The original Warhammer: Mark of Chaos was released about 18 months ago, and greeted with almost universal indifference. While it was never a bad game, it did ultimately prove to be a little bit too uninspired for its own good, and lacked the heft, grunt and crunch that should be present by the bucketload in any Warhammer title. When contrasted with the grimy, tooth-and-nail combat of the Warhammer 40K series of sci-fi RTS games, Mark of Chaos felt decidedly limp. Now, appearing on a distant hill top with trumpets blaring comes Battle March, the new expansion to Mark of Chaos. Last minute saviour or just here to collect the bodies and take them home?
Battle March introduces the Orcs and Dark Elves to the fray, and gives you a whole new campaign which will see you guiding the green-skinned geezers and the shifty, shady, up-to-no-good Dark Elves through a series of missions. The story is, predictably, not all that interesting but serves well enough to link the various missions together. Missions play out on a variety of battlefields, where you'll be martialing ever-increasing armies of Orcs, guiding Dark Elves through the shadows and generally engaging in activities that require lots of little people to meet untimely deaths. It is still essentially Total War without the strategic metagame. Each unit you command on the field consists of dozens of individuals and you arrange them in a - hopefully - tactically sound manner before getting stuck in. Facing and formation is always important, as is protecting your flanks, charging at the right moment and, if things don't go well, running away as fast as possible so you can have another crack later on.
Hero units form the heart of every army. These are powerful, single model units that can be attached to a regiment or scurry about by themselves. They have unique powers that can be levelled up as the unit gains more experience on the battlefield. On encountering an enemy hero, they can engage in duels to the death - sometimes a quick way to complete a mission, sometimes a fast route to the 'Failed Mission' screen. Between missions you get to repair and recuperate at various locations on a campaign map, before heading on to the next kerfuffle. There are a few places where you can decide to go one way or another, but it's really nothing more than a fancy, graphical menu that lets you choose the next mission. At least it's more interesting than a screen full of text.
So, essentially very little has changed since Mark of Chaos. The most immediately apparent difference is that Battle March is significantly more difficult. After failing the very first mission six times - even on the (blush) easiest difficulty level - we had to sit down and reassess our gaming credentials. Persistence eventually saw us past the first hurdle and things progressed a little more smoothly from then on, but it did always feel a little more like work than it should have. The lack of any in-mission game save function means that a fatal mistake will always send you right back to the very start of a mission, and these are fairly long missions. It's particularly spiteful to not at least include checkpoint saves and seems like nothing more than a way to extend the playing time of the game. Also, some of the missions play out in a puzzle-like fashion, and there's no way to know what you have to do next until you've failed a few times. We can't help but feel that a strategy game should be able to be beaten with good strategy, rather than memorization of scripted events. Which is, of course, why we were so hopeless at that first mission. Naturally.
When it's in full effect, Battle March can serve up quite a spectacle. It's not the prettiest RTS around - an honour that still belongs to Medieval II - but all the units are very detailed and look lovely as they thunder towards the enemy. Explosions and spell effects pull up a little short of being truly spectacular, but do the job of letting you know what it was that just sent your detachment of crack troops flying through the air. You will need a fair bit of PC muscle to run the game on the highest settings, and even then it still seems to choke when really large armies are clashing together. Generally, though, Battle March looks good and runs well.
Outside of the main campaign, you can play skirmish matches against the AI or take the game online. In theory, anyway - we could never get any kind of online connection to work, even after completely dropping our firewall and waving in a metaphorically bare-cheeked fashion from the castle walls. This could well be due to the kind of PC-centric gremlins that tend to pop up every now and again, but the online aspects of the game remain a mystery to us. Skirmish matches against the AI, however, proved to be quite good fun. These are generally short, sharp affairs in which two customised armies go at each other. Fine tuning an army can be quite engaging, and there's possibly more fun to be had here than grinding through the campaign. If you really want to get into it, you can also individually colour every single unit, and alter their appearance.
It's difficult to write about Battle March without simply re-reviewing Mark of Chaos because they are, in most respects, the same game - only now with added Orcs 'n' Elves! The flaws in Mark of Chaos have been faithfully translated to the expansion. The problem at the most fundamental level is that the game is caught in an awkward midpoint between action and strategy. It's not fast and crunchy enough to work as a balls-out RTS, and also lacks the strategic depth that might appeal to the more sedate strategy gamer. The missions are long and punctuated with short bursts of combat, followed by either sudden, mission-ending death and a dispiriting restart, or with a trudge to the next scuffle. The fact that the missions present themselves in a mostly linear fashion, rather than being the result of the player's actions on a Grand Strategic Map, also makes things feel a little context-less. Playing through Battle March is a restrictive experience, in which expertise and success is achieved by learning what the game expects you to do, rather than by getting tactically creative.
Devotees of the table-top Warhammer game will most likely get a little more out of the game than others - as far as we can tell, many of the table-top rules have been incorporated here. Still, this particular group have almost definitely played Mark of Chaos already, which means the game might only really be of interest to a tiny niche of dedicated Orc or Dark Elf players of the cardboard and miniature version.
We're also obliged to note that you'll have to own Mark of Chaos before you can run Battle March - there's none of that standalone expansion nonsense here. No doubt there'll be some kind of bundle of both games before too long, but at the moment, you'll be facing a significant investment. So, at the end, we can only come full circle and say that while Battle March isn't exactly a bad game, and that it does present some moments of genuine enjoyment, it's still the same okay-ish experience that Mark of Chaos offered and, therefore, something of a disappointment.