Total War: ARENA

Total War: ARENA Review

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Total War: ARENA is a free to play, multiplayer battle game on Windows PC. You won’t find the game on steam, as it’s currently being developed by Creative Assembly and is published by Wargaming; utilising the “Wargaming Command Centre” to launch and update the game.

In Total War: ARENA you select three units from a wide variety of unit types and take them into 10v10 battles, this creates large scale 30v30 unit battles, played out on a series of bespoke maps.

Though the game is in Closed Beta right now, Open beta is only a few weeks away, and you can purchase access along with some other additions for prices ranging from $10 to $100. So let’s see what exactly you’d be paying for.

Gameplay (Pre-Battle)

To begin a battle, you’ll need to select a commander to lead your forces. Upon starting the game you’ll have a choice of three commanders out of a total of 10 that you can eventually unlock. Commanders belong to different factions, of which there are three; The Romans, The Greeks and The Barbarians.

Commanders have access to unique abilities, and each commander plays very different because of the effects of those abilities. You can have wide area of effect buffs and de-buffs to enhance or hinder those around you. There’s also specific charges, timed effects, special formations and deception tactics that your commanders can employ.

Each commander has three abilities at their disposal, but only starts with one. You’ll need to progress and rank up to gain access to the other two, and you can also improve your current abilities by levelling them up also.

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ARENA’s progression is divided into a ten Tier grouping system. Units and commanders will start at Tier One and as you play and gain more XP you’ll start to unlock access to more Tiers. As the Tiers progress you’ll have access to greater gameplay depth. Commanders will get access to more complex and difficult to execute abilities and units will become more diverse and complex in their own right. For example, a battle at Tier 1 will only ever have a maximum of six unit variations on it, while a battle at Tier five has a maximum of eighteen unit variations. The variations don’t actually increase beyond tier 5 (sometimes they do a little), but the units themselves have greater tools at their disposal to create a more nuanced battlefield.

Units in ARENA come in all different shapes and sizes and encourage different playstyles to get the most out of them. The Romans boast strong heavy infantry, strong late tier cavalry and powerful artillery. The Greeks have an extremely strong defensive line with the use of hoplites, long range slingers and devastating shock cavalry. The Barbarians are glass cannon; high damage dealers with low defense, fielding units such as “Naked Warriors”, “Falxmen” and “Warhounds”. Units themselves possess their own abilities, such as charges for cavalry, formation fighting for romans, phalanx for greeks, focused fire for missiles etc. etc.  They also have their own selection of consumables, items you take into battle and can use. These can range from small buffs for each unit, to buildable defences such as stakes or barricades.

Choosing the right commander to match a unit type will push that unit to its full potential. For instance Germanicus of the Romans, has “Heavy Infantry Charge”, “Testudo Formation” and “Vengence” as abilities, so obviously this commander has no use really for cavalry or artillery as those abilities can’t even be used on those units. Similarly, Cynane for the Greeks has “Rapid Advance”, “Hunt” and “Barrage”, some of which can be used on other types of units, but lend themselves heavily to missile infantry. There are also commanders that are unit agnostic; such as Caesar for the Romans and Vercingetorix for the Barbarians, who favour to affect those around them more so than their units themselves.

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Once you’ve selected your commander and units you’re ready for battle. You can play with up to three friends in a squad of four. To add a friend you simply type their username into the friend finder and add them, but you can only play with friends if they’re in the same region as you. When creating a Wargaming account it’ll put you into the North American Region, the European Region, the CIS Region or the Asian Region, depending on location. Or like many people, you may have googled their website and won’t realize you were redirected to the na.wargaming site instead of eu.wargaming site, as it’s very hard to notice in your browser. Even less conspicuous, the ".com" instead of the ".net" for Total War: Arena's website. This means your account will be forced into this region, and you can’t play with friends.

Many people have come to me, living in Europe or UK but accidentally joined the US. What’s even more bizarre, is although they can’t add each-other and party up together, it seems they can play with each-other. With the relatively small userbase, I’ve come across friends and YouTubers from different regions in my game. When we try to add each-other afterwards we cannot because of the region locking. So this is a massive black spot on the game. Region locking is incredibly outdated and frustrating for players. I live in the UK and most of my friends are US based so it makes playing this game extremely frustrating.

