Total War: Arena Review – Light on Tactics, Heavy on Battles

Total War: Arena Review

The Total War series has always seemed daunting to me. Grand scale battles that are stretched over long phases sounds like something I want to enjoy but just don’t have the time for right now. Total War: Arena boils down that experience and reduces it to a big 10v10 skirmish. You simply pick a commander and three units for your squad, then deploy onto a battlefield where you must either capture the enemy base or eliminate the enemy completely. Whether it’s a large scale infantry assault or a barrage of arrows raining down on our enemies, the scale of the battles are perfect for quickly getting into the action that many people love in Total War.

The initial gameplay is straightforward as the early units come across like rock-paper-scissor squadrons. The infantry is strong against cavalry which is strong against archers which is strong against infantry. That isn’t to say cavalry will always beat archers on the field, as tactics play a large role in how battles are won. These simplified units are a great introduction into a game filled with unit variety at the later ranks, but they quickly devolve into a cluttered mess of units. It is entirely likely that this comes from playing at the lower tiers anyway, but the nature of the early units makes it so easy to clump up. This especially becomes a problem with archers and siege units; friendly fire is simultaneously the best and worst idea for volleyed attacks. Having friendly fire enabled severely nerfs ranged units like archers, otherwise there would be nothing stopping people from raining arrows down own their own infantry to protect them. However, friendly fire is incredibly frustrating to work around with a group of random people. If you’re playing as infantry or cavalry and see a great flanking opportunity, you might be greeted with a volley of friendly arrows from an unobservant ally as you rush into a right flank. Conversely, if you’re playing as archers, you might have the perfect ambush on unsuspecting infantry when a rush of allied horses comes barreling into your line of fire. It’s a mechanic that is meant to foster better strategy and that strategy does show more at the higher tiers, but it’s incredibly frustrating in your first few dozen games.

Total War: Arena Top Screen

Once you do manage to break through the low-rank squabbles, you will likely unlock more interesting units for your commander. I was happy to see war dogs as a playable unit for the Barbarians so I gravitated toward that track, particularly with Boudica as she has specific buffs for the dogs. This mix and match style of unit/commander choice is interesting because not all commanders synergize with every unit type (I’m happy to say that Hannibal has some excellent abilities for elephants). Something I did struggle with, however, was finding good combinations of unit types in a squadron. I noticed that you receive an XP bonus for mixing types so there is obviously some incentive to try it. There just weren’t many opportunities I found that mixing was all that helpful except for attaching an infantry unit to sieging units and war dogs. I’m happy about the unit variety across the different factions since it offers lots of counterplay options during battles, but I struggle to find a good reason to mix any and all unit types.


“I do wish you could customize formations and create custom groupings with appropriate hotkeys…”

The tactics and micromanagement available during battles are a bit light, but good enough for quick skirmishes. I rarely played a game to the full 15 min timer, so the simple right click to move mechanic worked well enough. I do wish you could customize formations and create custom groupings with appropriate hotkeys, but that might be too into the weeds for an arcade style game like Total War: Arena. You are offered a simple, singular ping command and a paintbrush tool for drawing lines of attack on the map, but that mostly devolved into lewd drawings or a game of tic-tac-toe among the defeated commanders who were still spectating.

I enjoyed Total War: Arena more than I thought, but I’m not sure if it has enough carrot at the end of the stick for me to keep playing long term. The grind to the higher tiers seems makes me wonder if it’s worth my time trying other factions, and the matches with the same units begin to feel repetitive. Without much more dynamic interaction during the actual battles, it’s hard to see myself staying engaged. That being said, it’s definitely worth a try to see if it’s right for you. If anything else, you can remake history by playing as Germanicus fighting alongside Hannibal, vying for control in Thermopylae against the Barbarians.

*** A PC code was provided by the publisher ***

The Good

  • Matches get right into the action quickly
  • Unit variety offers lots of counter-play and strategies
  • Multiple maps that offer different styles of play

The Bad

  • Grind through the ranks could be tedious for many people
  • Friendly fire is way too easy to proc
  • Customizations for building mixed unit armies feels limited