Anyone who knows me knows that two of my favorite gaming anythings are 4X games like Civilization and the universe of Warhammer 40,000. I’ve been painting toy soldiers and “Just One More Turn”-ing for a significant portion of my life, and while taking part in those entertaining and *ahem* noble endeavors, I’ve often wondered the same question over and over again.
Just where the hell is our 4X 40K game? It seems like an obvious choice: just like turning Warhammer into a Total War franchise contender was an obvious choice.
Apparently my discontented murmurings have been heard far and wide by the microphones that Games Workshop have hidden in my bathroom, because the answer to that prayer was released this July in the former of Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War.
Now right off the bat, that’s way too long of a game title. That’s the sort of title that gives We Eat Blood And All Our Friends Are Dead a run for its vampire-fanged money. But once you get past that tiniest of hurdle, you find yourself with an engaging, challenging, and very worthy 40K game set in the traditions of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.
Developed by Proxy Studios and released by Slitherine Limited, Gladius is one of dozens of Warhammer games that have been released in the last few years. Games Workshop is just handing out the franchise like Ork-flavored candy at this point, and as a result there’s been a ton of crap. But if you look at Proxy and Slitherine’s respective resumes, you can see why this one feels like a good fit. Both companies have had their hand in developing plenty of 4X and strategy games in the past, if on a smaller, indie scale.
And that fits the 40K dynamic. While lacking the grander, loftier ambitions of other 4X titles like Civilization, Gladius plays on a relatively small stretch of land: a region on the planet known as Gladius. Gladius is a pristine planet, ripe for the developing, and four separate factions have their eyes on it: the powerful Space Marines, the loyal Astra Militarum, the ancient Necrons, and the unending wave of the Orks.
In standard strategy fashion, you pick a side, and go about building up your forces through strategic city planning, army building, and exploration. Each of these groups have their specific abilities and strategies, and half the fun is just learning the best way to use their weapons to your advantage. And they are weapons, to be clear. Unlike many other civilization builders, there’s really only one way of achieving victory in Gladius, and that is through combat: either completely decimating your foes, or following the questline progression (a tactic that largely involves you decimating your foes).
I’m not complaining here. This is Warhammer 40K, after all. “War” is right there in its damn name. You’re not exactly going to be able to defeat your enemies by creating an Ork culture that overshadows everyone else’s (although, that would be sort of amazing). As a rule, the specifics all tend to go toward killing your enemy, but there’s still a ton of research to do, resources to exploit, and alien creatures to identify, study, and murder the hell out of.
Overall, the mechanics of Gladius are far closer to games like Endless Legend, with a race-specific story to follow, and a heavy emphasis on units and research, which really works for what Proxy seems to have been aiming for. Each faction plays somewhat differently, but similar enough that you don’t need to feel intimidated at the process of learning a new one. The combat and exploit options are varied and offer a new sort of challenge with every play session. But if I had to express the main reason Gladius appeals to me, though, it has to do with what a solid foundation this game happens to be. Don’t get me wrong: Gladius is a well-executed game in and of itself, and a ton of fun to play. But as a Warhammer 40K player, there were plenty of times that I would think, “Chaos Marines would be perfect for this” or “why didn’t this start with a tyranid faction?” or “tyranids, tyranids, tyranids: give me my tyranids.”
And the best part about having thoughts like that during this game is how well a good expansion with new factions, questlines, and research options would fit into this. Whether they meant to or not, Proxy’s laid down the foundation for future entries in a game that actually deserves future entries. That’s been tougher and tougher for 40K games these days.
That’s not to suggest that Gladius is flawless. The controls are a little clunky at times, with me pushing buttons over and over again just to end my turn. And it’s also true that without more in terms of questline variation or even so much as an achievement system to challenge you, that late-game might feel a bit samey as you get used to the factions and how to guide them properly.
Character models and animations are very basic, without a ton of variation or dynamic movement. That really shouldn’t matter, but when you’ve been playing this game for hours, a little variety couldn’t hurt. The storyline and characters themselves don’t feel like they were designed by a person who has a massive understanding of the 40K universe either. Nothing glaring, mind you, but 40K fans might notice certain moments. Moments like the Necrons speaking as if they’re a Star Wars droid instead of an ancient, malevolent force of destruction, or the fact that the Marines all appear to be Ultramarines, but have various paintjobs based on what you pick. It’s weird to see a Marine bellow something about Roboute Guilliman when he’s clad in Imperial Fists yellow or even Emperor’s Children pink. It’s more than just the color of the armor.
To me, however, these are tiny squabblings, because I’ve enjoyed the hell out of my time with Gladius. If anything, these little nicks in the paint are prime examples of how much more this game will be capable of in future.
Overall, in a world full of mediocre Games Workshop games, Gladius: Relics Of War stands out as one of the best in recent years. 4X and 40K fans alike will enjoy the opportunity to get their civilization builder on in the grim dark future, where there is only war. Pick this one up, and join me on the hopeful lookout for more DLC somewhere down the line.