The Warhammer universe has seen many games in the past 25 years, and most fans are aware that the vast majority of them were at best serviceable. Games Workshop is wonderfully loose with the license, allowing anyone with a good pitch to take Warhammer Fantasy and 40K for a spin, but more often than not these studios fumble a great concept with a less than ideal execution. Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War – the first 4X take on the 40K universe – showed a lot of potential, coming from Strategy-focused publisher Slitherine, but like most other 40K games, it falls just short of the mark.
A strategy title in the molds of Sid Meier’s Civilization, the game takes place in the original world of Gladius Prime, where Space Marines, Imperial Guards, Orks, and Necrons battle each other and the world’s wildlife in a bid to dominate the planet. The factions themselves are quite distinct and asymmetrical, possessing unique buildings, units, and technologies. Space Marines, for example, can only have a single city in the form of a Fortress-Chapel dropped from orbit, while Necrons must colonise Necron Ruins and Guardsmen can settle just about anywhere. It creates for an interesting mix of mechanics that fosters replayability and experimentation.
The main factions are left vague on purpose, featuring no named characters or banners. Players are free to choose any of the four races and customise their team colours, but no army painter of any sort is included in the package – you get to choose between Lothern Blue or Karak Stone, and that’s as far as it goes. The pre-game screen also allows you to choose handicaps and difficulty levels, but the tooltip is weirdly ambiguous and doesn’t make clear if the handicaps is applied to the player or the AI.
Aside from fighting each other, the factions must also contend with the planet’s indigenous creatures. From giant ugly scorpions to alien Kroot hounds, Gladius is packed full of dangers that can tear a Space Marine in half, lore be damned. This wildlife is everywhere and act as Civilization’s barbarians, spawning in the fog of war and harassing the player, and seems to completely miss the fact that nobody on Earth actually likes fighting barbarians.
Unlike Civ, cities in Gladius need to expand physically in order to erect more buildings. You select tiles around the central spire and mark them for expansion, aggregating its building slots and resources to your settlement. The game smartly adds different queues for each type of unit, allowing you to recruit more units, construct more vehicles, call in more heroes, and upgrade your infrastructure all at the same time.
Weirdly, the physical expansion is disconnected from the city’s capabilities themselves. The main building tile is only able to fire at targets two or three hexes away, leading to awkward situations where a massive settlement with dozens of hexes enclosed by walls present zero challenge to an enemy if undefended. Until the enemy gets close enough to be shot by the ludicrous short range (and low powered) weapons of the main tile, they can simply stroll through the city and its borders as if they were grassland, fortifications be damned.
Like its tabletop origins, each unit occupies a spot on the map and must rely on its own stats, abilities, and flanking support to achieve victory. Morale also plays a large role, debuffing units who are shaken or broken and buffing those who retain cohesion, and range and movement must be kept in mind when maneuvering.
Even though units often have around three movement points, I could only move them a single hex for the vast majority of my turns – some sort of game balance coupled with a very steep terrain movement cost slowed exploration and tactical deployment to a crawl for most of my playthroughs, regardless of which race I was playing as.
While units are quite interestingly varied, and you can find pretty much every miniature type here – from Necrons who regenerate to Tactical Marines that can’t be broken, they’re all here. Unfortunately, Adeptus Astartes’ units do not appear on the map by dropping from the sky, instead just popping into existence like every other faction in the game. It’s a bit disappointing, and a missed opportunity to bring the tactical aspect of Space Marines doctrine into life.
In the grim dark future there is only war, as they say, and Gladius features no diplomacy, culture, or trading – the only way to interact with anything or anyone is through battle. At first it seems like a good idea, until you notice Emperor-loving Guardsmen seemingly team up with alien hounds to attack Emperor-serving Space Marines and all semblance of immersion comes crashing down. It’s one of the first minor cracks in what ends up being a very imperfect armour.
My biggest issue with the game, however, is that the game balance seems to be based off a MOBA. Heroes are extremely powerful tanky units, capable of wiping out half a dozen enemies single handedly, while normal units are squishy as hell. Watching a single pack of Kroot Hounds go toe to toe with a Necron Warrior squad and win or inflict heavy casualties is one hell of a lore departure, and blaming its execution on game balance is a cheap excuse for covering up poor and uninspired design decisions. Units in 40K are meant to be powerful entities, and this marriage of tabletop mechanics with MOBA balance works against the general gameflow in Gladius just as much as it did in Dawn of War III – a group of immortal, self-repairing, gauss flayer-wielding robots would never be so easily bested by wildlife, and that also goes for 90% of the Space Marines roster.
On the good side, the art department clearly had its eye on the ball, and knocked unit design and landscape out of the park. Zooming into the terrain allows you to see the direction a river is flowing or the puffs of smoke small geysers release up into the air, and almost every single unit looks amazing (although personally, I found the design of Necron infantry exceedingly plain and boring).
The UI is either good and useful or bad and obtuse, creating an interesting contrast during the acclimating phase of gameplay, while the audio design follows a similar dichotomy. Each faction has a unique musical background, effectively differentiating playthrough experiences by a well composed and varied range of melodies, but some of the sound effects are nothing but grating. Similarly, the Necrons voice over is easily the best one in Gladius, while the Space Marines one veers away from the classic “British officer accent” performance and goes straight into the terrible and cringeworthy “Angry Space Wolf fan at Comic Con” deliver.
In terms of production values, Gladius is actually quite good, and its big failure is that of mediocre game design. This beautiful, novel take on 40K is brought down by terrible gameplay decisions that constantly drag the product down and essentially sap that “one more turn” feeling that makes Firaxis games so good – whoever designed the gameplay of Gladius clearly doesn’t know what makes a real game great.
WARHAMMER 40,000: GLADIUS - RELICS OF WAR VERDICT
A pretty and novel use of the 40K license, brought down by uninspired design and plain bad game balance.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Recruiting my first Necron hero and finally wiping out more than one unit without dying.
Great landscape and unit design
Seriously, the art department needs a raise
Competent faction specific music
Some of the voice acting, like Necrons
Some of the voice acting, like Space Marines
Bad game design
Really bad MOBA balance
Lack of attention to detail that makes the game feel cheap, like not adding a basic screen shake feedback when using abilities from orbit or engaging enemy troops