IGN Review of Warhammer: Battle March
Strategy games have hit the Xbox 360 in force this year, with titles like Universe at War: Earth Assault, Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath, Supreme Commander and others attempting to bridge the gap between a traditionally PC-centric genre and an ever-growing console marketplace. The newest guest at the strategy party is Warhammer: Battle March, developed by Black Hole Entertainment and published by Namco Bandai.
Based on the long-running Warhammer fantasy universe, Battle March attempts to present medieval-style warfare on a large scale, and it opens with a bang. The introductory CGI opener is nothing short of awesome -- the characters are incredibly detailed, and the action unfolds with drama, intensity and flair. It's downhill from there.
The transition from the opening sequence to the actual game is incredibly hard on the eyes, and the pain never lets up. The unit profile pictures are so low-resolution they look like they were created for the original PlayStation, and the in-game cutscenes look a generation behind. And when the framerate chugs significantly on the navigation map, you know you have some serious technical issues. Then, once in the actual game, you're treated to one of the most drab color palettes you're likely to see all year. This is not a pretty videogame.
But strategy games aren't all about looks, and there's more to Battle March than shades of brown and gray. Warhammer Battle March is a console port of the PC game Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, which came out in 2006, plus the recently-released Battle March expansion. The title puts you in control of Empire commander Stefan von Kessel (and later his Orcish archrival Thogar the Blooded One) and his army.
Unlike with many real-time strategy games, there is no resource management in Warhammer: Battle March. You won't be building production centers, pumping out units and harvesting timber. The focus here is solely on assembling your army, taking it into battle and using it to the best of your ability. Each mission is objective-based and parameters for success are spelled out at the beginning of the level. So if you're tasked with taking a castle, you'll lay out your regiments and manage their movements as the battle unfolds.
Your success depends not only on how you maneuver your troops but also how you prepare them for the fight. In between encounters, you'll have the opportunity to visit towns where you can heal, buff and even resurrect your fighters. Heroes, powerful single units with access to items and magic, can also purchase and use items, which can help turn the tide of battle if used correctly. Your veteran soldiers, heroes and siege weapons can be upgraded between battles too -- you can add armor, special weapons and champion units to your ranks in an effort to build them up.
The main challenge any console strategy game faces -- especially one with roots in a previous PC version -- is making an often complicated mouse-and-keyboard control scheme work with a controller. Warhammer: Battle March does not score well in this department, and the developers chose to buck the current console RTS trend of using pop-up radial menus to quickly choose units and commands. Instead (except for item use), there's an unintuitive system of holding triggers, clicking thumbsticks, tapping bumpers and using the D-pad to give commands and select units. Yes, the system works, but it takes longer to learn than it should, especially for a game with no resource management.
Because Battle March is all about skirmishes that unfold quickly and require fast thinking, the cumbersome control scheme stands out all the more. In fact, there's not much more to the game than a series of one-after-another linear battles that require you to have a fairly well-developed mastery of the countless combinations of button commands.
But Warhammer: Battle March does not hold your hand to guide you along your journey. Much of my experience with the game consisted of a series of unfortunate surprises rather than exciting strategic encounters. If you choose, you can take an army into battle based on the computer's recommendation. It's a nice feature, but it only goes so far toward helping you make strategic decisions. It's a wonder the armies of the Empire and the elves of Ulthuan are still alive at all, considering how bad their intelligence seems to be. You'll be sending your forces in with no knowledge of enemy numbers or positions, which makes the deployment phase at the start of each battle seem fairly useless. How can I make a decision about where I should place my troops if I have no idea what they're up against?
True, knowing all the details of a battle beforehand would be both unrealistic and dull, but it would be nice to get a hint of what to expect. Without that information, each scenario turns into a trial and error affair. By the third time playing a particular level, you'll know when the cavalry runs in to rout your archer regiment and can plan accordingly.
There are other missing bits of information in Battle March that make the experience more frustrating than satisfying. Once you split up your forces, you'll be taking control alternately of Von Kessel and the elven hero Aurelion, as they join up to battle the Chaos horde. Although they are physically miles apart, they are coming at the same enemy from different directions using different armies. What you don't know (until it's too late) is that the two armies share resources, so if you spend too much gold (picked up on the battlefield by heroes) on elven forces, there will be none left over for the human commander to spend on reinforcements. And if you run out of say, swordsmen, there's no way to get them back.
To confuse things even further, items are also picked up by heroes on the battlefield, but these are not shared. So you get all the cons of sharing gold without the pros of sharing items like potions. It's situations like these that had me restarting missions multiple times and sometimes backtracking in the game to rectify mistakes I had no idea I was making.
Aside from the frustrations sprinkled liberally throughout Warhammer: Battle March, there is some legitimate fun to be had on the battlefield. Once I got the hang of the controls and my armies and heroes were significantly leveled up, I did get a kick out of steamrolling the enemy beneath my vast war machine.
Warhammer: Battle March uses the unit models from the long-running tabletop role-playing game, so you'll have access to standard troops like halberdiers, pistoliers, cannon and dwarf hammerers, and elite units like the elven Silver Helms and orcish War Bosses. Each have their own specialties and will excel in some areas of battle and fail miserably in others. Knowing which troops to use in a given situation is the key to victory. You can also purchase armor, weapon and skill upgrades for each regiment or siege weapon, which does make it feel -- after a few battles -- that your army is truly your own.
That feeling is even more dramatic in the skirmish and multiplayer modes, which allow you to create your own personalized army to your specifications and then pit it against an AI or human enemy. Micromanagers will love the amount of insane detail Warhammer: Battle March allows in the army creation tool. Choose the amount of money you want to spend, pick your race and spend to your heart's content (or until your gold runs out). You can then delve in deeper to personalize your troops, changing their faces, helmets and clothing as you see fit. The changes aren't very dramatic and can't even be seen on the battlefield unless you're zoomed in quite close, but it's a nice feature that adds to the overall experience. And the character models and animations are well-done, so you can watch your handgunners shift positions impatiently before the battle begins, decked out in the costumes you've chosen. Once you have a healthy mix of heroes, infantry, ranged units, cavalry and siege weapons, you can name your army and pit it against either computer AI or an online opponent.
Multiplayer is an important part of the RTS experience, and Warhammer: Battle March has fully functional online multiplayer built in. The matches we played online worked smoothly, and, as with most games, playing against human opponents is completely different than against the AI. Again, if you can get past the controls, the bare-bones gameplay and the drab look of Battle March, then you just might get something out of the online mode. To me, it wasn't enough to change the game into anything other than ordinary.
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