World War II.
Yep, that’ll work for an intro. Everything else would be redundant, bloated and unnecessary.
…Wh-What? Sorry, the editor is giving me a disapproving stare. It’s just, what could I even add to an event that is as loaded as World War II? It combined the absolute mess that was World War I with an almost fictional good-versus-evil style. It is such a major event in modern history that there’s been countless books, TV shows, films, plays, and video games examining it from both a fictional and non-fictional standpoint. I am not convinced there is a westerner that needs to have it explained to them, and not only the event but the pop culture surrounding it. Everyone has an opinion already.
Plus, I can’t even squeeze it for humor, really. It’d either be done-to-death (e.g. Hitler) or fly too close to dark and potentially offensive jokes (e.g. Holocaust). It’s just not worth it.
…Yeah, best cut this intro and keep it as the three words above I think.
Hearts of Iron IV by Paradox Development Studios is a grand strategy title set within the second World War. You play as any country you wish (yes, despite Tencent investing in Paradox, Tibet is on the table as an independent nation) and can either start on the 1st of January, 1936 when the idea of a second World War was a pessimistic thought, or the 14th of August, 1939 when the coals of war were warm. You must then prepare your country for war on a global scale and then fight through it to not only survive but also come out the other end richer for it.
This preparation comes in four core parts. The first is set up of your military/civilian factories to build things for your war-machine (e.g. support equipment, oil factories and AA guns) with hopes that you have the resources necessary. The second part is your researching of tech on a tech-tree and through national focus (which will usually increase the speed of particular tech so many times); the former sometimes making you choose one or the other and the latter usually having requirements. Thirdly, you’ll save up political power to help hire leaders or adjust government policy to maximize statistics. The last aspect is producing wave-after-wave of regiments, only limited by your manpower.
“So, once you’re set up, you’ll be ready to go. Right?”. Oh no no no no. This will require constant tweaking. In addition, when war hits you also have to arrange your soldiers into regiments, set up regiment plans, and then execute at the right time. Then there’s also setting up planes and boats to do specific tasks in specific areas, the potential for secret political warfare (as in converting your enemies bit by bit to your ideology) and, when everything is done, you have to decide what country gets what as you carve up provinces, which can include 6+ allies.
Simply put: This game has a lot of systems, and within each system are a lot of choices. You can take a heavily air-focused effort for war, you can fling soldiers at the problem until your enemy is buried under your corpses or even try for a more tactical support-inclusive style involving artillery. While there is a penalty to research speed if you try to gain technology before a particular year, there isn’t anything technically stopping you from going for the nuke straight away as long you follow the tree (which is 3 techs in size, including the bomb). These all allow people to experiment or adapt depending on the landscape on hand, such as damaging supplies if you feel they outnumber you heavily or blowing up ports to prevent across-seas reinforcements.
There is a big “however” to these systems and options: Hearts of Iron IV is roughly as accessible as a dead language and as friendly as playing chicken with a train. Even the tutorial messes with you as, despite following the instructions closely, I lost a fight between Italy and Ethopia two times out of three. It has also decided to uphold the tradition of the series in keeping the more advanced information hidden away within a wiki, though fortunately a link is built into the game this time around in case you don’t want to practice pressing alt+tab over-and-over. In addition, this advanced information isn’t (usually) required to learn and patience with banging your head over and over into the game will eventually bare fruit.
While on the subject of banging your head against a wall, it makes an apt description for the war in the game. Aiming for realism, battles are not won or lost after the trading of blows. Often stalemate will set in as, for instance, you fling 10 divisions against 2. You’ll be trying to break it, but short of flinging more bodies into the meat-grinder I haven’t found a way. That isn’t to say there is no way to make the tide turn, but such tactics are hidden so deep you’d almost think the game was ashamed to share that other side with the casual scrubs like me.
This is just one battle within the war system that can be boiled down to “an absolute clusterf**k”. Each stalemate battle can take weeks upon months in-game, claiming or losing only one more province as the war line shifts at a snails pace. Considering there can be 20+ simultaneous battles going on at the same time (e.g. the Western European front in WWII), it can render the entire screen as a mess of numbers. While it does embrace the reality that the war was an absolute mess for everyone involved, this can lead to being intimidated or confused by what you’re staring at to the point of unplayability.
