Under the table.
Before we had modern RTSs, we had the nerd mothers known as tabletop strategy games. From BattleTech to Warhammer, these begat the Dunes, Warcrafts and Command & Conquers we all know and love. Bandai and Namco’s Warhammer: Mark of Chaos harkens back to their ancient mechanics, but inadvertently gets stuck in the past.
Mark of Chaos is set in the fantasy world of Warhammer, not to be confused with its sci-fi counterpart, Warhammer 40K, which spawned the acclaimed Dawn of War series. No space marines here, just your standard fare of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orks, and Gods. Most of the game’s mechanics are based on tabletop rules, unlike most RTS titles. Your units, for instance, are controlled as whole regiments, their survivability is measured in remaining model numbers instead of hit points, and they sport incredibly detailed stats drawn right from the Warhammer Codex…es. Codexi? (Codices – Ed.)
[image1]For the most part, you’ll progress steadily and easily through either of the game’s campaigns, following either the noble Stefan Von Kessler in defense of the Empire, or the much nastier Thorgar the Blooded One and his crusade of Chaos-driven annihilation. There are little plot asides along the way, but any possible twists or intrigues are quickly blurted out between battles and none of it’s very spectacular.
The campaigns aren’t very replayable, either, except maybe to choose allegiance to a different god in the evil campaign, which involves a handful of different units and a new primary hero. The campaigns are certainly long enough to eat up the hours, but considering the breadth of the Warhammer universe, they could’ve been much more interesting in terms of depth and plot.
The online multiplayer content attempts to make up for this by allowing you to detail, build and save custom armies for use online. But it too falls short, offering just a few game modes and a surprisingly small number of maps, considering the dozens available across the campaigns. Thankfully, LAN play is supported, as the login and account bugs involved in going online are a large headache, even after patching.
Anyway, in addition to your normal units, the ‘hero’ units also keep things pretty interesting. These guys are total tanks on the battlefield, able to join and bolster regiments and toss spells and death all over the field. There are quite a few types, and using them strategically can turn the tide of a fight, say by covering your troops in fire (that’s good fire) that burns attacking foes, or simply turning a soldier into a massive, angry demon. You can also collect equipment for your heroes and allocate skill points they gain as they level up into different areas, giving you a fair amount of customization.
[image2]However, searching out the advantages of subtle differences between units and heroes feels cumbersome, as it’s hard to tell whether or not the underlying Warhammer mechanics are working. I know I can flank, charge, break enemy morale, and take high ground, but it’s hard to tell when your tactics are actually a benefit as opposed to just forty dudes in a throng punching out rat-men.
Although the multiplayer campaign allows you to build an army using a point pool (just like the real nerds do), the game’s single player campaign is hampered by a limited supply of gold, usually just enough to resurrect the same handful of units over and over again. You can upgrade various aspects of any unit, but since the forces you field are all you get, experimenting with strange units can cause empty coffers and bouts of frustration.
Equally dubious is the Duel system. If two opposing heroes are close enough together, they can square off mano-a-mano, like a ‘challenge’ on the tabletop. Unfortunately, this boils down to you clicking off abilities as they cool down and hoping you’ve got enough healing potions to last. Combine this with the fact that once you start dueling, your army pretty much goes A.W.O.L. until you finish. You’re really better off just scrapping the old-fashioned way.
[image3]Mark of Chaos doesn’t really stir up your grey matter, but it is pretty. Lots of detail went into the dozens of maps and character models, which look great right down to the troop-level camera. The maps sport an awesome variety of castles, caves, and fields all in varying states of corruption, and even the campaign map is gorgeous. Unfortunately, the game chokes hard during hectic battles, and the load times are insane - the standard loading screen is preceded by its own loading screen, for meta-loading. It breaks up the flow of the game something awful.
But throughout you can expect very nice orchestration coupled with decent, if overused, voices for each of your units. Other sound effects are run-of-the-mill war noises, yells and clanging and such, neither great nor awful. The voice acting in the cut scenes is so-so, you can really hear the actors trying to do something with the lackluster script, so it’s not entirely their fault.
Rumor has it that Bandai Namco intends Warhammer: Mark of Chaos to be the first of a series of games based on the Warhammer universe, and they do have a potentially good franchise on their hands. If they can shake some of the bugs out, they may hope to compete with Total War or Dawn of War...in the future. As it stands now, Mark of Chaos bridges a gap between tabletop and PC gaming, but will leave both sides less than impressed.