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Gameplay (Battle)

As for the gameplay itself, there’s one game mode and at least 7 maps. Maps are weighted between tiers, so you’ll only come across certain ones at higher tiers. There was an old map called Germania that seems to be missing from Tiers 1-6, but it’s possible it could be an extremely high tier map I just never encountered.

The game mode itself is a simple base capture and defense. If one team places a unit in the enemy base, a progress bar starts to move up. The more units in the base, the faster it moves up, however if the unit takes damage, it loses all capture points it earned and the progress falls down. This means you essentially need to catch the base completely undefended to capture it. If there are archers or artillery near it, then they can fire in from a safe distance and keep it from capturing. There’s also a fifteen minute timer on the game. Whoever has the most troops remaining at the end of the timer wins. A viable strategy is for a team to realize they have more men, pull back and start defending, as it’s up to the enemy to try and kill them or take their base before the clock runs out. It’s a very simple yet fun game mode that I don’t ever really grow tired of. Every now and then, you’ll encounter a game where a blob of troops rush a base and win in under two minutes which can be frustrating, but it’s up to the team to stop that from happening and leave something behind to defend. I would say more often than not, the game boils down to just a handful of troops left so I think the balance of the mode and maps in general is quite good.

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Combat itself is all about unit placement and the timing of abilities. Tactical placement of troops that appeal to their unit type are what makes for a successful battle. Blocking off streets, laying ambushes and protecting each others flanks will ensure that everyone survives. Units that stray off on their own, often get surrounded and cut down by greater numbers. Commander abilities then work to counter a bad situation, or enhance a good one. If there’s a block of troops guarding a street or an area, your Vercingetorix can use a scorched earth effect to burn the ground and make that unit move. If an Arminius player has remained hidden for a while, they can use infiltration to mask themselves as an ally and sneak up on the enemy. If Caesar is near an enemy, he can issue his VICI command to stop other commanders from issuing orders and potentially block a heavy infantry charge from Germanicus. So it’s a very dynamic battlefield with different playstyles all triggering what they do best at different times. As well as that, unit commands are the meat of the combat system. Unlike regular Total War games, units don’t really automatically do anything, you have to tell them to. A cavalry charge is a timed ability that you need to trigger at the right moment for maximum impact. If you get it wrong, you won’t have another charge for a while. Raising shields, reloading faster, dropping pikes and more are all things you have to manage as the player. With three units, its surprising how micro intensive this can be at certain times, especially if your units aren’t all together.

The goal of combat isn’t primarily to kill the enemy, it’s to break their morale. The white bar in the UI is the morale, and the red or blue bar is the health. Attacking a unit from the rear will cause a severe morale penalty and usually break the unit. This means it will not fight back and can be cut down easily. The game takes different types of morale effects into account, rear attacks, side attacks and sudden charges from those angles all deal different damage.

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Because of the importance of placement and flanking, teamplay is extremely important. When you’re with a friend, coordinating together makes the game way more enjoyable and rewarding as you work together to pick off enemies one by one. I often play as Caesar, who has large area of effect buffs, meaning when my friend charges someone, I can buff them, debuff the enemy and then charge in myself.

Terrain also effects how a unit behaves. Forests slow units down, and give light units such as barbarians an advantage, but heavy units like romans a disadvantage. Roads will speed units up, Water and Mud will slow them down. As well as this there is a tighter line of sight system at play that makes the battlefield much more dynamic and interesting as units move around it. Mini ambushes are much more viable and way more satisfying to pull off because of terrain types like tall grass, light forest and dense forest. Capture towers will grant you greater visibility, and are well worth fighting over as information about what enemy units there are and where they are is extremely valuable.

Throwing all of this in a big 10 v 10 battle does make for some very fun and engaging fights. Unfortunately what holds the game back the most in the battles is the delay in moving units. I can’t tell if it’s local CPU lag or Network lag, but units will often wait between 1 and sometimes 5 seconds before carrying out their movements. It’s extremely frustrating as timing can be so important. If you’re trying to pull out of combat, or move out of the way of a charge, a 3 second delay can be the difference between death and survival. It’s not a constant issue, but it seems more prevalent as a battle progresses and has definitely affected my enjoyment of the game.

As well as that, there are serious pathfinding issues that seem to affect some units more than others. When turning corners in certain places, units can double back on themselves and spiral around forever until you pull them out of it, often causing delays and strange behaviour where a unit will lose all composure.

