It plays like Total War. The same rock/paper/scissors-style "Swords beat spears, spears beat horses, horses beat swords, and archers are a pain in the ass" gameplay still exists, although now with the added chaos of nine other people at your side.
Or not at your side, as things may be. I think the greatest challenge with Total War: Arena will be finding nine other people who want to play together regularly and actually enact some sort of strategy. The three rounds I played, there wasn't strategy as much as there was "Oh thank goodness the other team screwed up harder than we did."
The map has various lanes paths to the other team's base, all of which feature benefits and drawbacks. A stretch of forest allows you to sneak close to the opposing base unseen, but it also slows you down and is perfect for ambushes. A deep mountain pass is a perfect chokepoint to hold the enemy off, until they send their archers up above and rain arrows from on high.
I should know--I used both tactics at various points.
It's a fun little game, though it suffers a bit from its roots in Total War. The real-time component of that series has always been fun as an addition to the 4X empire building, but it lacks the precision and predictability of something like StarCraft. In a singleplayer experience that lack of precision can be a frustrating setback. In multiplayer, with nine other people depending on you, it can be devastating.
Creative Assembly's also made some changes to how troops work which I'm not a fan of--for instance, you can't change the shape of your troop layout. There's no way to drag your archers into a long, thin line. Abilities are also managed by your commander, not your troops. A charge is now an ability, not a simple matter of double-clicking, which takes getting used to.
But as a fun little aside for Total War fanatics, Arena is surprisingly fun. I don't know how it'll be once you've played through a ton of rounds--whether there are flaws that we haven't seen yet. I also don't have a ton of faith in the free-to-play model, and while we seemed to earn enough XP for upgrades early in the game we didn't progress far enough to see if things throttle down later in the progression (or whether you could effectively pay-to-win).
I liked it though, even as someone who auto-resolves a lot of Total War's combat. Adding in nine other players on a team might not make strategic sense, but it makes for some great moments--even if the generals of old are shaking their heads in dismay.
Sound like fun? The closed alpha sign-up is here.
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