Being first doesn’t guarantee success. Witness Warhammer Fantasy Battles, nominally the flagship tabletop game from Games Workshop. Though it’s still around and doing reasonably well, GW made the error of creating Warhammer 40,000, which has become infinitely more profitable, not to mention widely licensed. The last major WFB computer game was Dark Omen, and that was published in 1998.
Mark of Chaos thus has a lot of expectations riding on its shoulders. As the only new WFB strategy license in sight, it has to deliver the goods in a market also populated by Relic’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Do the two even compare? No, sadly, but that doesn’t make Chaos a complete waste of time.
The intro movie is promising, certainly. On par with the classic from Dawn of War, we learn that the Empire has just recently defeated the leader of the Chaos Hordes. But as is Chaos’ way, they’re beginning to regroup, ravaging their way across the northern frontier. By the end of the movie you’re ready to ready to lay waste to the Northmen en masse, or the Empire, since you have the choice of both sides.
And there will be carnage. The single-player campaigns cut through vast swaths of the northern Empire, and involve many battles against dozens or hundreds of troops. There’s a good breadth of terrain too, including castles, and you can even choose to embark on optional missions which provide extra gold and experience for your army - assuming it survives.
Army persistence is an example of how Mark of Chaos bears much more resemblance to games like Medieval II than Dawn of War or Warcraft III. There’s no resource farming - you recruit units at towns and villages, paying for the luxury with gold scavenged from the battlefield. If a unit is destroyed in a skirmish, it’s not coming back, and any experience or upgrades it had will be lost as well.
Units are also maneuvered much as in a real medieval army, marching in box or column formation until they enter the fray, when all hell breaks loose. Keeping regiments organized and intact is half the struggle in Chaos. That may not sound entertaining, but trust me when I say that pulling a victory out of the fire can be immensely rewarding.
This being Warhammer of course, not everything is meant to be realistic. Certain Hero units can turn the tide of a fight by enhancing the regiments they’re attached to, as well as by using special abilities such as damage bonuses or area-effect spells. This also gives an excuse for the Duel mode, in which opposing Heroes play a figurative game of rock-paper-scissors while the battle rages around them. It may be difficult to control both the duel and the battle at the same time, but it does give missions an epic quality that many games are missing.
The problem is that once the awe of the game fades, flaws become apparent that make you wish you were playing something like Dawn of War or Medieval II.
Let’s consider Heroes again. They work fine in multiplayer play, where the death of one is a setback but hardly an obstacle to success. In the single-player campaigns, however, losing a single Hero results in mission failure, forcing you to restart hour-long battles because a single unit happened to be too close to the frontline. Is it realistic? Perhaps, but it’s extremely aggravating.
The troop recruitment system can cause similar issues, but is even more insidious in the long run. Sure you can replace fallen regiments, but as the campaigns become progressively difficult, it may not be obvious that you’re taking more losses on the battlefield than you can afford to replace. This can lead to a situation where you’re actually fairly advanced in the game, but completely unable to proceed because the odds are stacked against you. You might well have to replay several missions - or a whole campaign - just to build enough of an army to make progress.
If you don’t intend to compete online, there’s no alternative but to play the campaigns, either. There are no setpiece battles as in Medieval II, nor can you arrange custom matches against the computer. The absence of either is baffling in fact, since virtually any other real-time strategy game has at least one of the two. The campaigns would’ve been much less of an issue had Black Hole bothered with extra features.
Even the graphics can cause unneeded frustration. To the developers’ credit, the game can be absolutely gorgeous at times, with individual soldiers and creatures having tremendous amounts of detail. Some models can appear pre-rendered. But this beauty does come at a cost: to avoid massive slowdowns, your CPU and videocard had better have been made within the last year. You can scale down the detail if you have to, but the edge the game holds is thin enough that you probably won’t want to sacrifice.
The technical side is further marred by a series of bugs, the worst of which was the initial problems with the account and login system hosted by GameSpy. Some users reported being unable to get into the system, even after trying an early patch and multiple accounts. Everything seems to run fine under the 1.6 patch, thankfully, but be prepared for a 313 MB download.
Mark of Chaos makes for a tough recommendation. It can be a great service to fans of Fantasy Battles and medieval warfare in general; the issue is that it demands a perfect storm of circumstances to fully enjoy it. To begin with you'll need a broadband connection, first to download the patch, then later to play online, since you'll inevitably become bored with the campaigns. And that's assuming the campaigns will even hold any interest, since not everyone wants to manage an army, and you now know that a single slip-up can bring the game to a halt. If you're willing to cope with all this, Mark of Chaos may well be for you. I'd simply look to one of the other games I've mentioned.