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There are also some weird behaviours in the game, such as units that can deploy on cliff edges becoming almost impossible to kill as charges and other attacks seem useless. When a unit breaks completely, they’ll start running back to base, you never get control of them again but they still get in the way and can even sometimes randomly attack you, killing your men without yours fighting back… you can’t quite click them as there’s no UI for them and have to try and individually select them to get them. A real big frustration that seems like a hangover from the battle engine than something that was purposefully placed in.

Lastly at the end of a battle you get your reward and the scoreboard is displayed. Currently, only the kills and deaths are displayed which to me is a huge mistake in a game that focuses so much on teamplay and capturing. You’re still rewarded for capturing in terms of XP and Silver, but it’s not displayed for anyone else, so often you can win the game for your team, but be placed at the bottom of the scoreboard. What’s more, Caesar, my favourite general to play, can buff those around him, but doesn’t receive anything for doing so. Why there is a support commander with no way to reward support is beyond me.

Technical

From a technical standpoint Arena is a lightweight game, capable of running on quite low end hardware. It’s clearly been developed based off the Total War: ROME II framework, which at this point is a 4 year old game, so it’s not exactly pushing polygons like the latest releases. For my PC, it never went above 1.4GB of memory, the CPU was sort of intense at times but generally quite low over all and the GPU barely even knew the game was running. I had a solid 90fps almost the whole time while running everything on the max settings at 1080p.

The presentation of the game is fairly average overall. It’s strongest component is it’s UI, which has a fresh and clean look to it and is fairly customizable allowing you to select what information you want to see. The menus and progression system are easy to understand, and the layout and graphics displayed for battles and statistics is great. The battles themselves are something you’ll never really want to zoom in and watch, as you’ll barely ever see soldiers properly attack or hit eachother as the gameplay takes precedent over the visual fidelity of the fights. The music is well suited but largely forgettable and the sounds in the game have great thundering bass to them, making triggering abilities feel impactful.

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The controls are pretty standard and offer a good degree of customization however the camera won’t seem to let you switch camera types unless you edit the preferences file directly. For fans of TW games, this is a must, as it let’s you move the camera in a free-form way in all directions like an FPS game instead of a more rigid way that it defaults to. Unfortunately as well the camera is strictly limited in height, meaning you can never really get a good view of the battlefield, I’m not exactly sure why this has been done, but it’s probably to allow for flanks to catch you off guard more, and make it harder to micro units that are separated.

There is a large degree of assets taken from Rome II and used here, buildings, units, sounds and animations are largely taken from that game, so I’m not quite sure how I feel about that… the game is free after all, but is going to be making money off content that’s in another game you may have already purchased. And one that I definitely did. It seems a little bit lazy in one aspect but at the same time it wouldn’t really make sense to re-do those assets and I’m sure some work has gone on making them a better fit for Arena, but it’s something I wanted to mention.

Last note on the technical front, apart from the delay in units being an issue, I never encountered any other sort of lag. We never desynced or moved around or anything like that, and when a player drops from the game you can control their units. This is kind o f a half step as often multiple users will control the same units fighting for control of it, so maybe a designated commander that controls AFK players would be a better solution.

Progression (Currencies)

Now a very important part of a free to play game is the progression model they employ. Total War: ARENA’s system is pretty straight forward but can be a little complicated to explain, so I’ll do my best to explain how you’ll be spending money and time in this title.

There are 4 currencies in the game. Free XP, Unit XP, Silver and Gold. 3 of these currencies are earnable based on your performance in battle, and 1 is only ever purchased with real money.

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The XP currencies are used to unlock things. Free XP which is earned each battle, can be used to upgrade your commanders Tier, to upgrade your commander abilities and to upgrade and unlock new units. It’s a universal XP, kept in a global pool that can be used on everything.

Next is Unit XP, unlike Free XP, unit XP is not global. Instead it is earned by a particular unit in battle and tied to that unit type. For instance, fighting with Mycenean Hoplites in a battle, will earn unit XP for the Mycenean Hoplites unit only. You can then use that XP to upgrade the Mycenean Hoplites unit and eventually unlock the next unit in that chain. For a fully upgraded unit, you’ll have no more use for that unit XP; it will just sit and gather there with nothing to spend it on. Once you upgrade a unit, those upgrades stick with them permanently. Removing or replacing the unit, does not effect the upgrades or XP it has.

Next is Silver. Silver is used through every change in the game. If you pick a unit, and place it in your selection, you pay silver for that. If your units take damage, you pay at the end of each game to replenish them with silver. If you unlock an upgrade, like a new shield or weapon, you pay silver to equip it on the unit. If you want to take a consumable into battle, you pay silver for each use. Silver is everywhere in each transaction essentially.

