Do you like orcs? That's the main question you need to ask when contemplating a purchase of Warhammer: Mark of Chaos - Battle March, as this expansion-plus-original-game combo package includes no extra content except for one new campaign featuring everybody's favorite green-skinned goons. You get the exact same real-time strategy take on the dark Warhammer fantasy universe released back at the end of 2006, along with an additional dozen or so hours of play tacked on to fill out an epic saga about a war between the religious fanatics of the Empire and the evil Hordes of Chaos. Still, you would expect a little more than just a single new campaign from an add-on hitting store shelves a full two years down the line, and hope for more serious work to address some of the original game's shortcomings.
The biggest issue with the Empire and Chaos campaigns in the original Mark of Chaos was the linear nature of everything. Both army management and the missions themselves were big-time blah and practically played themselves. The Empire's noble troops and Chaos' evil monsters followed a straight path through the text-told (aside from the amazing opening cinematic showing an Empire patrol being waylaid by Chaos warriors) storyline, going from one battle to another on a tactical map screen so dark that you could barely make out the terrain. Strategic depth was almost nonexistent when it came to building your armies. Because there were no resources to gather or bases to build, all you did was fight and make the occasional pit stop to buy supplies, buff armies with new weapons and armor, and pick up magical doodads for your heroes. Intense battlefield combat based on a superb re-creation of the Warhammer tabletop game's units and brutally gothic atmosphere made up for some of these shortcomings, although the missions themselves played out on linear maps striped with narrow paths that led you by the hand to each goal. Soldiers themselves were easy to lead as well, as all you had to worry about was keeping their morale up, choosing from a couple of basic formations and dealing with the usual rock-paper-scissors formula to determine what units worked best against others. You sure didn't need to do a whole lot of thinking, which tied the game to an anchor that you got bored with lugging around after seven or eight missions.
So you can understand how adding more of the same to that could be seen as disappointing. The new campaign, which throws a greenskin army of orcs and goblins being manipulated by the dark elves into the original two-sided tale of a Chaos invasion of the Empire, is a straight-up rehash of its two predecessors. It plays and feels a lot like the original game's Chaos campaign, with the same focus on the bad guys and a lot of very similar, if not identical, units. You might find it a little hard to get jazzed up about leading orc and goblin armies, since parts of both were already present in the original Mark of Chaos campaigns as greenskin mercenaries. Of course, you now also get the dark elves and a memorable new lead character in the orc war boss hero Gorbash. But the sunscreen-loving elves don't show up in the campaign right away, so for a good while you'll be left feeling as if you've played this game before. Also, Gorbash's repetitive "Me smash!" Cockney musings will get on your nerves after a half hour or so.
Even more annoying is the repetitive design of the battle scenarios. If anything, the new orc campaign in Battle March is more linear than its predecessors. Every map requires you to guide your forces down a narrow pathway to mission goals, battling ever-growing enemy battalions along the way in what soon turns into a battle of attrition. Early scraps are always cakewalks, although you'll generally take just enough losses in each one that you'll find yourself running low on manpower by the time you reach the inevitable big fight at each scenario's conclusion. Along with being pretty tedious, this sort of structure can also totally screw you in the overall campaign progress. It's very, very easy to survive a mission with just a handful of troops, leaving you unable to take on the next assignment with even the faintest hope of success. Buying reinforcements is always possible between battles, of course, but you don't earn enough gold during fights to afford to completely replace units lost if your casualties were relatively high. You can't save during missions, either, which means that you often get to the very end of the road and then discover that you don't have a chance of winning or finishing with enough troops to continue on. Big fun.
Increasing your survival rate is very difficult, too. Some maps are laid out like puzzles. Take one turn and you head off to certain death, but take another and you'll run into gangs of orc boyz eager to join up with your main army. There is rarely any way to tell which way to go, as all routes look the same. A tip occasionally pops up onscreen letting you know that a certain part of the map would be worth taking a look at, although this generally directs you to hero items and other loot--not the smartest way to proceed through the scenario. You often wind up playing campaign maps two or three times to learn them before having a chance to beat them. Battle March battles are also very fast, and as with the original game there's no way to turn down the speed settings or even pause the action to dish out orders. It is just about impossible to assume full tactical control over units during larger-scale battles; all you can do is aim your battalions in the right direction and hope that you come out on the other side of the fight with as few corpses to bury as possible. Battlefields are also narrow and confined for the most part, and this sure doesn't help with army control. Unless you're dealing with just a few units, engagements inevitably turn into chaotic mash-ups where it is hard to tell what's going on, let alone make any orders to turn the tide or complete the vanquishing of a foe. Heroes are the only units that you can really focus on managing, due to their lone-star status on battlefields, nifty ability with spells and various sorts of arcane artifacts, and their solo presence in the man-to-man duels with enemy heroes that can figure into many missions.
One thing Battle March does have going for it is charisma. Lots of charisma. Like its big brother Mark of Chaos, the re-creation of the Warhammer tabletop game here is pretty much stellar. While the game isn't a hardcore wargame and so lacks the tactical depth of its 1:64-scale cousin, units look as though they've been painted by a miniatures master. It is very hard for a Games Workshop fan to suppress glee at seeing orc boyz, dark elf cold ones, witch elves, half-naked dark elf sorceresses, and the like shedding blood for "real" here. Backgrounds are suitably bleak, a perfect fit for this infamously harsh fantasy setting that is all war, all the time. All that said, there is nothing here that looks good enough to warrant the absurdly long level loading times. That little problem from the original Mark of Chaos is back in Battle March, and it's just as bad as ever. The soundtrack by leading game composer Jeremy Soule also returns in all its glory, adding a martial intensity to the battlefield that serves as a terrific counterpart to the clashing of swords and shields.
Multiplayer further evokes traditional Warhammer battles, thanks in large part to the core game's Create Army option. Being able to custom-outfit any one of the game's six factions (Empire, Chaos, high elf, dark elf, orcs and goblins, and skaven) and go online for duels with other human players gets right to the heart of what Warhammer is all about. This expansion doesn't add a great deal in this regard, however. The new world domination mode of play is a nice amenity where you battle it out for control of multiple domains on a tactical map, but it really amounts to nothing more than fighting through a linked series of skirmishes and gets monotonous fairly fast. It does at least offer bonuses that add some strategic depth to the tactical screen, as you receive faction boosts like enhanced gold production and buffed morale for troops when conquering certain territories.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos - Battle March is for dedicated fans only. Its depiction of the sinister Warhammer Old World fantasy setting is remarkably true to the tabletop game, but the gameplay feels a little past its best-by date due to the continuing disappointment of the bland campaign structure and mission design.