While Creative Assembly finish wrangling Griffins and Ogres for Total War: Warhammer, other parts of the company have been dabbling in portfolio diversification. Total War has always had a multiplayer component of course, but Total War: Arena is something of a departure from that standard model. It’s 10 vs 10 by default, and it’s got one of those ever so trendy free-to-play business models.

Right now it’s in closed alpha, which means when it crashes during a loading screen you’re not allowed to complain about it. More pertinently, it means the game only has a scattering of the maps and specialist commanders it should have at launch. Enough to offer a pretty decent idea of how it plays.

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Glory to Rome, and/or Greece!

Taking a broad view, clashes in Total War: Arena are not hugely different from the regular Total War multiplayer encounters. Strategic knowledge obtained through Creative Assembly’s previous offerings will suit you fine here. Charging cavalry into the flank of a bunch of guys with bows is smart. Charging the same unit head-on into some people waving pikes is a really good way to die. Using certain types of terrain (forests and soforth) to hide your troops can be a wise move, and popping a group of archers on high ground is usually a solid idea as well.

The main departures concern the number of players in each match, a much looser attitude taken towards historical accuracy, and a few tweaks and changes which make Total War: Arena a little bit less ‘tactical wargame’ and slightly (ever so slightly) more ‘multiplayer thing with skill cooldowns.’

Matches last fifteen minutes apiece (with triumph for the side with most soldiers left,) or until one side’s base is held and captured.

Having the default (and, at the moment, only) match-up be ten players against ten other players has obvious implications. Instead of one person fighting to stay in control of an entire army, everybody gets a set of three units. This manages to seem both much more manageable and more likely to devolve into hilarious chaos. There’s no longer any chance of the lone controller getting distracted by micro-managing the left flank and leaving the rest of the troops gormlessly standing around as they get smashed by a counter-attack. There is significantly more chance of a proportion of players saying “fuck it, if that guy’s going on the attack, so am I” and leaving gaping holes in the defensive line.

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Oh great, I apparently chose “a filthy swamp” as my spawn point.

Sometimes though, those weird behavioural bonds that connect multiplayer team-mates can result in some magnificent maneuvers. I’d like to pretend the best one I saw was instigated by me, but the sad truth is I was its primary victim.

Playing a little cat-and-mouse with another player’s units up a side road on the city-based Salernum map, I’d completely failed to notice another chap’s set of soldiers disappearing into woods and re-emerging behind and to my right flank. The first player’s lads suddenly stopped dicking around and moved in for the kill, leaving me with no choice but to try to flee.

Between the two of them, they’d managed to execute a near perfect pincer and wiped out two thirds of my squads. Total War: Arena has both voice and text team chat (plus some useful stock terms like “help!” or “support”), so this assault on my brave boys could very well have been orchestrated by direct communication. But I’ve also seen enough instinctual team play to know that sometimes players just ‘get’ what the group intentions are, based purely on other unit movements. In a prior match, our side had been victorious thanks to what amounted to a hive-mind charge down the enemy’s left side, giving us a straightforward victory waltz into their base.

On the occasions where the big picture strategy does need a bit more co-ordination, more command-minded players can draw directly on to the map (as you can in regular Total War co-op campaigns) in an effort to make people listen. Or to make people look at drawings of dicks. It sometimes works, as in the case I saw where somebody had written a massive “STAY” over a set of defensive positions. Quite a few people heeded these words, instead of wandering off elsewhere.

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I hope people understood my swirly vortex plan. It wasn’t a giant dong, so they may have been confused.

It’s somewhat up to players which three units they take into battle, determined by both the historical commander they’ve chosen and the level of troops they’ve unlocked to date. The Total War: Arena alpha has six playable commanders at present (three Roman, three Greek) with a space for some tribal leaders (Gauls and the like) reserved too. Each gets a corresponding set of troops, which begin with low level melee and ranged options (basic mob militias) and gradually expand through play to allow, say, proper Hoplites (for the Greeks) or Roman noble cavalry.

Commanders are mixed and matched for each battle, regardless of which nationality or army they happen to represent. So you tend to see three Julius Caesars lining up alongside a couple of Leonidas’ and a Germanicus, resulting in a mish-mash of troops from various historical locations and eras across each team. That’s not something which particularly bothered me (in fact the light ‘alt history’ possibilities of seeing these mixed armies is relatively interesting), but probably rules Total War: Arena out for the purists.

It’s gentler with some of the restrictions and demands of the main Total War games too. Ranged units don’t ever run out of ammo (probably because they’d be a whole lot less interesting to use in small numbers if that were the case,) and things like specialist formations for units (like a cavalry wedge) are now abstracted onto unit abilities. These Rome 2-like cooldown abilities come from your chosen commander (depending on his level) and allow your units to do things like raise their shields to protect against missile fire, or focus accurate ranged attacks for a short period.

Though I didn’t play far enough to unlock them, some of the end-tier commander powers look pretty devastating; like Miltiades’ ability to make any given unit rout. It’s hard to say whether that might push the game a bit too far towards units relying on magic spell buttons rather than sound tactics.

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This one’s pretty basic, it helps your infantry leg it into battle.

Inevitably, since it’s an unlocks-based game that’s free at the point of entry, there are in-game currencies to describe. Gold is the one you’d need to pay actual money for (though that’s not yet possible in the alpha, so I can’t say what the exchange rate will be like there,) silver and experience points are the ones you earn through playing. Just to make things slightly more complicated, experience points come in commander and unit varieties (for unlocking commander abilities and unit equipment/types respectively.)

Like all in-game currency systems, it’s convoluted and rather wearying. The undeniable truth about all of these models is that they will, at some point, try to nudge you into thinking about spending some real money; be it through wanting to save some time, or purchasing some sort of cosmetic item (in this case dyes for unit colours) because you’ve played the game for 50 hours and feel like you kind of owe it to the creators to give a little back. Total War: Arena hadn’t yet started to put the squeeze on me (I always seemed to have enough silver to replenish my soldiers after each battle and unlock a couple of things,) but it may very well start getting costlier at a later point. I can’t say for sure. The amounts and currency rates probably aren’t set in stone at this juncture of the game’s life.

Though I’m not the biggest fan of this sales model, I can’t deny that for multiplayer games (where players are the life blood) lowering the cost of entry to zero does help to bring in a healthy audience. Something that’ll be necessary for sustaining match-ups with 20 players apiece.

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Textbook base capturing.

As a more communal and historically quirky version of Total War’s standard multiplayer, Total War: Arena plays rather well. It’s looking like a viable option for people who’ve often fancied dabbling in the multiplayer side but who favour the slight anonymity of being one of a crowd, rather than the lone opponent in a battle. Having so many players on each team also offers a remarkable glimpse at human psychology; you get to see some interesting behaviour when people are holding a co-operative battle line with limited communication. The tactical aspects of traditional Total War (terrain, flanking attacks, unit strengths and weaknesses) are all largely intact, albeit sometimes abstracted on to abilities with cooldown timers, and the maps present in the alpha build play to these strengths.

Whether the gold/silver/experience model shapes up closer to fair or foul remains to be seen, but the basic structure of the game is putting an interesting and worthwhile twist on Total War’s competitive multiplayer.

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