Lastly is Gold. Gold is the premium currency you can buy for real money. How much gold is going to be worth could change with open beta, but judging by the pricing of units on their website it looks like around 3500 gold is about $10 but this could be wrong as its based off current pricing on their website.

Gold is only needed to purchase premium units, to purchase the premium progression and to buy cosmetics. These are the only things that other currencies can’t buy. To discuss the premium units first, there’s around 50 units per faction, and around 5 premium units per faction. However there are also some units available with the founders packs, that don’t seem to be listed in the game tech tree yet such as Triarii for the Romans.

I wasn’t able to test them all out, but by viewing their stats they seem comparable to other units of their tier and seem to try and fill a role not there for others. For instance, Romans don’t get access to cavalry until Tier 5, but with premium you could get a Roman Cavalry unit at Tier 4. The potential for pay to win is there, but hopefully it’s avoided. One can only look at a unit like Spartan Hoplites and imagine that they’re OP. But we’ll have to wait and see.

The premium progression basically just speeds you up by 50% so that’s pretty straight forward.

The cosmetics are very cheap in the closed beta, however buying a cosmetic ties it to the unit only, so you could buy the same cosmetics multiple times. In the closed beta, there’s barely any cosmetics, so I’m hoping for a lot more variation and functionality down this route eventually. Anything that can keep them from doing more pay to win style things like premium units is a good thing. I wouldn’t mind purchasing music packs, colour packs to paint your clothes, a shield designer that let you place your own emblems on shields, hell even spray paint style roman grafitti could be cool if you’re running around tagging things or marking where you rekt your enemy. But unfortunately, in the 3-4yrs of playing this game, they’ve never really expanded cosmetics and only limited it further. The army painter for instance, has been removed from the beta completely.

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Gold plays another role, and that’s to speed up your progression. Some commanders, like Alexander cost around 8000 XP, but you can buy them instantly for 2000 gold.

Remember the Unit XP that gets stuck on a unit forever? You can convert it to free XP by paying gold. The conversion rate is 1 gold for 25XP so if you have a unit with 2000XP with nothing to spend it on, it’ll cost you 80 gold to transfer it. Then you can spend that free XP on whatever you want. Ultimately you’re just redirecting the time you’ve already spent on something to something else, so it just speeds things up a bit.

You can also buy silver with gold, the conversion rate there is 10 silver for 1 gold. So that’s pretty standard stuff.

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Before moving onto the larger issue with how this is handled, I wanted to talk about value for money in the founders packs. Founders packs are your gateway into the beta and let you buy starter kits containing units, gold and premium access ranging from $10 to $100. They also offer beta keys for use, so one can assume these will change when we get to open beta. Currently though, in terms of gold value, I’ve worked out roughly how much each pack is worth: 

I’ve said I’ve worked out that $10 is around 3500 gold by looking at the tiers in the founder packs and comparing them.

For instance, 30 days of premium is valued in game at 2500 gold. Founder pack 1 is $10 and gives you premium + 1250 gold.

Another example is :

For 30 dollars you get 2 units, 2 customization items, beta access and premium.
For 40 dollars you get 2 units, 4 customization items, beta access and premium plus 3500 gold. So basically, 10 dollars is worth around 3600.

This means that I can judge the founders packs against what you’d be able to just buy in the game.

Essentially, if you drop 99.99 you’re getting the best value by far, but at 69.99 you’d be better off just buying gold in the game and spending it how you’d want. I think overall the $10 founder pack is a great price to just get the game and get playing immediately, but in general I would wait until it’s free to play and then just buy the amount of gold you feel ok with. Buying these packs ties you into certain units and things taking away flexibility to buy what you want later on.

Ok so the wider issue here of course, is asking whether or not they’ve slowed down the game progression to encourage more gold purchases. The answer is a pretty obvious yes, but to what extent?

Progression (Time)

The time to reach Tier 5 is around 10hrs of playtime from my experience. Because of how the score system works, giving you points based on morale damage and actual damage it means you’ll earn a bit more each tier as the values get higher and higher for the more powerful units. It seems this rate is around 10-20% with each tier. However, the gaps between tiers in terms of what it costs to unlock stuff is an exponential curve. To go from Tier 1 to Tier 2 you need 800XP. To go from Tier 5 to Tier 6 you need 41,200 XP. To go from Tier 9 to Tier 10 you need 378,000 XP.

