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Iron Harvest: Operation Eagle Review

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Iron Harvest's single-player campaign was a surprise hit for me, one that I didn't expect to be as good as it was. That focus is back for the Operation Eagle expansion, which adds a new America-inspired faction and air combat.  Though it doesn't add new challenges or game types, it does include a high-quality story-driven campaign with the same level of impressive cutscenes and voice acting you'd expect after playing the base campaign. It doesn’t do the best job of introducing air combat, which ends up disrupting the carefully constructed cover-based warfare in ways that make it less interesting instead of more, but Operation Eagle’s campaign in particular is still a worthy addition to Iron Harvest.

As a fan of the Iron Harvest universe of 1920+, I was thrilled to explore the new faction, Usonia, which is the equivalent of the United States of America. Its forces are focused on air power more than mech power, which showcases this expansion’s big new feature for all sides: airship combat. That’s reflected by Ursonia’s two unique air units – paratroopers, and an airborne hero – while all sides share Skybikes, Airlifts, and Gunships. 

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Disappointingly, the airships just don't feel like a great fit when you compare them to Iron Harvest's signature mechs. Where the mechs stomp, smash, and bash their way across the battlefield leaving  a trail of wreckage in their wake, each with its own style of maneuvering, the airships just… float. Slowly. Sometimes they kind of turn in place a bit. They slide smoothly around the sky, really. They don't bob or shake. The way they move and attack feels out of place. On battlefields that have, up until this point, been so very about terrain, cover, and line of sight, it’s audacious how they cruise on past all that interesting stuff, very literally ignoring it by shooting over terrain that others can't fire back through, like walls. It makes airships feel like their basic design was copy-pasted from some other, more traditional RTS that didn’t account for cover, like StarCraft 2, rather than Iron Harvest’s more direct inspiration, Company of Heroes.

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It's the most disappointing thing about Operation Eagle – instead of some fascinating new thing, behaving in a unique way, air units feel like dull hovercraft, stopping instantly, accelerating rapidly, and turning on a pin.

Once I got past that, however, I did get to appreciate the smart design that went into the new faction, and even some nuance to the new air units. Usonia's mechs and airships are brilliant: Their basic mech, the M-29 Salem, looks like an Airstream tractor body welded to two chunky T-rex legs, while the ZR-3 Revere airship is a beautiful streamlined locomotive with ducted rotors, a big rear propeller, and in-line pods of rockets. The contrast between militarized utilitarian farm equipment and art deco futurism works surprisingly well.

What We Said About Iron Harvest's Single-Player Campaign

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Iron Harvest promises a bright future for King Art Games, because actually fulfilling the promise of a classic RTS campaign in 2020 is easier said than done. While the combat might not have the tactical complexity or strategic focus of the genre greats, it's still a campaign with stand-out missions. Perhaps the biggest surprises are the writing and storytelling in its distinctive dieselpunk alternate-history world, which rank up there with the best in RTS. It's not an instant classic, but it's not a game you're likely to soon forget. – Jon Bolding, September 1, 2020

Score: 8

Read the full Iron Harvest Single-Player Review

Playing Usonia is a nice change of pace from the main campaign factions. Their early-stage tech lacks potent anti-armor mechs, meaning they rely on hit-and-run tactics from their aerial ranged units or ambushes with cannons and anti-armor guns. As they transition into their middle stage, however, they become increasingly powerful, deploying an anti-armor mech that's a veritable walking stack of guns. Where some mechs in Iron Harvest feel like they take ages between shots, the Knox seems to never stop firing, transitioning seamlessly from four heavy machine guns to a barrage of five cannon to a flurry of dumbfire rockets in order, over and over, forever.

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That's not even to mention Usonia's use of some pretty spectacular fire effects. The bull-horned Stark assault mech that looks more designed for quarrying than fighting has a big, nasty flamethrower on its arm, while the gigantic aerial battleship hero can simply fly forward while unleashing a wall of flame.

Usonia's design succeeds in making an appropriately over-the-top alternate American culture to compete with the national caricatures that make up the existing Polanian, Rusviet, and Saxony factions. It's particularly great that various regional accents are represented among the Usonian units – the grumpy mid-Atlantic engineer, the Brooklyn-accented machine gunners, and the well-heeled ‘20s Harlem-accented Medics all spring to mind. They also have the diversity you'd expect from the early 20th-century, immigrant-populated Americas—a potpourri of European accents from the melting pot. It's that kind of attention to detail that makes the world of Iron Harvest, and now Operation Eagle, so compelling.

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Speaking of playable, the new Usonia campaign spreads a lot of story across about 10 hours worth of missions, and mostly succeeds at it. It's got the same high quality of cinematics and mission design I enjoyed in the first campaign, with the added aerial twist for a bit of flavor. The story follows Usonian Captain William Mason across three acts in two major locations: The first missions, in Alaska, are against Rusviet soldiers fighting in their country's revolution. The second and third segments, in Arabia, see Mason become embroiled in that country's revolutionary civil war against the colonizing Saxonian Empire. The plot is strong, for what it is, with all the same melodrama and angst that drove the main Iron Harvest campaign. Its leading characters are very literal embodiments of interesting American historical trends from that era, which included a struggle of isolationism against imperialism. It also gives more global context to the main campaign, making it clear that 1920+'s big bads, Fenris, are pulling the strings without giving too much away. 

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The story of Mason and the revolutionary leader, Sita al Hadid, is an interesting one. Sita, naturally, doesn't trust Westerners, and though the story does very much borrow from the obvious Lawrence of Arabia parallel, the Arabians are the key actors in their own fight for independence. It's a surprisingly nuanced take on a potentially hot-button issue for a story that’s spent a lot of time melodramatically ruminating on the horrors of mechanized warfare and foiling international conspiracies in the first campaign. 

Nearly every mission gives you Arabian recruits fighting for their country, as well as unique Arabian units like Assassins (who I guess never died off in the Iron Harvest timeline) and my personal favorite: War Camels. That might strike you as absurd, but their real-world inspiration carried a mounted gun, the Zamburak, and was a long-lasting military tradition that saw use from the invention of the crossbow through the cannon and ultimately—you can Google this one—the Gatling gun. None of it feels out of character for the world of 1920+.

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The missions and battlefields are thus pretty interesting to fight through. They're mostly stand-up base fights with a twist or two, such as having to control two disparate groups of soldiers. My favorite has you breaking into a fortress through the rear, which means you must ferry infantry soldiers by air to a separate series of high bluffs so that you can flank the enemy while your mechs engage in a brutal war of armored attrition to protect your own base.

The later missions are a bit samey at parts, asking you to fight through the narrow streets of desert cities to capture points and resource nodes. A lot of this, due to how the Usonia faction is designed, is just creeping forward, blasting fixed anti-aircraft guns with artillery, and then moving up your brutally effective Samson air carriers to bomb the enemy into oblivion. That might be boring if the Samsons weren't such a delight to watch: they deploy drones which fly over on little helicopter rotors and use mechanized arms to drop the bomb they're carrying, which is as large as they are, on the enemy.

That said, at about 10 hours, the Operation Eagle expansion didn't overstay its welcome or devolve into a grind, though on Hard it was just as brutal as ever. If you liked the main campaign of Iron Harvest as much as I did, I heartily recommend it.


This article was originally published by IGN.COM

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