Version tested: PC
A man walks into in a field. Suddenly, it starts raining axes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of axes, pouring across the skies, all straight at him. He doesn't even flinch, perhaps because, by some miracle, none of them seem to actually hit him. Pull backwards, down a bit, and there's the source of the axes. They're being thrown by a bunch of bald guys in furry pants. I have no prejudice against either bald guys or furry pants - I'm just somewhat confused as to where they keep their infinite supply of throwing axes, given that they're not carrying a sack of 'em, aren't wearing any clothes with pockets in and clearly don't even have hilarious, oversized hairpieces to hide them under. Regardless, they keep throwing, seemingly without effect, and eventually that original man falls over before he can reach them. Presumably this is as a result of the axes, but it's not entirely clear.
Before I talk more about Mark of Chaos itself, a brief diversion. It's generally pretty bad form to talk about stuff in the box when, y'know, there's a game to be discussed and everything, but give me just this one. In the collector's edition of Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, as well as the usual soundtrack, hilariously po-faced novel and artbook tchotchke, there's a cardboard Chaos banner and a fragile plastic stand to put on your desk, suspend menacingly over a baby's cot or whatever. There are also three sheets of blank white cardboard on which to, apparently, paint your own banner. Blank. Cardboard.
They've even put two holes in the top themselves so you can hang your artwork from the plastic stand. This is, of course, a godsend, if a tragic childhood accident means that the tendon in your hand necessary to operate a holepunch no longer works. Now, at last, after years of torment, you can make your own tiny banners - all thanks to this game. If three sheets of blank cardboard aren't enough to justify the £20 asking price over the standard edition, then, well, I just don't know what is. So, back to the game. It can't possibly be as bewilderingly futile as its packaging, can it? Well... not quite. But that hail of phantom axes is not an isolated incident.
Rather than aping Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War's Command & Conquer-esque approach to strategy (one of base-building and resource gathering), this treads more of a pure combat, Total War-esque path. RTT rather than RTS, to be precise. This puts it closer to its tabletop parent than Dawn of War was, and makes for much bigger battles - we're talking hundreds of men and monsters scrapping it out in huge regiments. It's only a bit, rather than a lot, like Warhammer original though, but far more damningly lacks any of the polish of Total War. This is what happens when someone attempts that sort of deep tactical game, where formation, flanking, morale and terrain is critical to success, but doesn't have to the time/budget/inclination/vision/staff to properly fine-tune it.
Charge a couple of towering Rat Ogres into a quivering pack of Swordsmen, and there's very little sense of impact. There's a few animations alright, but most units don't seem to actually be hitting each other - some even stand stock still - plus any formations you might have immediately collapse into an amorphous blob. It's pretty hard to tell who's winning, unless you scour the stats in the mouse-over pop-up boxes. Eventually though, enough men on one side fall over, leading to either total defeat or a morale deficit causing the survivors to flee. The core rules are the same as a TW bout, and thus do require careful thought and preparation rather than mindless rush tactics, but everything beyond that feels weirdly disassociated. The lack of physicality is a major problem that spreads backwards like a stain to the actual fighting - no game attempting this sort of complexity should allow you to immediately disengage from close combat and leg it to safety with only minimal penalty, for instance, let alone actually run forwards /through/ your enemy. Friendly fire is in most cases inexplicably absent too, so you can gleefully pummel a scrum with a ranged regiment and not risk hurting your own troops. Going back to those axethrowers at the start, their preposterous hail of infinite choppers is essentially ghostlike - it's just a rubbish, looped animation with a certain amount of total damage being calculated at regular intervals. Hence, no friendly fire, as the game's only invisibly dice-rolling how many hitpoints each enemy unit would in theory lose, rather than tracking each individual axe - there is no actual impact on either friend or foe. Again, that sense of disassociation: it's often hard to keep a handle on what's going on when you've got a formless muddle of soldiers who only seem to be going through the motions of fighting.
Despite this, hurling big chunks of magical fire at a contingent of Dwarfs and watching them splatter'n'scatter is sterling entertainment, but the fighting does nevertheless become repetitious. In Total War, you've got the immense strategy map to both give you something very different to do and to get a real sense of what kind of odds you're up against before you march to war. Here, the singleplayer campaign is a dull and linear progression from fight to fight. It's split into good and evil flavours, and there are a few optional side-missions, but essentially it's a straight line of relentless and similar battles that you gradually pick up new unit types from. You can spend gold in towns (actually just a series of menus) in between clashes to recruit, repair and upgrade your army, but, unless you spot that the next mission is against a fortress and thus realise that you'll need some siege weaponry, it's pretty much always a matter of buying as much as you can afford, because you're going into the next fight blind. There's a not-terrible plot to care about very vaguely, but really, the campaign is something of a slog.
