Warhammer: Mark of Chaos
Games Workshop has certainly grown these last few years. After an indeterminable puberty of horn rimmed glasses and acne wherein it hovered over its painted table top miniatures with the anal-retentive attention only the incurably virginal can maintain, it suddenly came of age. After some fairly awful early attempts, it burst suavely onto the games market with the excellent FPS Fire Warrior, followed by RTS Dawn of War, Winter Assault, and Dark Crusade. Its latest offering, Mark of Chaos, developed by Black Hole Entertainment and Cinegi Productions, and was therefore awaited with much anticipation, the preview cinematic promising epic storylines and enormous production values. What has actually arrived is by no means a bad game, just disappointing that it has not lived up to the franchises' high expectations.
Mark of Chaos is a top down RTS with most of the features we have all come to expect - of closely zoomable views, deformable terrain, formation controls, hero unit upgrades and morale levels. The action takes place in the Games Workshops universe of Warhammer, a place Tolkien would have envisioned if he'd had a habit of steroid abuse and hormonal imbalance, populated by dwarfs, elves, humans, orks, demons, et al. Assuming this site's fine readers are typically acquainted with what the goal of the normal RTS mission is - annihilation of the other little soldiers - Mark of Chaos is easier to consider in terms of what it does not do.
Company of Heroes is still king of the hill in the genre, and this was in no small part thanks to the excellent interface and resource system directly transposed from Dawn of War. The system was simple and immediately accessible, promoting take-and-hold tactics that gave battles a rolling action of attack and counter-attack that could make for some very involving maps. Up until this was introduced, RTS games had tended to either straight copy the Tiberium Farming process, or attempt greater and greater complexity in their resource farming in a movement that would have eventually culminated in a military version of SimCity. Simplicity is often a good thing, and the otherwise quite bad Joint Task Force had an interesting take on the resource element using public opinion as your commodity. Mark of Chaos goes one further and pretty much cuts out all resource collection, any bases, and any buildings of any kind. At the start of battle you will field as many squads as the map allows, and that's it. No reinforcements, no resource collection, no positionable buildings of any kind, just a big field with you and them on it. This is quite a bold step, but one I think many a gamer can get behind. Let us beat our chests and take to the field of battle! Are we not men? Enough of this little-girly home making with little villages! This is a war, not Sylvanian Families! It is also easy to see the element of realism this could lend, as men will no longer pour out of your barrack buildings like a parade of clowns out of a small car. The move does indeed achieve some of these goals - there is no longer that indeterminable quiet period at the start when both sides are simply snatching up resources and stockpiling tanks. In Mark of Chaos you are at the strongest you are going to be right at the start, so immediate bold attacks, charges, and general macho lunacy is the order of the day. There is a moment before hostilities commence where you are able to place your units on a predefined area of the map in the desired formation, but otherwise its straightforward slaughter. Once the blood and smoke has cleared, the victor will be rewarded with a pile of looted gold, which can then be spent at the next village to heal units, recruit new troops, and upgrade armour and weapons, a little bit like traditional action RPGs such as Diablo or Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on a larger scale. The RPG elements are strong in Mark of Chaos. This isn't anything new - full inventory and level-up management is included in most of the Battle for Middle Earth series, but was still most pleasingly implemented in good ol' Warcraft III. The parallels with that last title are particularly apparent, especially in those levels that you will find yourself controlling only your two or three heroes, rather than entire armies as well.
So: all of this really should work. Dawn of War pared down all the RTS frippery and left a wonderful, crunchy war game full of the exaggerated pyrotechnics true to the macho fiction it came from. Since Mark of Chaos has cut out base building altogether, has increased the scale of the armies you field from the dozens to potentially hundreds, and set the fight in a universe of eternal strife and brutality, the player can expect a fast paced visceral, engaging wargasm, right? Unfortunately not.
