I wrote a very critical, barely positive review for EAW six weeks ago, when I had only about 32 hours played on version 1.0. In that review, I complained about the game's counterintuitive attack/defense outcomes, inscrutable casualty calculations, supply system flaws and ahistorical patterns.
In the meantime, I have played through the game twice and racked up over 200 hours played. Additionally, patch 1.1 was released during this time. In the light of these new developments, I am happy to adjust my review from "barely positive" to "strongly recommended."
Patch 1.1 made great improvements to the game's overall playability. Almost as soon as I downloaded the patch, I noticed that combat outcomes seemed much more in line with historical realities. Entrenched infantry with artillery support inflicts extremely heavy losses on the enemy, while suffering comparatively little if well prepared. This rewards good deployment and unit organization/choices (ie, GHQ creation, associated corps, combined arms + recon per stack, etc). As a digital commander who "attacks with a view to defend and defends with a view to counterattack," this warmed my heart.
Supply issues are also much improved this time around. In my first review, I bemoaned the AI's ability to penetrate deep into the interior, get cut off and suffer no ill consequences for its overextension. Now, the realistic supply system allows me to cut off enemy armies and starve them out.
Supply is a crucial part of the game, and it cuts both ways. On the one hand, it allows you to cut off enemy armies. On the other, it limits your own offensive gambits, since armies more than a hex or two away from a large city or depot quickly run out of supply and must cease offensive operations. I find this forces you to really think about when and how you will launch offensives, giving as much thought to purely tactical considerations as logistical ones. It takes time and study to learn the supply system in EAW, but I found it absolutely rewarding. Supply realities make it as possible to win victories simply by manuever and good positioning as it is by brute force.
I found the abstracted diplomacy, decision-making and research system to be easy-to-grasp and fascinating. I won some very interesting diplomatic victories in my second playthrough. For instance, as the Central Powers, I kept the USA far from supporting the Entente, lured Bulgaria and Romania to my side, and even got Holland and Mexico to join the struggle against the vile French. As someone who loves history and pondering "what-if" scenarios, these results really made me smile.
EAW does a great job rewarding innovative gameplay. There are so many ways to win, either by outright military aggression or slow-play attrition. The National Morale system is a simple and effective way to mirror a Nation's slow disaffection (or enthrallment) with total war, and monitoring it during the game is both fascinating and rewarding. It makes you realize that often in modern war, the object is not to seize capitals or destroy armies in set-piece battles, but simply to convince your opponent to give up.
Leadership is one of my favorite things about EAW. Every general has unique strategic, offensive and defensive capabilites. Some commanders are better attackers than defenders. Some are better army group leaders than field commanders. A well-led stack makes the difference between victory and defeat. And for those who are somewhat familiar with the scintillating historical personalities at play in WW1, shuffling around your favorite generals--and watching them win in battle--is oddly inspiring and emotional.
Yes, EAW takes time to learn and to play. But if you are really interested in this historical era, it stimulates like no other game I've played. You will find yourself watering at the mouth to plan your next moves, and you won't mind the 4-5 minute turn times as your brain processes all the fascinating things that are happening (or might happen) on the map once the CPU finishes its move.
Needless to say, the game offers immense replay value, too. You can play as a different alliance, or you can choose from a host of alternative initital warplans. With each game lasting up to 100 hours, what you have is a game that will keep you entertained (and educated!) for a very long time.
My only remaining complaints are minor: Sometimes the game crashes on complex turns; and the Serbian army is a real pain in the neck, next to impossible to fully kill. Also, I would love it if the game had an original, epic soundtrack, and some more WW1-specific battle sounds.
I am happy that my opinion changed on this game, and I encourage serious-minded strategy lovers to give this game a whirl. It is worth your while.
Final score: 90/100.
PS: Devs, would you mind buffing General von Falkenhayn a little?? He's acknowledged by many historians as being one of the world's first "modern generals," equally at home on the defensive and the offensive. Yet in the game his numbers are pretty weak! Let's show him some love!