As I might have said once or twice before, I was at EGX in Birmingham recently and managed to spend a happy four days fully immersed in this great hobby of ours. For obvious reasons, I spent alot of my time circling the Creative Assembly booth. After all, these guys are one of the biggest Studios in the UK and their venerable Total War franchise has given me hours of fun over at least seven games. Also, they had this thing:
While I was there I noticed a Total War game that I’d never heard of before, and it was pretty different from the usual formula. The setup seemed like a normal Total War battle, with units from the Roman era fighting against each other while trying to take over objectives like towers and cities by virtue of having the most bodies in the area. However, a closer look revealed that each player was only controlling three of these units and the movements of the armies facing each other were a result of dozens of these mini-commanders working together.
What I was looking at is Total War: Arena and even though the game is still in early beta, I of course hopped on a PC the first chance I got. Luckily I also got to sit down with Jan Van Der Cravven, the Live Operations Manager on Total War: Arena and talk about what I’d seen and experienced. Before that though, it was time to choose my General.
Arena is similar to previous Total War titles in that you still need to select a faction before entering a match. This time however, you also have to select a General who gives special bonuses to your troops and may have advantages when playing in a certain style. So far there are three Factions in the game; Greece, Rome and Barbarians, with the first two having three generals already and the Barbarians only sporting one (they had only launched the day before). If this seems limited to you, don’t worry, because Van Der Cravven was quick to tell me that more are coming.
Each Faction will have a full set of three generals shortly, and there’s plans to add at least one more to each. Later on we may look to expand this but first we will be looking to launch the fourth faction…we’ve got alot of options on the table for them, and they may not be limited to the current Mediterranean setting we’ve been pulling from.
The comment about the fourth faction had my interest piqued, and from what I’d seen of the game, it was clear that historical accuracy was taking more of a backseat this time around. Would there be a chance the new Faction might not just be from a different region, but a different time?
Absolutely that’s something we want to incorporate. I will say right off that there will be no gun powder in the game but we will be looking to expand both into different era and definitely into different regions…the challenge will be finding a balance for the units but that’s something we’re exploring although right now the focus is on the Ancient Cultures.
Okay, the mere idea that I could have a unit of Vikings tearing into a group of Samurai Archers is enough to make me want this game and I feel like I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Now, back to my game. I selected the Barbarians (of course) and picked Arminius for my general (he was the German leader who ambushed and killed three Roman Legions). That brought me to the unit selection screen where I would get to pick my forces. Units are faction-wide, so you don’t see the same variety as a normal Total War game, but the Generals boosts mean that picking the right force for that General becomes a key part of the game. Arminius’ skills lean mostly towards ambushes and scouting, so I picked two units of light cavalry and a single unit of infantry as backup. I then noticed the unit’s skill trees, with new skills blocked out behind silver and gold buttons.
We have monetized Arena, because the final game will be Free to Play. Players can buy gold to speed up their units development, but playing normally will also let you unlock these updates. Gold can also unlock new units but we wanted it to be balanced. Nothing you pay for will win you games if you don’t have the skills behind it; it’s mostly just small boosts or changes.
With the new units we’ve focused more on specialization then power so for example a Roman player might struggle with cavalry, being a mostly heavy infantry force, they can unlock Auxiliary units like the real Romans used who are specialized in Cavalry or Archery, etc…
Okay, so that explains that (and how they’re planning to pay for the game) now then: To Battle!
Matchmaking was pretty straightforward, one click of the start button and moments later, I was in a lobby with a full set of players looking at a map of the area we’d be fighting in. When everyone had loaded, the map then expands to show you available spawn points, as well as flags that highlight the objectives (At the moment usually a town/fort that needs to be captured) and any secondary structures (towers that reveal hidden units etc). These lobbies are surprisingly quiet, with no voice chat enabled in the game itself:
You always get the one guy who wants to boss everyone around, we wanted to avoid that so players are free to use Skype or other chats but we don’t have it in-game.
What players can do, however, is type-chat and draw on the map, showing arrows where they’re planning to go or where they think you should head. Of course, this being the internet, there’s also a lot of male genitalia flying around but I’ll let that go for now. Once you pick your spawnpoint things move pretty quickly. You usually will find at least one other commander around you and can choose to link up or head out on your own.
Teamwork is what will win the game however, as I found on both my victorious matches that things worked best when there seemed to be a concentrated plan in place. To Creative Assembly’s credit, the levels themselves seem to contribute to this with natural features and objective placement that seemed to inform peoples strategy even without direct communication.
In some ways they reminded me of the way people talk about MOBAs and ‘Laning Strategies’ though admittedly those games aren’t something I’ve really picked up. Still, I put the comparison to Jan and wondered if this was an intentional move for them to compete in that market.
Maybe in a way, but I don’t think we’re trying to directly compete. Maybe some people who play those games will enjoy Arena, maybe not. By focusing on battles we’re hoping to make the game accessible and bring in players who maybe don’t traditionally play Total War, while still making it fun for our fanbase.
The battles are like those in a normal Total War game, but they’re also faster and designed to be more fun.
That’s something I can certainly attest to. Once the battle was joined things got hectic quickly. Luckily, I found my previous experience a little more useful here and was usually able to do pretty well. As Jan said, the controls here will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a Total War title before, but the gameplay also feels more arcadey this time around; with numbers flying up to show damage from charges and a more graphical interface relaying the state of your units to you. I would describe all the changes as intuitive though, and I even thought some things worked better then the originals (particularly the diagram showing the state of your individual unit members).
Victory was eventually mine, and I have to say I am hooked. Luckily they were giving away Beta keys at EGX so I don’t have to wait long to play again.
Any of our British Readers can try out Total War: Arena by signing up for the Beta over on the website. For you guys in the US, I’m afraid it’s a bit more of a wait but Jan did promise a US release before January 1, 2016.
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