Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Proxy Studios
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
Games Workshop doesn’t seem to be very particular when it comes to handing out the license to their Warhammer universe. Sometimes it feels like a month can’t go by without another billion video games popping up with the Warhammer name scrawled across the box art. As a result we’ve had a rollercoaster of quality, ranging from the utterly naff to the brilliant to everything between. This one, though, certainly sits on one of the higher peaks of the ride.
At launch the game includes four races; the elite Space Marines with their chunky armour and loyalty to the Emperor; the considerably squishier Astra Militarum made up of regular humans; the dangerous Necrons and their pleasing green and black colour scheme; and finally the Orks and their endless lust for WAAAAAAAAGH!. More are promised for the future but for now this relatively small roster helps to ensure that each faction feels unique at first glance. My personal favourite, the mighty Space Marines, for example, are only allowed a single city whereas the others can have multiple, thus making your initial choice of where to put down roots all the more important. Deployable Fortresses of Redemption let them lay claim to resources further afield, but it’s a far cry from the likes of the Necrons who can set up shop on any Tombs they find, or even the Astra Militarum who can just build cities wherever they like. It’s worth pointing out, though, that each new city is more expensive to build than the last.
With said the differences don’t feel as deeply ingrained as I’d like. Once you get past the initial mechanic that sets a faction apart they all tend to have the same selection of units. They’re dressed up differently, sure, but they all serve the same role and are practically just as good as each other in that role. The same is true of the resources; they might be different in name, but in practical terms it just means tossing down buildings like you normally would. Sure, the Necrons use Ore instead of food to keep their soldiers marching, but that doesn’t actually make any real difference to how you play. I do have to say, though, that more differences between factions may become apparent over time. As it is I’ve put thirty hours into the game, but in something like this that isn’t much.
Given that the Warhammer universe is known for being grim, dark war all the damn time it’s little wonder that there’s absolutely no room for diplomacy here. It’s here we see the cracks in the game’s 4x facade; it might claim to be a 4x title and it might technically tick all the boxes, but in reality it fails miserably in comparison to other games in the genre. You can’t form alliances, you can’t win via being the most cultured or by becoming the most technologically advanced race of Orks. No, you have two methods of winning; complete a vague storyline or just kill everyone else.
What I’m driving at is that Relics of War isn’t a very good 4x game. It lacks so many of the options that people might have grown accustomed to in series like Civilization. Don’t fret, though, because it’s a really fun war-game instead, one where you’re almost always caught up in a battle and plotting your next move. The lack of diplomatic options outside of shooting someone in the face fits Warhammer perfectly, and there’s even reasons given as to why Space Marines would be shooting other Space Marines.
On your turn you’re free to order your various units around the hex-grid map, perhaps claiming the various outposts that are scattered around which will grant you extra resources and even combat bonuses when your troops are standing in them.
Of course, you’ll also be sending your troops into battle a lot of the time. The planet of Gladius is a dangerous and violent place, so even in the opening turns you’ll find yourself gunning down the local wildlife that seems intent on ripping off your face. And then later you’ll be facing off against the other factions, plus the local wildlife who are still just as keen on doing bodily harm to you. Whenever you opt to attack an enemy unit you’ll first be able to gauge the results of combat by hovering over them, whereupon a little pop-up will tell you the estimated casualties of your assault and the overall damage you’ll probably do. It’s all based on a very easy to understand system that is essentially rock, paper, scissors on steroids. An infantry unit attacking a tank probably won’t manage to do anything unless they happen to be carrying some Melta Bombs, but an anti-armour unit can lay waste to a player’s valuable vehicles and so on and so on. It’s easy to grasp.
One thing that did initially disappoint me was that there are no bonuses granted for flanking or surrounding an enemy, potentially limiting some of your tactical choices. However, certain units do have adjacency bonuses to consider, so, for example, the Space Marine’s Tactical Marines will perform better the closer they are due to Rapid Fire. No, most of your thinking comes from choosing where to focus your fire or how best to spend a unit’s turn, because while they can move and then fire, they can’t typically fire then move, so if some of your Marines are looking a little worse for wear it might be best to get them out of dodge, except if they’re right next to an enemy you incur a movement penalty.
