Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Namco Bandai games
Developer: Black Hole Entertainment
Release Date: September 2, 2008
Although the real-time strategy genre hasn't had much luck making the transition to consoles, these past few years have brought about a couple of games (Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth II, Civilization Revolution) that provide some hope for the genre to find a fitting place in our living room. Now throw that idealized introduction out the window because Warhammer: Battle March is not an RTS that will convince anyone that the genre can work on consoles. For those not in the know, Warhammer was originally a tabletop strategy game set within a dark, gritty fantasy world, created by Games Workshop. But it really doesn't matter if you're a veteran of the franchise or a newcomer, as all gamers will be confronted with cryptic controls and mellow gameplay.
The single-player portion of Battle March is divided up into three different campaigns for three races known as The Empire, Orcs & Goblins, and The Hordes of Chaos. Your progression can be observed on a large-scale map, marked out with key mandatory missions, optional encounters, and towns where armies can be replenished. Players of any skill level should definitely check out the tutorial mode because when it comes to the controls, there's a lot to learn. Unlike most RTS games, Battle March contains no resource management, putting all the focus on battlefield formations and properly flanking the enemy. Sadly, it's a design that only seems to be functioning well when playing with an enormous number of units.
The basic controls are simple: The left thumbstick manipulates the cursor, which can be used to select units (each made up of a complement of soldiers) and attack enemies by pressing A. The right stick is used to manipulate the camera, while the up and down directions on the d-pad allow the player to zoom in on the action. I found myself using this function quite often because for some strange reason, Battle March just doesn't look like it was visually scaled to accommodate being played from a few feet away as opposed to sitting at a computer. When in the default view, units look so small that one might even mistake the game for Sim City: Insect Colony Edition. This impression came from playing on a 32-inch HDTV, where everything always looks bigger, so I can't imagine what it's like playing on a standard set.
Once your ant army is selected, a flag icon will appear showing its status for health, morale and stamina. Multiple platoons of fighters can be gathered into groups by selecting them, and then pressing the left trigger and right bumper, but there's a four-group limit. If you need every available soldier at once, pressing the left thumbstick selects all units present.
When in control of a unit, different sets of commands can be pulled up and displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. First, the player must hold the right trigger and a corresponding direction on the d-pad to bring up a certain list of commands, which can then be executed by pressing one of the face buttons. There are multiple options for changing an army's formation or enabling special abilities, such as ordering archers to ignite their arrows.
With the three-step program of hitting the trigger, d-pad, and face button, the commands of Battle March are hidden underneath far too many layers of controls that get even more cumbersome when trying to keep armies organized in the heat of battle. Since different commands are only symbolized by small icons, it can be difficult to remember which button does what because there are multiple uses for each face button depending on the direction you're holding the d-pad.
Battle March tries to take players away from the frustrating micromanagement of armies with special hero units that look like large epic figures, but they don't make for a very enjoyable distraction. A hero can be attached to a unit of soldiers, giving them some extra protective spells, but eventually they will be called to a duel with an enemy hero. Heroes have their own set of moves that can be implemented like a unit, but when these titans meet, don't expect much of a rumble, as the pair will simply stand a few feet apart and swing at the air until someone dies. The heroes also play a part in the inclusion of quite a few RPG elements, ranging from skill progression to loot hording, and even the occasional dungeon crawl. But since Battle March is all about well, battles, these instances of only controlling one character in a checkpoint-deprived environment just feel frustrating and out of place.
If you're looking to get into the fight quickly without any of that RPG-like progression, a skirmish mode is available, sporting regular battles as well as an objective-based game type called Reinforcement, where players fight over control points. More races are available such as Dark/High Elves and the Skaven, but every map only allows certain factions to do battle on them, making the experience much less fluid. However, every race possesses quite a similar set of cavalry, ranged and siege units, so faction selection doesn't feel too imperative. For those eager to acquire some human competition, a custom army can be built and taken online, which supports all of the modes found in skirmish, plus a completely hero-based battle called Stage Arena and Escort the Flag, where each team must try to get its carts into an enemy base. The only issue I had while playing was that there were scarcely any opponents to be found.
During the campaign, when I finally did amass a large army and began charging against my foe, I was instantly filled with anticipation of a clash of the same epic nature as the confrontations seen in the "Lord of the Rings" films, but was disappointed by a very sluggish sortie. Besides having the intensity of large battles crushed by a low frame rate, the graphics falter with individual characters (though varied in appearance) possessing little detail, and imbued with slow, lifeless animations. The sacred union forged between comrades on the battlefield grows so strong that warriors literally become one spirit when their models start walking into each other. The only place where Battle March's presentation shines is in the delivery of its high production value cinematics that would even compel the folks at Blizzard to nod in approval.
The soundtrack contains the usual type of orchestral score that would be accompanied by campaigns for conquest in a vibrant fantasy world, but any enjoyment from that is obliterated by the terrible dialogue. Selecting a unit will queue a very small set of corny audio clips ranging from Orcs yelling, "Green is mean!" to the Hordes of Chaos pledging their souls to the gods. After a day of playing the game, you will hear every audio cue, and you will have heard it many times.
Even if Warhammer: Battle March had a good control scheme, it would still be a boring strategy game at best. The few moments of fun to be had with a large conflict can't compensate for the uninspired design, graphical glitches, and heroes who bring nothing new to the special unit mechanic. The summation pretends that this isn't a shoddy port of a PC game where even a static army creation menu feels like it should be tackled with a mouse cursor. Battle March will cause some to lose faith that the RTS genre will ever carve out a successful corner on the console market, and any Warhammer fans who want their franchise fix no matter what some ignorant critic says should try the game on the PC, so they at least they won't have to contend with the 360's unwieldy controls.
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