As something of a geek by nature there are certain things that I take to like a duck to water. Computer games, sci-fi books and obsession with pirates and ninjas? Check. Yet the one thing that you can't pin on that list is Warhammer, which I guess is pretty unusual for someone like me. I'm not sure what it is about it, most likely the sheer amount of painting and rule-memorising required but, despite the fascinating background lore, Warhammer has just never interested me as a hobby. My lack of interest in it is most likely why Mark of Chaos slipped under my radar, but it turns out that I should have had an eye on it all along.
Mark of Chaos converts the classic Warhammer formula and setting into an RPG/RTS mix. It's somewhat of an odd combination, but one which, thankfully, plays out better than other attempts at this genre mix. Gameplay involves a simple combination of hero and troop management, with the former constituting the RPG element and the latter making up the RTS experience. Heroes, the number of which will grow as you progress, are simply characters who lead your troops into battle, much like the generals in Rome: Total War. The difference here, however, is that the heroes can be attached to any unit you like and can be upgraded as they earn experience, which they gain through kills. Each hero has a unique skill tree which is split into Combat, Command and Duel branches. Heroes then function as the figureheads of your armies and lead them around an incredibly linear map towards the next battle, and it's here that these skills come into play.
Heroes of either campaign (Empire or Chaos) can utilise their skills to gain advantages over their enemies. Combat skills are fairly self explanatory and mostly consist of devastating attacks or hit bonuses. Command skills are a little more involved as they can be used to give morale boosts or other aids to the unit that your hero is attached to - increasing the accuracy of all nearby handgunners, for example. However, Duel skills are where it gets the most interesting. If two opposing heroes get too close together a Hero Duel can then be initiated which encases the two battling champions in a 'circle of honour' that excludes other units. The two warriors can then battle it out as you direct the timely use of their duel-specific skills. Deciding the right time to give yourself a '+1 Damage' bonus is rarely the turning point of the battle, but it does make for some interesting multitasking as you try to wage a full scale war with one hand and a one-on-one slugging match with the other.
While strategic battles do form the largest portion of the game, it's undeniable that the RPG nature of the hero management adds a little extra satisfaction - especially when you manage to ram home a damaging Duel Skill attack. The same is true of the optional missions and large maps which can be scoured for extra rewards, whether they be simple gold deposits or potions and items that can be equipped to heroes to yield yet more advantages.
Unfortunately for Mark of Chaos, its otherwise brilliant gameplay is let down by a handful of oversights in terms of its design and, it has to be said, these oversights are massive glaring monstrosities that are forever hovering on the more noticeable side of your peripheral vision. Take a closer look at the heroes, for example. On the surface everything seems fine - they can be upgraded and equipped with all manner of items and armours. On the other hand, if you accidentally or instinctively click on the wrong skill when levelling up then there's no option to undo your mistake. Likewise, there is no capability for heroes to share goods amongst themselves, which makes picking up loot from the battlefield a bit of a gamble. It's not something that is game destroying, or anywhere near it, but it is annoying. In fact, it's very annoying - especially in an otherwise well polished game.
Visually the game is very near to being one of the best looking RTS games available. The battlefields and army units all look great, and the lighting is excellent, but the animations of your soldiers really let the overall presentation down. They simply don't give the impression that a hard, bloody battle is taking place, and pale in comparison to the exceptional battle animations seen in Relic's Dawn of War series. There's support for six-player matches over a LAN or the internet, but online matches weren't easy to get going due to a bug-ridden account and log-in system.
It's these problems that render Mark of Chaos a decent, but not great game. It's a rather chaotic mix of excellent gameplay and flawed finishing, but as the beginning of what should be a continuing series of RTS games, it's by no means a bad start. For now THQ and Relic still rule the roost when it comes to Warhammer RTS games, but they do at least have a challenger.