Paradox entertainment has a reputation for producing some of the best games of the "Grand Strategy" genre, and March of the Eagles represents its latest entry. Set during the Napoleonic wars, players assume the role of any European (or North African) state in 1805, just as the Napoleonic wars are heating up and France is confronted with the first "Grand Coalition". This setup is similar to other games by Paradox Interactive, only more limited in space and time, and much more focused on the military aspect of the game. Each state's ultimate goal is to establish control of provinces that grant it "sea and land dominance," with each country having a different set of goals, and the game ending should any one country conquer all of them. The military focus makes the game feel much closer to the Hearts of Iron franchise than any of its other entries, though the time period and some domestic aspects make it more reminiscent of the Europa Universalis series.
Almost immediately upon starting up March of the Eagles, I was presented with just how much Paradox has improved and grown as a development studio; the visuals are very pleasing, making effective use of the updated version of the Clausewitz engine, and it loads very quickly and efficiently. Further, gameplay is smooth even on the highest speed setting, and I encountered no crashes or bugs the entire time I played.
The user interface is vastly improved as well, and seems much more intuitive than in some other grand strategy games which often throw the player into an overwhelming array of menus and options. There is a tutorial built into the game which offers tooltips and more detailed explanations of its features, presented as buttons alongside any of the various options and menus. The user interface also makes constructing armies and managing your empire a bit less tedious, especially in that building armies and improvements can be done en masse without having to meticulously click every single province to initiate construction. Improvements to the user interface drastically reduce the learning curve for new players, and make the game much more accessible to players that might have been intimidated by paradox games in the past. Instead, a new player could easily sit down and familiarize themselves without being overwhelmed, and focus on guiding their armies to victory on the battlefield.
At least in terms of execution, the military system seems to work fairly well, with the AI putting up considerably more resistance and more effectively using its armies and navies than in most other grand strategy games. As France, I frequently needed to devote resources to destroying the large armies that Britain would land in my empire's extremities, though I crushed them shortly thereafter. Allied AI also proved refreshingly intelligent, with my allies actually providing meaningful assistance. There is also considerable customization of army and navy composition, which allow the player to meticulously arrange the composition of armies. These include general categories of light infantry, guards, cavalry, artillery, supply trains, and more.
However, for all that March of the Eagles does to make the game more accessible and intuitive, it seems to have sacrificed the depth that we have come to expect from Paradox and other grand strategy games. While I was certainly pleased that I could experience the game without a tremendous learning curve, I was disappointed with how quickly I exhausted the options set before me. Rather than providing the player with a nation and state to be molded to his or her desires, each nation's domestic options are relatively static, and one's non-military choices are mostly relegated to the customization of ideas - the vast majority of which are directly related to military performance. Ruler, government type, and other such extras seem largely aesthetic and have little impact on gameplay.
While I could understand the simplification of the non-military aspect of the game in favor of a more intriguing and well developed military simulation, the game just doesn't seem to accomplish this either. While some aspects of military management and production have been streamlined, most of the military action amounts to simply having the bigger army, with minor modifications made based on weather, terrain, generals, and composition. But since army composition management is so tedious, I inevitably just built dozens of one type of infantry and created giant "doomstacks" to run around crushing the smaller, more divided AI armies - and almost always won. The military aspect ultimately amounted to me simply playing whack-a-mole with enemy armies, running around capturing cities and stopping the tiny AI armies from running around behind mine.
After a while, this got so tedious that I found myself growing extremely bored, facing enormous empires that might take an hour to conquer without much challenge or reward. There was virtually no domestic or non-military sphere to divert my attention towards during long sieges or peacetime. Even the peace negotiations with larger powers typically required that I get only small concessions, meaning that I would need to conquer them yet again to really knock them out - a task I didn't really look forward to.
There is little depth in the events marking your progress, and I rather quickly steamrolled over the AI opponents. At this point I realized just how much of a grind the game had become - its initial interest had worn off, and its lack of depth had become apparent. I tried playing as some other countries but ultimately I found it just as tedious as the next; as each country lacked depth in its non-military sphere, the only discernible difference between nations was its starting military position. All this means is that each country varies in its military challenge, which invariably grows tedious.
Overall, while I look forward to the execution of this game engine and some of its intuitive user interface ideas in Paradox's upcoming Europa Universalis 4, March of the Eagles fell flat for me. It is tempting to think that the game sacrificed depth in order to make it more accessible, but that is not my ultimate impression - many of the sacrifices in depth had little to do with or could have been further improved by the user interface improvements, and were simply not included. Were the military aspect to hold up better in practice, I could forgive the lack of non-military options, but it too falls flat in its ultimate fate as a simulator of whack-a-mole AI armies. This is one of the first paradox titles that I honestly do not wish to go back and replay, as it has very little replay value. If you're looking for a more accessible grand strategy game, you may find some enjoyment with March of the Eagles, but ultimately its lack of depth and tedium will catch up to you.
NOTE 2/28/13: I finally managed to cobble together a complete multiplayer game with a couple friends, and I must say the game does show considerably more promise as a multiplayer game. I initially had difficulty due to my inability to get the "metaserver" (internet lobbies) option to work, and had to resort to simulating a LAN connection with a third party program in order to get it to work. Once this was done, I did enjoy the experience considerably more than single player, as it became more challenging and the improvements to the diplomacy system were readily apparent.
The smaller, more military focused map definitely suits the multiplayer experience, as in other similar grand strategy games, the scope is often so large as to isolate players from one another, and the tedious domestic micromanagement often made the constant pausing and unpausing by each player very irritating. Instead, I was certainly able to appreciate the more "arcadey" feel, and it definitely made the game go much smoother. I ran into no bugs or crashes, a very significant improvement in multiplayer stability over some of Paradox's previous releases.
The lack of depth is still apparent in multiplayer though, with the micromanagement of armies and their composition still a bit unsatisfying, especially in light of the simplification of other non-military features. In addition to the difficulty in actually finding other players and setting up multiplayer games (though much improved over the past), I don't feel particularly moved to change my original score. I must concede though, that if one were to have a dedicated group of friends willing to join you in multiplayer, this might improve the experience and provide additional replay value to the somewhat less impressive single player experience.
For more details on my time with the game, check out my detailed hands-on preview that explained a typical gameplay scenario in more depth, as well as our extensive Q&A session with one of the game's lead designers right here.
Let us know what you thought of March of the Eagles - did you find its sacrifices in depth worth its improved accessibility?
This review was conducted by using a retail PC Steam code for the game provided by Paradox Interactive Studios.