Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K) is a grim and dark place. I should know, I’ve been tabletop gaming for more than 30 years in the universe created by Games Workshop. And not just gaming, but also reading the lore books, studying the army codices, and playing the video games. So let me get this out of the way now: I’m a fan that knows the lore/setting and understands the gameplay mechanics. I’ve played many different iterations of Warhammer, so I won’t be fooled by imitators. What I’m going to cover in this review will be from a place of knowledge and experience.
Before I do all of that, let’s talk about Proxy Studios, the folks that created the core rule set at the base of Warhammer 40000 Gladius: Relics of War. This is not their first foray into the 4X genre. Their first title, Pandora: First Contact and its only expansion Eclipse of the Nashira, was a pretty solid game by all accounts. We liked it, but it did have its shortfalls. If you want to know more, read our 5X review.
Gladius was built on an improved version of the Pandora game engine, and the big question is how well does this engine support the move to the WH40K universe? Will WH40K fans have their hopes fulfilled or dashed by this new attempt at blending the grimdark WH40K universe and a 4X strategy format? Read on to find out!
The game takes place on Gladius Prime, a planet full of secrets where you can play as one of four major factions that come with the base game:
Space Marines Chapter – These are the genetically bred and engineered humans that are considered the pinnacle of all of the forces of the Imperium of Man. These guys are tough, strong, smart, fast, heavily armed/armoured, and practically invulnerable. They are the best that humanity has to offer. That doesn’t mean that they are unbeatable, just really really hardy.
Orks – The rough and tough, fungal brawlers with funny ideas and funnier sayings. These are the comedy relief of the WH40K lore, but don’t be fooled. They’re very resilient, bloodthirsty and crafty. They are not to be mocked or ignored.
Astra Militarum – The typical canon-fodder of the Imperium of Man. There are a lot of them. Any human world can field at least one Imperial Guard regiment. They are artillery and mechanized specialists.
Necrons – The Necrons have a sad story as the undead terminators of the WH40K universe. They sacrificed their bodies and souls to fight an elder race called the Old Ones who…., after being tricked by their Gods, the C’Tan.
That was a very brief overview of the four main factions in the game, but if you feel that you want to know more about the lore, then click on THIS LINK to see what we’ve covered in the past. We will delve deeper later on.
Now, let’s explore this once habitable Imperial world and SM chapter homeworld that’s been turned into a charnel ground by a warp storm – a very popular setting in the WH40K universe. This planet holds some really dark secrets, one of which is that it is a Necron tomb world. Wait, how are there Orks here too? Well, a Spacehulk of theirs crashed there right before a warp storm isolated and devastated it.
The procedurally generated nature of the terrain means that, with each playthrough, Gladius Prime will change. You have deserts, frozen tundra, mountains, rivers, rocky and forested regions, and much more to explore! Within these regions you’ll find some precursor artifacts/resources like the Ruins and Shards of Vaul to explore and control that were exposed by the storm. The ruins are the goodie huts of this 4X title, whereas the Shards are both necessary for the faction quests (end-game win condition) as well as granting various bonuses to those that control them.
Then we have several resources like Prometheum Refineries, Ore Fields, and the Grox Pastures that are necessary for growth and construction. We also have the Orkoid Fungus and Necron Tomb which are only usable by their specific (named) factions. Of course there are other resources on the terrain, but you get the idea.
There are physical obstacles to your travels and expansion like the remnants of Imperial cities left behind (after the warp storm) and the wireweed that seems to be overtaking the planet. There’s also the vast ocean (if you spawn that) and elevation changes on the map that can slow down or completely restrict your movement.
Let’s not forget the not-so-neutral creatures that are trying to kill you such as the Catachan Devil (giant centipede/scorpion hybrid), Enslavers (levitating telepathic brain sack), Psychneuein (giant Wasp) and others. Some neutrals have spawn points that must be cleansed. In short, Gladius Prime is not a friendly place.
To be honest, there’s not much more to exploration in Gladius other than looking for the best spot to start a “settlement.” But that’s fine, since this is ultimately a wargame and you want to get to the fighting as soon as possible.
