Warhammer: Mark of Chaos
After the success of the Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War games, it’s back to fantasy again with the normal Warhammer universe to see a new real-time strategy game (RTS) based on a Games Workshop IP. Mark of Chaos is a non-basebuilding RTS though, meaning you have much more focus on your troops. Developer Black Hole didn’t do that well with their first title, Armies of Exigo, which felt too much like a WarCraft III-clone. If you’re curious about whether their second title, backed up by publisher Namco/Bandai, delivers or not, then read on.
Only four races seems a bit low for Warhammer but for a regular RTS it’s a respectable number (and it wouldn’t be dumb to assume that there are already expansions underway with more races). First of all there is the Empire, with orderly and the most recognisable medieval troops. The Chaos forces seem like a bunch of savages at first but they are driven by demonic forces, which makes them even more dangerous and unpredictable. Then there are the Skaven, cowardly, rat-faced little buggers but still able to cut their foes up to small pieces. Last but not least are the High Elves, arrogant but also deadly, especially from afar with their archers.
There are two storylines in place (each taking up about 10 hours of playtime), one for the Empire and one for Chaos. These aren’t the only sides making an appearance since the High Elves will gear up with the Empire soon enough just as the Skaven will do with Chaos respectively. Each campaign consists of a couple of chapters. There is a worldmap for each chapter where every mission, town or story interval is marked from the beginning. Not a lot of surprises there but also not a half-cooked Total War-esque campaign like most RTS’s have been serving us recently (yes, I am looking at you, Dark Crusade and Empire at War). Both stories are properly fleshed out and the variation in objectives isn’t bad either. You do follow a straight line, with some optional sideroutes here and there but don’t expect too many choices or even consequences from that.
Heroes, the leaders of your army, start out weak in each of the two campaigns but as you make progress through the multiple chapters and world maps, they’ll become real powerhouses, nearly unstoppable. That is, if you spend the experience points that are gained through leveling (you know, by smashing lots of stuff till it doesn’t move anymore) wisely in a Titan Quest-like skilltree. There are three divisions in these skills; one for when the hero is just out in the field all by himself, one for when he/she is attached to a regiment and the last one is for the Duel mode.
Ah, the Duel mode, something you won’t see every day in an RTS and after you’ve seen how it works in Mark of Chaos you’ll understand why. Opponents have their own heroes too who can challenge your own champions when they come close to each other on the battlefield. Once the challenge is accepted, both combattants are suddenly sealed off from the rest of the onslaught (every warrior knows that magical, orange circles should never be trespassed) and then some kind of mini-game erupts between the two heroes. The goal is to defeat the other one of course, by activating duel-specific skills when they become available (after a cooldown period and/or when you have enough mana in the big bar on top of the screen). You can also just sit and relax, do nothing and hope that the automated base attack of your hero is enough for the victory (which usually isn’t the case). Time doesn’t stop for the rest of the troops so you’ll need to keep an eye on them too.
It’s nothing spectacular either since the heroes are lacking real fast and vivid fighting animations, just like the ordinary troops actually. On top of that, there are even Duel missions in the campaign with, you guessed it, one big duel in them. Like you’re watching some kind of street fight, where two gangs are encouraging their own leader in the background. Funny but a quite predictable and downright boring event each time.
So the dueling isn’t such a success, but the heroes themselves aren’t too shabby. As said before, their skills can make a big impact and as you complete more missions you’ll also find more loot and items by defeating opponents or by smashing some tombs and destroying buildings. Gold, health or mana potions, armour, all kinds of weapons, buying new gear in towns, it’s almost like Diablo again. This gets more proof if you look at the rare hero-only missions in each of the campaigns. No army, just your heroes to toy with, only this time everything goes so much slower than in a real hack&slash game because you are stuck with RTS-controls not allowing you to take action yourself. In the end, I found the heroes only enjoyable in the field, during normal battles and missions.
