When you consider how tough it is to make a good computer conversion of a board game, it's surprising how many decent PC games based upon Warhammer there are. Final Liberation, Dark Omen, Space Hulk, and Shadow of the Horned Rat all did more or less right by this complex series of tabletop wargames created by Games Workshop. Of course, the best Warhammer game, Warcraft, wasn't even really a Warhammer game at all. Some captured the feel of miniature figures battling each other on a 3D landscape better than others, but Chaos Gate finally gets it all right. Where Dark Omen was limited by its real-time gameplay and Final Liberation by its poor figure graphics, Chaos Gate finally delivers a Warhammer game that's just right: decent graphics, flexible gameplay, and an excellent re-creation of the rules that make the table game work so well.
Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate (the full title) is the third time to the well for Random Games' phased combat engine. First seen in the disappointing Wages of War, it showed a promise that was not wholly fulfilled until its adaptation for SSI's Soldiers at War. Even then, some of its limitations, such as tacky production elements, small maps, no vehicles, no keyboard support, and a screen that obscured a large piece of the map kept it from really shining. Chaos Gate has fixed a lot of these nuisances to deliver one of the few really entertaining turn-based combat games since X-COM.
Chaos Gate uses the Warhammer 40,000 rules, units, and storyline. For those unfamiliar with the series, it takes place in a far-distant future in which feudal space marines fight the forces of Chaos using a combination of powered battle armor, exotic weapons, and vehicles. Chaos Gate pits the Ultramarines against the forces of Chaos and their daemon allies. Five-man squads fight on isometric maps in phased combat using weapons ranging from conventional bolters, flamers, and missile launchers, to elaborate close-combat weapons such as the chain fist, power ax, and lightning claws.
Special units called "Psykers" use a wide array of psychic attacks, while a handful of armored personnel carriers and one heavily armed dreadnought round out the battlefield units. Unfortunately, you can only play as the Ultramarines, which is a mystifying and pretty unforgivable lapse.
The atmosphere is sci-fi gothic, with maps spanning cities, countryside, fortifications, and other regions. Maps are still fairly modest in size, but because this is squad-level close combat, it's not as much of a problem. Fighting can range from valleys, caves, and open fields to house-to-house, room-to-room fighting. The game system has been improved and streamlined since Soldiers at War. There is no longer that large frame blocking one-third of the screen. Important commands such as movement and fire can be done with the mouse, and more complex actions such as tossing grenades, using medikits, selecting a weapon, and opening doors are easily accessible via onscreen buttons. There is still insufficient keyboard support, which remains irritating, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of the system, and once you do it makes for quick and easy strategizing.
There are 15 scenarios that can be played individually or as part of a campaign. The campaign simply connects these 15 scenarios into a loose narrative involving the fight against the Chaos Lord Zymran. This canned campaign works better than expected since units accrue experience and become more effective fighters with each scenario. The campaign system also mixes things up by slipping randomized "missions of opportunity" into the mix. In between the fixed scenarios, the system may generate an optional hunt-and-destroy mission, which helps build troop experience. It's not the best solution to a campaign system, but it works well enough.
Randomized missions and a full mission editor stretch the value, which is necessary considering the paltry 15 scenarios. You can randomize missions with specific settings that determine the kind of map you'll fight on, object density, mission type, number of units, and other parameters. The full editor is even more powerful, since it places all elements of map creation, objects, units, triggers, and victory requirements in your hands. Four-person multiplayer, supported via IPX and TCP/IP, allows you to choose a map and select exactly which units to use in battle.
There's very little to actually complain about in Chaos Gate. The graphics aren't quite as sharp as some other current strategy games, and the voice acting sounds as though it was recorded through a tin can, but these really don't affect the core fun factor of the game. A few more missions, the ability to place your units during a unit placement phase, and the chance to play as Chaos are the only things you could really ask for. Warhammer is a complex, vastly entertaining strategy gaming system, and Chaos Gate does full justice to it.