Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War is the latest entry in the already-bursting list of titles set in the Warhammer 40,000 (i.e. WH40K) universe. What sets Relics of War apart is that it’s the first WH40K game in the 4X style. Take control of one of four warring factions vying for control of the artifact-rich planet Gladius. Grow your meager settlement into a mighty war machine to crush your enemies. Just don’t expect to do much else.
EXPLORING, EXPANDING, EXPLOITING, EXTERMINATING
For those new to 4X games (or those like me, who forget what the 4 Xs stand for), they focus on eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating. You will likely recognize this genre from Sid Meier’s popular Civilization franchise, but there are numerous other 4X heavyweights out there worth mentioning. These titles range from “old dogs” like the Total War (by Creative Assembly) and Europa Universalis (by Paradox Studios) series, and “new blood” like Endless Legend (by Amplitude Studios) and Stellaris (also by Paradox).
New or old, these titles (including Relics of War) focus largely on starting with a small group of units, establishing a settlement, and growing a mighty empire to achieve victory. While the victory conditions may vary from game to game, Relics of War is a bit more limited in that there are two ways to win. Either complete all of your factions’ story missions, or completely destroy your opponent(s). This is not the only way Relics of War is decidedly conflict-focused. For example, while other 4X games boast deep diplomatic systems, Relics of War has no such options. No, there is no “playing nice with others” in Relics of War. Only kill, or be killed.
THE EMPEROR’S NEW FORTRESS
For the most part, the gameplay in Relics of War follows safely in the steps of similar titles that came before it. Start with a small group, establish a city, grow that city, send troops out to explore (killing and looting as one does on an alien planet), build a second city, (… wonder what day-to-day life must be in that second city, experience an existential crisis as you wonder if we are all living in a 4X game, realize you’ve gotten way off track with this example and need to bring it back), rinse and repeat. This is all to say that the core feedback loop of Relics of War plays it pretty safe and simple, emulating similar 4X games with a decidedly WH40K coat of paint.
There are the expected tech trees to advance and units to level up and customize. And for the WH40K fan, it really is nice marshaling an army of varied troops from your favorite faction (as long as it’s one of the included four) to crush your opponent. However, this is where Relics of War’s ambitions start to taper off. While hero units can gain abilities and equipment, a deeper level of customization would have been greatly appreciated (along with better emulating the table-top experience). You can choose an army color, but not a faction or color scheme from WH40K’s deep lore. That means no Blood Ravens vs. Space Wolves, like, say, in WH40K: Dawn of War I or II.
“IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, THERE IS ONLY WAR”… AND SPACE SCORPIONS
For those new to the WH40K series, the best way I can describe it is to take your major high-fantasy factions (i.e. Elves, Orcs, Humans, etc.) give them all spaceships and laser-weapons, and set them all at war with each other across the universe (adding chaos magic, heavy religious themes, and ultra-violence to taste). Relics of War allows players to manage a group of one of four main WH40K factions: the Egyptian-cyborg Necrons, the burly fan-favorite Space Marines, the expendable every-man Imperium, and the recycling-conscious Orks.
Each faction has degrees of uniqueness that set them apart from the other factions, from the units their armies consist of to how they build and expand their bases. In Relics of War, each faction really feels different, and for fans of WH40K it’s nice to see a breadth of units from each army. This is to say, apart from the Imperium (referred to in-game as the Astra Militarum), who feel a bit like the less-cool Space Marines. While they’re supposed to make up for their lack of might with overwhelming numbers, this always felt to me like a friend trying to convince you a bucket of one hundred immobile army men is equally as cool as their $50 Iron Man action figure.
Not to grind this axe too hard, but it makes you wonder why the Eldar (WH40K’s elf-equivalent, and a similar victory-through-numbers force) are noticeably absent from Relics of War. Not to mention some other missing popular factions, such as the Tyranid, Tau, and Chaos. This absence is possibly intentional, and leads one to predict the perennial WH40K favorite gimmick: More armies added later via DLC. Aside from the main factions, you’ll run into a variety (five or six) of aggressive neutral units that seem to be angry at everyone who landed on their home. These neutral units add a nice or infuriating X factor, depending on whether they’re distracting your enemy or stealing back neutral control points from you (which may or may not cause you to send your entire twenty-unit army to purify the planet of one group of rogue space-dogs).
CHAOS NOT INCLUDED
As mentioned before, Relics of War is a pretty “safe” 4X game. It follows the standard formula with some notable twists. The inclusion of the faction-specific story chapters does help to mix things up, both adding some flavor and an alternative win-condition. But, unfortunately, in practice I found the chapters’ execution to be a mixed bag. Some chapters did not trigger one after another, leaving me aimless at times and not knowing where to go next. The goals for some chapters seemed at times a little too out of the way, or their rewards not that appealing. Because of this, I found the chapters to be more of a nice distraction then a viable alternative to total enemy annihilation.
Another missed opportunity seems to come in Relics of War’s details. The more I played Relics of War, the more I noticed a decided lack of flair throughout. Things like menus, tech trees, and unit detail-panes all seemed very utilitarian, with most simply being a black background with white writing. Similarly, the sound design in Relics of War is often repetitious to the point of annoying. I know most of these things are not the focal point of this title, but you spend a lot of time with them, and their plainness or repetition feels like a clear missed opportunity.
The Verdict: Good
Sticking to the established 4X formula helps to make Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War enjoyable, but also keeps it from greatness. For Warhammer 40,000 fans, there is fun to be had in growing an army of Terminators, Assault Space Marines, and Predator tanks to crush your enemies with. But, after all the toys are smashed and the maps explored, there is sadly little else left to do.