Battle-Hardened: Hands On With Total War: Arena

The Total War series evokes images of grand empire building and management as you take your faction and build up armies to roll across the world map and seize control. It’s a series of grand strategy and planning, but with Total War: Arena, Creative Assembly are stripping all of that away to focus purely on the battles.

Yet, rather than focussing on the simple head to head fighting, this is actually a team-based online strategy game. Two teams of ten players, each with three units at their disposal, face off against each other in a collaborative effort to either wipe out the other side’s forces or to capture the other’s base. It’s not quite like any other game that I can really think of.

“We’re kind of creating our own genre, in a way,” said Jan van der Crabben, Live Ops Manager at Creative Assembly. “We’re positioned somewhere between traditional competitive RTS like Starcraft and the MOBA world, with League of Legends, and also World of Tanks. I think we’re somewhere in the middle of that triangle, because we draw inspiration from all of them, and I think players from all of these genres might like our game. In that sense, we’re creating our own niche.”

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Naturally, charging headlong into battle is going to be the first thing to cross many a player’s mind, but very quickly, actual strategic and tactical thinking starts to come into play. Chatting with the player alongside me on the row of computers, we quickly clicked to pick a starting point on the flanks, determining to push up the side and either swing around behind the main battle in the middle or push on to the enemy base.

It worked quite gloriously the first time, as our mixture of archers and spearmen managed to envelop and crush the forces that stacked up against us in our little sub-battle, and micromanaging my forces was a nice and simple with just a trio of units to control, but we didn’t have quite so easy a time of it the second or third time as we came up against much sterner tests. In fact, the third battle saw us get bogged down on the opposite flank and, though we held a clear advantage in terms of manpower, some sneaky so-and-so on the other team marched through the cover of a treeline and sauntered into our base for a surprising victory.

When I asked about the kinds of tactics that they’d seen in action, Designer Elliott Lock said, “There’s been loads, from base rushing to grouping up and forcing down one side and creating a meat grinder effectively, just churning through. […] There’s loads of different strategies that are played out, and I think at the moment, we’re only seeing the first bit of it, and as we release, loads of strategies will come out.

“That’s the exciting thing, and I’m looking forward to seeing ways that players exploit the game, not in terms of cheating, but using something in a context we’d not meant it for.”

Jan chipped in to give an example, saying, “We’ve seen that with artillery, where people have been using catapults against units on hills. They didn’t actually shoot at the units, but shot above the unit so the stones would roll down and crush the guys. That’s something we didn’t actually intend, but because we’re running a physics simulation, that’s what happened!”

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It was my team’s otherwise dominant defeat that really showed the potential strategic nuance that’s available, with contingency plans and team-wide coordination a necessity. At this point in time, Arena feels a little deficient in this regard when it comes to playing with others that you don’t know or that you can’t talk to directly. There’s a simple system by which you can place waypoints, draw on the map and text chat, but this side of things could be looked at and fleshed out further, I feel – though with this only entering a closed alpha phase, there’s plenty of time to iterate upon this and many aspects of the game.

“With having 10 players on a side, there’s something we need to combat there with the communication,” Elliott explained, “so we’re looking at that to make sure we can keep up communication and the tools that we provide ensure that it’s at the highest level possible. We’ve got ping in there, you can draw and text chat, and we’re looking at voice as well, and anything that we can bring. A lot of people say that you could have something where one guy kind of leads the army, but that might not even be the case; you could have three guys leading and split up into three segments, essentially 3-3-4.

“We’re kind of discovering as we go along how it will play out, but one thing we do know is that the team based aspect is extremely strong and how we develop it and push it is finding its way slowly but surely. We’re going to react with that based on what the community think as well. We’ve got our own ideas, but we want to be really responsive.”

Another example of this would be the way in which you level up your general and your units. You pick from a number of famous historical military leaders, from Julius Caesar to Leonidas and beyond, and this determines which country you play as – though you don’t need to be the same nationality as your teammates. As you fight, you earn experience and money that can be used in a number of ways.

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Your general’s experience allows you to rank up and unlock both more advanced units and abilities, while each unit then earns its own experience during battle which goes towards buying upgrades for that particular type of unit. Naturally, I upgraded to some really awesome looking bronze beard hats for my hoplites as soon as I could.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing rather confusing to unravel without explanation at this point. You can’t, for example, upgrade from a rank one unit to a rank two unit, but must instead delete them and buy a new unit entirely using the silver you’ve earned. Gold, meanwhile, is the preserve of the microtransaction, and looks set to be limited to cosmetic items and speeding up progression as a whole.

Naturally, tutorials are on the cards, but Jan said that these might only appear closer to a final release. He also added that “One thing that we want to do, when the player first installs the game, is to ask them, ‘Are you an experienced Total War player?’ in a similar way that Civilization does it in Beyond Earth […] and then adjust [the tutorial], as well as the control scheme that we give people.

“If someone is an experienced Total War player, we’re going to give them controls that are closer to Total War, and if they’re not, we’ll give them controls that are closer to, say, DOTA or Warcraft.”

Even with the morass of options outside of battle, that core gameplay from the Total War series works really nicely in such a focussed environment. How it’s wrapped up into a free to play title and the manner in which things are unlocked will be made clearer down the line, but with fun team-based warfare at its core, this is certainly one to keep an eye on for fans of the series.


Thanks to Jan and Elliott for taking the time to speak with us. Total War: Arena is currently entering a closed alpha phase, for which sign ups opened yesterday. In other words, if you’re interested in seeing how this game is shaping up, click this link and enter your details!

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