Total War: Arena – Nine Parts Great, One Part Ballsed Up?

Total War: Arena

The Creative Assembly’s newly-announced F2P multiplayer looks to be nine parts brilliance to one part Oh God, No.

Era-mixing? Marvellous. 10vs10? Delightful. Deliberately making it so the three units you control are as complicated as 20 units in a standard Total War game? …Not so sure about that one, fellas.

Total War’s multiplayer has always been popular, and I can see many lively hours arising from requiring 10 people to coordinate themselves into something even vaguely resembling a tactical effort. Mount & Blade’s Napoleonic DLC has a similar principle in its large squad command battles, where each player controls an AI unit and the results are always entertainingly inept. 15 people will all suggest their own, slightly different battle plan before running off in completely separate directions – and not because they refuse to cooperate. They just all agree that someone else’s plan is superior and proceed to follow that.

If TW:A plays its cards right, most of the fun will come from the players’ inability to organise a quiet pint in a brewery; let alone a full-blown piss-up. Three players may agree to combine their infantry into a solid line in the centre of the map. They just won’t agree on the direction.

And this will be what, oh, two-thirds of your time will be spent doing? So I’m uncertain why the controls for your 3 units need to be so fiddly. Surely the complexity will be inherent in people trying to work together? Instead the word on the street[¹] is “lots of manual actions, such as manual aiming, manual cavalry charges and so forth”. That isn’t tactical complexity, it’s busywork. The gameplay equivalent of digging a hole to put the last hole’s soil heap into. I’m half expecting TW:A to send me away for a long stand and a left-handed shovel.

They say they want the game to be accessible, but controlling a full-size Total War army is a bitch – especially if you’re new – and forcing the player to run around like a blue-arsed fly seems like petty cruelty. One of the most basic principles of interface design is that every action should take as few clicks as possible, but they’re ignoring that for fear that we might go too long without pressing a button. It’s a weird fucking concept, like a DVD forcing you to hold down Play in case you forget you’re watching it.

As for the ability to split units down as far as ordering single dudes around the map[²]… I’m wary. The possibilities for abuse are pretty incredible so I can see why they’d be sceptical about including it. You don’t want players sending a single man out in front of their infantry to screw up a cavalry charge, or similar malarkey. Some interesting tactical possibilities? Yes. If they handled it like liquid nitrogen.

The main factor there would be to see how they maintained the power of formation-based fighting. If a formed-up unit always trounces the equivalent troops in a rough group, then the overall structure of Total War battles will be maintained. If the rough group wins, it’ll look less like an epic tactical battle and more like old Miner’s Strike news footage. And hilarious as the concept art would be, I can’t quite picture people clamouring for Orgreave: Total War.

Era mixing, on the other hand, sounds right up my alley. No doubt the anoraks are already piping up with their slightly wheezy disapproval, but let’s be honest here: Total War has never exactly been historically sound, and when you’re calling your game ‘Arena’ you may as well just throw everything in the pot and call it a day. I really can’t think of anything more magical than a couple of samurai turning to each other in the heat of battle: “Who’s Hannibal?” one would say, “and what the fuck is he doing with those elephants?”

I have a vision. A vision of Atilla the Hun riding confidently into battle, cutting through his enemies. He laughs, magnificent in victory, and pauses to punch out Julius Caesar. Later he will stand atop a mound of crushed Spartans, exchanging a bro-fist with Joan of Arc.

¹ Rock, Paper, Shotgun being the cold, hard streets in question.
¹ Finally we are shown a non-final, entirely experimental prototype where there’s drag and drop control over every soldier, allowing you to divide up units into small groups of soldiers (down to a single man) and order when away from the main unit formation.

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