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Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics Of War

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Slitherine
Developer: Proxy Studios
Release Date: July 12, 2018

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PC Review - 'Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics Of War'

by Chris Barnes on Dec. 31, 2018 @ 3:00 a.m. PST

Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics Of War is a 4X strategy game that incorporates the dark, gothic, far future science-fantasy setting in ways never tried before.

Buy Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War

"Waaaghhh!" is a common noise you may hear from a ravaging pack of Orks in a Warhammer 40K game, but it may also be the noise my neighbors heard while I teetered between moments of joy and pure frustration while playing Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War. Proxy Studios, an independent German studio, has created a gritty strategy game set within the Warhammer 40K universe, and while it may not be the most complex of its genre, it's a decent attempt at the first 4X game based on the classic tabletop series.

Gladius Prime, a so-called "planet of peace" at some point in the past, serves as the backdrop for four factions from the 40K universe to duke it out over resources, research, and total domination. Players can choose from the hulking Space Marines, the once-dormant robotic skeletons known as Necrons, the bloodthirsty Orks, and the Astra Militarum. As in any good strategy game, each race possesses skills and gameplay mechanics that can drastically change how a round might be played to achieve victory.

The victory conditions in Gladius are straightforward: One can either destroy enemies by crumbling the main fortress situated at the heart of each faction's base(s) or see through a series of quests that ultimately lead to victory. Players won't find themselves getting in heated trade wars with the neighboring AI because unlike other games within the genre, diplomacy takes a backseat in Gladius. Instead, the title focuses mostly on control and annihilation, which seems fitting considering the source material's tone.

How is the gameplay? Fortunately, for a title that relies so heavily on map control and domination, the combat has some nice depth. Each faction's army offers different gameplay mechanics. Space Marines have access to orbital space drops and missile barrages, Orks have a +/- damage scaler depending on influence, Necrons have regenerative abilities, etc. While the abilities can easily be overlooked in the early and middle portions of a game, the late game demands players to reassess their strategies to topple the final faction. I'll admit that this frustrated me because the game doesn't punish you for ignoring faction traits until you've spent a few hours on a game.

During my first playthrough as Space Marines, I steamrolled the neighboring AI opponents. Despite my "create the largest army ever" strategy working for most of the game, though, upon reaching the fourth and final faction on the map, I hit a brick wall — and it was large, equipped with two laser-firing towers, and surrounded by massive enemy war machines. My army had cruised through the game up to this point, but it was no match for the final confrontation. As my army fed itself to the war-hungry Necrons, the enemy units gained experience for each kill and leveled up, thus exacerbating the problem each time I sent a new wave of units in to its death.

During this skirmish, one of my biggest qualms about the game surfaced: its inconsistency in showing an enemy's executed orders. Three of the enemy units might attack simultaneously during a turn, making it tough to figure out how much damage is being done to each of my units. This becomes worse if you have multiple battles going on in different sections of the map, causing the camera to jump back and forth without the player knowing how much damage their units receive. While this may be a nice feature for veterans who are looking to quickly speed up the end game, it makes it frustrating for newcomers who are trying to learn which units are effective against others.

Furthermore, the end game is underscored by poor performance issues. In most of the game, I consistently experienced sluggish frame rates around turn 100, when skirmishes contain more than just a handful of units. It's not the end of the world, but when you're already in a frustrating battle against an overpowered (and smarter) opponent, it drags out a game that's starting to overstay its welcome.

"Waaaggghhh. Screw this game!" That's what I was thinking after my first match. Clearly, Gladius – Relics of War was turning me into an enraged Ork. I swallowed my pride, abandoned the five hours I had invested in that match, took a breather, and started a new game later that day.