It's a slightly different, and much improved, matter in multiplayer, where the rules of engagement and army sizes are tailored more by every participant in advance, so Warhammer thus creeps closer to its tabletop origins. There's no unconvincing pretence of the game being about anything more than the battles here, and it feels more robust for it. The same in-battle animation and intangibility problems persist of course, but at least the playing field is level. There's also a greater emphasis on grabbing capture points, which in turn call in reinforcements, meaning battles aren't solely resolved by whoever flanks first wins. There's a strong chance that Mark of Chaos has a good future of online clashes with carefully customised armies minutely tailored by long-time Warhammer players ahead of it. Big, big faults remain though, and it's very difficult to envisage any amount of patching resolving them sufficiently to give the game a universal appeal.
Despite all this criticism, Warhammer is saved from ever being an actual failure by its setting. This isn't just knights and swordsmen and archers and ohgodhistoryistedioussometimes. It's particularly dark fantasy, full of incredible monsters, insanely powerful heroes and sinister magic, but in an admirably straight military approach rather than the usual RTS silliness of chopping wood to build a goblin. And there is some very mild diversity to be had, in the form of RPG-esque Heroes to level up, pick powers and collect items for, creating much more sense of attachment to your army and some interesting ways to turn the tide. That said, an awkward interface means Heroes can be very tricky to manage in the heat of massed battle, and their optional one-on-one 'duels' are a somewhat laughable bout of waiting for special abilities to recharge and potion-guzzling.
Best of all, though, are Skaven. Now, one of the standard tactics of That Guy On The Internet and his 300,000 identical clones, the one who takes even the slightest criticism of something they like or praise of something they dislike as a signal to launch a personal attack on the reviewer, is to scream 'biased!' as soon as possible. Apparently, they've identified some sort of insane deep-seated prejudice against the game/console/band/film/breed of terrier in question on said writer's part. Standard response to That Guy is something like 'I'm a professional critic. Carrying vendettas against or predispositions for specific games is both not in my nature and will stop me from getting work, so every one is approached with an entirely open mind. Though I may think differently if I hear that a developer of something I'm reviewing has previously beaten up my mother.' But, I really like rats. I keep some as pets, in fact. That makes the inclusion of ratmen race the Skaven a theoretically very enticing element of this game for me. How can I possibly approach Warhammer objectively when I can murder a bunch of pantywaist High Elves by setting a slavering horde of my favourite animal (albeit shown here as grotesque and two-legged) onto them?
Well, rather easily. Though pretty damned cool, Skaven really aren't even remotely cute, and in fact I've lately been eyeing my own rats with a degree of mistrust now I've seen just how monstrous they'd be if they suddenly evolved into sword-wielding bipedal form. Still, magic rats, gigantic rats and tunnelling stealth rats are bags of fun, and make Medieval II's men on horses look really boring by comparison. Though others may prefer the more traditional fantasy factions, Skaven are a compellingly different race to play as from the strategy norm, and are a sign of just how much the interestingness of the Warhammer world manages to overcome some really deep-seated flaws in the game. The four races, essentially the Warhammer takes on humans, elves, demons and beasts (with optional mercenary support from Dwarfs or Orcs & Goblins) hardly present a brand new scenario, but the dark, gritty twists Games Workshop puts upon each makes them consistently interesting. More specifically, the use of magic, plus special abilities for certain units, means the game shifts from its initial Total War-clone feel into being something palpably more its own.
I'm dancing around the point a little. That's because there is going to be an inevitable split between tabletop players absolutely delighted with the best-ever visual recreation of their game of choice (though possibly also apoplectic about some of the liberties taken with Warhammer rules) and general strategy gamers nonplussed as to why they'd possibly want to play this messy, sometimes broken-feeling thing over the hugely superior (but less aesthetically inventive) Medieval II: Total War. Or, for that matter, even over Dawn of War, which, though a very different type of game, does killing Games Workshop creations very well indeed. Obviously, what with Eurogamer being a non-specialist publication, I'm marking more for the latter than the former, but they too will get more than a few kicks out of the visual and thematic ideas in Mark of Chaos. They are, though, unlikely to stick with it for long. For the love of God though, don't fork out £50 on the collector's edition. Well, unless you really like blank cardboard.
6 / 10