Proxy Studios were the developers behind the good – almost very good – Pandora: First Contact. Pandora attempted to revamp and modernize the damn-near-perfect Alpha Centauri, which of course was a huge undertaking. As such, they were likely doomed from the start, but with their expansion, Eclipse of Nashira, Pandora was a game that I enjoyed quite a bit for what it was: a second-tier Alpha Centauri.
It is very clear that Proxy Studios have learned from Pandora’s shortcomings and found the right license in Warhammer 40K, as Gladius (I’m just going to call it Gladius for short, as that name is both long and a bit ridiculous) is a clear step forward for the developer studio.
That being said, is it for everyone? Is it really a 4X game? Is it fun?
What I Like:
The Universe: Okay, this is kinda a freebie, but the Warhammer 40K universe is ripe with history, content and just about everything you need to make a good 4X game. The possibilities for add-on races beyond the initial Space Marines, Orks, Astra Militarum and Necrons are almost overwhelming. The recent addition of the Tyranids is a perfect example of where this game could expand and there’s just so much more to pick from.
I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
The Quest System: An extension of the universe, the quest system not only provides some backstory and relevance to your mission on Gladius Prime, but it also provides a bit of structure as to what my faction should be doing, without being overbearing. The system rewards you well, too, so it’s usually in your best interest to seek out quest objectives and accomplish them, so as to make your faction stronger and more capable of taking on your enemies.
The writing is decent and engaging enough, too, that I’m actually reading the narrative. That’s not something I usually do, so it takes a certain level of quality to hook me in like that.
Race Asymmetry: For anyone that’s bothered to follow any of my writing/ramblings, you’d know that I’m incredibly excited by asymmetric gameplay. It’s what get’s me going. Race/faction asymmetry is what initially got me excited for Endless Legend, but my fascination with the mechanic dates all the way back to Ascendancy. For those unaware of what I mean by this, it’s simply a focus on making races playing radically different from one another.
In Gladius, that means that the Space Marines only ever have one base, but are otherwise pretty generic, which works as a great introduction race. The Necrons can only expand to Necron Tomb hexes and focus on regeneration and their ability to teleport across the map. The Orks are rowdy and unorganized, thus having morale problems, but they salvage ore from destroyed units and gain damage bonuses (WAAAAAGH!) when their morale is high.
The Astra Militarum is all about that ranged attack and heavy machinery, but it’s all costly and as such, they have fewer units. Meanwhile, the new addition, the Tyranids, need to be near extensions of the hivemind, lest they go feral, and everything they destroy generates biomass, which they use to create new units. Plus, they really like overwhelming numbers…
There are more little nuances to these races that make them genuinely pretty unique to play. While I wish that these asymmetric designs were taken a bit further (and I see hope of that with the Tyranids), it’s definitely more interesting than most faction design and I appreciate the effort made here.
Combat: Thank god a game that mostly focuses on combat has good combat, or else this would be a pretty short review. Not only does each unit from each faction effectively attack differently and benefit from various placement and usage, but there are quite a few different unit types for each faction, which effectively forces the player to focus on what types of units they’re producing and not just spit out “the best unit” a dozen times.
Together with the overwatch option that most units have, there’s a great deal of strategic depth here that you may not recognize at first. While combat can become a bit of a slog at times, it makes up for it with unique weapon sound effects and a real “oomph” that most other 4X games don’t have. It’s not perfect (what I’d do for an Endless Legend-like combat system with full control), but it’s better than games like Civilization and even Proxy Studio’s former Pandora, so I’ll take it.
I’d love to see more active abilities and a bit more viscera and over-the-top death animations (it’s Warhammer, after all), but given the budget that Proxy likely had and the fact that we’re talking about a turn-based strategy game and not an RTS, I’m happy enough with it to enjoy it.
Unit Progression: That being said, I also enjoy the progression of the units in this game. It’s always satisfying in any 4X game to meet the end of the tech tree and get rewarded with bad-ass units. This is certainly true with Gladius and something I really appreciate.
It’s probably most obvious with the Tyranids, as their late-game units are absolute monstrosities. It’s incredibly awesome to see them wreak havoc on my foes. It’s a beautiful sight to behold and watching those units do their thing is a nice carrot at the end of the proverbial stick.
The Map: Well, I mostly like it. The maps do tend to feel a bit samey and I would love, love, love to see more map features, but what’s here is genuinely interesting to look at and I enjoy the day/night cycle. It’s not quite as beautiful as the maps from Endless Space 2 or Civilization 6, but they’re better than your average hex-based game and they fit the “grimdark” mood really well.
City Management: Funnily enough, for a game that focuses so straightforwardly on combat and all-out war, city management is unique and interesting in Gladius. I like that each city has to claim surrounding tiles and then build on them. It’s different than recent “horizontal development” systems like Endless Legend and Civilization 6, in that each tile you claim allows for more building to be constructed, but it’s easy enough to figure out that genre veterans will feel right at home.
I do wish there were more visual representations of what’s in a city in the form of models, like housing and unique unit structures being easily visible, but the system provides a sense of progression through a visual representation of your cities’ outward expansion and it does force some decision making, as space is limited for a good period of the game.
It’s a unique system that I enjoy and for a game that focuses so much on WAR, it’s good to see some thought was given to how Gladius’ system could be both non-ordinary and thought-provoking.
