It’s clear early on what game the Gladius developers have been playing. And not just from the interface. Not even from the fact that you start with a settler and two warriors. But from the way it gallops apace. The turns tick-tock along with the nearly clockwork drumbeat of your thumb on the spacebar. This needs your attention, then that, then this, then you’re done with the turn. Spacebar, spacebar, spacebar. Units then cities then end turn. Thumb thumb thumb from units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to tech tree to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. It’s a steady sequence, designed so that the act of playing is rhythm and the act of not playing is dissonance. Why would you want to mess up that rhythm? It would be more natural to keep playing than to stop playing. Units to cities to end turn.
If there’s one thing Firaxis did right in their latest Civilizations, it’s the illusion of pace. Everything moves ahead, each turn lining up a parade of little choices that supposedly conspire to form a grand strategic model of a civilization. That was the idea, at least. The reality is 31 flavors of marginally relevant tech trees, building layout puzzles, and dumb AI units shuffling around in the gaps between cities. But it’s all subsumed into that easy rhythm. Units then cities then some tech tree then end turn. Ad nauseum. Eventually the endgame snowballs into a sprawling heap of meaningless choices, but since the AI isn’t pushing back, meaningless choices will do you just fine. Units then cities then some tech tree then end turn.
Gladius is based on the same pacing and rhythm, but it understands that more is just more, and has no bearing on better. Although it adopts the easy rhythm and the sleek information pipeline of the latest Civilization games, it focuses on one thing and one thing only: distinct Warhammer pieces fighting each other. It knows exactly what it wants to do and it refuses to pad it with more more of marginal relevance. City management be damned, it cries. This is all guns, hold the butter. It scoffs at endgame sprawl because so many of your units will die along the way. Units don’t shuffle around in the gaps between cities, because those are no gaps. Those are the game.
One of Gladius’ most significant takeaways from the Civilization games, and what sets it apart from pretty much every other Warhammer strategy game I’ve played, is that it starts small, slow, modest, and undemanding. By way of contrast, I’ve recently tried Armageddon and Sanctus Reach, which are also about distinct Warhammer pieces fighting each other. There is no easy way into those games, because they’re based on the conceit that you come to a Warhammer table with all the painted miniatures you’re going to use. A whole army of them. Those games don’t have time for people who aren’t immediately ready to manage ten different kinds of things. They throw you into the deep end.
But Gladius plays more like a Civilization. You start with a settler and a couple of workers. Although the only work in this game is fighting, so the workers are basic infantry units. The settler is still a settler, because you’re going to want to disband him to build your first city. Well, “city”. You’ll have some significant building choices just like you have building choices in a real time strategy game. But a city is really a base because its primary — only? — purpose is to give you the pieces you need to play the actual game.
And even though they resemble Civilization cities, they also feel like an RTS. Remember those? Gladius does. In an RTS, you build different structures to make different units. A barracks for infantry, a garage for vehicles, an armory for tanks, an airfield for aircraft. Some other buildings might unlock upgrades. That’s how cities work in Gladius. They are a collection of buildings, all with the purpose of spitting out and then supporting military units. Which are the only kind of units in Gladius. And to drive home that this is more of a base than a traditional Civilization city, it has multiple building queues. One for each building. My barracks is training an infantry unit, my garage is training a scout skimmer, my armoury is working on a badass tank, and my officer’s school is well on its way to giving me another cool hero unit. Simultaneously. Just like an RTS. Gladius opens up the pipeline for getting units onto the map. Which is the whole point. Now try going back to the usual grand strategy game where each city can only build one thing at a time. Your granary will be done in 8 turns, and then you can start building an archer.
Another takeaway from the recent Civilization games is that stacks just confuse people, so only ever let one dude stand somewhere at a time. One unit per tile. Who ever heard of a swordsman and a knight standing in the same field? What nonsense! This core design choice dragged Civilization down for a couple of reasons, including horrible AI and a munged sense of scale. But Gladius treats this core design choice as a core design choice. It knows that if units are going to hog up space, get in each other’s way, and never stand in the same field, they need to be interesting, useful, and distinct. Each one needs to deserve its own tile.
Here is where the delicious Warhammer asymmetry really comes into play. There are four factions, each with a ton of units. Like an RTS, you probably won’t use all your faction’s units in any given game. You have to pick and choose as you play. And it’s not like Civilization where you stop building archers because now you’ve researched musketeers. All the units are always useful to some degree. The tech tree that determines what you can build and when you can build it isn’t a tech tree so much as a build order. It never obsoletes anything.
One of the ways Gladius makes its units interesting is by making them detailed, and not just with powerful special abilities and unique attributes. The combat model takes it even deeper. Units have hit points, but this isn’t just a number that means death when it zeroes out. Hit points are directly related to how many figures a unit has, which determines how many times it attacks. A unit doesn’t have an attack power. Instead, units have specific weapons, and those weapons have an attack power. The weapon will attack with that power once for each figure in the army. Therefore, weakened units hit weakly. Healing is a choice not just for how long something survives, but for how hard it hits. The different weapons are all staples of the Warhammer universe, each with a specific use. With ample tooltips and a comprehensive ingame database, all this information is available if you want to pore over it. Which you’ll probably want to do. If not, you should consider a less tactically intricate game. Sometimes the point of Gladius is the difference between a boltgun and a lascannon.
