"Ambition's kind of a funny word to bandy around when you're talking about Total War," says Creative Assembly's Mike Simpson. "It's fair to say that some of our most ambitious titles have also courted the most controversial reception and some of the most divisive opinions."
Simpson is speaking to a roomful of press members, outlining what the Total War teams have been up to and where they intend to go. As it happens, the series had already expanded into the mobile space with Total War Battles, but Creative Assembly clearly has eyes on other markets as well, and the free-to-play realm on the PC in particular. And thus was born Total War: Arena, a streamlined multiplayer take on the series' strategic formula that pits two teams of 10 players each against one another, and gives players a handful of squads to lead into battle. The idea of a scaled down, free-to-play iteration of a deep, beloved strategy series is the kind of one that inspires waves of pearl-clutching among PC enthusiasts who worry about the murder of big strategy games in the name of accessibility and audience appeal.
In such cases, the controversial reception Simpson speaks of arrives before the game is even released, and I admit that in my own eagerness for Total War to retain its reputation for complex, massive historical strategy, I approach Arena with skepticism. And yet two rows of 10 computers each lure me and other writers to try our hands at this battle-focused online game, and I must say that after three tense battles, Total War: Arena convinces me of its potential. It takes a few minutes to reach that stage: the user interface, which has you selecting a commander and assigning units to him, takes some getting used to, as is typical for a free-to-play game. After the first match, I grow more accustomed to the game's idiosyncrasies and better understand the purpose of its multiple currencies. I am also able to upgrade units and outfit them with ever-so-slightly improved armor, though I can't help but wonder how much protection those flimsy-looking conical caps actually provide.
No matter. The first match has us all on equal footing, presuming equal skill levels of course. I lead my three manageable masses of pikemen and archers down a nearby ravine, hoping to flank the hordes surely charging towards our base, which we must protect from capture while attempting to capture and hold the opposition's. The army and camera controls are familiar; any Total War player should immediately understand how to maneuver troops and get a wider view of the battlefield. I am confident in my pikemen and the archers marching behind them. Or at least, I am until I clash with the army clamboring into the ravine from the other side, and realize that while I am squeezed in on both sides, the enemy troops are able to fan out past the ravine's entrance. They've taken advantage of the choke point, and I am the one being suffocated.
The scuffle begins, and it's the typical Total War skirmish in which I can only make top-level tactical decisions and cry out each time a pikeman falls. I force my pikemen to stand their ground and order my archers to retreat, hoping that moving them to higher ground will help me gain an advantage, but it's too late. I am not the first player to fall, but I am among them, left to watch the battle unfold before me, knowing that I am partially to blame for my team's loss.
I make some sense of the convoluted interface and currency choices just in time for the second match. I feel more prepared than before. I am not playing hero this time--I will go archer-heavy and provide support for the heartier armies that spread across the battlefield. Straight up the middle I march, and a clash between the armies begins in under a minute. It's a tense battle, involving not just my three units, but a mess of others, and it's one in which the grand Total War combat shines. On the soldier level, these brawls resemble a swarm of anachronistic army men stabbing any enemy within halberd distance. From my God's-eye view, I maneuver the horde with a focus on position and formation. Meanwhile, my teammates have taken the enemy base while my comrades and I busy the opposition in the central plain. Victory is ours.
It's match number three, and I have decided to take a defensive position. I go all-ranged, positioning my conical-capped units on the ridges that oncoming enemies must pass to capture our base. Silhouettes on the ground appear when I select the ridge, making it easy to get my archers and javelin-throwers in position, and I wait, paying close attention to which directions from which the enemy approaches to that I can maximize damage. Alas, my teammates have left me alone to fend for myself, aggressively marching to the enemy base while I pelt three different armies with javelins and arrows. Both bases are invaded, but there is no hope: our invasion force arrived at the opposing base later than the enemy did at ours, and the opposition's infantry has squashed my troops. It is another loss.
I walk away from my seat with my head hanging due to our 2-to-1 defeat. But I'm also pleased with Total War: Arena, which strikes me as a lunchtime game, the kind of competition that's involved enough to require some time and thought, but brief enough to satisfy should I not have the hours to spend with it. The game enters its closed alpha test today, and you could sign up at the game's official website should you want a chance to lead your own multitudes into the arena.
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