Since Games Workshop released Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles which began its Warhammer Fantasy tabletop line the Warhammer Fantasy setting has become a prominent and tragically underrepresented franchise in fantasy gaming. Its diverse army lists, refined combat model, and well-developed setting and narrative make Warhammer Fantasy the perfect playground for role-playing games, video games, and even movies if anyone would care to invest the effort.
All this is probably the most prominent reason why Black Hole Entertainment’s production Warhammer: Mark of Chaos deserves notice from the gaming community. Mark of Chaos is not the first tactical strategy computer game made for the Warhammer Fantasy setting but it is the first one to integrate tactical battles, strategic army management, and hero leveling elements on a level indicative of the table-top game’s detail and complexity.
Players familiar with Creative Assembly’s Total War series will recognize many gameplay elements in Mark of Chaos such as regiments of units, rather than single unit models; static battle maps, and combat elements like unit morale and obstructive terrain features. Mark of Chaos features a single player campaign where the player chooses to command either the Empire and Elves in a good aligned role or fight for evil as Chaos and the Skaven. The campaign is played out through a series of what essentially amount to scripted battles where the campaign’s iconic hero and the player’s ever growing army face various challenges such as rival hero units looking to dual or organized regiments defending a strategic location. Between battles the player may spend gold looted from their victories to upgrade the units in their army with better equipment and add-ons. As the campaign progresses additional elite and specialized units can be recruited into their army, although each battle has a maximum number of units that can be deployed forcing players to choose what strategy to adopt in the later game.
Battles are where the single player section of the campaign shines. Most of the units from each faction’s tabletop armies are present in the game and are very well adapted to their respective roles on the battlefield. Cannons are long ranged and effective but slow and vulnerable to enemy cavalry units. Monsters are equally powerful but prone to drawing enemy fire and can become unruly during combat. The user interface is fairly simple and straightforward ensuring players can rapidly move between regiments to issue orders. Traditional military roles are present in some form in each army with pikemen, archers (or musketeers), light infantry, and cavalry all available to balance out an armed force.
Sadly the campaign’s story does not equal the luster of the battlefield. Voice acting is fair, with most of the cut-scenes taking place ‘in-game’ using unit graphics. The story line itself is properly done, but rather predictable and for the most part unaffected by the player’s choices on the campaign map (except for a very entertaining choice point for the Chaos faction). The campaign for both factions is worth playing through and the developers were generous enough to allow the player to experience most of the game’s units over the course of the missions (with a tragically notable exception in the High Elf Dragon Prince). However once finished there is little to endear the game to further single player activity.
A skirmish mode, treated as a subset of multiplayer by the game, is available where the player can run single fixed battles. A small selection of maps is available with three battle types. Arena is a simple army vs army clash; Siege is similar to Arena with the objective switching to defending or conquering a fortified position, and Reinforcement where strategic points around the map can be captured to generate income that allows reinforcements to be called during the course of the battle. These modes allow the player to experience the well implemented army and unit designs, but a lackluster AI and absence of any driving narrative quickly become repetitive.
Multiplayer follows the same options as the skirmish mode. Up to 4 players can participate in a single battle. A preset number of points provides the basis for players to assemble their army with stronger units costing more points. As in the campaign each army is led by a hero unit with different powers, abilities, and focus such as army command, dueling, and personal combat. As the part of the game that most closely resembles its tabletop roots the multiplayer has the potential to be Mark of Chaos’ best aspect but unstable internet connections can quickly ruin any session and the game lacks diversity in its map choices, particularly for Siege and Reinforcement battles.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos is a proper forerunner to what could have been and still could be a very entertaining series of games. Replay options are low and it features few if any groundbreaking design elements, but what it does have, namely detail, an effective control interface, and entertaining combat are all things that great tactical and strategic level strategy games should strive for and the groundwork requirements for any game seeking to faithfully adapt the Warhammer Fantasy setting. The game is entertaining enough to warrant purchase and play-through.
After the announcement of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer it seems that Warhammer Fantasy strategy gaming is moving to a different medium but that doesn’t mean Creative Assembly and other developers can’t learn from what Mark of Chaos did right. Games like this need to be supported at least to show developers that Warhammer Fantasy can and should become a leading title in the fantasy section of RTS and Grand Strategy gaming genres.