Can you remember the first time you saw the final battle scene at Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers? The part where Gandalf comes over the top of the hill at the exact moment of the sunrise, blinding the Orcs, and allowing a swift and deadly blow to the forces of darkness holding the fortress. The build up of adrenaline over that scene is immense, and I got the same feeling from the opening movie of Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. The superbly detailed CGI movie portrays the opposing sides of the war inside two minuets and is more than enough to get excited about. The next step, then, would be to take that excitement and inject it into the gameplay. During a visit to Warhammer HQ in Nottingham, I got my hands on the latest build of Mark of Chaos and some serious time with the developers. Just how well is the game shaping up and, more importantly, am I now a geek?
To understand Mark of Chaos, a short explanation of the Warhammer universe is needed. Warhammer at its roots is a table-top role-playing game. Each unit (i.e. archers, chariots etc) has its own level of movement, which is all measured in inches (well, imperial probably sounds more battle worthy than decimal). As each unit is placed on the battlefield, you roll numerous dice in an effort to defeat opposing teams and defeat their battle commander, or their army to win the game. So, after the shortest description ever, how would this translate to the PC playing field?
Transported into the Real-Time Strategy genre, Warhammer has always been a huge selling franchise, capitalising on the near fanaticism of some players to create the ultimate in fantasy-led role play. Speaking to Senior Producer at Namco Chris Wren, I asked just what Mark of Chaos had for the hardcore fan and casual players alike?
"So, we've got so much in this game and we've worked tirelessly with Warhammer here in the UK to create the ultimate game for fans, but at the same time something that's accessible to the average gamer. We think we've struck a good balance and made the best Warhammer game yet." Clearly a man confident about his game's chances of success, but to understand why he's so confident, you have to realise that the guy's a big Warhammer fan.
'... the multiplayer banner system is cool enough to let you design your own banners in Photoshop and share them with other people over the net.'
The relationship between Namco and Warhammer when making the game has been superb to say the least. Where most games have milestones on a monthly basis - where assets are approved, features given the go ahead and the entire game is rubber stamped by the licence owner - Mark of Chaos isn't just different, it's revolutionary. There are no Milestones for approval, just a daily approval list, with constant contact between Warhammer and Namco. If a certain feature is a possibility for addition to the game, Namco request approval from Warhammer, who check to see if the feature is in-keeping with the Warhammer universe, and if not, they try to find a way to make it work. Other publishers take note; good relations with the license owner such as this can make for great games, or in Mark of Chaos' case, the potential for a great game..
Anyway, what about the game? Well, I don't want to spill all the beans just yet, but there's going to be something for everyone in Mark of Chaos. Little touches such as enemy bodies that don't mysteriously disappear after shuffling off their mortal coils; arms flying off when slashed by huge swords; a weight system, meaning larger characters move slower than smaller ones, including over terrain and in battle - they all make for a highly polished title.
I could run into hundreds of words just talking about features and how encompassing the game design has been to this stage. Hundreds more could be churned out to explain how well the combat system works or how the multiplayer banner system is cool enough to let you design your own banners in Photoshop and share them with other people over the net. The list goes on and hopefully impresses how much of a pleasant surprise Mark of Chaos was.
For those amongst you unaware of Mark of Chaos, it's time you stood up and accepted that the geek still lives inside you, and he's aching to get out. At its current stage, Mark of Chaos is your invite to Geekfest 2006, but more importantly, it's a party to which everyone is invited. It's a party I'll be attending, not because I'm a huge Warhammer fan, but because I am now genuinely interested. Even if the excellent Warhammer Employees hadn't so enthusiastically taken me through their own private universe, the game itself would've done the same thing. Even at this stage of development, Mark of Chaos looks more polished than the average RTS on release, and it's a game we'll gladly review in the coming months. The question you have to ask yourself is, 'do I have time for this kind of game?' Come winter this year you'll be making time.
Check back soon for more impressions, leading to a full review later this year.