We've been stomping the battlefield with Hannibal's elephants.
We've previously covered Total War Arena during our hands-on preview and studio visit last November and found that the game offers the best tactical combat of the Total War series so far. This week Gamereactor was invited to a snow-blanketed Paris to attend the announcement of Arena's open beta which will kick off on February 22.
The Open Beta offers a lot of new content, such as new maps and customisation options, and will feature a complete reset of all Closed Beta progress for existing players. By way of compensation, up to 500,000 free XP, 250,000 Silver, and unique shield decals will be available to Closed Beta veterans. However, the highlight of the open beta release is the addition of a new faction and two new commanders: the North-African city-state of Carthage is joining the Roman, Greek and Barbarian factions that were already playable in the Closed Beta. And yes, this also means the addition of a completely new unit type: War Elephants!
The new Carthaginian faction features two unique commanders: the legendary Hannibal and his less famous sibling Hasdrubal. Like the existing commanders, both will have their own unique abilities. Hannibal is famous for leading his army and war elephants on a hazardous journey through the Alps and into Roman Italy. In line with history, Hannibal's abilities focus on speed and whipping his units into extraordinary feats. Hannibal's basic ability is called "Forced March" and lets you move units faster at the cost of morale. Other abilities, such as "Determination" and "Ad Portas" focus on boosting attack and defence when your units have reached an advantageous position. Hasdrubal, on the other hand, is purely about supporting allied players. The "Deep Pockets" ability boosts attack and defence of a friendly unit, while the ability to "Bribe" an enemy unit means it will take a big hit to morale and lower the unit's attack and defence.
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The new unit roster for the Carthaginians progresses along the lines of Hannibal's famous campaign which started in Iberia (Spain), through Southern Gaul, the Alps, and ended in a 15-year occupation of mainland Italy. The Carthaginians therefore start out with Iberian sword infantry, mercenary Greek-style hoplites, and Numidian light cavalry in the lower tiers. Around tier V and VI the war elephants appear, as do Gallic and Italian infantry units that historically joined Hannibal's army in the hope of throwing off the yoke of Roman occupation. By the highest tiers, you'll be able to call upon the veterans of the Battle of Trebia and Carrhae and a mixture of Numidian cavalry and Barbarian skirmishers. We think it's a very nice approach to a unit roster in a historical game and it's a good idea to mimic this progression system for other upcoming factions. Lead game designer David Petry confirmed that this was definitely something the developers were pondering for future factions.
Elliott Locke, lead battle designer for TW: Arena, told us that Carthage was picked as the next faction to be added because it had most opportunity to add new unique playstyles to the game. The biggest impact on the gameplay will obviously come from the Carthaginians' unique unit: the War Elephants. The idea behind the unit is that it offers players a single highly micro-manageable unit that can turn the tide of battle if you correctly use abilities such as stomping the ground for area damage. David Petry told us that they considered between one and eight elephants per unit, but having multiple ones always broke up the micromanagement they wanted to achieve. We experienced first-hand how a single elephant can wreak havoc on most unit types and can be a pain to defeat if you lack either javelin troops or a phalanx formation of pikemen. Despite being the tanks of the Classical battlefield, if you micromanage your elephants badly it takes just a few seconds for them to die if they run into a hedgerow of pikes. There are five elephant units in total, starting with the tier V premium "Surus" unit, the sole War Elephant and favourite animal of Hannibal that survived the crossing of the Alps. Tier VI to X have their own elephants named after Carthaginian (Phoenician) Gods, with the tier X "Baal" having a "Charge" ability and the tier X "Tanit" able to trumpet to lower enemy morale, for example.
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The Open Beta will also be adding a new map, called "Teutoburg Forest". This is the site of the famous battle where Arminius annihilated three Roman Legions under the command of Proconsul Varus. The map features four main axes of advance and plenty of opportunity for ambushes set in a dark and hostile atmosphere. Joshua Williams of Developer Communications told us that they are looking to add gameplay variation by adding totally different maps. The recently added Passage of Augustus map is an example of how base locations in close proximity force players into a king-of-the-hill style of gameplay, without having to actually add new game modes. This sure sounds like a good idea to avoid dividing the player base but still adding variation.
Other additions arriving in the Open Beta are 21 new consumables to boost your troops and cosmetic items to change the visual appearance of your units. Consumables can be purchased for either 2,750 silver or 25 gold and provide a boost for the duration of one battle. For example, the "Anath Blessing" consumable, adds a boost to attack and defence stats, while other consumables such as "Blinders" make a unit's morale less susceptible to enemy charges or to maintain morale when fighting against specific troop types. The cosmetic items are obtainable with gold currency and can be used for any compatible unit once purchased (as, for example, with camouflage in World of Tanks). Examples of cosmetic items are leopard-skin shields and special helmets. An army painter like in Total War: Warhammer is not yet in there, but could still come at a later stage.
Behind the improvements players can see, lead programmer Alex de Rosee told us that in the Open Beta lower-end PCs will see a noticeable performance increase. Especially players running the game on integrated Intel-GPU's should notice a big improvement compared to the performance a few patches ago. Up until now, the focus has been on delivering a stable and well-optimised game at the moment of Open Beta release, but de Rosee told us that things such as a future update to the graphics engine are certainly something that's on the agenda from this point on.
Lastly, we also took the opportunity to ask about what the team's working on regarding future factions and units. There's work ongoing for several possible new factions but none they were able to confirm. In any case, as with the addition of Carthage, future factions and commanders will be selected based on their ability to bring unique playstyles to the game. New units will be selected along the same idea, with other big units such as the War Elephants probably added in future factions. According to David Petry, what will be first up after the Open Beta is the addition of a new Barbarian commander who will focus on archery. In his words, we can expect a "Western Barbarian commander of the Classical Age". Combined with the presence of a map called "Capitoline Hill", might this mean the addition of Brennus, the Gallic Chieftain who sacked Rome in 387 BC? A highly likely future addition for the Carthaginian faction would be Hannibal's father: Hamilcar Barca, the alleged founder of the city of Barcelona and an equally genius military commander.
We think the addition of Carthage and the new war elephants are a good moment for TW: Arena to go public. As we've stated before, the game has the potential to become a very popular tactical strategy game. Regarding the game's esports potential, the developer's uniform response was that they'd love for it to happen but they have decided not to aim for it from the start. Wargaming's PR manager told us Total War: Arena is aiming to be played for the coming decade (following the success of World of Tanks) and according to Alex de Rosee the game's core has been built to allow for any form of future growth and technical upgrades, including support for esports. We suggest everyone tries out the game when it goes public on February 22nd and test your skills on the battlefield!