If you're a strategy game buff, then you've probably heard of publisher Strategy First. While not publishing many big time household name games in the real time or turn based strategy genres, Strategy First is certainly renowned for its niche focus and dedication to games that don't necessarily follow the everyday AOE and Total War clones. This can certainly be said for Legion Arena - a game which combines an unprecedented focus on battle strategy, both before and during the action.
Legion Arena is basically broken down into two modes - multiplayer, which can be done via Internet and LAN, and offline campaign mode. The campaign mode is where you will likely learn the ropes and develop the skills necessary to compete with seasoned gamers online. There are 3 campaigns on offer - Latins, Romans and Celts, however you must first complete the Roman campaign to access the Celts campaign. The actual campaign itself is really not overly relevant - while a storyline does exist, all you really need to do is focus on the battles and managing your army, which is pretty much the same thing no matter who you are.
Unfortunately, the first impression given by the game and its menu GUI is not a pleasant one - it is confusing to say the least. Even performing simple tasks such as starting a new campaign or loading a pre-saved one can be a bother - for example, to start a new campaign when you're already in another campaign, you don't click a button asking to "go back to main menu", but rather, you go to "Options" and click a button with two helmets on it with no text indicating its function whatsoever. This brings you to a screen asking you to choose one of the 3 campaigns, but if you wanted to load a saved game from this screen, there isn't a "Load Saved Game" button, but rather, you must first click a button with a tent on it, again with no text whatsoever, and then you will have access to a screen with a "Load Saved Game" button. Unless what I just said somehow makes sense, it is clear the menu system in this game is nothing short of a total mess, and a prime perpetrator of the KISS principle - Keep It Simple Stupid.
Once you do manage to sift through the game's menu's and start a campaign, the poor first impression is quickly shoved into the background, as it is evident from the get go Legion Arena is a very in depth game. Many strategy games claim to be for the armchair commanders out there, but you will be hard pressed to find a game more armchair commander orientated than Legion Arena. To put it bluntly, Legion Arena is 100% strategy. Outside of the minor RPG aspects when it comes to upgrading and recruiting units to your army, the entire game in Legion Arena is you producing a battle plan for the current battle and executing it. Each battle will feature differing environments and differing armies to take on, so your fortunes can change drastically from one battle to the next, constantly keeping you on your toes.
It is the battle plan stage that really separates Legion Arena from most other games we've come to enjoy in the strategy genre. In Legion Arena, you will be tasked with not only selecting which units to send in to battle but where on the field they are positioned, which basically allows you to dictate which unit of yours faces which unit of your enemy's, and what rules of engagement they follow whilst doing that. On hand you have the ability to toggle a unit's formation between Balanced, Offensive and Defensive, as well as label them with initial actions, such as Advance, Charge, Short Hold, Long Hold and Out Flank to name a few. The amount of options available to customize your battle plan in Legion Arena is truly remarkable, and is easily the cornerstone of the gameplay.
The very presence of a battle plan stage won't be familiar to many strategy gamers. Often, the term "battle plan" is played out in an evolving real time sense. In Legion Arena, this is a pre-battle stage resembling that of a drawing board, and it literally makes or breaks your battle. Get it right, and you could defeat an army dominating yours in power, but get it wrong, and you've bought yourself a front row, center field seat to a massacre in full 3D view. That's right - as soon as the planning is over and you start the battle, you can view the action in a fully 3D environment complete with 360 degree camera control, so watching your battle plan execute is very much a part of gauging what does and doesn't work in Legion Arena.
That's not to say though that watching is all you'll be doing - as any armchair commander would know, planning is only half the battle. While a lot of your actions can be pre-planned, others will require real time commanding and this is also very much a part of Legion Arena. The game can be paused and commands can be issued to units during the battle, including the ability to change most of what you defined in your battle plan if you feel something won't work when you actually get to the battlefield. However, unless you turn on "Arcade Mode" in the game's option menu, there is a set amount of real time commands you can give regulated by a white bar down the bottom left hand corner. When it runs out, you can't give real time commands, although it does regenerate, so waiting for it to replenish is necessary. This adds a dimension to the game's real time gameplay, as making sure you don't over do real time commands in case you need emergency command points always has to be on your mind.
However, all this strategy has a down side - that being Legion Arena is quite difficult to excel at. While an initial tutorial will introduce you to the controls and game functions well enough, it does a pretty poor job explaining the fine points of actually developing a battle plan. Knowing which units are best for what, when to take advantage of your environment, when to attack or defend etc is stuff you'll have to spend a while playing to truly master, so the learning curve here is reasonably steep, even with the 3 inbuilt difficulty levels. With everything considered, Legion Arena is really about as niche as you'll get in the management/strategy hybrid genre - not only because it focuses on an era of warfare that is an acquired taste, but because of the level of dedication involved in getting your money's worth out of the game. Unfortunately for Legion Arena, there have been multiple successful titles based on the Roman era and I'd warrant a bet most if not all are far more accessible to the general gamer than Legion Arena.
Control wise, Legion Arena utilizes both your keyboard and mouse, which can be inconvenient at times. To zoom and pan, you use your mouse, but to rotate the camera, you use the arrow keys on the keyboard. This is a small but annoying quirk that could have easily been circumvented by simply giving all camera control functions to the mouse. Command wise, luckily your mouse does everything here, whether it be issuing orders or outlaying your initial battle plan.
Visually, Legion Arena appears very dated but it must be said that this genre of mass "birds eye view" strategy based warfare is very rarely host to graphical prowess. At any given time there will be hundreds of soldiers and a large environment to render, and the last thing a gamer wants is the frame rate interfering with their commanding abilities, so high resolution textures on large polygon count models aren't usually a high priority in these types of games. With that said though, compared to titles such as Rome: Total War, which is fundamentally a totally different game but features similar rendering requirements, Legion Arena is certainly still below par.
Legion Arena is a game that will probably scare off a fair few people due to its complexity, but for the right type of gamer who can really appreciate strategic gameplay at the expense of flashy visuals and perfected controls, it will offer an experience you won't find everyday on the PC gaming market. Ultimately, however, what makes this game worthy also makes it hard to recommend to anyone but strategy first gamers.