Warhammer: Battle March Review

Nate Gillick

Real-time strategy games used to be a genre only PC gamers could enjoy, but they've been making a steady transition over to the consoles for some time now. Not only are many RTS games now being developed simultaneously for PCs and consoles, but previously PC-only games are finding new life on the 360. Supreme Commander was the first PC-only game to make the move, and now Warhammer: Battle March is following suit.

Battle March is not really a new game, but instead a port of the game Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, originally released for PCs back in November 2006. It includes all of the original content, as well as an added campaign, which has also become available to PC gamers as an expansion pack. Based on the tabletop strategy game from Games Workshop, Battle March takes place in a fantasy universe where Humans, Orcs, Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, and more battle for supremacy. There's a good amount of unit variety to be had, with each race having a dozen or more different types of troops for you to command.

Don't mess with these guys.

Unlike traditional RTS games like Command and Conquer 3, Battle March has taken the idea of resource management in battle and launched it out of a catapult. You will go into battle with a set number of troops, and generally won't receive any more once the battle has begun. Instead of quickly gathering resources and steamrolling the opposition with your favorite unit, this system forces players to think tactically about how they maneuver their units, and issue orders. Your troops are broken up into their own little regiments, which can't be combined, making it important to make sure each individual regiment is not overly damaged. Besides a health bar, each regiment has a morale meter. Nobody likes getting cut to pieces, so be ready for your troops to turn tail and flee if they're seriously outmatched. The combat system's premise is great, and I found myself thinking much more tactically with it than I ever did playing Command & Conquer, since the life or death of each individual unit carries much more weight.

Aiding in battles are special hero units. Heroes have special abilities that can turn the tides of battle in a hurry, such as damaging enemies directly, bolstering morale, improving the armor or attack stats of fellow troops, and more. Some heroes are so large they can only function as independent units, while others can be combined with regiments to strengthen them. Over the course of the battle, heroes earn experience points and gain levels, allowing for greater customization of their abilities between missions. They can also equip items purchased or looted from dead enemies to become more powerful still. The customization and power of hero units adds a fun layer of complexity to the combat and campaign, while remaining well balanced so players can't overpower a hero and win without any strategy.

Resource management in Battle March is handled outside of actual combat, and is extremely simple. In single player skirmishes or multiplayer matches, players have a set amount of gold they can use to purchase units for their army, similar to the "points" system used in the tabletop game. In the campaign, gold is earned by completing missions, and is periodically dropped by defeated enemies in combat, then in between missions, players can use that gold to purchase new units for their army, upgrade those units with stronger weapons and armor, or purchase items for use in battle. Gold management and the battle system work well together to make players play strategically instead of simply trying to overrun the enemy. Because units cost money to buy and upgrade, the permanent loss of one in battle can be a devastating blow that could take several missions to recover from. Units for your army can't be purchased in infinite numbers, so keeping your troops alive is extremely important.

As much as I like the way hero customization and gold management work to require strategy across the campaigns, those campaigns themselves are not well formed. In between missions, players will move the story's main hero along an over-world map, progressing from town to town and to and from battle in a painfully linear fashion. As you progress, the story is advanced through bland exchanges of dialogue and absolutely awful cut scenes, which provide the bare minimum justification for why you're going out to kill things again and again. The draw here is the feeling of waging an extended campaign and managing your troops; forget the stories.

Bored orcs need something to kill.

Once you've got the combat system down, multiplayer games over Xbox Live are where this game shines best. Controlling your custom army in tactical showdowns against another human is a blast. The game conveniently features an army creation tool that allows you to create a set roster of troops and save it to your hard drive; you can then load up this roster quickly and easily before any game, so you're ready to go fast, and don't have to try to re-make your invincible death machine between every match. The matches I played flowed smoothly without any noticeable lag. The only problem with the multiplayer is that there seem to be very few people playing it. If you can persuade a few friends to get this game with you, you're in for some good times online, but be prepared to be lonely if you're planning on playing against strangers.

