Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
I must admit to feeling slightly conflicted when I first enlisted into March Of The Eagles. As a rabid Sharpe fanatic, I'm a sucker for anything Napoleonic, and gleefully accept any excuse to take my forty shillings. But Paradox have given us so many grand strategy games over the years, based around the the same 2D map and fundamental framework, that it now takes something truly special to catch our attention. Last year that special something was Crusader Kings II, which pushed the boundaries of what a turn-based strategy game could offer.
March Of The Eagles is a much more focused affair. Instead of hundreds of years of intrigue and backstabbing, players are presented with a notably streamlined take on everything but warfare, with clear objectives and relatively tight time limits replacing the sprawling political playgrounds of fellow Grand Strategy titles. It's clearly designed to let new players get down to the business of shipping troops o'er the hills and o'er the main - through Flanders, Portugal and Spain - but can March Of The Eagles do enough to stand out from the pack?
The answer depends on whether you're willing to stab your mates in the back.
At first glance, March Of The Eagles is very much business as usual. After picking a faction (either one of the major powers like the triumphant France, Britain and Russia or smaller countries), you'll enter a detailed topographic map that bristles with hundreds of different provinces. As always, Paradox' trademark attention to historical detail is clear, though once again a little more unique visual flavour for important capital cities and regions would have been nice. It's no looker, especially when you get your eye in, but the overall effect is clean and functional nevertheless.
However, it won't take long before you start to notice some serious streamlining. The barely-existent economy system churns out money, resources and troops for each region you occupy at a steady rate, while regional upgrades are at a serious premium (indeed, they barely fill out a single menu pane). March Of The Eagles condenses down the amount of busywork and micromanagement you'd usually expect from a grand strategy game, instead using some intelligently designed menus, blowouts and optional tooltips to feed players information at a palatable pace. It's a pared-back approach from the veteran studio, but an accessible one that lets us get down to the serious business of playing at soldiers.
Unlike Crusader Kings 2 and its ilk, which allow for a huge amount of sandbox experimentation, March Of The Eagles is all about winning the war. Each country can win - yes, win - the game by securing several preset regions on the map to grant them land and sea superiority. You've only got fifteen years to secure victory (1805-1820), which translates to about eight to ten hours of game time rather than countless days spent in front of your monitor. The clear objectives add a new sense of urgency to the proceedings, and a sense of purpose that will help newcomers find their feet in what is sometimes an intimidatingly open-ended experience.
Most of the game will be spent raising, organising and deploying truly enormous armies. In stark comparison to the streamlined management side of things, the nightmarishly sprawling menus of country-specific units at your disposal (everything from infantry to cavalry, artillery and specialised Sharpe-style skirmishers) are arguably a little bloated, and initially fiercely confusing if you've picked one of the bigger powers. On top of that, you'll have to learn the intricacies of assigning generals to specific formations, then picking from a range of different engagement options. As a grand strategy game rather than an RTS, you'll order around stacks of troops rather than individual units, and organising them effectively will take serious practice. You've got a great deal of control over how your armies operate when they meet the enemy, while having no real control during the fray, leading to a nail-bitingly tense few moments when battle is joined.
Despite a relatively comprehensive tutorial by Paradox standards, you'll need to learn the vaguaries of Napoleonic warfare through several defeats and spend a lot of time waiting around while you get your battalions up to strength.
Once you've laid the groundwork, however, gameplay resembles a cross between a cut-throat round of Risk and an Excel spreadsheet. You'll intelligently attack vulnerable enemy regions while keeping your supply lines unbroken (an easier task than in Hearts Of Iron and other more vicious Paradox titles), all the while ensuring that you're not leaving yourself open to a counter-assault or spreading your forces too thin. Naval manoeuvres add yet more depth to the experience, since you'll need a fleet to ferry your troops and supplies around Europe, and using them effectively can lead to some pleasingly advanced tactics. Unfortunately, you'll only really make the most of March Of The Eagles if you choose a major power, since the small fry tends to have much fewer options at their disposal and are forced to hang onto the coat-tails of others (a realistic touch, but one that limits replayability somewhat). The AI is also bit of a sticking point when playing solo, as it's often a tad erratic when it comes to positioning troops and retreating, and lacks much in the way of killer instinct on all but the higher difficulty settings.
Traditional technology and research options have been replaced by the new Ideas system, which gives you points to spend on new upgrades for your armies and resource production. Interestingly, Idea points are dished out for winning, but actively accelerated if you continually lose engagements. Veteran armchair generals will likely balk at this counter-intuitive design decision, but on the flip side, it encourages new players to get involved without becoming totally demoralised. Since you'll love this system when it benefits you and scream about it when your defeated enemy gets a big bonus, I'd argue that it's well balanced if a tad unrealistic.
Diplomacy has sadly taken a real back seat in March Of The Eagles. Only a handful of treaties and alliances are on offer, most of which will be refused out of hand by the obstinate AI even if you bend over backwards to present a generous deal. This broadly makes sense for a game based on fifteen years of war, but you'll rarely get the satisfaction of compelling a surrender out of your opponents with a truly clever strategic gambit, meaning that most games just involve crushing everything between you and your objective.
This makes March Of The Eagles disappointingly one-dimensional when played solo, exacerbated by a notable lack of personality. As mentioned, I'm a Sharpe fan, and as such I'm used to the era being populated by a cast of colourful characters (both historical and fictional, of course). Crusader Kings II made people - real, clever, devious and hateful people - the core focus of the experience, making what was essentially a complicated spreadsheet feel truly alive. But March Of The Eagles makes little attempt to breathe life into its leaders and characters, even the 'big dogs' like Napoleon and Wellington, beyond letting your units and generals improve as they win successive battles. The spreadsheet has rarely been more obvious. In singleplayer, then, March Of The Eagles feels sterile and clinical; mechanically solid yet devoid of soul.
It's a little like playing a board game by yourself. So naturally things get much more interesting when you replace the AI with real people.
March Of The Eagles shines in multiplayer, since dirty dealings and diplomatic backstabbing becomes the order of the day. Much like a ruthless game of Risk, you'll constantly entreat your fellow players with secret deals ("go ahead and attack Russia, I'll help you, honest,") while going behind their back with similar offers to their rivals, and preparing to turn on your erstwhile allies before they do the same. All while being taunted and brown-nosed in equal measure. If you're prepared to throw scruples to the wind and perhaps drop off speaking terms with your mates for several days, March Of The Eagles becomes an addictive and vicious playground that lets you unleash your inner bastard with merry abandon.
Though Paradox has been busy ironing out some niggling connection issues, your best bet to secure a stable game is still to manually exchange IP addresses rather than relying on the 'Metaserver.' The old-school solutions are often the best.
- Cut-throat multiplayer encourages your 'inner Napoleon'
- Some intelligent streamlining and accessible GUI
- Loads of historically-accurate period armies to command on land and sea
- One-dimensional and soulless in singleplayer, replay value suffers
- Massive selection of units is bloated and initially confusing
- Lacks genuine personality and visual/historical flair
The Short Version: If you're willing to play dirty, twist the knife and lose many friends, March Of The Eagles will be a delightfully sadistic multiplayer experience. Like Risk, it's best enjoyed with others rather than sat on your lonesome in front of the board.