I've always liked the Warhammer universe, regardless of the setting. Be it 40K's dark future and chaos tainted space noir, or the gritty and perilous world presented in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay all those years ago. So I was curious to see what kind of job that the developers would do with Warhammer: Mark of Chaos a game set in the Old World and rife with vicious battles.
I can report right from the get go that there's some decent presentation and some solid gameplay, but there are a number of bugs that mar the whole experience and the longevity of the game might not be nearly as good as the whole Relic-style Dawn of War RTS with resource management and base building (some of my favourite things).
The game opens with some of the best CGI cinematic action to date, the cinematic (by Digic brings the Warhammer world alive in a brutal and compelling way. It's a shame that the rest of the game doesn't quite live up to that vicious spectacle, in terms of storytelling and battles.
You are cast in the role of either: an Empire soldier named Stefan von Kessel or a Champion of the dark forces of Chaos known as Thorgar the Blooded One. Campaigns take place during the same war but are viewed from the respective side, it's nice to see that the war will end differently depending on the side you play - but there are some serious problems in the way this comes about.
The story is told in a fairly straightforward way, without much pomp or circumstance through in-engine cut-scenes. Some of these are ok but some suffer from terrible compression and very bad engine camerawork, the whole atmosphere of the Old World should appear to be one of a desperate struggle against the superior and dominant forces of Chaos.
But the Empire doesn't seem to be at all desperate and Chaos doesn't seem to be at all that vile. This spills over onto the world map as well, there's no real sense of anything happening to the various battle sites and places, there's no smoke and fire or any kind of real war animation on the main map - this I feel would have made things a little more interesting.
Chaos does seem to corrupt the land as it moves but even this isn't really enough to get the blood pumping, the Old World just feels like it could have been any old map slung underneath and that kind of brings you out of the game world.
The developers also have blatantly shown a lot of the twists to the game's story, they are revealed in such a way as to telegraph them blatantly in your face, you're left with very little mystery as the story plods along.
The graphics on the other hand are excellent for the game, they have done a wonderful job on making the unit types distinctive and the army customisation is out of this world. It allows you to swap out parts like the head, the arms and the body etc to create a truly unique looking army. When you can alter what kind of barding a horse has then you know you're onto a decent game.
The background maps themselves are good too, there's the right kind of gritty battlefield atmosphere to the various locations. The only problem is that heavy battles can really drag the framerate down as excellent spell animations and effects fly left right and centre coupled with the flying bodies from the shots from a Hellcannon.
So the price you pay for these great graphics is in a laggy framerate, something that you don't want when you're dealing with large armies clashing in a brutal fight. This brings us onto the actual clash, the unit animations in battle aren't really all that impressive, not when you look at the other games and if Relic can pull off some of the most vibrant combat animations in a RTS, the developers of Mark of Chaos should have made some kind of effort in that direction as well.
You can get extremely close with the camera and there are some nice touches in the gameplay, there's no resource management and the battles play a lot like the Total War series, regiments and unit formations are all in. Various types of orders can be given to your troops and the game has some comprehensive tutorials to help you get the basics you'll need to survive.
It introduces a duel mode where two heroes face off in one on one combat, a nice little touch that spruces up the normal battles. You can upgrade your units in the singleplayer and purchase more from towns, you can even upgrade the hero and add various items just like in the good old days of Warcraft 3 and it's nice to see the customisation of your main heroes is fairly in-depth.
I haven't experienced any XP loss bug for my units but I have spoken to numerous gamers that have, so it's wise to mention it here so that if you do get the game and you lose XP for your units, it's a bug not a feature.
The AI isn't too bad; it has a grasp of tactics and will perform a couple of unit rushes before it begins to look for alternatives. The higher the difficulty setting the more of a challenge you will face, where it starts to use advanced tactics and techniques.
There is a sparse multiplayer component and the retail game mentions something about a dynamic MP campaign, the review copy we have didn't seem to have this feature - or we couldn't track it down. We did have a chance to test several of the MP modes out like Castle Siege, and were disappointed to find it only had one map.
The level of army customisation in the MP game is the same as the SP side, so you can spend quite a bit of time tweaking your chosen army to perfection before you take it on the field to battle AI or human players, the MP really needed more maps, again developers should take a leaf out of Relic's book, these guys know how to pack a game with MP maps and decent sized ones too.
All in all Mark of Chaos is a mixed bag of good and bad, it falls short thanks to some glaring bugs and some atmosphere issues that drag you out of the game with a bang. The voice acting and music is good but nothing stands out, the sound effects are a little tinny at times and they really needed to spruce up the game in a few places.
It's a good solid RTS without resource management that attempts to bring Warhammer Fantasy Battles to life, but just doesn't quite manage it for me.