Mark of Chaos in its pace and balance, seems to show a return to the tabletop games of old - of a slow and steady approach to warfare, cerebrally meted out to large numbers of very tiny units on large, empty hobby tables. An example of the gameplay in most levels follows: Since there is no base building, there is nothing for the armies to do but go straight about the business of killing each other, therefore, from the start the player knows the enemy is approaching. No more tedious hunting about with scout units, its straight to the main event. The player will then arrange his little men into formation - swordsmen up front, riflemen behind them, cannons flanking and a cavalry unit or so mobile to plug a potential breach. Que the enemy knuckling its way towards you over the sparse and empty field, into range of your cannons, then your rifles or bowmen, and maybe, if any survive that long, swords reach. The more involved general can send his cavalry sweeping from side to side, hitting them in the flanks and really ruining their day. However, aside from the occasionally really big beastie or giant, most of the time this will work, with very little involvement from the player. Whilst in Company of Heroes every little guy was precious, here we no longer care if your peasants die by the dozen, since as long as it costs the enemy more dearly, you'll win by numbers. Combined with the sparse, flat terrain that the fighting typically takes place on, the player is left with a fairly hollow, serene experience of war. An enemy unit can be seen coming from a very long way off, in response to which you wheel your squad of eighty bowmen around in a slow, ponderous manoeuvre, who launch arrows that slowly, gracefully arc through the air, turning the target troll into a pincushion. It is likely that controlling a whole pre-motorised army from a gods eye view may well have been like this, but it's just not a lot of fun, all vaguely sleepy and placid. Even cannon fire casually moseys across the map, to be easily followed by scrolling the screen. The maps themselves reflect this unflattering realism - what army in the world would choose to fight in a swamp, or a series of outrageously convenient ambush canyons? Nearly all of the maps are sparse and flat, broken only by a dog-leg by a rock formation, or U-shaped around a single strip of impenetrable forest. With the exception of a couple of sieges - in admittedly excellently drawn castles - the emptiness of the landscape detracts from the illusion of a living war torn world.
When the action gets toe-to-toe, the sense of dislocation continues, as rather than charge then mesh into a brawl of Braveheart style wild swings, severed limbs and screaming, the two fighting squads will very politely queue behind only the first couple of lines of soldiers, slowly taking their place as the ones ahead fall. Mark of Chaos lacks any actual chaos.
The lack of visceral response is certainly not the sound or graphics fault, with this title being easily the prettiest and most power hungry RTS to date. Should you have the smoking hot self-aware Alienware system to hand, the detail, variety and animation of each of the units is excellent, and the scenery at least looks gorgeous. The view is zoomable to the point where it is possible to notice the colour of a trooper's eyes before he blinks as he fires his engraved rifle, and out to take in the whole army of two hundred plus varied units. Chaos Giants tower over your cavalry, swiping them into the air, and tearing them limb from limb and unpleasant mutated beasts drip convincing goo across the earth as they shamble into your firing range. In good swords n' sorcery tradition, many a fight is decided by the heroes duelling - when your hero is in range on an enemy hero, the option will occur to have them duel unmolested by the rest of the battle around them. Again, the player is somewhat divorced from this action, involvement limited to directing when one of four spells should be cast (which is, obviously, as often as possible) and clicking on the occasional health potion. Most missions state that you must keep your main hero alive, so defeat in these duels will mean immediate failure. Winning, on the other hand, will only mean a reduction to the enemy's overall morale, rather than quick victory, which usually gives the player more to lose than to gain in these situations.
The plot, which follows the aforementioned heroes, is surprisingly basic given its Games Workshop pedigree, whose tame scribblers have previously managed to make the writing even in a sci-fi FPS engaging. Told using the in game engine, its all just 'We are terribly good/evil. Oh look, there are some felling puppies for us to save/eat. We must defeat that evil/good army over there to do so. For The Emperor/Satan!'
There is of course the online multiplayer element, which any self respecting RTS will come equipped for in this day and age. The multiplayer game suffers from most of the same shortcomings the single player campaigns have, with the principle exception that a human player will not be silly enough to simply shamble into range of your projectile weapons and get chewed to bits before ever getting in pointy-stick reach. On the other hand, a large number of the maps are sufficiently sparse that there really isn't anywhere to hide or to strategise, and the tactical element can dwindle into the scale of bashing conkers together.
Mark of Chaos is disappointing. More disappointing that the game itself really deserves, as it is a perfectly respectable RTS that has nothing to be ashamed of on your local game stores shelf next to its peers. But the RTS state of the art was essentially set by the immediate evolution of an already excellent Games Workshop title, and the rumour mill continues to grind out the whispers that the upcoming Warhammer MMORPG might even tempt away some of the Warcraft faithful, so that this title couldn't be more is unsatisfactory. Recommended only for dedicated fans of the Warhammer brand, and for players who already blew through Company of Heroes, the Dawn of War series, The Battle for Middle Earth titles, and still need the clash and howl of war.