Warhammer: Chaosbane Review
Stuck in repetition perdition
There is a wide selection of games that fit into the Diablo mould. In recent times, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II, Torchlight 2, and Grim Dawn were all impressive action-RPG experiences thanks to a mix of combat, loot, monster variety, replayability, depth, and good presentation. Warhammer: Chaosbane is another such isometric hack-and-slash game, but it fails to compete. Aside from decent combat and good visuals, it suffers because of severe repetition and a general lack of refinement.
The story begins by making you a hero. Your character has just fought against the servants of Chaos and was right beside Magnus, human Emperor, when he defeated the evil leader. With the enemy armies scattered in the wind, you return to the tower of Nuln as a highly-skilled warrior due for some much-deserved rest. So it makes perfect sense when you start the game with no equipment and one skill. RPG conventions demand starting from a blank slate, but this sloppy intro also typifies issues with the story not quite gelling with how it is presented.
Chaos forces strike back. Cultists attack the tower and Magnus is imprisoned by a magical spell. Your goal is to free him before he dies, which drives the entire story across four chapters as you chase those responsible. Unfortunately most of the quests are boring, being less engaging than fetch tasks in an open-world game. Part of this is because levels are repetitive, but the mission design is certainly a source of blame. When you’re not killing a generic boss character, you’re making your way to an indistinct camp. When you’re not clearing monsters ‘in the area’, you’re rescuing more prisoners. Only at the end of each chapter is there a sense of progress, as you are whisked to a new area after a major boss fight.
You play as one of four classes: Soldier, Mage, Scout, and Slayer. They are typical of the genre and cover a good range. Soldier has a shield for high defense and he can deal extra damage when enemies bear down. Mage comes up with massive elemental damage and some fancy teleporting. Scout can corral enemies and use her various bow attacks or summoned creatures, although her voice acting is hard to endure. And the Slayer just jumps about, chopping enemies apart with axes. All classes have a specific ability they can use frequently; for example, the Scout can dodge-roll and the Mage can change the direction of active spells.
Every class has their own unique skills which are automatically unlocked as you level up. Sometimes you will unlock an improved version of an existing skill, although functionality remains basically the same. The system is too restrictive early on because only a few slots are available and each skill requires a number of points to equip. Using a new skill might require removing another or waiting to level up a few more times. This annoying restriction is gone when playing as a second character since you have access to all the points from the start, making the levelling process smoother and more freeing.
Most of my time was spent with the Soldier. Although there are a few different builds, at high levels the action focused on strafing enemies, so they cluster into groups, and leaping into the middle just before unleashing a powerful ground attack. Additional damage was dealt with a ring of fire spell, a swiping energy attack, and a damage buff. The Soldier’s ability to take damage was admirable but the action was never stagnant. One disappointment of the class is that all three weapon types—hammers, maces, swords—function the same and gear variety was mediocre outside the rare red items that never dropped once in the main campaign.
Regardless of what class you pick, the combat is brisk when playing the middle difficulties. Enemies crumble under skills that deal a wide amount of damage. The game encourages players to aggravate many foes so skills are more efficient. All classes have energy reserves that can be regenerated by performing certain attacks, so mixing things up is beneficial outside of managing the normal cool-downs. Every so often a monster will drop a red orb, which restores health and adds to a Bloodlust meter. Get the meter high enough and you can unleash massive damage for a short time and reap extra loot rewards. Although not all classes can get the orbs easily (as they expire quickly), the damage spike makes them worth hunting. Even without Bloodlust, there is minimal downtime and each battle is over quickly.
Despite the short and sweet encounters, the game becomes tedious fast because there is inadequate level variety. The first two chapters are woefully bland as you traipse through identical sewers and duplicating city streets. The last two chapters are fractionally better, located in snowy forests and the beautiful Chaos realm, although both environments have overly narrow sections. Like other games in the genre, the levels are comprised of random pieces. But the blocks are nowhere near diverse enough. They are huge chunks pasted together in predictable ways and it only takes minutes to notice patterns. Even the overhead map shows the seams. The same straight-road section in the second chapter must have appeared half a dozen times in one level. All of this repetition is a shame because the design and art style of the environments is generally quite good.
Perhaps the level design issues would not have cut so deep if the enemy variety was better. Each chapter takes a handful of enemies and reuses them to exhaustion. Cultists and other Warhammer creatures are recolored for each chapter. Most types are predictable and stand around when being attacked. Occasionally a healer will run away and a bigger foe prepares a ground attack to avoid, but it’s all quite pedestrian. The four main bosses offer the only interesting battles because they require precise movement and experimentation. Unlike almost every other game of this type, none of the creatures’ names are listed anywhere—not via their health bar and not in a separate bestiary. Excluding the chapter bosses, the game taught me nothing about the Warhammer universe’s strange inhabitants. A quick search reveals that about 80 percent of the enemies in the sewers are called Nurglings, so perhaps this was done to hide how often the same creatures appear.
If you can tolerate smashing the same enemies in copy-pasted levels, then multiplayer is available for groups of four. All of the single player content can be played and there are also boss runs (time and loot efficient) and random levels. With four players throwing out skills that cause broad carnage, the combat is frenetic but not too busy. There are good benefits of staying in groups: skills provide damage buffs or healing, melee characters can take the heat, and players who enter Bloodlust mode will drop extra loot.
Sadly the multiplayer is barebones and unstable. There is no game browser, so high-level players regularly joined those just starting the campaign. You cannot choose the difficulty or chapter. The only requirement for joining a random game is that you have progressed beyond that point in the story. Online matchmaking emphasized connection quality and, for the most part, the network delays were minor or invisible. No host migration is available though, so the game ends if the host leaves or crashes. Many quests had abrupt online transitions and some non-hosts got stuck in doorways. Even basic features are absent, like trading with players or showing character levels. While the single player had no crashes, there was at least one crash per hour online.
The problematic online play is just an example of the game's technical issues. Some monsters ran around and could not be targeted; at other times, dead bodies could be selected and attacked. Navigation was an issue for mobs, as they often got stuck behind chests and floated in the air, and trapped themselves in walls. By far the most annoying issue was being killed in a cut scene after the third main boss because of negative health regeneration, forcing me to replay the entire fight.
Unless you’re a big fan of the universe, Warhammer: Chaosbane can be skipped. It’s just too repetitive and bland to provide more than a few hours of entertainment via its decent action and pleasing visuals. Level design suffers because environment chunks reappear many times over the dull eleven-hour campaign. Enemy variety is not much better, with some creatures overused on a per chapter basis and others persisting throughout. The boss battles are good on the first try but the game has weak replay value outside of trying every class. Multiplayer lacks features and is too unstable to provide consistent enjoyment. It’s impossible to recommend this title when there are so many other isometric action-RPG games that do just about everything better for longer.