The Basics: Dawn of War was a dark and brutal foray into the real-time strategy genre, with massive battles and meticulous attention to detail that satisfied the stringent fans of the Warhammer universe. Now Black Hole Entertainment has expanded on all of this for Mark of Chaos, featuring a diverse number of races, from rat men to dark elves, with cooperative campaigns focusing on four major armies, including the lawful Empire or the bloodthirsty Chaos, along with a number of multiplayer modes.
The first thing you'll notice is each race has a distinct color and look so each individual soldier stands out among the hundreds of clashing forces. Get closer and you'll notice that every unit is unique with the nearly the level of detail you expect from a next-gen RPG. Taking this further, these units can be customized by body part swaps, and armor and weapon detailing inspired by the figures found in the tabletop game that it's based on. These customized armies can then be taken online to show off your detail job as you crush the rampaging hordes of your friends. These units also look just as good in motion, with fluid animation and special sequences for unique attacks, making them seem less like a robotic RTS battle and more epic like those in the Lord of the Rings movies. This is aided by advanced physics modeling where characters stagger from heavy blows or get scattered like shrapnel from a powerful cannon blast. Expect blood and scattered limbs, but hey this is a dark universe after all.
The controls are pretty standard for the RTS genre with the ability to select your troops individually and set hotkeys for special unit selections. One addition is the ability to change formations mid-march, allowing you to see how they'll be arrayed once they reach their destination. More significant is the dueling system. Just as in the tabletop game, two champions of opposing armies can come forward to go at it one on one, while their forces pull back and wait for the result. The skill selection also changes to fit this up close and personal melee, making it a bit more like combat found in some of your better MMORPGs. Stand victorious and the morale of the opposing army will be broken, forcing them to flee for a time, while the fallen hero will drop an item that you can use to boost your forces for the battle that still lies ahead.
While there's some vague visual similarities to the Warcraft series, Warhammer isn't about playing nice with gathering up your resources to build proper little buildings. It's about blood and carnage, so the main gameplay style starts you off with a certain number of gold to finance your personal horde. In reinforcement battles, however, you need to secure reinforcement camps scattered over the map, building up your forces gradually and hopefully faster than your rivals. Then there's siege mode, where you'll either be defending or assaulting a stone fortress, where making too strong a defense can actually make it difficult to see what the invaders are up to. Here especially Mark of Chaos becomes a game of wits where planning is more important than brute force.
What we think: RTSes have never been the graphical darlings of the videogame industry, but Mark of Chaos is loaded with detail, especially in the richly textured and animated units that take to the bloodied fields by the hundreds, or draw back to allow their giant champions to crush their rivals. It's immediate and tactical that avoids the downtime and tedium found in more resource-focused RTSes. Yet it doesn't end up feeling shallow because of it, but only more centered on planning how you attack before the first blow lands.
A deep campaign mode complete with cooperative play is something I'd get plenty of use out of, but what was more interesting to me was ricing up my personal forces and taken them against other players in the online arena. The number of players for the final game hasn't been locked down yet, since it all depends on just how many soldiers they can pack onto the screen at once, but it'll likely be eight. There will also be ranked matches and leader boards for people wanting to prove themselves as the supreme commander, but I'd much rather win or fail against friends without having to worry about rank, as long as I have fun in the process.
For fans of the Warhammer universe, RTS addicts in general, or people who want to leader massive armies but were intimidated by resource trees and other micromanagement, Mark of Chaos seems to have something for everyone who doesn't mind the bit of spilled blood and roars of demonic fury that fill the battlefield.