The eternal question facing RTS games on consoles is whether or not their controls can compare to the ease and efficiency of a keyboard and mouse. Sadly, no game has ever made me cry harder for a keyboard and mouse than Battle March, which has one of the most unnecessarily convoluted control schemes I've ever experienced. Simple radial selection menus like those used in Command and Conquer 3 are nowhere to be found; the game instead uses a complicated system that requires the use of multiple buttons to execute a single command. To give an example, if I want to have a squad of archers spread out their formation, I must hold down the right trigger, then left on the D-pad, then press X. Having to push at least three buttons to execute a single command is cumbersome to manage during the heat of battle. Things get even more confusing when you consider that the D-pad is used for both executing commands and controlling the camera. Some selections are made with the D-pad, while others use the left analog stick... The whole system is simply a mess, to the extent that for the first several hours of play I felt like I was holding a goblin-manufactured torture device, and not an Xbox controller, in my hands. No game should take hours of practice just to learn how to play!

Long load times and unnecessarily tiny text will further hamper your ability to enjoy Battle March. Each battle takes an average of 30 seconds to load, an eternity compared to virtually any other game on the 360. Loading into Xbox Live games often takes even longer. Text in the character upgrade and army creation screens is almost squint-worthy in most cases, and is even tougher to read in Standard Definition, unless you're playing on a large TV set.

Also of concern are the graphics. While it's true the game was originally released in 2006, the gaming audience of 2008 expects much more than this, especially since Battle March fails to reach the graphical standards set by the 360's launch titles. Battlefields are drab and lack much detail, and the character models only look decent when zoomed in on. By far and away the biggest graphical eyesores are the cut scenes that come throughout the campaigns. Battle March is the only game I've ever seen where the cut scenes look worse than the actual game play, with sequences that look like they were made for a PS2 or the original Xbox.

"Prepare for glory!"

Every member of the voice cast of Battle March needs to be nominated for an "over-acting" award. Lines are delivered in such a cheesy, over-the-top manner that they're painful to listen to. Stefan von Kessel, main hero of the human Empire, is the most grievous offender, delivering every line during a battle like he's Leonidas from 300. Hearing the Warhammer equivalent of "For Sparta!" or "Prepare for glory!" every ten seconds gets old extremely fast. The game's music isn't terrible, but it doesn't do anything special, and really feels like it's only there because it has to be. Explosions, magic sound effects, and weapon clashes all get the job done, but you've heard sounds much better than this in other games.

The achievements are a mixed bag of good and bad, with a well-rounded mix of easy and more challenging achievements. Some seem to be there simply as a grind, like getting all heroes to level 40, and the achievements for beating the campaigns on the hardest difficulty will be very hard for most, unless you can truly master the game's overly complicated controls. Battle March's list also features too many multiplayer achievements, which will be quite hard for most to get due to the total dearth of players online. With friends or a boosting partner, they're obtainable, but still annoying.

Overall, Warhammer: Battle March takes the RTS genre in an interesting and exciting direction by getting rid of resource management during battle, and placing the emphasis instead on tactical decision-making. It's a shame that those core ideas are hindered by a poor control scheme, long load times, outdated graphics, tiny text, and irritating voice acting further get in the way of enjoyment. Ultimately, I can only recommend this game to people with extreme patience, or if you have friends willing to purchase it with you; anyone else even remotely interested in a Warhammer RTS should check out the original Mark of Chaos on the PC instead.

The voice acting is terrible, while the background music and sound effects are merely generic.

The game's graphics look drab and dated, with cut scenes that look like they were made for last generation consoles.

No control scheme should ever be this convoluted, counter-intuitive, and difficult to learn. Poor controls make managing complex strategies almost impossible.

Battle March's long load times, tiny text, and linear campaign structure will not impress anyone.

There's a decent mixture of easy and hard in this list, but the over-abundance of multiplayer achievements coupled with a lack of online players saps the fun out of it. The hard difficulty campaign achievements require total mastery of the confusing control scheme.

Battle March has great unit diversity and possesses a fun, strategic battle system where the life and death of each unit really matters in a way few RTS games can match. Unfortunately, this fun is buried under long load times, tiny text, dated graphics, and such a poor control scheme that this game is hard to recommend.

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