This game from Germany's ASCARON Entertainment uses the action of an online shooter to emphasize the sporting side of real-time strategy gaming. Instead of the pastoral territories of a medieval fantasy realm, or the unclaimed wilderness of a distant planet, opponents battle in large arenas where their efforts entertain an enthusiastic public.
Unlike most RTS games, opponents don't set out to simply destroy one another's bases or units; players compete to be first to accomplish certain goals in each match. These objectives vary by game type and the three different modes, "Capture the Flag," "Bombing Run," and "Double Domination," should be familiar to most online first-person shooter fans.
Much like the fast-paced games that inspired these modes of play, Arena Wars is designed with online multiplayer gaming in mind. Two-on-two matches can be played over a local network or the Internet, and up to eight players can compete on the game's dedicated servers, with room for four additional observers. Single-player gaming is also supported, with six different tournament campaigns and more than 60 individual scenarios.
Arena Wars is a rare example of genre-mixing that works: it's an RTS with an FPS soul. Normal RTS games are exercises in base building, resource gathering and horde constructing. Arena Wars, however, gives gamers a sparse number of units, tight maps, power-ups and classic UT-style gameplay modes like Capture the Flag, Bombing Run and Double Domination. Players have exactly the same amount of money with which to buy troops, and there's no way of gaining more. Once a unit is destroyed, the money used to buy it is instantly deposited back into the player account. If a player finds himself outnumbered, it's his own fault because he hasn't bought troops to replace the ones that were destroyed.
There are six different types of units available for purchase: a fast buggy, a mobile missile launcher, light and heavy mechs, a tank and artillery. Each has their own weaknesses and strengths against the others. The light mech eats tanks for lunch, but is vulnerable to mobile missile launchers, which is vulnerable to the heavy mech, etc. Each unit also has its own special power. Light mechs can fly over otherwise impassable terrain, while tanks can teleport.
Power ups appear at regular intervals on special points. These might allow you to avoid damage, knock out your enemy's radar, gain a few precious seconds of additional speed or directly damage your opponent. The careful timing of the use of these power ups is the key to victory, much like grabbing armor or that perfect weapon in an FPS allows you to turn the tide of battle.
The maps are compact for the most part, so you shouldn't worry about getting lost in the thick of things. There are no buildings to construct, but there are buildings to protect. If you allow your opponent to destroy your power plant, you'll be unable to build units for several seconds, and a large explosion centered on the flag base/bomb target/domination zone will destroy nearby units. If your opponent is hogging his flag with a ton of units, go for his power plant to make him divide his defense.
The game has low minimum requirements, making it an ideal game for someone with a less-than-pimp set up. Maps load almost instantly. Arena Wars won't win awards for graphics, but the game's 3D terrain and units are certainly functional. The audio makes good use of stereo to clue the player in to which off-screen unit is fighting and where it might be. Much like FPS games, a voice will notify players when flags or domination points have been taken or when special buildings are being attacked.
Arena Wars has a decent multiplayer setup. The player lobby features gamers from around the world and the usual methods of sending messages and setting up games. While I did experience a few dropped games, for the most part matches started without a problem. I had no lag at all when playing an opponent thousands of miles away in Hamburg. Arena Wars not only features built-in voice support, it supports webcams as well. Now you can berate your opponent and flick them the bird while you're at it.
There's also a robust replay feature in Arena Wars. Once you're done with a game, you can save it in its entirety, including webcam feeds and voice data. Not only that, but you can view the replay through the eyes of your opponent; every mouse click and camera switch a player makes is recorded.
Arena Wars doesn't have anything in the way of a story, nor does it even make the slightest attempt at any sort of continuation save for your ladder ranking. But that's not what this game sets out to do. It's merely a battleground, a place where RTS battle fanatics can meet on common ground for some short-term slaughter. With a built-in level editor and a price well below the big-name RTS titles also on the shelf, it offers a nice bang for the buck. If you're in the market for an RTS with an arcadey flair to it, you should take a look at Arena Wars.
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