Normally in 4X, settling your first city is an easy affair, but not in Gladius. For example, the SM get their one and only Fortress Monastery. That’s it. They like to play tall. On the other hand, the Necrons can only settle on a spot that has a tomb. Why? Because they are already all there slumbering under the surface. Remember how I mentioned that Gladius is a Necron tomb world? Both the IG and Orks can settle anywhere, but some spots will be better than others.
Once you have your first city, it’s time to grow your influence over Gladius Prime as you figure out what’s going on. Each of the four factions needs a different resource to expand. The SM need requisition points to sustain their population, construct buildings, and produce/maintain units. The Necrons need ore to sustain their population as well as maintain their units and buildings. The IG and Orks need food to sustain their cities and grow their population. They also need ore to construct their buildings, as well as produce/maintain their units. But the Orks also need to generate WAAAGH! A type of psychic force that is used to strengthen their fighting ability. All of the factions also need energy for building maintenance and special units.
Influence is also an important resource, and each faction needs it to acquire and maintain city tiles, recruit heroes, purchase their items, and utilize their special skills. The IG also use influence to invoke edicts, while the SM use it for tactics and operations, and the Necrons to accelerate growth. Another use for influence is tile acquisition. Why? To grow out your borders and bring more resources under your control. The SM have a harder time because of their single city, so they utilize Fortresses of Redemption to capture resource tiles and consequently protect them in the process.
So, what do you do with the Orks and the IG? Spread like locusts all over the place. Spam cities to your heart’s content and maintain their food supply, because your “people” will need it. The Orks are especially adapted to that style because of their nature (they are violent fungus), so you want to be sure to spread your spores everywhere for a good boost. Oh yeah, one last thing, if your army steps on a special resource tile, you automatically gain access to it and a bonus too. Until the next army steps on it, that is, and you lose control.
The WH40K universe is in a dark age of technology, and technological advancement is more about rediscovering “lost” technologies than pioneering new research. Gladius reflects the tabletop lore once again, as research points are used to redeploy “existing technology” to the field more than discovering “new” things.
Each of the four factions has a unique “tech tree” composed of 10 tiers. This runs the gamut from buildings to recruiting heroes to manufacturing weapons and vehicles. Even though the faction trees are all unique, in reality they are somewhat similar. For example, each faction has two flyers: a fighter and transport. Also, each faction gets multiple upgrades to troops and vehicles. But each “tech tree” is also different, in that the upgrades they get have more to do with their faction strength. For instance, the IG get a lot of upgrades to vehicles while the Orks can improve their WAAAGH! Power and the like.
That’s about it. In Gladius, expansion isn’t glorious, but it is serviceable.
In a typical 4X game, often the first and best way to exploit an AI opponent is through diplomacy. This is a time tested tool. Usually, the AI is a sucker for resource and tech trades. If you keep up relations with the AI, you can trade like crazy and make out like a robber baron.
About now, you must be wondering how diplomacy works in Gladius. I’d say perfectly – because there is no diplomacy in the game! There’s also no trade allowed. According to the lore, there could technically be some negotiations between the SM and IG, but they aren’t talking right now. The Necrons don’t want any of the barbarians’ (non-Necron) tools and/or tech and the Orks will gladly take them off your hands after they are done burning and killing your forces.
Phew, dodged that one. So, what’s left? Loyalty. This is necessarily not a new mechanic in 4X. Each faction has their own version, but the underlying mechanics are the same. If you grow too big without the loyalty to support it, you are going to have all kinds of issues with production. This was done decently well in Pandora, and it works here too.
Is there anything else that can be exploited? Yup, the map. Throughout the map there are plenty of resource nodes to capture. No, there aren’t any freestanding miners other than the Jokaero camps that will sell gear to any hero for the right price. There are no mines. No exotic features that aren’t trying to kill you. No, the few things that are there are easy enough to exploit.
Like I mentioned, the Ruins of Vaul act like goodie huts and grant bonuses to research when they are under your control. So find them quickly. Meanwhile, the Shards of Vaul, when under your control, grant bonuses to requisition and energy/ore production. The other Artefacts scattered around the planet grant a variety of bonuses depending on which/how many you control. The more you have, the more they stack, and you can really grow in power. One of them is even powerful enough to scour the planet clean of all life. Just think that through for a bit.