“But finishing World War II is worth it after all the struggle, right?” Well, I am not sure. It does arrive at something of an end eventually, but it peters out at an anti-climatic finish. You grab all the various land, dissolve various countries (including Germany if Axis lost, UK and US if they won), and yet the game chugs on still. The sensation of the camera rolling longer than it should starts to creep in fast as you realize you’ve hit the end point for technology/national focuses a year or three back, so there’s no more real progression beyond just hoarding more weapons and flinging them at people. It perhaps should have ended after World War II ends, and I’d recommend quitting when it does. However, the option exists for a post-war knock-about with Russia if it pleases you.
Although, part of the fun of grand strategy is when things go off the script, even if the script is incredibly historically accurate like Hearts of Iron IV is. Fortunately, Paradox still continues this trend by letting you mess about with your country and find your own way in usual and unusual fashions. You can try to invade countries you’re not meant to, ally yourself with countries you perhaps shouldn’t, and even take on a new government type just because you can (which can rename your country). In one game I played as Communist UK, ally of Russia and conqueror of Ireland. In the next, I was Fascist Tibet who decided that Bhutan and Nepal would make for good land as Japan took over China and then the UK took over Japan. Needless to say, I felt crushed I could not create a Tibetan China in that game.
Another wonderful addition is the choice to make countries either behave in a historical manner or to allow a chance factor for things to just go off-the-rails. That may be that the AI has decided the UK wouldn’t get involved in Europe’s troubles until far too late, or maybe Neville Chamberlain will invade Germany instead of appeasing Hitler. It allows those who want historical accuracy to have their way, while those who like a variation of world stages to have what they want.
My main grumble, and even then it is only a grumble due to expectation, is despite having some breathing room, you are still stuck on the same time path. No matter how off-the-rails you get, World War II will still get provoked as it is the main act of the theatrical play that is “the time Europeans shot each other so much that America got involved out of worry”. You have a meter in the top right showing how unbalanced the world is, which will tick upwards as events occur, including ones by NPCs. Once it hits 100%, which it will, everyone will declare war on everyone else and now you have to beat everyone up in the political equivalent of a bar brawl. It makes sense that WWII is unavoidable, but I somewhat wish it rarely didn’t happen just for the unusual gameplay.
My second smaller problem with it is the national focuses having requirements. Some of these require you to follow the actual historical events of the game as, if you do something like become a Fascist nation, you may lock off options. Considering these national focuses are few enough in number that you can hit a wall, and they’re potent enough to push you into a stronger position. The game seems to be dissuading you from telling a narrative that differs from real life.
The final score of Hearts of Iron IV is a 6.5/10. While I loosely enjoyed it, there was one question that nagged at me as I was planning this review: Who is the review for? It was an important question as it would dictate which issues would be critical and which ones would be optional. If there is a better grand strategy title that simulates the World War II struggle on a scale so gigantic as to include non-core countries who still saw the fallout of the conflict, I do not know of such a thing. It is also perfect for those who get excited at realistic portrayals of wars, as the focus is less on combat and more on logistics. Then again, those two groups likely bought into the series before and have pre-ordered Hearts of Iron IV.
However, in terms of storytelling, I kept wondering how much of the narrative was mine and how much was born of walking down a linear tunnel of expected events. Even then, it wraps itself so deep with smaller, precise details such as logistics and resources that learning Hearts of Iron IV turned into a gritty fist-fight against it. I’m also not entirely convinced that those wanting to show their dominance in multiplayer will dig it. Hearts of Iron IV is so removed from combat that it is more akin to two janitors from rivaling political party headquarters competing in who can clean their building the hardest and, somehow, subsequently make their party win the election.
Maybe that’s the point though? Maybe games like Europa Universalis IV are more akin to the axe, while Hearts of Iron IV is more like poison: A more clinical, detached way to dispatch your foes rather than actually doing the act. Maybe Hearts of Iron IV is actually, in fact, the strategy game for those too unnerved by combat but still itching to dominate others. In that case, here’s to you, Hearts of Iron IV, for catering to the nervous strategist market.
A PC review code for Hearts of Iron IV was provided by Paradox Interactive for the purpose of this review