There are, at last count, 1,537,284 Warhammer games on the market, and yet somehow none of them have been in the 4X genre. So hi there, Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War.
It’s tough to truly innovate in this space, since its fundamentals breed similarity, but while Civilization is the most well-known 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) game, Relics looks to a more contemporary example — the excellent Endless Legend — for inspiration.
From the clinical UI to an emphasis on base-building, hero units to ruin searches, Relics will be a lot more familiar to Endless Legend fans, who should be up and running in this game in no time.
The setup for this game is ridiculous, involving (and I’m keeping it brief here) a planet being struck with anomalies then beset by enemies, but then so is every setup for a 40K storyline, I guess. The gist is that you’re on a human planet that’s suddenly crawling with Orks and Necrons (both also playable factions), who are fighting against Space Marines and regular Imperial forces (who are also both playable).
None of that explains why you suddenly know nothing of the planet around you, or why you have to re-research the basic units of your very long-established armed forces, but 4X games have rules to play and Relics is to content to abide by them.
Warhammer may seem a weird fit for this genre, but at a functional level at least, Relics knows how these games works and makes sure to provide that experience, albeit with one major omission (that we’ll get to in a minute). You are certainly exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating on a hex-based map, all the while managing resources, construction and production.
The one place you will find atmospheric and good-looking art is the game’s splash screens, which come complete with the kind of visuals you expect from the 40K license.
But there’s little here to excite. Relics ticks its 4X boxes, reskins the experience to suit the Warhammer license and offers little more. The map is drab and depressing, while units (and their animations) exhibit little of the pomp and flair we associate with such an over-the-top franchise.
It’s the absence of diplomacy that hurts most though. While I guess it could be argued that there is no diplomacy in the 40K universe, it’s a standard feature in 4X games, and often the only way to inject a little life and personality into proceedings. Its absence strips Relics of much of its potential strategy and depth, and makes every game feel stale and devoid of character.
All of which is a bit of a shame, because Relics does have some good ideas scattered around. It attempts to plug the hole left by diplomacy by making combat — especially its use of ranged weaponry, grenades, mind control and melee — a bit more interesting than simply throwing units against one another. Indeed this is one of the better turn-based 40K experiences in recent years on the PC.
Relics was developed by Proxy, the studio responsible for Pandora: First Contact, coincidentally another sci-fi 4X game that suffered from a lack of personality. It was published by Slitherine, a company who make a living selling PC strategy games.
I like Slitherine, who are a bit like a scruffier Paradox. Panzer Corps and Order of Battle are two of the finest strategy series on PC, and BSG Deadlock is fantastic. But their 40K efforts — this is the third game from the property they’ve published, following Warhammer-infused takes on Panzer Corps and XCOM — are falling short.
The problem in this case maybe lies with the choice of genre itself. Trying to cram such a bloodthirsty universe into a style of game that generally supports a wider variety of play styles is a mistake at the strategic level, and no amount of ideas in the combat space can make up for that. Relics is trying to give 40K fans the full 4X experience, but all it can offer is some decent turn-based combat.