Step, cross, or trample over any resource and it’s yours. But if you really want to lay claim to it, plant a city nearby and extend your borders over it and it’s a done deal. As far as research, energy, influence and housing, all you need to do is build the appropriate structure within your city limits. Some of those tiles are really good for food growth or research or energy generation and all of that is expressed through a production bonus for that specific resource. You can build from zero to three structures per tile after you take control. What you claim and where you build is up to you and the “tech” you researched.
The one bright spot is that each faction gets a unique set of bonuses. The SM utilize doctrines and tactics that give their units temporary, influence-powered buffs. The Orks grow fast. The Necrons regenerate like crazy. The IG use edicts to improve morale, loyalty, and receive bonuses to various functions. It’s all very practical, if not a bit plain.
Finally, we have arrived at the best X of Gladius. The one that deals with WAAAAAAAARRRRRRR! But before we take the deep dive, let’s look at the combatants a little closer.
The Space Marines
As stated before, these warriors are the best humanity has. They field multiple infantry units like the Tactical/Devastator/Assault Space Marines and Terminators. They get support units like the Apothecaries and Thunderfire Cannons. They also have several tank configurations, mobile scouts, and Venerated Dreadnaughts (injured SM in massive Armor). All of which are supported by two types of gunships and a fortified structure (Fortress of Redemption) that can be dropped from orbit to control resources and chokepoints.
SM forces are led by hero units comprised of a Librarian (psychic unit), Chaplain (morale/loyalty unit), and a Captain (legendary hero) who can all be upgraded through combat experience and items (bought in a Jokearoo camp or Ruins of Vaul). The Space Marines are very good for novice players. They have the strongest hero units in the game. You don’t need to worry about too much as long as you control your resources and reinforce your armies constantly.
The Astra Militarum
The Imperial Guard is the backbone of the Imperium of Man. On Gladius Prime, the Guardsmen are their frontline unit with the Bullgryn (abhuman) meatshields. They are reinforced by Techpriests, Psykers, and Heavy Weapon Squads. Basically, early on, you must do a lot of hit-and-run tactics to succeed.
This army is led by a Lord Commissar, Tank Commander, and the Primaris Psyker. All of which boost the guard (Commissar) and mechanized (Tank Commander) units. The Astrum Militarum is a faction that’s initially hard to play. Their early units are very squishy, and you must expand fast in order to control the map and the resources on it to survive to the mid-game.
Once you start fielding their mechanized units, you’ll have a Scout Sentinel (think an Imperial AT-ST walker from Star Wars) and the Leman Russ (heavy battle tank) leading the charge. The Basilisk (extreme range artillery tank) and Hydra (fast moving anti-aircraft tank) can harras most units on the battlefield. Want more? Okay, the Baneblade, (super heavy tank) is probably the strongest unit in the game and can crush all that stands in its way. But if that isn’t enough, the Valkyrie and Thunderbolt (fliers) can provide the necessary transport and air domination.
These constructs are nigh indestructible, miserable whiners. To help alleviate all of this sadness, you have versatile heroic units like the Lord and the Destroyer Lord mixing it up all close and personal like. The Cryptek is a phenomenal support unit that all Necrons can benefit from.
The Canoptek Scarabs and Necron Warriors will engage and bog-down any enemy while the Triarch Praetorians can jump in and tear up the flanks. The Heavy Destroyers can hold off armour units, which is crucial when facing the SM and the IG factions. The Transcendent C’Tan is very powerful but even more so when merged with an Obelisk (combine to form a Tesseract Vault).
The Necron mechanized armor corps is probably on the level of the Imperial Guard with more versatility and less mobility. The Tomb Blade scout will quickly cover the map and pinpoint targets of interest while the Triarch Stalker, Obelisk, Monolith and Tesseract Vault slowly make their way across the field and lay waste to all within range. The Annihilation Barge, Doomsday Arch, Night, and Doom Scythes provide ground and air support for the slow moving structures by raining death on all.