The hero units have their own role, and it’s ridiculous. But so is Warhammer itself. This is a universe where a single powerful hero can fend off a thousand generic soldiers. Play the latest Total War if you don’t believe me. So alongside your groups of tanks or marines or ork boyz or necron undead robots, you’ll have lone figures at the vanguard, soaking up absurd amounts of damage, slashing their way through enemy soldiers in a way that puts everyone else to shame. “Why don’t I just build a bunch of these guys?” you might wonder before you realize each successive hero doubles in cost. You’ll pick their spell powers as they level up, and even equip them with magic items. Of course, they’re science fiction spell powers and science fiction magic items. It’s just another example of how Gladius might look like grand strategy, but it’s really interested in getting down in the weeds.
Sometimes literally. A lot of the gameplay is positioning, with terrain as a primary factor. Who’s going to take cover in the forest and who’s going to risk being out in the open? Who’s going to step into the dangerous wireweed because they need to get somewhere quickly? Who’s going to stand here in the ork mushrooms to heal up? Who’s going to wade into those ruins to see if there’s someone hidden in there? The latest Civilizations tried to pose these sorts of questions when it decided to also be an intricate tactical combat game. Gladius is only an intricate tactical combat game.
A strategy game also has to provide a reason to fight. The main reason is, of course, resources. The maps are littered with resource nodes that are yours for the stepping on. No need to build farms, mines, or plantations, which you can’t do anyway because you don’t have workers. Just have someone step on a resource node and now it’s sending resources back to your base. It will continue to do so until someone else steps on it. These resources encourage fighting, and to the AIs credit, it behaves accordingly. But the other reason to fight is to actually win the game. And the only way to do that is to wipe everyone else off the map. This might be disappointing, and it can certainly be a slog. But it’s a side effect of Gladius’ focus on fighting. There are no culture victories, science victories, commerce victories, or diplomacy victories. There is no diplomacy, in fact. You can’t win by building Wonders of the World. It’s always last man standing.
Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Each faction has a series of quests, all of which chain into a storyline, with a victory condition waiting at the end. Sounds good. Until you get to one of the quests that involves a bunch of things attacking you but you already had your hands full fighting the AI — also known as “playing the game” — so now it’s game over. I’m not convinced these quests play well with the rest of Gladius. In fact, they feel like a half-hearted attempt to head off complaints that it’s always last man standing. Fortunately, I can turn off the quests when I start a game.
My favorite thing about Gladius is that it does things it doesn’t need to do. That’s how you know it’s more than just another throwaway Warhammer tie-in. It goes the extra mile. It paints a nifty little flourish where a broad stroke would have been just fine. It says something cool when it could have been silent. It knows that games in which you move little dudes around to punch other little dudes’ hit points are a dime a dozen, so it needs to offer extra value to stand out. So it does.
For example, the richly written flavor text, which is one of the advantages of a license with as long and enthusiastically serious a history as Warhammer. You’ll occasionally uncover the name for a given section of the map. It’s something evocative enough that you’ll notice. Nova Searmount. Illhid. Whitefloe. Lonesome Sanddrift. Gardens of the Lost. Now you can think about mounting an offensive not against the Imperial Guard city in the southwest corner, but against the Imperial Guard city in the Gardens of the Lost. Units will pop up little context specific text comments. Sometimes your units earn names. Sure, you can give them names if you want. But sometimes Gladius will do it for you, as a way to say, “Hey, what that guy just went through was pretty heroic, right? Let me put some words here so we remember it.”
The procedural maps are a study in how randomness doesn’t have to preclude personality. The planet Gladius — hence the title of the game — has a sense of ecology. Kroot hounds running wild, enslavers minding the artefacts in the corners, Castelan juggernauts wanting to be left alone to brood, the occasional ancient Imperial stronghold tucked into some unexpected cranny, colossal centipede scorpions spawning from their hives, wireweed forcing hard choices about getting there fast or getting there undamaged, mushrooms that only orks can eat, a tomb that the necrons will want, a trade outpost that will help you equip your heroes. It doesn’t quite have the sense of alien ecology that Brian Reynolds managed in Alpha Centauri, but that says more about Alpha Centauri and plenty about Gladius. These are map scripts with gameplay personality. As a narrative, Gladius gives its stage as much attention as its characters.
I get the sense the developers put a lot of quality time into Gladius. I get the sense they constantly asked themselves “what could make this better?” or “what could give that more character?” or “how can we make this easier to manage?” And they came up with answers to those questions. So many strategy games leave you hanging, wondering why the developers did or didn’t do something. So many strategy games have taken a cue from Firaxis’ latest Civilizations in that they just provide busywork and diversion. Make ten different decisions in a turn just so you can feel a sense of accomplishment. Too many strategy games mistake detail for design, activity for gameplay. Gladius knows better.