The Warhammer universe isn’t as widely known as some of the other fantasy tales, but it’s following dates back quite some time. As far as gaming is concerned there really hasn’t been a game to do the series justice. When Black Hole Entertainment released Warhammer: Mark of Chaos on the PC a couple of years ago all of this changed. They brought the expansive universe to life with a well constructed RTS that played off of the franchises strong points while still remaining deep enough for the strategy junkies to feed off of. Now two years after the release of Mark of Chaos the team at Black Hole has finally unleashed the first expansion for the game as well as a console version for the Xbox 360 which includes both the new campaign and the original release in one expansive package. The biggest question on everyone’s mind though is how does it play on a console?
With the recent trend of trying to bring the RTS genre to the console front many developers have taken the time to craft their control schemes around these input devices. Some have worked remarkably well such as the most recent Command and Conquer and the upcoming Halo Wars, while other such as Universe at War have struggled by being overly complicated. Warhammer falls somewhere in the middle with a layout that can seem easy at first, but once you get into the more complex actions, can present a steep learning curve to the player. If you are a fan of the series though and enjoy a good RTS, then taking the time to master the controls will be the only thing you need to overcome to derive a massive amount of fun out of the title.
The controls will feel familiar to anyone who has played either the latest Command and Conquer game or Battle for Middle Earth on 360. The A button is your primary action and is used to select units, move them as well as various other actions. The B button is again used to cancel selections while the left stick controls your cursor on the battlefield. You can rotate the camera with the right analog stick and even zoom in ridiculously close to the action by tapping the d-pad. All of these functions feel familiar, but when you start adding in complex tactics is where the game can get confusing. In order to perform advanced tactics you will have to combine the shoulder and trigger buttons in conjunction with the face buttons while sometimes even holding them for a few seconds. While not too terribly difficult in practice, implementing them in the heat of battle takes time to get accustomed to.
The tutorial will walk you through the basics, and believe me you should definitely take the time to run through it. There are three sections to learn and sitting through them all will run you between 30-45 minutes; yes it really is that complex. Of course the best way to hone your skills is with practice and with an added skirmish mode you have the chance to master these techniques against computer controlled opponents or hop online and play against another human just for fun. Be warned though the community for this game is highly competitive and sparse, so expect most players you run into online to be well versed in the tactics of battle.
There are six different factions found within this game all based on the popular series regulars. You have The Empire which is your standard human race, The High Elves who excel in archery, Dark Elves who prefer to use magic, The Skaven who serve mostly as fodder, Orcs who are strong melee fighters and finally The Chaos who rely on cavalry. Unlike other RTS games Warhammer doesn’t rely on resource management to keep the game flowing. Instead the focus is strictly on battle tactics, which actually makes it more entertaining. The only thing you collect in the game is gold and it can be used between matches to heal your troops, upgrade them, purchase new troops or simply to obtain new items. Gold can be collected on the battlefield from fallen enemies and it is also earned at the end of each campaign level.
There are three unique campaigns to plow through in Battle March. Two of them are from the original PC release of Mark of Chaos while the third comes from the recently released expansion. All three campaigns are significantly long and more than enough to satisfy most RTS gamers. My biggest gripe about the core single-player mode though is the difficulty. There is simply no progression here. One level you will trudge through the battlefield while the next will have you replaying it over and over. Cheap tactics run rampant in some of the missions while others force you to play smarter than any of the previous levels. This inconsistency can be frustrating, especially for newcomers to the genre. Combined with the complicated controls and you have a game that can frustrate as often as it entertains.
If the campaign mode was all there was to see here I would definitely recommend a rental at best, but seeing as how Battle March offers so much more it is hard not to recommend it to fans of the series. One of the biggest draws to the original PC game was the ability to customize your own army for use online and in skirmishes. This feature makes its way onto the consoles and is easily one of the most fun additions to the genre in years. You can tailor everything from the color of your units to the banner you carry into battle, perfect for distinguishing yourself online. The only downside to this feature is that the online community (as of this writing) is still in its infancy. The number of players online is relatively small and finding games can be a chore. Thankfully you can opt to use these in offline skirmishes, but it truly is much more fun to take them online.
The online is the other shining point for Battle March. While the community is small it is very friendly and competitive. Couple this with the fact that every game I played online was completely lag free and you have endless possibilities. Hopefully this game will continue to gain support as it ages and more and more players will be online to show off your custom army to. Online supports up to four players and plays host to a number of different modes. Siege Battle has you defending a castle from incoming attacks while Reinforcement Battle plays out similarly to Battlefield where you race to occupy various locales on the map. There are also standard skirmishes and capture the flag modes that will keep you playing for months to come. Online is easily the brightest spot for Warhammer, it’s just a shame there aren’t more players online.
On the surface Battle March may not look like the prettiest title to 360 owners used to the bump-mapped visuals of Gears of War, but when you consider the amount of units and level of terrain the game really does look nice. The amount of detail in each unit is astounding while the design of the terrain is respectable. There are some poor textures to be found and sometimes it is hard to judge where your units are, but for the most part the game looks fantastic and runs at a relatively smooth clip even during intense battles. The sounds are a different story outside of the marvelously scored soundtrack. Sound effects drop in and out during battle and atmospheric sounds feel almost random at times. The cut scenes feel derivative and at times drag out obvious plot points. Overall not the best presentation I have ever seen, but the smooth frame rate makes up for most of its flashy shortcomings.
Warhammer: Battle March isn’t going to set the world on fire nor is it going to convert anyone who hasn’t jumped on the console RTS bandwagon. However, if you love the Warhammer franchise and can take the time to learn the controls you will find plenty to like about Battle March. With a substantial campaign mode, excellent online and a great customization aspect Namco Bandai’s latest is one of the better attempts at the genre on a console.