March of the Eagles
We’re constantly lead to believe by video games that war is a non-stop thrill-o-rama, with explosions, manly fistfights and slow-motion bits where you shoot a man through the nostrils whilst rappelling through a window. Few games explore the other side of warfare, the admin, the long hours of boredom and the tedious business of making sure your soldiers have all the important bits they need, like food and bullets.
If nothing else, March of Eagles brings a stunningly accurate simulation of this logistical tedium directly to your living room.
It’s 1805, and the major powers of Europe are on the brink of all-out war. Napoleon is threatening the dominion of the British Empire, aided by his Catholic allies in Spain. Prussia grows in power, and tensions rise with their neighbours Austria. In the East, the glorious Ottoman Empire marches to war. Sweden is doing something, probably. Into this arena you step, to choose a nation and guide it through the bloodshed and chaos of the Napoleonic Wars to victory!
If Paradox Interactive previous title, Crusader Kings II, had the brutal politics of the Middle Ages as its backdrop, and Hearts of Iron the chaos of a world war, March of the Eagles has an equally tantalising premise. The Napoleonic Wars are a strangely unfashionable subject in video games, even though they were full of exactly the kind of mayhem that would seem to make a terrific setting. When I sat down to play Paradox Interactive’s latest I was unreasonably excited, hoping to switch from the labyrinthine plotting of the 1400s to the political tinderbox of the 1800s. I also expected complexity, and in that regard I wasn’t disappointed.
Paradox has never been particularly good at providing decent tutorials for what are incredibly complex strategy games. The trouble, I suppose, is that there’s so much to cover. Even after completing the in-game guide, learning how to build units, entering diplomatic relations and upgrading my country’s social policies, there were still micro-systems that would pop up, sometimes a good way into a game, and throw me completely off balance. Complexity and depth are things to be applauded, and I’m sure there are thousands of grand strategy addicts out there who will find enjoyment out of tinkering with the various systems, but March of the Eagles is a game that almost gleefully holds you at arm’s length. With Crusader Kings II that was a shame, because if you could get past the initial confusion there was enough there to draw you in. With March, getting past that learning curve isn’t nearly as rewarding.
Upon finally starting a new game as the British (nothing to do with patriotism, honest, I just assumed they’d be easy), I was met with the news that I had thirty-six unemployed leaders. Thirty-six. I got to work, feeling like some kind of Napoleonic recruitment agency, sifting through endless CVs and assigning Generals to my various divisions. Then I tackle the rest of my duties. Unsurprisingly, success in March of the Eagles depends almost completely on your domination of land and sea. Victory is earned through capturing key provinces and holding them, and to do this you need a large standing army and a strong navy. Several in fact. You can build these units in your home provinces, combining them into forces that can then be sent off abroad to secure your foreign holdings. Just remember to keep them fed, clothed and armed.
It’s at this point where things begin to get fiddly. Like Paradox’s other grand strategy games, armies consist of various platoons that can be glued together into one huge force, or split up to challenge on multiple fronts. However, while Crusader Kings II had a manageable amount of units, at least until you got to the point where you were controlling an Empire, Napoleonic warfare was fought by truly colossal armies. Unfortunately, this means that organising and distributing your forces across the map can be a total arseache. Like Civilisation IV, March of the Eagles uses a unit stacking system. Also like Civ IV, said system seems to have been designed by a man who despises humanity. It’s workable enough in small scale conflicts, but when you’re dealing with a large volume of troops, organising them all and getting them onto your naval transports can be a nightmare.
While the combat itself is admittedly an improvement upon past Paradox efforts, with the addition of tactical placement and opportunities for flank attacks, it’s still not interesting enough for a game that depends on it so heavily. You can create an ad hoc mix of whatever units you wish, and then issue your generals with commands and tactics to use in battle, but typically whoever has the biggest army stack will win. The larger scale does mean that some wily strategic movement is possible, indeed it’s almost required against France, who quite frankly take the piss with the number of units they can field. Despite the welcome enhancements to combat, though, drawn-out campaigns are a pretty dry affair.
That’s indicative of the biggest problem with March of the Eagles; it lacks personality. Sure, your generals can build up traits that come into play when in combat, but because their role is so limited that’s almost the only time they show any distinctive differences. Your rivals remain faceless and distant, little more than unseen forces flicking army counters at you from across the map. A defeat in Crusader Kings felt like you’d been outmanoeuvred by a worthy rival. Here it’s like being kicked to death by an Excel spreadsheet. Diplomacy is a necessary option, but a limited one. There are only ever two coalitions allowed at one time, and the option to betray an alliance is never given. All you’ll use your allies for is the occasional loan and the chance to move through their land unchallenged.
Half-hearted historical events pop up every now and then, regardless of pertinence – sometimes you’ll get a historically significant peace accord announced between two countries who were never at war. This lack of character and development means that March of the Eagles lacks a sense of satisfying narrative as your campaign continues. What should be satisfying victories are just perfunctory next steps on the march onward; heroic achievements from your generals go largely unremarked and unrewarded. Your nations ‘ideas’, essentially Civ style techs that can be focused on in several different ways, are only awarded through successful combat. Forget that Scandinavian trade empire you wanted to build, to win here you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.
You could come into March of the Eagles expecting a glorified game of Risk and go away quite satisfied. That’s reductive perhaps, but there is a solid if unspectacular base strategy game here that’s deep enough for grand strategy fans to sink their teeth into. There’s just not a lot else to enjoy. For a game about the conquest of Europe, it lacks scope and excitement. There’s a great strategy game yet to be made about the Napoleonic Wars. This isn’t it.