These brutes are walking, death-dealing memes. They might have some funny notions about life, but their ability to ruin your plans is anything but. They are very much about closing the distance and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Their aim isn’t good, but their damage dealing capabilities sure are.
The three Ork heroes are the Warboss, Painboy (healer), and Weirdboy (psyker). Their infantry has the Boyz at its core. Those various Ork types can handle melee and ranged combat. Supporting them are the Warbuggies, Battlewagons, Killa Kanz, and Mek Gunz. A versatile but slow armor krew. The Gargantuan Squiggoth and the Gorkanaut are their two heavy “mechanized” units.
The Orks are the only faction with three flyers. A fighter, bomber, and the Defkopter. The name speaks for itself, but whatever you do, don’t forget to paint it red. Everyone knows that “Red iz da fastest.”
Right, so, what makes this such a great combat system? Well, combat takes place on the strategic map using a one unit per tile (1UPT) system instead of creating a seperate tactical combat map like in Age of Wonders 3 or Endless Legend. It closely resembles the Warlock games actually. Your units can utilize special skills that are upgradeable through the tech tree. So, when facing your enemy, you have multiple possible attack vectors for each unit. A large variety in unit movement adds a direction of attack and ability to flank, too. What you lose in stackable armies, you gain in deep ranged combat played out on the strategic map. The addition of the heroes and their skill sets also adds to the overall experience.
Each faction has a lot of unique units that might serve similar purposes, but their various special abilities make them exceptional. For example, the single city gameplay for the SM and the plodding units of the Necrons make them both very slow. Early on, they need to use their transport craft to get around faster on the map. Later, they both get teleportation abilities and the SM get to use orbital drop pods to quickly move their forces. The Orks must fight to increase their WAAAGH! They can also collect resources that they scrap from defeated foes. So you need to upgrade your units and never forget use their special attacks. That can be the difference between victory and utter defeat.
Each of the main faction should have a different focus, so work through your research tree accordingly. The Orks don’t make good ranged armies and the IG is pretty terrible at close range, so don’t don’t play that style. The AI isn’t very forgiving when it comes to that.
Two mechanics that are often found in squad-based tactics games are morale and overwatch, and they are both also in this game. Morale impacts aim and damage dealt. Dealing a lot of consecutive damage and surrounding/flanking enemy units really helps lower aim. Overwatch lets you fire upon units moving within your line-of-sight and range, assuming you have movement points left. Though some units have a sort of stealth (like the Catachan Devils) so overwatch doesn’t always apply.
Use your varying terrain effectively. Firing into a wooded area or Imperial ruins grants the defender defensive bonuses. You don’t need a choke point to create a killing field. Overwatch and LoS will do just fine, so make sure you have proper range on your artillery units. Create ambush scenarios with your flyers. Move in fast mechanized units to out flank your enemies. Make sure you destroy damaged units because they will withdraw from combat to regenerate, don’t give them the chance. Speaking of regeneration, moving your damaged units unto city tiles speeds up their healing. The AI certainly will.
Another major difference between Gladius and many other 1UPT 4X games is that the units can move through each other (friendly) forces, so a narrow straight doesn’t mean a choke point where everyone stands around and does nothing. It might not seem like a big thing, but it really is. Experience gained through combat is crucial to leveling up your units in all games, but here, all the units within proximity of the combat can gain experience, even if they didn’t directly participate in it. That’s another huge positive for Gladius.
Don’t worry, the cities are not all that easy to defeat. They can defend themselves, especially early on. But city conquest gives you a lot of options as does defending it. Some of the hardest and most protracted battles can happen when trying to take a city. So, make sure you come with a lot of units or a sure fire way to get reinforcements there.
Overall, I think that Gladius is a fantastic war game with major 4X elements running through its core. Is it a proper 4X game? Absolutely, though some might consider it a 4X-lite because it is missing any semblance of diplomacy. Some would say the presence of diplomacy is a defining characteristic of the genre, but others suggest 4X games merely need to have non-military win conditions. Since Gladius has a “win by faction quest,” the latter group has a good argument in favor of full 4X status. Either way, Gladius is a bit streamlined in the exploration and expansion phases of the game, and it clearly isn’t meant to be a focus of the gameplay. Not in a bad way, mind you, but I wasn’t too invested.
