Historical MMO RTS Total War: Arena has been in development for several years by now, with a select group of players currently playtesting 10v10 matches in closed beta. The game is set in the timeframe of Classical Antiquity with the earliest playable units hailing from 1500 BC Greece and the most recent ones from the Roman Empire around 500 AD. The developers at Creative Assembly are currently polishing up the game and moving ahead towards an open beta release in 2018 which is why Gamereactor was invited to the studio's UK headquarts in Horsham to learn all about the latest scoops and developments.
Total War: Arena has its own dedicated team at CA with other teams working on the recently announced Total War Sagas: Thrones of Britannia, the as of yet undisclosed successor to Total War: Warhammer II which will return to a historical setting. The people we met who are working on Arena have one thing in common and that's a huge love for history. Their enthusiasm when talking about how they added their favourite historical figures such as Vercingetorix or Sulla to the game gives us confidence that the game will keep its strong emphasis on historical authenticity.
This game is made for lovers of history as well as those who appreciate an accessible and easy to play strategy game. CA's own term for the genre is actually "Real-Time Tactics" which betrays the game's focus on tactical movements and increased micromanagement of units. A big portion of the target audience are people who played the previous Total War games but have since gotten older and often lack the time to invest in lengthy campaigns. Arena will provide them with the opportunity to enjoy Total War with battles that range anywhere between five and fifteen minutes at a time. Additionally the game will feature a slower pace than other games (such as Starcraft II) which might also appeal more to older players. Troop movements and positioning are in fact the deciding factor in winning battles we found out while testing the game, which means calculation and planning are more important than speed.
During our hands-on time we were able to join battles on the live servers of the closed beta build. The controls are very intuitive with the camera adjustable both by using the mouse or keyboard. Moving your units into position does require a degree of micromanagement, because with all units selected a right mouse click will have them all lumping together at the same position instead of holding an organized formation beside each other. It's essential to keep an eye on what your team is doing on the minimap and CA came up with some effective ideas to increase team coordination. You can ping teammates on the mini map for help or to draw attention. It's innovative that you can draw freely on the map in the pre-battle screen to express your intentions without the need to type. Even in battle you can toggle the option to draw on the ground to indicate your intentions to players nearby. The developers stated that because their servers will host the entire global player community simultaneously, they wanted to eliminate language barriers and they've certainly tackled that in this way.
During our first few battles, we were mostly focused on moving the units and attacked basically without any plan whatsoever. This resulted in a swift and inglorious death for our units every time, so you're automatically pushed into working together with your team. The pace of the battle is quite fast when armies make contact and the timely use of commander abilities can make all the difference between victory or defeat. The positioning phase is very important and you'll see more experienced players moving back and forth in order to engage only at the most advantageous moments, like when holding higher ground. After a while we were doing the same and this means the tactical combat in TW: Arena is working well. The game is easy to control but it's challenging every time to execute your preconceived tactical movements because you're always up against a human player calculating the same way you are. This makes the battles far more interesting than the ones against AI that we know from campaign-focused Total War games.
Every player has three units with between 50 to 100 men to control with the option for cavalry, spearmen, pikemen, swordsmen, archers or artillery. Working together is even more important when taking the different unit types into account, because if you picked only archers in your army then enemy cavalry is your number one threat. Sticking close to the spearmen of a teammate and supporting him at the right moment adds to the likelihood that he will keep an eye out for your safety as well.
The different units feel balanced and even when you're fighting at a disadvantage (like archers engaging in melee) you're still able to make an impact. Morale is very important in the game and a flanking attack even by weaker units can turn the tide of battle. The units are great to look at, with a variety of combat animations and upgrades making a difference in the appearance of your units. The graphics do not compare with the performance in the latest Total War games though. While looking good, smooth gameplay is clearly the main focus for the game's graphics. Similarly, within units the variation is more limited than in Total War: Warhammer II which is done to ensure performance on slower machines. You're able to enjoy your commander and units up close in battle but you're probably too busy planning and moving units to use this feature a lot anyway.
We've already seen earlier builds of the (closed alpha) game but much has changed since then. Early builds of Arena ran on a modified Rome II: Total War engine but the current engine has progressed into a dedicated one. The starting screen now allows you to check out your heroic commander and your three units, with different scenic environments being planned. Vegetation has been reworked and in addition to looking much better, it also obscures the player's views to a higher degree which benefits players and units that excel at ambushing enemies. New heroes have been added with the latest addition being the infamous Roman dictator Sulla. Developer Joshua Williams told us that besides allowing players to learn about interesting historical figures, every hero has its own distinct playstyle. By adding new heroes over time the game will keep increasing in diversity regarding tactical playstyles. Other additions increase the immersion in the game, such as detailed unit descriptions, battle decorations, and achievements. Based on player feedback, the UI has been expanded by, for example, showing unit health in percentages, as well as a rework of the scoreboard after each battle. Players can now also use a replay feature and spectate.