Making Total War Accessible with Total War Arena [E3 2017 Preview]

The Total War series has a big problem, and I experienced this first hand at E3: it’s intimidating and hard to play, and this is coming from someone who has learned Star Craft II, Dota 2, Stellaris and Endless Space 2, meaning I have what should be a wealth of knowledge on RTS games, grand strategy games and MOBAs. But, at E3, given the opportunity to play Total War: Warhammer 2, I was lost and drowning. Sure, it didn’t help that the folks at SEGA offered players no direction whatsoever beyond which computer to stand at, but I still had no idea what I was doing and if I was doing it right.

It was with this problem in mind that Creative Assembly and Wargaming (the folks behind World of Tanks) teamed up to create Total War Arena, what the developers are calling a “real-time tactics” game. The game is a 10v10 free-to-play online multiplayer game that dips its toes in several different genres and game titles creating an odd amalgamation that just might work. Each player controls three Commanders (think heroes in MOBA games, only they’re based on real-life people such as Leonidas and Germanicus) that each lead large units and have three unique abilities. The first team to annihilate the other or to capture the other’s base is deemed the winner.

“We want to raise the skill ceiling [on Total War],” Creative Assembly designer Elliott Lock said. “But we also want to lower the skill floor.”

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This is, of course, essential for a free-to-play game. No point in making a game accessible to everyone if only a select few can actually play it, after all. While the layers are almost endless, the concept and basics are surprisingly easy to grasp. Control your three units and their Commanders, tactically position them about the battlefield, use your abilities to gain an advantage over your opponents, and defeat them in combat.

But, as I said, the layers to Total War Arena are almost countless. For starters, your Commander is just as much a warrior as any other grunt in his unit. If he dies, the 100 or so soldiers he leads will be without the services of his special abilities, so tactical retreats are a must in some circumstances. Those abilities I spoke about? They can be upgraded immensely with a massive skill tree. And while we’re on the topic of skill trees, each Commander belongs to one of three factions – the Romans, the Greeks or the Barbarians – and each faction has a skill tree for progression that dwarfs the individual ability trees.

And oh boy are we just getting started. As of now there are nine Commanders (with one more on the way – more on that later) and 10 different unit types – anything from infantry with swords, spears and pikes, to cavalry, archers, catapults, etcetera. Like in Total War, each unit has health and morale, the latter of which can turn the tide of an otherwise losing battle.

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Also like in Total War, Creative Assembly and Wargaming have aimed to make Total War Arena as historically accurate as possible. Each of the Commander’s has a huge bio that goes along with them, and all their abilities are based on writings of how that particular historical figure fought or acted. As Creative Assembly was sure to point out, though, they’re not trying to give you a history lesson, but you’ll likely learn a thing or two by osmosis because of how much research went into Total War Arena.

Since it is free-to-play, you’re probably wondering where Total War Arena is going to get money. As Creative Assembly and Wargaming put it, its f2p model will be “very similar to World of Tanks” – unsurprisingly – a game that lets players skip much of the grind that would normally be required to progress. In recent times, World of Tanks‘ premium ammunition has come under fire for crossing the line into pay-to-win territory, but there doesn’t appear to be anything like that in Total War Arena just yet. The game has three types of currency, the main two being Silver (free currency earned throughout the game) and gold (premium currency), and, from what I saw at E3, Gold couldn’t be used to buy new abilities in either of the skill trees, although it cam be used to access these higher tiers.

Currently in an Alpha state, approaching a closed beta, Total War Arena marks perhaps the most interesting game of the year, as it’s a bold new direction for the Total War series and an experiment that could pay off very well for both gamers and the studios behind the game. With another Commander on the way, this one based on Boudica, a Queen who led a revolt that killed tens of thousands of invading Romans, it seems Wargaming and Creative Assembly is fully prepared to support Total War Arena for the foreseeable future.