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For me, an average game earned me around 700 XP per battle at Tier 5. You will earn around 20% more with each tier though so you’ll be earning more as you go. However, the time needed to go from Tier 5 to Tier 6 is was around 8hrs because you need to play 58 battles, each one lasting an average of 8minutes.

When you’re up in the high tiers you’re looking at around 3000-4000XP per battle and 14-20hrs to go between Tier 9 and 10. That’s with just one unit and that’s ignoring upgrades that won’t progress you to the next unit.

So essentially we’re looking at very long times between tiers, this actually can’t be sped up if you’re looking to achieve it as fast as possible, but if you deviate and play with other units, you can spend gold to redirect the XP back where you want it.

What this large gap between high tiers in effect does is break apart the players. The amount of players who will reach tier 10 are people that put in 100hrs or so into the game. When those players reach that number, they’ll be banded with Tier 9 players and Tier 8 players and will be able to completely destroy them. It’s something that happened in the beta on a smaller scale. As a Tier 5 player, I regularly came across Tier 7 players and there was nothing I could do to beat them, even if I singled one unit out on its own. I’m hoping this is due to lower player numbers in the Closed Beta, but I can’t imagine it won’t be an issue at higher tiers in the open beta because the time gaps between tiers are so large.

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As well as that, the time gap means pretty unbalanced games as you progress. If most people are playing Tier 6 they probably only have 1 or two units at that level, and that resulted in me finding a 7 player cavalry game, which devolved into a massive mess in the centre. Made for a great stream though.

My fears for this game is that low player numbers will cause greater division between tiers and that will cause high tier players to band with low tier players, and further unbalance the game, making for a frustrating experience and lowering the numbers further in a snowball effect. I urge Creative Assembly to stop flexible tier banding altogether and put in place a hard limit on keeping tiers the same. At absolute worst seeing 1 tier higher isn’t too bad as teams can work together to take them down, but two levels higher is impossible to deal with. And if 1 team has a higher tier player, the other team should have that as well.

Final Verdict

Total War: ARENA at it’s core is a very fun battle game unlike any other game on the market. It’s a fast paced RTS game with a strong focus on teamwork. Unfortunately, it’s tagged onto an existing engine from an older title causing it a bunch of technical issues. It’s also wrapped up in an anti consumer free to play model that is designed to get you frustrated so you’ll spend money. The game has had a troubled history switching publishers and platforms, meaning friends can’t always play together and the development team seem to focus on the wrong things compared to what the community want.

Personally I would’ve loved it if they charged for the game and had cosmetic micro transactions to sustain development. They need to focus on enchancing teamplay not pushing players apart. I honestly don’t think the future looks bright for this game, but I’ll be sticking with it as I do find the core of the game fun, and we’ll see whether or not the playerbase will be there to support it.

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The Review Scale

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Ahead of my first ever full game review tomorrow, I wanted to outline my scoring system and what each value represents.

It was a tough decision deciding on whether or not to use score systems, but overall I think it will help the discussion around the review. I know when I watch or read a review, I often like to see the score at the end, and hopefully people will find the reviews themselves interesting enough they don't just skip to the end.

As well as releasing my reviews on YouTube, I'll also be releasing them here in written form. They'll largely be the same as the video review, but might contain slight changes to make it better suited for the written word. The reason behind this, is because a lot of people might not have the time to watch a 20-30min review and if they have restricted internet access at work or campus they can still get the information if they want it.

I'll be using a 100 point scale for my reviews, ranging from 0.0 to 10.0. Each whole number has a different meaning to me, which I've outlined in the image above. The finer increments are really just a weight in that category. If something gets an 8.8 for instance, it means that to me, its a great game that was very nearly excellent but for some reason (outlined in the review) it fell short.

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As well as this, I want to let you know review will be done much more timely in future. My first review will be for Total War: ARENA and it took over a week of my time making. This is in part due to the fact that Arena is a game that takes a long time to progress and master, and is complicated because of its free-to-play nature. Its also because as this was my first review, I needed to make a lot of custom graphics, such as the score at the end, and credits for Patrons. 

Now that I have a good template to work from, reviews should be quicker.

Thanks for the support so far on YouTube, I hope you enjoy this review and I hope it serves people well in future who are thinking of dropping money for the game now, or in the game later.