Date: May 27, 2021
Despite being a huge RTS fan, I managed to miss Iron Harvest. I played a bit of the beta, but for one reason or another I never managed to get around to checking out the full release. So, when the standalone expansion was announced, it seemed like as good a time as any to give Iron Harvest another try.
Operation Eagle includes a brand new faction, Usonia (the USA), and another 7 mission campaign, complete with cutscenes between every mission. The expansion adds air units for every faction, which should shake up multiplayer when it releases. It also includes the first 5 missions of the Polania campaign as a sort of tutorial, though the new campaign does a decent job introducing the game’s mechanics. Players who purchase Operation Eagle without owning the base game will be able to compete in multiplayer as either the new Usonia faction or as Polania, which makes it a nice introduction to the game for anyone curious but unwilling to part with 50 bucks (Operation Eagle comes in at a reasonable $20 USD on launch).
Iron Harvest is a squad-based RTS a la Company of Heroes (though it plays more like Dawn of War) where base-building and resource gathering take a back seat to controlling your units. Instead of collecting resources at your base, you have to go out and capture strategic points in order to increase your iron and oil income. You also have to pay careful attention to using combined arms: small arms fire won’t penetrate the hull of a mech, so you’ll need to make sure your troops are supplied with the firepower necessary to take down the iron behemoths.
The game takes place in an alternate-history 1920s, where the conflicts of the first World War haven’t quite simmered down yet. Three central European nations — Polania, Saxony, and Rusviet — struggle for control of Europe, as well as the secrets of Tesla’s factory. The game world is the creation of Polish artist Jakub Różalski, which the board game Scythe is also based on. It’s an interesting world, blending diesel-punk (steam-punk with diesel engines, I guess) stylings with 1920s Imperialism.
Unfortunately, the desert setting of Operation Eagle doesn’t lend itself towards showing off the game’s diesel-punk stylings, and most of the levels are drab desert towns, virtually indistinguishable from one another. The visual muddling extends to combat; it’s often difficult to tell who is shooting what, and I found myself losing units because it was difficult to tell they were taking damage. The fact that unit health bars don’t immediately drop, but instead change color (I suppose to show how much damage was taken recently) adds to the struggle in discerning what exactly is going on at any given moment.
That being said, I often didn’t care that I couldn’t tell what was going on, because it looked awesome. The way the mechs traverse terrain, the absurd amount of missiles some of the units shoot — it all adds up to a visual spectacle that’s a joy to behold. The way buildings collapse after taking damage is satisfying, and the mechs steam and stagger in believable ways.
The campaign is well crafted from a gameplay perspective, providing plenty of opportunities to try out the game’s fairly wide variety of mechs and infantry units. I had to restart a mission on more than one occasion because I neglected base defense, or over-extended and found myself facing a far-too-numerous foe. As opposed to some RTS campaigns, that end up feeling more like a puzzle game, I got the sense I could approach each mission a variety of ways; as long as I was patient and microed well, victory was within reach no matter what units I chose to field.
There were some balance issues with the campaign, mostly with the main hero unit. To put it simply, he’s too strong. In all of the missions that had me leading Captain Mason plus some regular infantry, I found that the best strategy was to let Mason (who pilots a powerful mech) clear all the enemies himself, only bringing in my supporting troops once there was no danger to their frail, fleshy bodies. This led to some tedious moments in the campaign, which were exacerbated by some buggy event triggers — I had to restart one mission because I accidentally captured a point when I wasn’t supposed to, and I sometimes had to hunt down and eliminate a single enemy infantryman who had became untargetable and was stuck on a corner somewhere.
Overall though, it’s a solid RTS campaign that has a great balance of base/army building and small unit tactics. Many missions have you capture and then defend a point, and the waves of enemies always felt tuned in such a way that you could just barely hold them off. I played the campaign on hard, and although it was challenging at times (I think the final mission took me almost two hours to beat), it never felt unfair. The first five missions of the Polania campaign that are included in Operation Eagle were even better than the Usonia campaign, and I’m definitely going to pick up the base game and play the singleplayer levels. Both campaigns managed something that very few RTS campaigns have done, which is to make you feel like you have to defend your base(s) as you move your ball of death around the map completing objectives, which makes the missions feel less like a chore and more like a real battlefield.
The story is decent, with a fairly realistic take on politics and military interventions, but the delivery tends to be cheesy, and it was hard to get into the characters or the plot. At times, it was hard to tell if it was supposed to be satirizing action movie tropes, or if I’m supposed to truly feel awe and respect for Mason when he proclaims “Freedom, justice for all… they’re not just slogans”.
Gripes aside, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with Operation Eagle. For all its flaws, blowing stuff up with Iron Harvest’s lumbering death-machines is just dang fun. The campaign is solid, and despite its relatively low player count on Steam, I found a game within seconds when I tested the multiplayer mode, though getting a balanced match might be another story. Any RTS fans should give Iron Harvest a try if they haven’t already, and Operation Eagle is the perfect entry point. You can get it now on Steam.