I settled where I thought I’d do well, and just expanded away. The SM were a bit more challenging, and the Necrons did force me explore the map to find the hidden tombs. The IG and Orks just spammed the map. I’m glad that so far, we have some variation here, but I’m waiting to see what else comes in the future. We have a lot of other factions to choose from like Chaos, Tyranids, Eldar, Tau and many more faction variants from the Imperium of Man and Orks.
The tech tree wasn’t exciting, but it did force me to make decisions early on about what units I want to field and which skills I wanted to develop. Most games don’t give you that option, except with hero units. In a universe where practically everyone is stuck in the past, the tech tree isn’t holding anyone back and the variety for each faction is refreshing.
The complete lack of diplomacy makes sense for the most part, but to not have any communication between the IG and SM is heresy. If nothing else, at least in the campaign mode, limited diplomacy makes sense.
Victory conditions, yeah, there are two of them. Wipe everyone out or complete your main quest. It works. Though, I could totally see how the Necrons are the big bad for everyone. It would have been fun if they just kept spawning and spawning. Remember how some diplomacy would have been nice? Yes, me too.
The combat? It’s fantastic. I really really like it. One thing I would have wanted is what was done with combat in Pandora. 1UPT or 1SPT would have been great. Hell, it would have been fantastic. This is a perfect game for that. Especially if they start to add larger and larger units. Can you say… Titans?!?!?! Yes, we can!!!
The art is great, though the world is a bit too dark. The music is fine, but repeats a little too often for my taste. We need more of it. The video cutscenes at the start are fantastic, I just wish we had more. I really enjoyed the various lines of dialogue/blurbs from each faction unit. It’s a no-brainer, we need 10X more of that. The Neutrals? They were fine, but we need more. Units? Yup, we could use some more. I think you are starting to see what I am getting at. Gladius is a very good game if you want a war-centric 4X with long established lore. But we need more of everything.
In a last minute addition, a Reinforcement Pack DLC, was just released. It provides one new unit for each faction as well as one for the neutrals – a Neophyte Hybrid, which is a third or fourth generation Tyranid cultist. Does that mean that the Tyranids will be the first new faction added to Gladius? Hmmm… But the price! $4.99 US is too high, I was expecting $2-$3 at most.
The one big thing that is missing for me, is an army painter. If you are going to make this an unnamed chapter that we create, at least give us the option to paint the units how we want to. That’s what the tabletop game is all about.
One last thing, the AI has been improved and with Ail’s aid, it will only get better and tougher. So much so, that I expect new players to complain about how it is too hard. How would I deal with that? Have an easy difficulty that is similar to what is in the game now. It’s not too bad, and with some planning and critical decision making, the game can be beaten. This way, the fresh players can mingle with the grizzled veterans and everyone can enjoy the experience. Proxy Studios… We salute thee!
TL;DR: Warhammer 40000 Gladius: Relics of War is a solid entry to an already packed 4X marketplace. It stands out for having what is probably one of the best 1UPT combat systems. It is a rich world (lorewise) and brings plenty of replayability. A serviceable tech tree and game full of important decisions. An easy recommend at that price point ($39.99) for those looking for a complete wargame. But the developers have even more on the way if you manage to wear out the existing content. We’re keeping an eye on the future.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You want a 1UPT combat system that works
- You love the Warhammer 40,000 universe
- You need REAL Space Marines to crush the Xenos scum
- You think diplomacy should only come from the barrel of a gun/rifle/cannon
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You think combat is the worst part of a 4X game
- You want a bright and optimistic visual experience
- You prefer Orcs to Orks
- You want to play a peaceful, non-violent game
Nate’s copy was provided by Slitherine for the purposes of writing this review. He played for 70+ hours (with 15+ spent offline) on a Sager NP-8153S (XoticPC Built) Laptop: 15.6″ FHD IPS Display, 6th gen Intel i7-6820 HQ Skylake CPU, 24GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 1070 w/ 8 GB vram, 250 GB Samsung EVO SSD, 1 TB 7200 RPM HD.