Normal troops also gain more experience if you can keep them alive during confrontations. They can only advance up until level 3 though, and with each level their maximum unit size increases (they won’t gain new abilities or special powers). It’s a bit of a shame that there is a max levelcap for these squads, also because you will probably already have level 3 veteran troops after the first couple of conflicts while it isn’t exactly difficult either to keep squads alive (not even in a “Hard” campaign). The only other exciting options to improve them are available in towns, where you can bless them, add single champions, banners that improve overall morale, ladders for sieges and three variants of respectively armour and weapons. The possibility to refill battle-worn squads is also present here but you can just as well make camp on one of the world maps at any time during the campaign and miraculously buy new troops (with the gold you’ve earned or looted in the missions). Still, there is just enough variation in the form of newer troops which will join your cause further along the campaign as well as mercenary races like the Orcs and the Dwarves.
There aren’t much issues with the interface itself. Grouping squads, giving them a new position, changing the camera, it’s all very smooth and even a bit more intuïtive than in the latest Total War game. A problem though is how the campaign missions actually play. They take more than a few cues from the previous Warhammer RTS, Dark Omen, meaning you’re commanding not too many squads at once. You are rarely confronted with an overwhelming force or more than two chokepoints, in a lot of cases you’re literally picking apart one enemy squad at a time, not exactly the biggest challenge trick now is it? Also, while the 3D terrain does seem to have an influence, it is fairly restricted. The improved range for archers on higher ground is negligible, just as the meagre woodwork defenses which serve as a poor excuse for actual terrain interactivity. The only exciting “terrain” features are the castle walls but the way these siege battles turn out, is nothing different from what you have seen in f.e. the Total War-titles (siege weapons, attack towers). In general, there isn’t much new in Mark of Chaos. I almost thought that the flying units could bring some flavour in but they don’t since they are too weak.
Another annoying thing is that you can only play a custom game against the AI by wading through the Multiplayer – LAN options. A “skirmish mode” isn’t that unknown in the genre or is it? Quite a lot of people will overlook this option this way. A bit of a shame too is that the Reinforcements Battle game mode apparently can’t be played in skirmish. The game does get spiced up a bit in multiplayer and skirmish modes since there are three army variants of each race in the game, creating a total of twelve sides. Although the differences between these variants are limited to some swapped units and minor (dis-)advantages.
The actual army you’ll be playing with is something else as you have to get a selection of units from a unit pool (which, as said before, varies from side to side). You can save your own selections and even customise these armies even further in the “Create your own army” option. It’s like the painting options you had in the Dawn of War games, only a bit more extensive and with the added race variants and unit selections there are many different combinations here.
Complaining about the music, sound effects or the voices would do this game injustice. Jeremy Soule (again) does a decent job with several great tracks and the voice-overs are really contributing to the Warhammer-spirit. Especially the wretched Sorceror from the Chaos side has a superb casting. But the rest also doesn’t disappoint, though some folks might think it’s over-the-top… it’s Warhammer you know, what else can you expect?
Performance tends to get ugly in certain missions when lots of troops are moving or are suddenly entering the map but sometimes you just don’t have a clue why the game starts to slow down. The maps in Mark of Chaos are relatively small and the amount of troops isn’t that big either (especially not compared to the Total War games). The units themselves are gorgeously detailed though, even on low detail settings. Another bummer are the relatively long loading times. Maybe I can understand that battles take a while to load but the very simplistic worldmap? Unbelievable.
And then I am not even mentioning the splash screen before the main menu of the game. Several (huge) patches have been released already, till version 1.6 right now. Is everything fixed? Well, you can now easily distribute items between heroes whereas in the 1.0 retailversion you literally had to be on the battlefield and drop the item in question so the other hero could pick it up. Other odd bugs are gone too now but overall you’re still stuck with the performance drops and a feeling that this game could have been better if it wasn’t pushed out of the door so quickly (not that it is an excuse or anything but we can say the same thing about a lot of high-profile titles of 2006). A new patch is underway, so things might get better but that’s just a promise of course.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos is a serious graphical improvement over the big example, Dark Omen. Yet, that doesn’t really mean much if, even after the patches, the performance tends to go wacko at unpredictable moments and that the gameplay doesn’t really offer much new in terms of strategy. Everything looks and sounds nice and the campaign has been nicely built up, but the latter isn’t strong enough on its own to make this game a real must-have. Mark of Chaos is a nice Warhammer game in the sense that it captures the atmosphere of this dark-themed fantasy universe quite well in a decent campaign. Other than that, there isn’t much to be found here.