Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Black Hole Games
Release Date: November 14, 2006
If you've ever wanted to go medieval in real-time, now's your chance. The tabletop miniatures of Game Workshop's dark fantasy war game stride into RTS territory with Black Hole Games' adaptation, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. The mechanics of fantasy war are evoked well, although purists will inevitably debate about to what degree it holds faithful to the rules of the roleplaying game. While the dust settles on that argument, fans of RTS willing to overlook a slightly linear plot and sometimes repetitive gameplay will find a lot to enjoy in this energetic, highly playable strategy game.
The game's single-player campaign mode sees you to take on the role of Stefan von Kessel, a champion of the Empire, or Thorgar the Blooded One, a champion of the Chaos. Each campaign takes place over the course of the same war, except seen from opposing vantage points and featuring different endings. The simple, overly linear plot advances in a series of rudimentary cut scenes whose highly laudable voice acting talents are severely let down by sub-par graphics with questionable camera work and lip-synching that a ventriloquist's dummy would scorn.
The gloomy world of Warhammer features expansive frigid wastelands, hellish vistas soaked in gory hues, gothic villages veiled in mist and clinging perilously to barren outcrops, and gloomy fortresses studded with the impact of unsuccessful sieges. These provide the perfect backdrops for the spilling of much Orc and human blood. Yet for all the artistic style of the battlefield backdrops, they remain rather stationary, sparsely populated spaces, lacking in the sorts of animation that could add vitality to the action.
Despite this one setback, the graphics are generally outstanding. The individual units are so well rendered that they almost make you forget you're watching an army of clones battle it out. Each character model is realized with a surprisingly high level of detail, from their battle raiment to the arms they bear. The rising dust and flying blood of a melee are complemented by excellent lighting and hazy fire effects of magic projectiles. Certain area effect missiles will send bodies flying into the air in a graceful ragdoll physics ballet. The overall effect, if you take the time to zoom in for a closer look, is an eye candy extravaganza that points toward the next generation of graphics for real-time strategy titles. As is often the case with these sorts of games though, I tended to spend much of my time zoomed out commanding the large armies from a bird's eye view so the blood spilt for my sadistic viewing pleasure was largely spilt in vain.
Gameplay in Warhammer has been streamlined into the pure point-and-click of real-time strategy action. There is no quiet time for resource collection, strategic arms piling, or researching buildings to churn out superior units. The focus is on the fight, and this singular vision largely works in the game's favor - that is until it becomes overly repetitive. Without a strong storyline to drive the action, the appeal will depend on your tolerance and patience for what are basically long, drawn-out skirmishes.
This monotony is alleviated slightly by the progressive introduction of new units whose advantages and vulnerabilities it is up to you to figure out during the course of your next fracas. Unlike the Age of Empire games, for example, Warhammer doesn't spell out the rock, paper, scissor mechanics of different units so you'll have to figure it out yourself, which maybe a boon for some players and a frustrating trial-and-error experience for others. Perhaps a more serious bug is the lack of friendly fire damage, meaning your artillery units can fire straight into the dense front lines without affecting your own soldiers. A future patch will hopefully address this issue.
Battles will look and feel incredibly familiar to RTS gamers who have played offerings from the Total War series. Before the start of battle, you are allowed to draw out unit formations, set up ambush points using terrain, and man choke points within a limited radius. Your army consists of unit types grouped in regiments that can assume different formations and battle spreads. You can also rotate the direction your regiments face, since your flanks and rear are obviously more vulnerable your front. When the whistle blows, it's simply a bitter and relentless fight to the death of your or your opponent's last unit. This fact, coupled with the way your units receive experience and benefits from surviving fights, will force you to be strategic and careful with them – they're more than just sword sponges.
In a vein similar to other RTS games, morale is an important governing feature that can make or break your forces and is constituted by a number of factors. Different units, and their corresponding level and experience, possess weaker or stronger wills to stick around and face the enemy when things are going badly, and these sorts of considerations will force you to think strategically in the placement and deployment of units before and during a fight.
Warhammer also employs another staple of the RTS – the hero. These individual characters are superior mages and warriors endowed with extraordinary fighting abilities. Their spells and special attacks will send enemies flying and fleeing, but they rely on a limited and shared pool of power that regenerates at differing rates, depending on how the winds of magic blow. Your heroes level up using a simple RPG system, where you can allocate level points to new or existing skills in one of three areas: combat, dueling or command. Your Bright Wizard will one day be able to devastate foes with his superbly titled Conflagration of Doom, and improve command skills will confer sizeable bonuses on your hero's ability to lead and protect units in combat.
A new feature that Warhammer introduces is the ability for two heroes in close proximity to engage in a duel. Upon initiating a duel, the two powerhouses will push aside other units and engage in a one-on-one fight. The death or cowardly flight of one or the other hero will invoke a severe morale hit to all of his units. It's a neat way of taking powerful characters out of play for a limited time, and it brings another strategic decision to the table. However, the actual fighting mechanism involves little engagement on your part except for hitting the special ability button or using a potion every time they recharge.
Another unique aspect of heroes in Warhammer is their ability to carry items which can either be equipped or carted around in a leather satchel. Some items confer statistical bonuses to mana and attack ratings, while others allow you to regenerate health and add extra hit points. Items can usually be picked off the steaming fresh corpses of your adversaries, or else purchased in towns along the way.
In between battles, the view switches to an overhead map where you walk your protagonist between towns and battle sites. The towns might have been an opportunity to add a little character to the game, but instead are simply functional menu screens without an ounce of personality or interaction. Occasionally, your path will fork, and you will have the option to advance the plot, or take a side battle to earn more experience and loot more items.
In towns, you can replenish your war-weary troops by spending your hard-pillaged gold. Temples, barracks, alchemists and armories are all ready and willing to take your money in exchange for various upgrades and unit additions. While you can spend gold to bolster the number of men in an existing unit at a camp, towns are the only place you can buy additional units, which just adds to the care you have to exercise during fights in between towns.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos employs a lot of winning concepts from other successful RTS games and lavishes attention to detail to come up with a graphically superior product. In addition, a deeper hero system and some interesting RPG mechanics bring something new to an old formula. However, it falls behind with its skimpy plotline, which is made worse by a series of monotonous missions which usually involves sweeping the map and killing everyone. Consider buying Warhammer if you're in the mood for a fun but flawed gothic fantasy romp.
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