Review: Let loose the dogs... er, orcs... of war!
The Warhammer universe is a longtime favorite on both tabletop and desktop. The series can trace its roots back to 1983 when the first edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules took miniature enthusiasts by storm with its innovative battle system and rich setting. And since 1996 the system has appeared in multiple electronic versions, but didn't truly hit its stride until 2004's Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War from THQ and Relic Entertainment. The latest addition to the family came in the form of Bandai Namco's Warhammer: Mark of Chaos Battle March, a return to the fantasy setting that made the game system famous.
For those not familiar with the Warhammer fantasy setting, it's basically a creative take on medieval Germany with orcs and magic thrown in for good measure. Through the three campaigns included here, the player controls seven different races, ranging from Humans and High Elves to Orcs and Dark Elves. Each race has its own distinctive units and heroes, and the game offers plenty of customization for both. For instance, the Humans have pistols and cannon as ranged weapons, while High Elves rely on archers and ballista. The Hordes of Chaos are an angry, bloodthirsty bunch and probably the most fun to play. Like other races, they have their melee units and their ranged units, but they also have unusual units like the Wyrdspawn, a giant demon with a magical ranged attack. And once the player chooses a patron deity for her Horde forces, units and skills will take on demonic or undead characteristics unique to the deity.
Most of the battles aren't too tough?the A.I. generally follows a predictable pattern of sending in melee troops while holding back ranged units for support?but you'll still need to reinforce and improve your units along the way. Gold earned during the battles can be spent to buy new units, strengthen weakened units, and buy upgrades for existing units, including three separate levels of improved weapons and armor. Some units can also be upgraded with standard bearers for improved morale and champions for better performance in a fight. Siege gear is also there for purchase, including ladders and powder kegs for scaling or destroying castle walls. These choices mean that different players will end up taking different armies into battle based on their individual play styles.
Gold is central to multiplayer battles, and the host of the battle can set a budget for each player based on the size of the map and the number of players in the match. Players can then use their budget to purchase and upgrade units as they see fit. The game offers pre-built armies for each budget, but dedicated players will want to use the game's full complement of army-building tools to create and save custom armies for different situations, races, and styles of play. Players can also customize the look of their units by choosing a banner and unit colors, and can even vary the look of their units by choosing from an assortment of heads and other features.
Heroes are likewise a rich area for customization. Distinct from the champions already mentioned, a player has only a few heroes for each race, but the heroes have simple character sheets similar to what might be found in a role-playing game. Heroes can earn or buy weapons, armor, and magic items that give them the edge on the battlefield. They can also level up from battle to battle, earning skill points that can be spent on various powers and abilities from detailed skill trees unique to each hero and race. For instance, Hordes of Chaos heroes have the ?Blood Offering? skill, which gives them the power to sacrifice their own units and heal themselves. Heroes can attach to regiments for combat and morale boosts, or they can act alone and wade through the ranks of enemy troops. They are also useful for taking on other heroes in one-on-one duels, and once a duel has begun, no other unit can interfere, and the combatants are locked in until one of them dies. Duels are generally quick, especially if you've built a hero with decent duel-specific skills, but if you've ignored that area, your hero had better have plenty of healing potions to make sure he lasts to the end.
Duels, which could have been a chance for exciting single combat, aren't much more that clickfests as you mash buttons to activate skills as quick as they refresh. There's very little strategy necessary, and the same could be said about the battles as a whole. This is pared-down strategy combat, with all the resource gathering and base building removed. Once a fight starts, there's no way to summon new units?you generally have to finish the fights with the units you choose before each fight, though some battles give you temporary control over ally units. Add that to the fact that battles tend to be short, usually ranging from fifteen to thirty minutes, and this new entry into the Warhammer universe becomes a fast-paced, action-packed new take on the RTS genre.
Unfortunately, most of the battles just don't have the depth or excitement that would make this good system great. Since there isn't a whole lot you can do with regiments in combat beyond positioning them and then sending them in for the attack, the combat feels like a numbers game with dice rolls determining the outcome behind the scenes. Once one foot regiment engages another, there isn't much to do except wait and see the outcome. The exception to this rule is when a hero is attached to the unit, since some hero skills give attack or defense bonuses. The key to winning these fights is to bring as much firepower to bear on a unit while preventing your enemy from doing the same. Lure enemy infantry regiments into fights out of range of their archers, but in range of yours. Gang up on enemy heroes to whittle down their hit points before a duel. Engage enemy archers with fast-moving cavalry, since they can't let loose any arrows when they're engaged in melee combat. Maximize your firepower while undercutting the enemy, and you'll win every fight.
On the other hand, the enemy tends to win by overwhelming numbers or by convenient terrain configurations that it can use to its advantage. They'll wear you down with one dull wave after another until your units have lost any semblance of combat effectiveness. Or archers will be set up in places your units can't access unless they pass through enemy fields of fire, losing significant numbers along the way.