Hearts of Iron IV6th June, 2016
Copy provided by publisher.
Every now and then you can play a game that makes time seem like such a fleeting thing, where you start playing with the intentions of an hour or two before bed and the next time you notice anything, the sun is rising. I’d like to say I’m exaggerating, but with Hearts of Iron IV this happened to me. It was half past ten, I was just going to have a quick hour and half to two hours, the next thing I noticed the sun was rising, I looked at my phone and it said 05:13am. I finally stopped playing at around 11am because I was hungry.
It’s no secret that I’ve been looking forward to Hearts of Iron 4. Back at the start of the year it featured prominently and got my vote for most anticipated strategy game to be released this year. If that little intro doesn’t make it obvious, it’s more than living up to my expectations.
Fans of Paradox will know their three main grand strategy franchises well. Crusader Kings is that of making your own stories, how your family dynasty has evolved, expanded and changed throughout the centuries, succeeding through some strange and wonderful emergent storytelling. The original franchise, Europa Universalis, is the true country building game, taking control over your country’s destiny over multiple centuries. Hearts of Iron is my personal favorite, taking a more focused approach on World War 2, the world at that time and all of the countries involved.
Indeed, where Hearts of Iron is at its most interesting is where you are constrained by even the historical what-if’s. Even when turning off the settings that have AI countries stick to historical events, you are limited in a number of aspects. Taking over Nazi Germany, you are inevitably going to come into conflict with either the Allies or the Comintern. Why not take over a country in South America? In my case as Peru, I was stuck by the fact that the USA at the time had guaranteed independence of every other country on the continent.
It’s playing around with this that makes for the most interesting of games. My primary game as Germany led me to avoid going to war too early by taking over Czechoslovakia as in history, but then offering Poland Slovakia for Danzig, avoiding the conflict there and never signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Eventually countries such as Spain, Turkey and Finland were willing members of my Axis, backing me up against the Allies.
The broadstrokes of any game’s eventual direction will come through a variety of means, the more effective for the primary nations being the selected national focuses. This is where you select the route you want to go down, either selecting the historically accurate path or making the alterations that help you reach your goals. Sadly, there are only eight countries with specific focuses linked to real historical events, all other countries sharing a same general set that is based on improving varied technological and political advancements.
Alongside the national focuses comes general politics. Every action you take in politics comes at a cost of Political Capital and thankfully as Germany there is ample to go around. Adolf Hitler, being the charismatic dictator he was, had ample political capital to go around, only improved with the allocation of someone such as Hess, gaining an extra 15% political capital per day as his ability, to your cabinet of advisors. Using this capital lets you do a huge variety of things from the basics of improving relations with another country, to the more long term and complex aspects of increasing the support of a political power in another country and even starting a coup and civil war.
Alongside the politics comes a necessity in technological advancement, each country having a number of slots to select a technology to move down. This also guides the country down a more specific path as, like the national focuses, there are mutually exclusive branches where going down one path will lock you out of the other for the duration. This gives you multiple decisions, choosing between fast paced blitzkrieg warfare, to a more reserved planning first doctrine, which increases the effectiveness of your battle plans by a huge amount.
This same principle of choice takes effect in the development of your army and its equipment, as well as the tactics it uses. As you research better equipment, you can alter your infrastructure to focus on developing these new weapons and upgrading your battalions. Of course, this change means your current armies could run out of replacements long before the new units are ready for action; it’s a risk versus reward situation and it’s up to you to weigh up the consequences and decide which is best for the war effort.
War is where Hearts of Iron IV shows the biggest improvements from the older games, particularly in the advancements made in the military planning and the AI’s control over these plans. When you begin with the plans you can set them up in multiple stages, setting lines to advance to, fall back lines if the situation requires it and setting areas for an army to garrison and defend, reacting to any potential attacks. These plans can be supported with bombing runs, fighter support, naval landings and airborne landings.
What makes these plans all the more vital, but even dangerous, is that while they increase your units effectiveness considerably over simply commanding them yourself and that you can also respond on the fly, setting a new line of attack to move away from the main force and allocate a portion of your units towards it, these plans can also be stolen by the enemy and be used against you.
It’s more than impressive that the AI manages to perform these tasks fluidly and with military precision while also keeping you informed about the progress of these attacks, as well as the percentage of the plans’ chance of success. Being able to view these plans on the world map makes it looks like the military plans that you can view in the history books or watching a documentary on the history channel.
Everything about Hearts of Iron 4 looks just like it belongs, with a vibrant world map that reflects the new day-night cycle that comes with the games smaller focus on just twelve years between 1936 to 1948, the movement and actions of your units as you zoom in closer, also letting you view the finer details of the terrain around. At the same time, you can flash between different overviews of the map, letting you see how the world stands diplomatically, what regions have what resources as well as a number of other views.
Combining this with a fantastic soundtrack, particularly the piece played on the main menu, feels like it belongs from that era and lends an air of authenticity that is only enhanced with outstanding ambient sounds, particularly those found when zooming in over a combat zone or with moving units, listening to tank tracks roll, infantry fire their guns or listening to the planes fly over the battlefield.
Where the game suffers is in the aforementioned limited time span, as well as the lack of plans, even fictional, for that of smaller countries. My most enjoyable time in Hearts of Iron 3 was playing as Peru, I was able to build an empire that spanned all of South America and moving into Africa, this was possible due to the large amount of time offered. 12 years, even a day at a time, is far from enough to offer as satisfying of a campaign in this iteration. Adding onto this should be fictional plans built by Paradox, to support the games non-historical option, giving more life to the smaller countries that you can still control in the game.
I don’t think there’s any real doubt what I think about Hearts of Iron IV. I wouldn’t have played it for over twelve hours straight in one sitting, clocking in over thirty hours while playing for this review, if I didn’t love the game, and I genuinely do. It’s the best one yet and it’s already my front-runner for game of the year. It’s not without its flaws, and I can see Paradox fixing these gaps with DLC, giving the game a larger amount of time to play with, fleshing out the smaller countries and whatnot; I can live with that, because this is still one of the most expansive, engrossing and ultimately interesting strategy games you’re ever likely to play.
In my opinion, Hearts of Iron 4 is the best grand strategy game out there. The setting is added an excellent level of authenticity with the battle-plan feature, excellent Ai and a world map that is absolutely splendid to look at and watch the war unfold. Combined with a well developed political and infrastructure system, there is so much that can be done in the game, one that will absorb your time and leave you with lost time.
- The game offers ultimate control over your country, advanced battleplans with an excellent AI that is both adaptive and reactive to the war as it develops, as well as extensive political and country infrastructure options, all set on a map that beautifully represents the world as it was between the years of 1936 and 1948.
- The only real con is the forced limit of twelve years maximum, nine if you play on the second of the two campaigns. Combining this with the bland and generic options for the smaller countries of the time, it leads to a mis-match that isn't quite the sandbox that Paradox is going for.