Orcs and elves have been done so many times at this point that it's easy to be jaded about the arrival of yet another fantasy game. So it's a credit to Warhammer: Mark of Chaos that the game makes you sit up and pay attention when its gloriously detailed 3D units come up onscreen. This strategy game, based on the popular Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniatures game, is a visually impressive affair, though the first chapter in what will probably be a long-lived series doesn't quite live up to its own potential and is saddled with some frustrating technical issues.
The battles in Mark of Chaos are just like the ones in Total War games, only these feature orcs, demons, elves, and other fantasy creatures.
With its beautiful real-time 3D battles, it's natural to want to compare Mark of Chaos to the popular Total War games, which have the same sort of epic battles, only with real-world historical units instead of fantasy ones. And, like the Total War games, Mark of Chaos comes with a turn-based campaign to tie those battles together. Unfortunately, the campaign in Mark of Chaos doesn't feature anywhere near the amount of strategic depth or replayability of Total War. There are two campaigns to choose from in Mark of Chaos. One lets you play from the perspective of the mostly human Empire and its elven allies. The other lets you play as the forces of the orc-heavy chaos faction and its skaven allies, which are essentially humanoid rodents of unusual size. Those four factions are the only ones in the game, which doesn't come close to the number in the miniatures game, but at least there are three variants of each faction. Plus, we must admit that there's something almost sinisterly cool about the Empire faction and the Germanic undertones in its reiksguard units and elector count heroes.
Both campaigns are very linear. All you do is move one army along a predetermined path and engage in scripted battle after battle. Along the way, you'll need to assist a besieged city, crush an encampment of enemy forces, and engage in a one-on-one duel against the enemy hero. There's an occasional branch that happens every now and then where you can pursue an optional mission, but for the most part, the campaign map gives you the illusion of control as you move your army to the only place on the map where it can go. It doesn't help that the map itself is incredibly dark and plain, to the point that it's usually just a brown background. Even the story is drably told, as it's conveyed mainly through static dialogue screens with obligatory growling voice acting for the forces of evil and haughty voice acting for the forces of good. This seems like a lost opportunity considering the incredible prerendered movie that opens the game; it's so amazing that you want the designers to stretch it out to a 90-minute movie and put it in theaters.
While you don't have much choice in the direction of the campaign, you do have some bit of strategic-decision making in the composition of your army. You can recruit different types of units in towns and cities and then outfit those troops with better weapons, armor, and siege gear, as well as banners and musicians that help boost troops' morale in battle. Or, you can also get your troops blessed at a temple, which grants them various protections. And when you do arrive at a battle, you have to decide which troops to take into the fight, as you usually have more troops than battle slots. This involves deciding what kind of battle you want to fight. Do you want to rely on ranged weapons such as bows, axes, or muskets, or do you go for a heavier force and rely on swords and spears? On top of this, your troops gain veterancy the more they fight, which means you want to preserve as much of your force as possible in each battle. Veteran units are both tougher and much larger than green units. You can replace losses after a fight by purchasing them in your army camp, and there's usually enough gold salvaged from each victory that you can restore your losses and purchase a few upgrades.
The campaign gives you the illusion of control, but you really don't have much choice as to where you go next.
In addition to army units, you'll manage hero units throughout the campaign. Heroes are just that: powerful individuals who lead your armies and engage in one-on-one duels against enemy heroes. Heroes gain experience over time, and those experience points can then be invested into three areas. You can boost a hero's command ability, which means that if you attach a hero to a regiment, the hero can use special skills to boost the fighting abilities of the regiment. These range from a special magical shield that grants protection to each man in the unit to flaming weapons. You could also invest those points in dueling skills, which make the hero more effective in those one-on-one duels. Or, you can invest those points into fighting skills, which make the hero more powerful in general battle.
Heroes can also be equipped with weapons and equipment salvaged from the battlefield, like magical swords, mystical armor, or protective rings. They can also use special one-time potions and scrolls that might restore health or mana (used to power abilities and spells). However, you can't easily trade any equipment between heroes, which can be annoying. For example, your mage might accidentally pick up the heavy armor that your warrior hero could use, but there's no way to readily transfer the armor from one hero's inventory to another.