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Warhammer: Mark of Chaos

The mark that's harder to shift than beetroot

Games Workshop are a fascinating company. What they're trying to sell isn't just games. It's an idea; what they refer to as "The Hobby".

The Hobby is supported by three primary pillars: Collecting, Painting and Gaming. That is, you go out and spend money expanding your army of little guys with spears or guns or similar things. You then spend time daubing them in Goblin Green and Bad Moon Yellow and trying to work out whether dry-brushing is something you should experiment with or actually something quite rude. You then spend all your mental resources trying to outfox opponents by remembering all the rules. For all its failings, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos comes closer to capturing The Hobby than any Games Workshop game to date.

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It's an RTS that plays a little like a cross between Total War and something more traditional, but set in GW's long-running Warhammer fantasy universe. If you're primarily a videogamer, you're probably more familiar with the grim future of Warhammer 40,000, where there is ONLY WAR - as seen in games like the superlative Dawn of War and the not-superlative Fire Warrior. Warhammer is a different, earlier kind of fantasy. It's a couple of dozen notches darker than the usual Tolkien fare, set in a gothic Europe where the lands of the Germanic Empire are under constant threat from foes both inside and out, mainly the corrupting forces of the Chaos Gods.

Of the three pillars, Collecting is the one that is only approached tangentally. Since getting you to pay for individual units in blisterpacks isn't really feasible, you're allowed to gather your virtual army between missions. The game features two stories to follow, one based around the Imperial forces and the other around dread Chaos. The former centres around a scarfaced Hero Knight who has to defend the land, the latter a fledgling Champion of Chaos who has to raise an army and crush the land. Different strokes for different folks, and all that.

At first glance, the campaign looks like Total War: there's a big map, split into territories. But hold on. Rather than huge tactical choices, this is a purely linear mission-based game. It's Ludo: you follow a path until you reach the end. Occasionally a fork offers optional sidemissions, but it's mainly just something to break up the story and allow you to build up your forces by spending gold.

You see, also like the Total War games, during combat there's no opportunity to expand your forces. You arrive with your army. You leave with your army, minus the bits your enemies chopped off. There's no resource gathering, no chance for you to build a base and barracks, and certainly no chance to churn out new units. Instead, you'll pick up troops in between missions, when you visit towns. There, you can spend money on the expensive Knights of the Temple, or purchase another unit of Handgunners. You can improve a unit's weapons or armour, or buy a standard at the armoury to improve their morale. You can even raise a fallen hero from the grave, or just buy your surviving one a fancy new magic sword.

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The battlefield is where the Gaming pillar shows its face, and again, there's a sense of Total War. Units are controlled en mass, rather than as individual soldiers. Their facing will influence the rate of deaths. And morale is of paramount importance, most units running before they're annihilated, leaving them vulnerable to anyone pursuing them. Obviously, this being a fantasy game, there are a few units that would be somewhat out of place in the hard historical world of Total War. Like the Rat-Ogres. Or the knights-on-gryphons. Or the demons. Or... well, about half the units. It's Warhammer!

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