Genre: RTS / RPG
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Slitherine Software
Release Date: December 21, 2005
Buy 'LEGION ARENA': PC
From its humble beginnings during the reign of Kings, the Roman legion evolved through the centuries of the Republic and the Empire to become the most effective and feared military organization of the ancient world. With this formidable legacy, it’s not surprising that the Roman legion has captured the attention of history buffs and game developers alike. Teaming up with military history publisher Osprey and historical novelist Simon Scarrow, game developer Slitherine Software has sought to capture the fame, fortune and glory of fighting for, and against, the mighty Roman army with its new title, Legion Arena.
Although publisher Strategy First categorizes Legion Arena as a real-time strategy game, it doesn’t wear this label comfortably. Sure it’s played out in real-time, is epic in scale and has military units that can be upgraded. But there’s not much scope for strategy. In fact, there’s none. There are no resources to harvest, buildings to construct or more importantly, territory to conquer. This game is about building your army from the ground up and using it to defeat the enemy in a progressively difficult, linear campaign. Don’t get me wrong. The absence of strategy elements doesn’t necessarily make playing Legion Arena a lesser experience. It simply focuses on the action by making tactical combat the game’s core component.
Legion Arena, however, has more to offer than just a series of battles. It also has a great role-playing element, which helps set this title apart from its contemporaries. Whether you chose to play as the Romans or as the Celts, your army begins as a small, inexperienced group comprising a general, militia, skirmishers and scouts. Even before your first battle, you have the option of personalizing the name of each unit and their appearance. Through a combination of battlefield experience and finances awarded after the completion of a successful battle, you can then select which skills and equipment you want to improve. Attributes to improve can include marksmanship, special training in infantry and cavalry tactics, leadership and strategy skills and many, many more. Weapons, armor and even footwear can be upgraded to improve your unit’s lethality, survivability and maneuverability on the battlefield. Further, new units can be purchased and old ones cashed in. Other troop types that are available include heavy infantry, archers, heavy cavalry and elephants. All improvements, changes and the recruitment of new units are made on the Army Camp screen, which can be accessed before and after a battle.
Before a battle commences, units can be positioned and given initial orders on the Deployment screen. A bird’s eye view of the battlefield shows where your units and that of the enemy are positioned, with available units listed on one side of the map, a description of the selected unit on the other and a series of order buttons arranged at the foot of the map. Depending on how many units your leader can command, troops can be placed anywhere on the bottom third of the map. Once placed, they can be given basic orders such as Advance, Envelop, Outflank, Short and Long Hold and also waypoints to follow. Combinations of orders can be given such as Long Hold and Outflank, to keep a unit back and deliver a flanking attack later in the battle. These orders, and the positioning of your units, are held over from this battle to the next. This can help reduce time in setting up, and is particularly useful if you’ve discovered a winning tactical formula. But it can also be a disadvantage. On more than one occasion I forgot to change an Advance order for one of my units. So when the next battle loaded, I watched in disbelief as this unit charged off while the rest of the army looked on (no doubt in amazement) from the rear. Fortunately, these orders can be changed once the battle has begun by selecting the unit and either clicking on an order icon, or selecting a new destination. But there’s a twist...
Legion Arena uses an unusual point system to issue battlefield commands. You see, every command your general orders costs points and these are represented on bar that falls with every order given. Once the bar has fallen completely, no more orders can be given until it has been “recharged”. Consequently commands need to be issued sparingly and it’s always good to keep some command points in reserve just in case you need to urgently react to a threatening situation or want to exploit an advantage. Although I prefer being able to give as many orders as I like, the order point system makes you think twice before issuing a command.
The game’s AI helps alleviate the need to continuously issue orders. It’s good enough to ensure that a unit doesn’t stand idly by while a friendly unit only a few “pedes” or feet away gets annihilated. It’ll send the unit to support in its defense or conversely join in an attack if the sandal’s on the other foot. But the AI does have its limitations. On the game’s Normal setting, the enemy is far too easy to defeat. After playing dozens of battles, I may have only lost one or two, and they were mainly due to my poor initial set up. On harder settings, as you might expect, the enemy AI does become more challenging. Still, if the AI proves to be too easy, Legion Arena does support multiplayer games over the Internet or a local area network.
Battles, depending on the number of units present, are generally completed within a matter of minutes. With the objective of killing a certain number of enemy soldiers, keeping casualties within set limits, or merely surviving for a certain period of time, battles are surprisingly swift and rarely last longer than 10 or 15 minutes. This is ideal for gamers who want to experience a few different battles in one short sitting. Once the enemy is broken, a single-player game immediately concludes as broken units will not rally and carry on the fight.
Although Legion Arena incorporates a good range of battle types, it doesn’t include siege battles. Large fortifications can be seen in the background of some battles, but that’s the limit of their role in the game. This is unfortunate as the Romans were particularly good at siege warfare and this type of battle would have been a welcomed feature. Another feature not included in the game is the ability to create scenarios. There is no mission editor or indeed any other tools to customize the game. Further, once a battle has been played, it can’t be replayed without starting the campaign again. These limitations will certainly restrict the game’s replay value.
Graphically the game is good and looks similar too, but not quite as sharp as Rome Total War. There are some clipping problems with the 3D units, so it’s not uncommon to find, for example, a soldier spliced with a horse. Centaur issues aside, the map can be rotated with the keyboard and zoomed in and out with the mouse to get either a bird or a soldier’s perspective of the battle. Graphical detail can be adjusted in-game to suit your machine’s performance and given the relatively low system requirements, Legion Arena should run smoothly even when there are hundreds of troops on the map. The game’s interfaces are also well presented making navigation a straightforward affair. Pre-battle introductory sequences, used to describe the circumstances leading to the battle, are drawn from the current battlefield and look very similar to that in Rome Total War, although text is used to help set the scene rather than an emotive speech from your general.
On the subject of sound, Legion Arena makes good, but not overly impressive, use of battlefield sound effects. There are sufficient shouts, sword clangs and hoof beats to help create an atmosphere of battle, but otherwise they’re unremarkable. As expected, a game set in Ancient Rome couldn’t be complete without Romanesque music, and Legion Arena includes an appropriate soundtrack ikely to please Apollo himself. As with the graphics, the sound levels for the effects and music can be individually adjusted in the Options screen.
Overall, Legion Arena is an enjoyable game with some great features. The pre-battle order phase is a useful tool, which is complemented by the general’s order points system. Planning out the battle beforehand and being prudent when it comes to issuing direct orders during the battle are as important as having good quality troops. But it’s the role-playing aspect that’s the most unique element of the game and it’s here that Legion Arena sets itself apart form its competitors. Needless to say, not every game is perfect and Legion Arena has its fair share of shortcomings. Most of these relate to the linear campaign. Not having any control over the campaign’s direction could prove frustrating for some. Similarly, not being able to create scenarios or fight individual battles outside of the campaign will limit the game’s replay value. However, if you need a quick sword-and-sandals fix and want to fight epic battles in real-time and on a detailed 3D landscape, then Legion Arena might just be for you.
More articles about Legion Arena