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Posted on Mar 9, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Legion Arena – Game Review (PC)

By Brian King

legion_box.gifEvery history lesson should pack this much punch.

Slitherine’s Legion Arena marches the player through time as he fights his way from a backwater leader up to the ruler of an empire. Set over the course of hundreds of years, it is as much a story about the ascension of Rome as it is about the development of your personal army. Thus, if you want to learn how Rome became a superpower, this may be your game. However, the lesson is long and treacherous, filled with petty tyrants, endless battlefields, fanatical enemies, and dare I say it – elephants!

Gameplay (46/60):


I came. I saw. I conquered. I conquered. I conquered. Ad infinitum.

Let me throw this right out on the table; this game is extremely repetitive. You move from one battle to the next, with only a short break for intermission music, a short history lesson, refueling and rearming your troops, recruiting the natives, and hitting the head. Then, it’s back out to the front lines for more fighting.

Worried? I admit I had some misgivings about the depth factor when I first picked up this title. However, this game plainly states on the front cover what it’s all about – fighting, arena style. Once I understood and digested this, the game sat much better for me. I accepted I wasn’t playing any of the similar games in this genre and I managed to have a good bit of fun going out there and killing the enemies of Rome. By the time I was facing off against fellow Romans in the Civil Wars, I had a well-oiled machine that was unstoppable! [OK, so I wasn’t playing the hardest level, but I wasn’t playing Arcade (simplified) Mode either. Let’s just leave it at that!]

Gameplay is pretty easy to describe. You are the leader of a small army (you play as the Romans or the Celts), you get to buy more troops, equip them, choose their skills, and then all go out to confront an enemy army on various fields of battle. If you win, you advance to the next battle. If you lose, you must re-fight the battle until you finally emerge victorious. Very simple.

The setup screen, which vaguely resembles setting up pieces for Chess. Once set up, the pieces begin marching towards each other in their formations (note minimap showing each side).

When you are at base camp you handle all the management details of your army: putting together new units, healing old ones, picking matching colors for their tunics, and so forth. While it can be somewhat tedious, it also gives a nice sense of continuity you watch your core units grow in skill and battle-worthiness. This is really the central theme of the game so if this is not your thing, be warned.

Once you have your army ready to fight, you proceed to the setup screen where you see the enemy deployment and arrange your units in formations to counterpunch. Depending on the scenario, you may have to defend for a certain amount of time, attack and route the enemy as quickly as possible, or simply be the last man standing. The comparison to Chess (or maybe Archon) is natural because each unit has its strengths and weaknesses on the battlefield and how you deploy and use your men is the key to victory. Once the pieces are set in motion, it is up to you to control your often unwieldy army as it runs head-on into the foe on the opposite end. This aspect of the game can be a lot of fun and even re-doing battles isn’t as bad as you might think since they normally only take a few minutes of real-time from start to finish.

The landscape does change for different battles, but overall has very little effect on gameplay. Sometimes, we all gather around the old Elm tree, and settle things like men. Everyone pile on the red shirts!

There are some minor problems with gameplay when looking at things in a bit more detail. Foremost in my view is the lack of fog-of-war, which means you have perfect intelligence on your enemy’s deployment, troop quality, morale, and intentions. There is no friendly fire, no exaggerated command lag for inclement weather or dust, no units going “over the hill” and out of your command radius, etc. What you see is what you get. Furthermore, the enemy AI is pretty good but does make significant mistakes in some scenarios (leaving some units isolated and unsupported, attacking piecemeal rather than as an entire block, sending an enemy general way in front of his units to attack your whole army, etc.).

There were some minor quirks with the interface which were bothersome such as having the balanced/attack/defend buttons in different order for many units – making it hard to quickly click through all units to put them in the same stance. Similarly, it would have been nice if you could select your whole army and place them in offensive or defensive mode as it would get tedious going from all offense to all defense or vice versa (this can be done in a roundabout way, but only with similar units). It would also have been nice to zoom in while in the battle planner as it was sometimes hard to see unit types on larger maps because they were so tiny. Finally, I felt the “large” battles weren’t much bigger than the smallest and it left me wishing for more of the epic engagements.

