Warhammer 40K Gladius’ marketing claim that it’s the first ever 4X, Warhammer 40K game. It’s surprising considering the vast quantity of 40K games released. But after playing I sort of understand why. The lore isn’t well suited to a 4X, at least not unless you use a lot more history than we typically see. But as a turn based strategy game it does well with the core job of giving you interesting tactical decisions to make.
You pick one of only four starting factions and eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate in the usual, modern, post Civ-5 fashion. Unlike Civ and most other 4Xs, the expanding and exploiting phases are quite light. The game uses global resource pools and buildings have a mild effect. The end result is that settlements don’t matter as much. There’s no frantic territory gobble and even at the end of the game the map will have huge unexploited chunks.
Being a 40K game completely devoid of diplomacy means it’s really all about the exterminating. Units take up their entire hex so there are no stacks of doom. They’re also very durable so strategy boils down to successfully finishing off enemies before they retreat and heal while avoiding the same with your own troops. There’s some paper/rock/scissors at play, especially with advanced flying units and heroes, but in general it’s more about positioning and controlling your fronts than it is about specific units.
If you’ve played 4Xs and know 40K’s vast pool of units you’ll be up to speed so quickly that you’ll think the game is shallow. And as mentioned, it is in at least two of the Xs. Even the research tree looks too simple with 10 tiers containing a handful of technologies each. City management is also very streamlined and limited to resource gathering and a few troop producing buildings. Without wonders, workers, roads, faction interaction, trade, religion or culture there’s an impression that a lot is missing on your first playthrough. The AI also seemed unaggressive if somewhat better able to handle all the troop shuffling than Civ is.
But then I lost my first playthrough on medium difficulty. It wasn’t a sudden loss, but a slow, inexorable grinding retreat. When I lost my max level hero I gave up and started over on a bigger map and paid a lot more attention. In doing so I realized how much hidden depth and subtlety I ignored and why I rightfully failed. It’s not a game of sudden swings but rather cumulative effects and attrition, which actually models the 40K world very well. Because units are durable but short ranged you’ll pay for over aggression. A steady loss of a unit here or there puts you at an eventual, massive disadvantage when the AI decides to move on you en masse.
You also realize that while the paper/rock/scissors mechanics are not particularly emphasized in firepower, resistance or armor, what really matters is range. A homogenous force of infantry could theoretically do well, but in practice gets torn up when opposed by a mixed force that can bring firepower to bear from a distance. Complicating matters is the universal, total war state of all factions. From the mid-game until the end, you’ll be in constant battle on multiple fronts. It’s the sort of situation that would give any turtling Civ fan anxiety. Once I accepted the world I was in I had a lot of tense fun every turn.
Sludgy & Quick
The interface is great and the lack of building variety and research options make your turns feel very quick. But the number of units you end up juggling, how slow they move and the lack of stacking makes things feel sluggish. Once the map gets full and you’re watching dozens of enemy units fight every turn, things feel downright slow. It degrades the “one more turn” compulsion to the point where you’ll feel considerable impatience.
Settings to the rescue; jack up the animation speed as high as it will go and things become so brisk that there’s virtually no waiting. That’s when the game especially feels like Panzer General or a lavish Civ scenario. Aside from a couple of quick building decisions it’s just troop movement, healing, using powers and shifting your lines so the AI fights other AI whenever possible. I enjoyed my second game more than the first and there’s still a ton to learn and optimize better when I go a 3rd time.
Sci-Fi themed 4Xs typically fall short in the flavor department. There’s something cold and uninspiring about digital versions of space. But terrestrial ones shouldn’t suffer from that problem so it’s quite disappointing that a 40K game, a property exploding with over the top drama and flavor, has such an empty presentation. Things look nice enough, you can zoom in close and enjoy the many weapon effects and details. But the absence of any voice acting and the units’ durability make everything seem unheroic. There’s no impact, no horror of war, no national drama; just a huge variety of sci-fi units slugging it out back and forth over an uncaring landscape.
Even a city loss – a dramatic moment of sadness in Civ games – produces only cold detachment; no more upsetting than the sum of its numbers. I felt no affection for my hero units, even the ones that survived from inception and were instrumental in dozens of conflicts. They grow and gain power and change but they’re just little counters on a map. I wish they aspired to be more. Combined with the tiny number of factions (four) and it makes me unexcited about playing again despite enjoying myself.
The tech-tree suffers from the same problem. The choices are all impactful and there’s actually a ton to research. You only need to research two techs from each tier before opening up the next. Being used to Civ techs, where later ones can often be game changers, I tunneled straight towards the final tier as fast as I could. It’s another reason I lost my first game. A misunderstanding of the game’s subtlety left my industrial complex inadequate in the late game. There are lots of important choices to make and the factions are noticeably different tactically, but it’s presented so flat and lifeless that it never rises above a good, pure strategy game.
I suspect a lot of the streamlining and design decisions were made to facilitate multiplayer gaming. Something which is particularly challenging with 4X games taking hours to finish. I was actually eager to give it a go. I’ve never played a multiplayer 4X and this seemed just fast enough to finish a small map in an evening. And while there were 30-40 matches being played, all the open lobbies were reserved for friends. So despite their efforts I’m not sure it’s feasible alone. But if you have some like minded warmongers this seems like a more rational choice than a Civ marathon.
Should you buy it?
If you like turn based war games, this is a competent outing. Unit variety is great, there’s a ton of progression and the factions play out differently enough to almost, but not quite, excuse the limited number. But if you only like 4Xs for the building and complex simulation, Gladius comes up short. I definitely enjoyed my time with it and I’d come back for another game during the next Steam drought. But it’s not memorable or vivid nor suited to roleplaying even on a national level.
Warhammer 40,000 Gladius is available from: