With 4X games we find there are two ways to play. Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that statement. Still, where 4X stands for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate, it’s really only the last two that matter. Exploration and expansion are a common thread throughout the genre, whereas exploitation and extermination often take on a meatier role over one another depending on the game. In Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War, extermination is the name of the game (not that it needed more names).
In games where diplomacy is robust enough to allow it, social engineering is an interesting dimension — the sorts of discussions, both in-game and meta, that will allow you to win without needing military dominance. When we feel the diplomacy system isn’t good enough, we focus on combat instead.
Master of Orion 2, Neptune’s Pride 2… these are games we always felt the diplomacy was good enough to exploit rivals as well as resources. Civilization games have never felt that way to us, and so it’s is a series where we focus on combat. Gladius, set in a universe with zero negotiation between factions, pretty much exclusively features combat.
Weird? We dunno, maybe. Still, if Proxy Studios and Slitherine want to give us a game that is essentially Civilization without the pretense of any diplomacy, set in the brutal Warhammer 40,000 universe — we’re about it.
Well, we were, anyway. Until we played it.
Gladius Nails the 40K Lore
Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War is a tad underdone by our measure. Taking place in, obviously, the Warhammer 40K universe, it does some things spectacularly.
Aesthetically it’s a brilliant rendition of the 40K universe. Gladius Prime, the harsh planet that plays host to the game, is a brilliant setting for the slaughter to come. It looks alien, and attention has been paid to make each deployed unit fit into the setting.
After becoming accustomed to the game’s pieces, you can tell at a glance what you’ve got and what it is marching towards. The cities you build sprawl over the terrain, reshaping it in your faction’s image. Ork cities, if you can call them that, have the primitive junker vibe of their faction. Necron cities, built on tombs, take on a Cyber-Goth form. Space Marine citadels stick out on the land they inhabit. And the fourth faction, the Astra Militarum, form rigidly perfect structures around the hexes they possess.
Translating 40K’s exhaustive lore into a Civilization-style encyclopedia is a brilliant touch. It grows the world effortlessly and does a great job of encouraging exploration early on. Even hours into the game we were still clicking through to find out more about the world. There’s a surprising amount of detail, as each hex contains a wide variety of different properties depending on their place in the world.
Forests, deserts, and tundras provide massive variance as you explore each game map. Special Resource tiles provide an array of mini-objectives for you to work towards as you march on an enemy’s capital.
One element we didn’t like was the addition of elevation. We understand there’s a tactical importance to it, but the implementation in Gladius is too often unclear. Cliff faces aren’t distinct enough to stand out, so we often found ourselves pathing out a grossly inefficient trek for our units before realising what we’d done.
Traversal in general in Gladius is pretty rough. Units often can’t move into fog of war territory — you struggle to even path into the blacked out parts of the map — and this again means gross amounts of inefficiency. It makes scouting tedious — you’re constantly giving orders to troops just to get them to move one space so you can see further.
We understand why there’s no auto-explore — Gladius is an extremely hostile land — but this frustration could have mitigated if pathfinding worked in the fog of war.
This also applies to the way the game treats pathing in general. Trying to engage in combat can be a real chore, because Gladius tries to decide your most efficient move for you at all times, and it won’t take no for an answer. If we have a hero unit who can do melee damage or ranged damage, the default pathing for Gladius will have that unit attempt ranged nearly every time.
It makes it difficult to crunch the numbers on whether an attack will be successful or not, and led to many a Save Scum moment where we’d have to move a unit into a specific tile just to see if an attack could work.
Speaking of Gladius Prime being hostile — fighting barbarian (that is, unaffiliated) units in Warhammer 40,000: Gladius is about 90% of your early game. As an Ork this is particularly annoying, because running into wasp-like Psychneuein when your Boyz only have basic bolters can be devastating. There’s just no reason why we should be losing units to bugs — not until they add Tyranids, anyway.
It’s pretty ridiculous how tough the barbarians can get, actually — in multiple games we had to abandon a front we’d spent ages establishing just so we could defend our base. Not from a cleverly maneuvered flanking incursion, but because five level six centipedes had decided to attack.
The four factions are pretty well done, although they do tend to feel samey after a while. Obviously the mass infantry style of the Astra Militarum is different to the precision warriors of the Space Marines — but when you’re talking about groups of grunts on hexes, they could functionally be the same.
The real differences are behind the scenes, in the city building portions of the game — but even there it doesn’t feel meaningful. It’s for the best we think — Gladius isn’t about resource management beyond a basic level, so it would be weird to heavily differentiate between resources across the factions.
Nevertheless it does mean picking a faction comes down to personal preference. If your favourite flavour of ice cream is chocolate, go for the Necrons. If you prefer strawberry then the Imperial Guard is for you! Those who are all about that rum raisin can be Orks, and if you just like to eat the waffle cone because you dropped your ice cream on the ground (again) then just pick Space Marines and go sit in the corner.
Researching isn’t an avenue to a more interesting game either. Units are tied to research, which means you’ll probably wind up researching the same things a lot — unless you’ve decided this time around you can live without anti-air or something. It’s definitely an RTS slant on the 4X genre – probably spurred by the game’s overall focus on combat – but it feels wrong here, like they’re just filling out spots.
You’re not making meaningful research choices like you do in other games — you’re just further delaying your ability to deploy certain units. It takes X amount of turns to research the building, X to build the building, X to research the unit and then another X to build it — emotionally the return on investment isn’t as significant when you’re replacing lost tech as opposed to gaining new tech.
Gladius has two win conditions — global conquest, and an ever escalating series of quests. The quests are simple — build this unit, research this hero, create this city — and they’re a good way to earn some extra resources while completing other tasks.
We honestly don’t know if the AI has quest objectives, because we never got to a point where it was an issue — it always wound up being easier to just defeat our enemies than to complete the quests, and we never lost a game to a quest. The manual didn’t mention this either, which made the whole thing feel a little under-cooked.
Is Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War Good?
Under-cooked is actually a really good way to describe Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War. It’s got all these good ideas, but they’re not combined in the right way. There are loads of bugs — from the tiny all the way up to the game-ending. We mean literally game-ending — we lost a game because all of our units and cities became unassigned for reasons we still can’t work out, and we’ve seen it crash hard enough to force a full reboot of our PC a number of times now.
There’s promise, and if they applied the same attention to detail that they use for the lore and art design to other parts of the game, we think Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War could be a winner. If you’re a die-hard Necron fan it will still hold some value, but otherwise it’s worth waiting to see if this one gets better over time, or shifting your attention elsewhere.