A Modern Major General
June 6 (D-day!) marked the release of Paradox Studios’ Hearts of Iron 4, the venerable World War II simulator. I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with this strategy series going back a decade or so. Love, in that in captures one of the most tumultuous periods of human history and lets you jump in wherever you please – feel like playing as the Dominican Republic? Sure, go nuts. Hate, in that, the game’s complexities, though adding strategic depth, make it nightmarish to approach at times. It is a series not for the casual strategist, but more for the armchair Pattons and Eisenhowers.
As the fourth entry in the series, Hearts of Iron has had time to establish itself in the genre. I started with Hearts of Iron 2 and have fond memories of my Soviet hordes ‘liberating’ France from Hitler’s goons. There are more grizzly recollections of being steamrolled over and over again in Hearts of Iron 3 and never entirely understanding what I was doing wrong. I gained a unique insight into Allied misery in the dark days of 1940-1941 as army after army of mine was swept away by a seemingly unstoppable German juggernaut.
Now, we’ve come to the fourth game. Has it changed? In short, yes and no.
Here’s what I liked: Hearts of Iron 4 has made an effort to let the user play the game he or she wants to play. Although you start in a historical setup (in eithe
r 1936 or 1939), you have the freedom to carve out your own world. Whereas Hearts of Iron 3 liked to slap your hand if you tried to put away your World War II textbooks and steer your own course, Hearts of Iron 4 seemingly encourages this behaviour. In my first play through I chose Canada and brought Adrien Arcand the fascist ideologue into government who eventually staged a coup that led to a civil war to topple Mackenzie King’s government. After a year of stalemate on the Ontario-Manitoba border, King drew his British allies in as the war in Europe started. This in turn, prompted me to draw the United States, under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine, in to combat them. With the civil war wrapped up thereafter, my new ‘Canadian Empire’ armed and supplied ideological sympathizers in the United States and helped launch the Second American Civil War.
The end result? A country like Canada, which, let’s face it, unless you had a fantastic understanding of the complex mechanisms of Hearts of Iron 3, was boring to play. Now, even the little guy can do things that have far reaching consequences all based in the ideological conflicts of World War II, which is the real star of this game. The politics this time have tangible meaning and affects game play.
The war fighting itself has changed – production is no longer coupled with the production of units. Instead, nations produce equipment and train units separately. I can devote my industrial capacity to light tanks all day, and then plop them into division templates later, when I feel like it. This means I can stockpile equipment if I need it for later (or give it to my friends!). Separating production from training makes sense, and it becomes easy to add equipment later to your formations as your capabilities develop. New tanks? No problem, your crews simply hop in the new vehicles and off they go. There are strategic decisions to be made though, as it takes awhile for your factories to really get rolling on a new production line. You must decide if is now is really the right time to scrap your production of Panzer IIs in favour of Panzer IIIs, or just make do with what you have.
This game is more about industrial capacity and production than about the soldiers in the field – which makes sense for 20th century total wars. This does a good job of simulating the threat a major industrial, yet non-committed pow
er like the USA has to war fighting factions
Some of the usual problems linger, however. The game is complex. If you find Civilization games tough to figure out, don’t even go near this beast. It’ll take a few games to get yourself somewhere near dangerous, and I doubt I’ll ever master all the complex mechanisms. The game tries to simulate so many aspects of total war, that it at times seems unapproachable despite its strides from the last game. My United States was at war for Chile for several years because I couldn’t figure out how to execute an amphibious landing of that distance despite having complete naval and air supremacy. There are times where you know what you want to do, but just can’t figure how to actually do it.
The battle plan feature lets you direct massive armies with a few mouse strokes, but, it is a system that I either failed to fully grasp or is in need of tweaking. Often my generals would have my armies at a standstill, insistent on maintaining a front line instead of pursuing offensive opportunities and going at the enemy even they’d been told to advance up to a certain line. Some divisions would give up gains in order to move back to line. If I did breach the line, I sometimes saw my armies forming a front line around individual divisions trapped behind my line instead of pursuing gaps and openings. Some divisions would be moved to places that seemingly had nothing to do with the front, and, I often found if I wanted to actually advance, I had to turn off the battle plans and move units myself. I would like to trust my generals, but there seems to be a tendency for them to forget about units, as well as not include new units I give them into an existing plan.
Finally, performance. My computer can handle pretty much anything on the market, yet, this game would slow down time to time when there was a lot going on. My last playthrough crashes on Mar 31, 1946, preventing me from drawing the war to a final crashing close. The idea of Turkey’s capitulation to my army was too much for the game to handle. Playing in Ironman mode, it means that game is dead and I cannot advance.
All in all, Hearts of Iron 4 is an improvement over its predecessor, and it is easy to sink hours into it. Take it for what it is, though – there are times you will be fighting the interface rather than the enemy, and that just goes with the territory for such a complex product. This is a game that captures total war quite well, by overwhelming you with, well, total war. Thank goodness the real president had a whole staff to help him run the war.