Did I learn from my mistakes from my first failed attempt? Sort of. The early and mid-game still seem a bit easy. Some may enjoy a strategy game with this sort of difficulty curve, but I would've liked something more balanced. About 70 turns into the match, the first two factions toppled, a number of useful technologies had been researched, and I created a massive army that I hoped wouldn't feed the final enemy too much. At this point, I learned to appreciate some of the nuances of Gladius' combat by better utilizing the artefact and item system (hero units can hold items that offer passive and active traits), as well as faction-specific abilities to break through the enemy lines. Despite finding a strategy that worked fairly well, the end game still dragged — particularly due to the poor performance that again reared its ugly head.

Unfortunately, beyond performance issues, the game also falls short in other departments. The 4X game mainly revolves around the conquest of other factions. Players can complete faction-specific quests, which usually consist of straightforward objectives such as killing neutral units, observing random tiles on the map, and other menial tasks. Each faction offers a different plot, but none were particularly engaging. A voice-over at the completion of each quest would've been appreciated. Instead, the story is presented via text in the same window highlighting your next objective. As a result, the quest lines felt dull and often less efficient than a conquest victory. Other victory conditions within the 4X genre — diplomacy, technology, etc. — are missing from Gladius, so pacifists need not apply. While this may have been a deliberate choice by Proxy Studios to emphasize the brutal nature of the 40K universe, it makes each game play out in similar fashion, thus hurting the title's overall replayability.

More importantly, the visual and sound design hampered the overall enjoyment of Gladius – Relics of War. I don't need or expect eye-popping, hyper-realistic graphics in a strategy game, but it's important for the visual design of each unit and map tile to be easily distinguishable. Unfortunately, there are a number of units with different abilities that look fairly similar to one another. I often found myself looking at the icons and hovering over each unit instead of the actual unit. Once my unit was selected for movement, there were many times when it was unclear why the unit couldn't move in a certain direction. Forests and other obstructions were clear, but mountains and ridges are much tougher to discern, depending on their angle. Similar criticisms can be made for the menus, which are cluttered with icons that aren't intuitive. For instance, the Space Marine's infantry building is represented by an arrow pointing up, its vehicle building is an arrow icon pointing in all four directions, and the Orks' vehicle building is an arrow pointing right. Overall, the graphics are decent for the genre, but it could've benefited from better design and art direction to set it apart. 

Similarly, the sound design in Gladius lacks that extra "oomph" that the game so desperately needs. I was often underwhelmed by the various actions and skills. In a world where the game Helldivers exists, players are fully aware how truly badass it can be to launch a marine from space and send them plummeting into the frontlines of battle in an instant. Gladius, unfortunately, doesn't capture that feeling — mainly due to the sound. A marine deployed via orbital drop sounds like a baseball being dropped onto cotton balls; a group of tankbusta Orks is equipped with rocket launchers that might as well be potato launchers; a hero that can fly across the battlefield is accompanied with a sound effect I'd expect from a fairy from The Legend of Zelda. What could and should be epic moments during the heat of a skirmish feel underwhelming due to the audio. No, I didn't repeat quippy one-liners from faction units for days on end, even though I still quote StarCraft lines in everyday life.

Ultimately, Proxy Studios has stripped away some of the complexities commonly found within the 4X genre and distilled Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War to an Ork-infested blood-fest. It's a bold decision, and to some extent, it works. There's a reason why folks created the Nuclear Ghandi meme from the Civilization series; at the end of the day, it's fun to make guns, destroy opponents, complete research, and make bigger guns is fun. However, in Gladius' case, the guns don't come without a few hiccups. Performance issues, counterintuitive visual design, and lackluster sound are prevalent concerns. It makes for a strategy game that is so close to succeeding but falls short of something special. After spending roughly 30 hours with Gladius and getting familiar with each of the factions, I'm comfortable recommending the game to fans of the genre who are desperate for something new or for those looking for a 4X game they can enjoy at a more relaxed pace. What's more relaxing than smashing Space Marine skulls on a Saturday morning with a maxed-out Warboss? Waaaaaghhh!

Score: 6.8/10

Reviewed on: Intel i7 4790k, 16 GB RAM, GTX 1080

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