Individually, none of these issues are game-breakers but are things to keep in mind.

Graphics (15/20):

Understated is probably the best way to describe the graphics used in this game. At 1280×1024 the graphics were crisp and smooth although lacking in awe-inspiring lighting effects, shadows, terrain, etc. The absence of major weather, dust, wind, or a whole host of other environmental effects helped keep the graphics to the bare essentials. While the opportunity for eye candy was omitted for the most part, the graphics certainly won’t chase anyone away either.

It was usually very easy to follow troops although the inability to remove trees to view the units beneath their canopy was an annoyance. The ability to zoom from a bird’s eye view of the whole battlefield down to one group of men was nice, although as the commander there is really little practical value in zooming in so far. In short, the graphics are more akin to a comfortable luxury sedan than a high performance sports car. The upside is that it should look great on a very wide variety of video cards out there…

Sound (5/10):

The sounds of the game are fairly rudimentary. The typical clanks and shouts you’d expect during battle are there – but the music is the same for each and every battle. On the one hand I didn’t pay too much attention to the music (perhaps I became immune to it after 100+ battles!) but it would have been nice to hear just a bit more diversity here. This is probably the biggest chink in this game’s armor.

Battles can grow quite large at times, but never beyond manageability. Army camp. Pick up men, arm them, and then send them out to kill or be killed. The gameplay is brutally simple.

Documentation and Technical (9/10):

Legion Arena actually comes with a fairly comprehensive manual in the box. Since the game is pretty simple in its layout and play, it is nice to see the bulk of the rules and information were stuffed into the printed manual. It is well organized and a quick read-through is worth the effort to maximize gameplay.

I had no technical issues during install or patching the game up to the latest point release.

Final Thoughts:

In most respects, this game was really an enjoyable experience. The role-playing aspect of managing troops over a long campaign can be quite rewarding. The simplicity of the game also allows you to sit down and get deep into it the action the very first time you play. The fact there is a lot of interesting history to learn during the campaign cut-scenes and battle descriptions gives this game more depth than I had expected.

That being said, it does have a few potentially major problems which are hinged on what you expect to get out of this title. If the history element is your sole attraction, you may want to get a good book on Rome instead since it will take a long time and effort to make it through the campaigns. If your bag is empire-building and politics, you’ll need to look to other games covering this dimension of ancient history. However, if you crave down-and-dirty brawling in ancient battles with some history thrown in for background noise then saddle up and enter the melee – Legion Arena is your road to Empire!

Easy learning curve
The feel of role-playing an army through the course of a campaign
Interesting historical element

Repetitive gameplay will deter some
Somewhat simplistic battles / no fog-of-war / not enough unit types
Lack of ability to choose individual battles once completed or random battles against the AI
Celtic campaign was anti-climactic

Final Word: Provides an entertaining diversion when you just want to go out and lead troops in ancient battles. It delivers no more, no less.

UPDATE 04.27.2006Legion Arena can now be purchased using Slitherine’s digital download service which is a very efficient way to pick up any of their titles. In our test of the service the download was blazing fast and the install was very smooth. The game appears identical to the boxed version (which we also tested previously) although you can download a “lite” version of the game without the movies (saves about 320mb from the full 600mb version). For most readers, I suggest spending the extra time to get the movies — as they play an important role in understanding the historical component of the game.

If you are one of those who prefers to always have a box, this service probably won’t appeal to you. If you are one of the growing group of gamers who prefer the convenience of downloading full digital versions of the latest titles (and keeping your closet clear of boxes) this service is another fine addition to this evolving trend.

Armchair General Score: 75%

46/60 — Gameplay
15/20 — Graphics
05/10 — Sound
09/10 — Documentation and Technical

Grab the demo.

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About the Author:

Brian “Siberian H.E.A.T.” King is the CO of Armchair General magazine’s website, When that doesn’t keep him busy enough, he can sometimes be convinced to sit down and write articles on military history and wargaming.