Thursday 23 November 2006
We've been eyeing up this game's graphical beauty and white-knuckled gameplay for weeks - and our anticipation was worth it. If you've ever wanted your Warhammer miniatures to come to life, check out Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. This adaptation of Games Workshop's popular fantasy wargame plays like Empire knights and Chaos orcs have hopped off their metal bases to rampage on your monitor. Purists will love it for its faithfulness to the original game, while others will groove on great RTS mechanics and castle-smashing battles.
Gameplay is structured like that in the Total War series; all the emphasis on combat. There are no resources to gather and no bases to build, so you can fully concentrate on war between the Empire, with its High Elf allies, and the Hordes of Chaos, bolstered by the rat-like Skaven.
Anyone familiar with tabletop Warhammer will recognize the stats and style of the action. Mark of Chaos is loaded with details taken straight from the Games Workshop rulebooks. Armies mostly consist of grunts like the Empire's swordsmen and handgunners and the Chaos axethrowers and warhounds, along with mercenary reinforcements such as dwarven warriors and night goblins. And the dark look and well-acted, gothic-tinged dialogue perfectly match the grimy baroque art and mood of the tabletop game.
Scale is smaller than that seen in the similar army-vs-army Total War games - but then again, what isn't? Units are commanded by regiment, not by individual, and generally you need to look after no more than five or six regiments per battle. They have been balanced along the usual rock-paper-scissors formula, so tactics are always vital.
The effects of map terrain also play a role, as every scenario features valleys, hills, forests, and even swamps that mess with unit effectiveness. Mashing armies together gets you killed very quickly, so you need to learn when (and where) to wade into the action with melee marauders and when to sit back and let your axemen take care of things.
Above: Finishing off a Skaven warlord on the hillside. Bring it on!
Much of the game revolves around heroes, though. They have a tremendous amount of RPG depth, including a full range of stats, equipment from magical armor to potions, and can even be used to square off with enemy heroes in duels.
Also, just like in the usual D&D-style fantasy role-playing games, heroes can be leveled up and can select from over a dozen skills spread out in combat, duel, and command schools of expertise. So if you want to be a better melee fighter, you might put points towards something like the magic-and-morale-boosting Screaming Death. To improve as a duelist, you would look into Deadly Strike, which increases damage. And to best command troops, you consider Inspired Leader to raise morale and attack percentages.
All that sounds like nirvana for a Warhammer fan, right? Well, it pretty much is. But the game is let down in one key area by not providing enough interesting game options. The two campaigns, told from the point-of-view of the Empire and the Horde, are too linear and feature many routine missions that you can whip through in minutes. For every awesome castle siege, there seem to be a half-dozen dreary expeditions to kill everyone on a map or defend a location.
Above: Custom armies are easy to make, but you can only use them in multiplayer games
Even worse, there is no single-player skirmish out of the box. While there is a wide selection of online and LAN multiplayer skirmish maps where you can fill in human slots with AI opponents, you can't directly have at it in one-off solo matches against the computer. This is a shame, because the game has great skirmish features like the ability to build and paint custom armies from three factions within each race.
Still, even though a few aspects of Warhammer: Mark of Chaos aren't all that they could be, it nicely distills all of the best characteristics of the tabletop game. It's as close as you're going to get to the real thing without spending a fortune on miniatures.