Guest Author - James Shea
While Games Workshop's "Warhammer 40k" has seen successful transitions to video games in the form of games like Dawn of War, "Warhammer Fantasy" has had less luck. Case in point: "Mark of Chaos", a real-time-tactics game that attempts to emulate the tabletop wargame with limited success.
Mark of Chaos features four main races: The human-centric Empire, the Elves, the forces of Chaos, and the Skaven. These are divided into two factions: good (Empire & Elves) and evil (Chaos and Skaven). The good faction can hire dwarves as mercenaries, while the evil faction can hire orks and goblins. Unlike Dawn of War and other RTS games, Mark of Chaos is a real-time-tactics game: Units are purchased before the battle, with each side having an equal monetary limit. The sides are different in a remarkable amount of ways, but there are a few basic underlying unit types: infantry (melee), archers (ranged), cavalry, and siege weapons like catapults or cannons. Units can be upgraded with increased numbers of soldiers, better equipment, or add-ons like standard bearers and musicians.
Apart from regular soldiers, the other main aspect of unit selection is heroes. These are powerful units designed to lead groups. Among their ranks are mighty warriors, mages, and priests, with each class having a distinct skill-tree. Heroes are, at least in single player, the main avenue of customization. The actual choices that can be made about them are fairly linear, though. Still, it's a noble effort considering the limitations of the source material.
The gameplay is disappointingly simple just because of the nature of the game. Units don't have enough mobility or options to accomplish anything major, so every battle basically turns into a mess - infantry in the middle, archers on either side firing into it. Cavalry, at least, can go around and attack enemy archers, but they're so delicate and expensive that this isn't really a great idea. Cannons and other siege units are the real wild card - when firing into tightly-packed formations, they cause major damage, but can be overcome by flanking or spreading troops out.
Games like Total War overcome the apparent simplicity of real tactics by having more "real world" rules: guns can't shoot over people, archers can shoot over people but are less accurate, etc. Mark of Chaos doesn't have this, and thus the player's role is limited. Using heroes is roughly equivalent to hitting a special ability once in a while and waiting for a cooldown period. Heroes can challenge other heroes to duels, but these require a special set of skills that are mostly a waste of points compared to things that actually help on the battlefield. Essentially, each battle might as well be automated, except in the sense that some of the campaign battles have you attacked from multiple fronts and you need to divert units to take care of other areas.
The game's graphical style is probably the best thing about it. The unit models capture the essence of Warhammer Fantasy reasonably well - things are textured realistically, making them feel tangible and believable despite their outlandish nature. However, it's disappointing that upgrades aren't represented on units - at the very least, standard bearers and musicians should be visible in some way. Furthermore, the effects and combat animations are sort of iffy - not terrible, but not as good as the model design is. The sound design is pretty good, but the game doesn't really have any memorable background music or noteworthy voices.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos isn't a good game, per se. It's not a horrible game, but it's not really worth it either. It feels too simple, not like it's "unfinished" but like the basic concept wasn't enough to support the game. It's difficult to say how this could have been fixed without totally losing the whole real-time-tactics aspect. Still, fans of the series might find some joy in commanding armies of goblins or Empire soldiers. It's got some charm to it, but not a particularly deep sort of gameplay. My last note regards the loading screens, which are interminably long - to the point of having to pre-load the loading screen itself. Mark of Chaos is neat for a little while, but soon wears thin.
We purchased this game with our own money.