Hear the Total War name and you think of the vast grand strategy titles like Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Warhammer; sweeping epics that can consume hundreds of hours, not only pitting your growing empire against your rivals in a quest to dominate on a global scale, but also delving into the tactical battles, manoeuvring huge armies across battlefields and grim attritional battles. Total War: Arena takes the series’ oft historical settings and narrows the focus. It’s an arcade-like 10v10 battler, in which every armchair general controls just three units.
Now, if you’re a fan of the series, this game name and concept my sound a little familiar. It was actually announced way back in 2013 – we played it at the event, even! – but it’s simmered in the background ever since then. A partnership to publish the game with Wargaming Alliance was announced at the end of 2016, but this free to play title has remained stubbornly in closed beta, slowly growing and being refined over the months and years. The staying power of this game’s development is impressive, but closed beta isn’t exactly a business plan that would cut it on Dragon’s Den. It’s taken five years, but it’s finally heading into Open Beta this month on 22nd February.
The core of the game remains the same as it did five years ago. Every player picks a general from the four factions in the game – the Barbarians, Romans, Greeks and now the Carthaginians – and three units to command. That might sound small compared to a mainline Total War game, but the battles here are just as grand, with both teams of ten generals adding up to a grand total of thirty units. The simple aim is to either dominate and wipe out the enemy or push past them to capture their base, but without total control all for yourself, you have to try and be mindful of the others playing, the units they’ve picked and the various strengths and weaknesses.
Interestingly, it’s as though everything about the game has been amplified, giving a pick up and play arcade-like feel to it at times. With only a handful of units, controlling them can go into much greater detail than a typical Total War, with each unit having certain abilities to use, that are necessary to use to pull off the same moves that are automatically done in a main Total War game. Pulling off a cavalry charge needs you to first select it, as does changing the stance of a regiment of pikes, but it could equally be the use of fire arrows to depress an enemy or dashing to try and escape an oncoming unit. That extends to the generals as well, with some being better suited to certain playstyles than others. Cynane is an expert with archers under her control, the Romans are regimented and well trained, and the Barbarian generals often have tricky abilities to misdirect the opposition.
New to the game for the release of 3.0 and entry into open beta are Hannibal, his brother Hasdrubal and the Carthage faction. They’ve been by far the most requested faction by the community through closed beta, and now they arrive like an army of elephants marching through the Alps. They also have elephants that bring a whole new dynamic to the game, as slow and ponderous but utterly deadly cavalry. As with the other units in the game, they come with inherent strengths and weaknesses. Though they don’t take much damage from archers, they’re slowed by a barrage of arrows, but it’s really big pointy sticks such as pikes and javelins that they don’t like (also mice, but you can’t field mice in battle). Hannibal’s ability to force march, lets you close the gap to units that would otherwise stay just ever so slightly out of range.
It’s really when you find yourself in tight, small scale battles against other players that the game really shines. It could be chasing a group of archers around with your last elephant, a tense battle with pikemen raising and lowering their defences to alternately nullify damage from archers or the threat of swordsmen, or simply ganging up on an isolated unit with cavalry charging in from the flanks. If you split them apart or have contrasting units, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to keep track of your three troops all at once, juggling the paper-rock-scissors style interplay between units. Of course, there’s also the madcap moments that will have you humming the Benny Hill theme quietly to yourself.
An interesting notion within the game is ‘Maps as a Mode’, which came in the most recent closed beta update with the Passage of Augustus map. Where the traditional game mode has your team’s base behind you as a point that you need to defend from opportunistic attackers, while also keeping an eye on the balance of power meter at the top of the screen, Passage of Augustus puts both bases right next to each other in the middle of the map, making it a mad dash to the centre and focusing the battle around just a few tight corridors of attack. It’s essentially King of the Hill, and it’s been done without altering the win conditions in any way.
It’s pleasantly surprising that Total War: Arena still exists, and it’s equally surprising that in the five years since its announcement, it still manages to feel so unique in its tactical multiplayer combat. In a few weeks, anyone will be able to jump in and play, but this is also an update that brings something meaningful for long terms players, with features like custom battles alongside the fast marching men and elephants of Carthage and Hannibal coming over the mountains.