What I Don’t Like:
The UI: For the most part, the UI is clean and the icons being color-coded help the player distinguish the different resources well enough, but the black BLACK BLACK of the UI is a bit of a turnoff, even in light of the universe we’re playing in, and the over-reliance on icons is off-putting. I find myself frequently and rather annoyingly having to mouse-over nearly all of the city management icons in order to determine what the hell I’m looking at. Is that a Hormagaunt or a Termagant that I’m trying to breed?
Faction-unique UI would have been ideal, but short of that, something other than the blackest black times infinity would have been a bit better. It feels like an attempt to emulate Amplitude Studio’s UI, but with less grace and more black.
Did I mention Gladius’ UI is super black?
I’m not exactly sure what the answer is here, but I do feel like a different approach to Gladius’ UI would have benefited the general look of the game. As it stands, it’s not my favorite and I wish it had taken a different direction.
The Lack of Diplomacy in Any Fashion: Okay, I know that the response will be “well, it’s Warhammer 40K, there is only WAR”, but for a game that calls itself a 4X, I’d expect at least some level of diplomacy. Even if it’s just to say “I’ll leave you alone for now”. I’m not intensely familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe, so forgive my ignorance, but wasn’t there some dialogue between these factions?
I’m sure that the Space Marines weren’t chatting it up with the Tyranids, but I can’t imagine that the Astra Militarum wouldn’t have anything to say or communicate about with their human brethren. Even if it was just, “Hey, let’s agree to not kill each other until the Tyranids are wiped out”.
Maybe even the Orks agreeing to leave the Necrons alone while they wiped out the Space Marines. Something?
I might be woefully out of line here, but it’s what I expect when I see the “4X” categorization. It might just be that Gladius should drop the 4X tag and call this what it really is: a turn-based Warhammer 40K war game with some colony development. More on that later.
The Lack of eXplorable eXcitement: Beyond looking for places to colonize and the occasional claimable strategic hex that may contribute to your resources, exploration is a bit bland. While revealing the map is nice in an aesthetic sense, it’s not necessarily exciting in the way most 4X games can be.
Some of the excitement from exploration comes from finding the “perfect spot” for a new colony. Other times, the thrill comes from finding a great resource location. Better yet, sometimes you’ll find a location so important that it becomes a race to claim whatever you’ve found. However, none of that is present in Gladius. As someone who values the exploration element of 4X games a great deal, this is a big disappointment to me.
Sure, there is some charm and adventure in finding the random fauna that inhabits Gladius Prime and then murdering them. However, this aspect of the game feels woefully underdeveloped, which is a shame, because I’m sure there is a lot of creative room within the license to add discoverable locations that help incentivize exploration.
There are discoverable “shops” that you can visit to purchase items for your heroes, but they’re practically everywhere and aren’t particularly exciting for their wares or changes to gameplay.
This feels like an aspect of the game ripe for improvement and I hope to see it happen.
The Bugs and Graphical Glitching: Despite my beefy system and very capable graphics card, there will come a time in every game I’ve played of Gladius where I will have to restart because this happens:
Just some wonky-ass graphical glitching. Like this, too:
A quick save and reload will bring it all back to normal, but it’s a bit frustrating. It happens every. single. game. Without fail. It’s like the game just runs out of memory of some sort and decides to lose its damn mind.
The Lack of Factions: Granted, they’ve already added the Tyranids (though I shouldn’t say “already”, because the game had been out for six months before they did), but a game like this shouldn’t be confined to only four (five, now) factions. I’d still be complaining if each of the five factions played so wildly different from each other that it felt like five distinct games. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t. Moreso, it’s also a little frustrating to know that each of the factions that will be added will cost the player more money.
I don’t complain about paying for expansions or new content. I just don’t. However, when a game ships with a measly 4 factions in a genre that is practically built around its replayability, I start to complain when new factions start getting added for $15 USD a pop. Had the game shipped with six or seven unique factions, I’d welcome each new addition with an open wallet.
However, I’m not a big fan of this expansion model and only see it being sustainable if they start to adopt a Paradox Interactive-like plan, where each expansion is accompanied by a lot of free stuff. Otherwise, it just feels like the fan base is being exploited a bit. That’s not cool.
I have enjoyed my time with Warhammer 40K: Gladius – Relics of War and plan to return to it from time to time when I’m interested in warmongering to my heart’s content. There are some good mechanics at play here, from the combat to the colony management system and the legitimate attempt at true asymmetry.
However, just because it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and looks like a duck, doesn’t mean Gladius is a duck. I’m just not convinced that Gladius can truly call itself a 4X game. It has all the right pieces, but they don’t fit in a way that lends credence to it being 4X.
It’s a really good turn-based strategy game set in the Warhammer 40K universe and probably up there with the Dawn of War series for best games set in this universe, but without diplomacy, without more map features, without more focus on the other 3 “Xs”, Gladius just feels like a fun war game that happens to have some 4X features.
It’s still a good, almost great, game, but it’s just not what this 4X enthusiast would truly call a 4X game. That’s just my opinion, of course, but it’s one I feel very strongly about until the unlikely event that the eXterminate isn’t the only X that feels fully fleshed out.