But while I found the lack of flanking a little annoying I did enjoy how units gain experience over time, becoming more powerful and thus worth keeping around. Too often in strategy games the loss of troops is painful only because of the resources needed to replace, but here the death of an experienced squad feels harsher. It gives you more reason to retreat weakened units and give them time to heal up.
Building up your city or cities is integral to succeeding. You’ll start with control of a single tile but you can purchase new ones at any time, each acquisition providing more space to construct buildings that will generate resources, build tanks and deploy troops. The key that each new patch of land that you buy will also come with bonuses to certain things, like providing 20% more ore or influence, so naturally building up your city typically means looking at what resources you really need and then buying up land that will help boost said resource when you pop down the appropriate building.
I like that you can specialise cities, too. By throwing up multiple buildings capable of producing soldiers, for example, you can accelerate the speed at which new soldiers get deployed, radically cutting down the number of turns needed to get that shiny new Marines into the fight. So, you can have a city dedicated to churning out new troops and vehicles for your army, while another city focuses on pumping out resources. However, opponents can’t really tell from their perspective what a city is doing and thus you can’t deliberately target a city that’s churning out huge amounts of resources, which feels like a missed tactical opportunity. Wrecking the enemy’s supply line is a standard war-time move, after all.
Along the way you’ll need to pick out new research from a straightforward, linear series of tiers. Whenever you’ve successfully researched two new pieces of tech from a tier – be it upgrades for existing units, new buildings or something super powerful – the next level becomes available to you, creating a nice decision about whether you want to race through the levels to get to the later tiers or research some of the lower, cheaper stuff.
If you don’t want to win purely by destroying your opponent’s cities you can attempt to complete your factions storyline, which might include things like finding X amount of artefacts for your hero units to equip. Speaking of which, you can actually use influence at special shops around the world to pick up new gear for hero units, just in case you want to make them the baddest badass to ever badass. One of the game’s favourite tricks during these stories told via simple static text is to magically drop a “rogue” faction on your doorstep, something which completely caught me unawares the first twice. Being engaged in a savage work of attrition with two opponent’s is bad enough without somebody suddenly dropping a whole new foe on top of your head.
Once you’ve gotten used to rogue factions appearing, though, you’ll know not to focus on the story if you’re busy trying to wage a war, and ultimately I did appreciate the developer’s aim to give the game a little more flavor. The story in Gladius is pretty light, after all.
And that’s kind of it. Compared to other 4x games the poorly named Warhammer 40K: Gladius – Relics of War is a very straightforward game that just wants you to focus on shooting everyone else. You can’t carefully manipulate your foes through politics, declare alliances, trade or even wave in their general direction. It’s all about war and who wages it best.
Because of the focus on war and little else I have to be honest and admit that after a while I did begin to find the game a tad monotonous, but it wasn’t anything that a few hours away from the game couldn’t solve. And in those few hours I would find myself thinking about the game again, considering whether I wanted to found a new city or where I wanted to push my army next. Sure, it lacks the breadth and depth of Civilization or something like Endless Legend, but it’s nice to have something lighter, something that doesn’t fry the brain quite so much.
Plus you can always mix things up by heading online and challenging real humans to a fight. The game’s A.I. does a reasonable job of building its cities and waging war, but nothing beats going up against real human players. You can even save a session in progress since a single match can take many hours to complete, although you also have to navigate the slightly awkward multiplayer U.I.
Speaking of which, the whole user interface is perfectly fine but does look a tad drab. I’ds like to see it get spruced up in future updates.
There are definitely other signs of the tighter development budget that Slitherine had to work with. While the game is far from ugly the smaller details suffer, such as a lot of the animations looking wonky or the way that some units will simply phase into the very things they are attacking. I also would have liked to have heard some audio from the units themselves outside of the combat sounds.
So, in the end Relics of War might not be a truly great 4x game, but it is a pretty damn fun Warhammer game with some enjoyable strategy that keeps it chugging along. It never consumed whole days of my life in quite the same way as the Civilization series, but I daresay that’s probably a good thing for my own wellbeing. It did, however, make many hours vanish, the “just one more turn!” brilliance luring you into an almost hypnotic state. Well worth a punt if you’re a fan of this kind of thing.