Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: September 2, 2008
It seems J.R.R. Tolkien has a lot to answer for, not only for his contribution to the global population of terminal virgins but also for the plethora of The Lord of the Rings knockoffs flooding the gaming market. Though I may now hear the pitter-patter of angry fan boys outside my door, the game dynamic of Warhammer: Mark of Chaos - Battle March and various story arcs seem to mirror those of The Lord of the Rings. Even though this suits the fantasy RTS genre well and it would be irresponsible to move too far away from the Warhammer franchise, the story follows a dark wizard warrior who tries to regain the throne of his fallen leader, while brave warriors fight orc hordes in a desperate struggle for survival. Sound familiar?
I may not be giving the story enough credit, though surprisingly, it is Battle March's narrative is the aspect that I like the most. The cut scenes and gameplay setup are engrossing, absorbing and genuinely quite entertaining, despite the hackneyed nature of fantasy storytelling, and I found myself playing for the story more than the gameplay.
The three campaigns in single-player mode are split between the Orcs, the Chaos and the Empire, but the difference between these three races seems fairly minimal. The units are divided between archers, cavalry and foot soldiers, and even though there is some variation within these ranks, the tactics needed to deploy them in the field are all cut from the same cloth. It will always be beneficial to keep the archers at the back, the cavalry on the flanks, and the foot soldiers in the middle, and even though the multiplayer function offers a lot more room for interpretation, the gameplay feels very limited in this way. There is no distinctly different play style for each race, and I expected more from a game set in the Dawn of War universe, which has produced some good, dynamic RTS titles over the years. In Battle March, however, enter a battle as the Orcs, and you might as well be playing as the Empire. The units' strength and appearance may be very different, but a majority of the time, you'll be approaching the same battle situation with the same troops deployed in the same manner. Despite the addition of three more races to the multiplayer mode, there seems to be little alteration in the general deployment of your army.
There is an upgrade idea that seems almost directly plagiarized from the Total War engine, where you use money from pillaging in the single-player campaign (or as a set amount in the multiplayer option) to buy more troops or upgrade existing ones with armor, swords or various moral boosting items. This muddies the idea of army building rather than making it more detailed; you may upgrade certain aspects of your army, but it seems to have little impact on the performance of a unit. I spent the first few hours of gameplay fiddling with my army, only to have them all wiped out mere moments after I stepped out onto the battlefield.
Battle March also seems intent on upgrading your hero characters that you acquire, to the point of it seeming that it doesn't care about my expertly chosen and tweaked army with a penchant for getting themselves killed. You level up your hero characters by killing foes and defeating other champions, thus earning you new armor, skills and ... if this is sounding like an MMO to anyone else, then you're not alone. Battle March loves its RPG elements as if they were its only child and the tactics and skill of an RTS game were the unwanted red-headed stepchild. I thought I could get along with this idea, so put all of my money and skill points into powering up my war boss so that he could squash enemies just by looking at them, but then the minute I was involved in one of the flaunted "duel sequences," he died quicker than you can say, "split priorities."
I've previously encountered the melding of RTS and RPG elements in the History Channel' Rome: Total War, and it didn't work there either. Having the two together seems like a winning combination, with the endless waves of enemies in an RTS and the grind of an RPG, but when there is little or no explanation of how to go about leveling and then the player is punished with unnecessary difficulty, frustration is sure to ensue. Battle March changes its mind every two seconds about what it wants from the player; sometimes it will ask you for the tactics of an RTS, so your resources have to be spent in building an army, but then it places massive amounts of power and influence into the hands of single commander units, which end a campaign the second they die.
The difficulty level also seems unduly repressive, with the dueling system being the pinnacle. When you enter a duel with another commander in the single-player game, it will zone out all other troops and focus on the one-on-one battle. After completing the training mode of dueling, I thought I had a grip on the system, but upon entering my first real battle, my war boss ended up on the wrong end of a dwarf hammer, and the level was over.
Titles like this can be salvaged, though. For all of Rome: Total War's glory, it still suffered from a predictability of strategy due to the similarity of troops among armies. The exception that Rome: Total War made was the introduction of a number of special units in each army and a clear focus on scale. This is where Battle March fails to live up to the Tolkien-esque fantasy world it seems so bent on recreating. The scale in this title is utterly lacking; the battles seem less like epic war-ending clashes and more like heated debates with swords. Even with the ability to have eight armies at once, the size of a single army is limited to only a few squads, which are then limited by using your hard-earned cash to upgrade your units to make them more effective in battle.
Graphically, Battle March is pretty good, enhancing the experience previously provided by titles like The Battle for Middle-earth, with lush green valleys juxtaposed against the flaming mines of the Dwarf kingdom and the snow-capped peaks of the exiled Chaos lands. The duels are well rendered, and actions of the troops feel believable. Despite its lack of scale, the combat animations of individual troops during big battles are actually better than those in the Total War series. Other than that, though, it treads a well-worn path of standard graphics and doesn't feel like anything new. The surroundings are all standard fantasy fare, despite the obvious work put in to the varying level design and player skins.
The in-game speech is pretty darn good, from the grumblings of the Orcs as you tell them to move from one place to the next to the heroic rally cries of the Empire as they charge into battle. The one thing that Battle March doesn't lack is immersion. However, the music is a bit overused by just about every other fantasy adventure game, so it may have lost some of its impact among gamers.
Not to sound like a petulant child, but Warhammer: Mark of Chaos - Battle March is underwhelming and not fun. The gameplay is inconsistent because the title is constantly fighting with itself about being an RTS or RPG. The appearance is passable, but it's a thin veneer over a game with some serious issues. If you have the patience to stick with it, then you could gain something from the customizable armies, but a lackluster multiplayer ultimately dooms this title to obscurity after the first few attempts.