-game silver (5000 silver at the time of this writing). Each match I played I was earning around 10K silver, so 5000 doesn’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of the game, but it’s disconcerting that you have to spend a currency you earn through the game just to be able to set up a custom match with your friends. It reminds me of paying for save slots or using an item in game to be able to save your progress.- it’s counterintuitive to the user experience.
However, when Total War Arena gets out of its own way and lets you play the game - it’s marvelous. The game play, while hectic and scattered thanks to the lack of real communication tools, is fun when you’re in the thick of battle. Figuring out what your army and the enemy are doing and seeing how you can support a flank or charge the center makes me think of the main Total War games and long for them. You can play both against the AI or against human players - though once your commander is level IV or higher you’re locked out of AI battles - and each engagement takes place on a famous battlefield, such as Thermopylae, the Rubicon or Hadrian’s Wall at the edge of the world. Each map plays distinctly, allowing for different tactics and giving some units an advantage and cutting off others, such as maps with open fields favoring the mobility of cavalry, while those with dense woods negate the cavalry’s mobility and give the edge to units who can ambush effectively.
In the end, Total War Arena is a nice game at its core. The mechanics once you’re on the battlefield are solid and hearken back to what Creative Assembly does exceptionally well - the battles. However, the clunky way it handles team communication strips the game of its ability to really excel as a multiplayer experience. Additionally, the microtransactions, while understandable in a game that doesn’t charge a fee to get started, does strike me as pay-to-win, especially with the features that let you convert premium currency into unlockable silver to buy units and upgrades. Thankfully this doesn’t allow for XP purchases, as mentioned before, but it does mean someone who has more disposable income will have a distinct advantage over the person who doesn’t spend a dime of real money on Arena when it comes to certain unlockable and progression.
Total War Arena is a good attempt to get more players into the genre and turn the franchise into a free to play powerhouse. It unfortunately does not do it well enough to get out of its own way at times.
- In-battle gameplay in line with what Creative Assembly does best
- Many different units and playstyles to choose from
- Complete lack of quality team communication systems
- Microtransaction system feels pay-to-win
- Unit unlocks being tied to previous equipment unlocks and not commander level seems designed to get the player to spend money on MTX.