Hearts of Iron
for PC (Windows)

Mr Creosote:
Company: Paradox Entertainment
Year: 2002
Genre: Strategy
Theme: Historical / Multiplayer / War
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 381
Review by Mr Creosote (2024-03-02)
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The first two Europa Universalis games having been humble commercial successes within their niche, Paradox Entertainment did the only thing logical and extended their portfolio. With technically minimal investment. Based on the trusted, well-known engine, they took it up to simulate the biggest of all military conflicts, World War 2.

Thankfully, coming from a European studio, the game does not begin in 1941, but rather in the mid-1930s. Meaning it makes the years immediately before the shooting playable already. Given its nature, it also allows for the war to last a little longer than it did historically or to play on after one of the alliances has been beaten. That is although it does not actually go into Cold War territory, it does consider the “Allies” to be two different parties right from the start – the Communist states forming their own side, even if usually united through a common enemy with the Western block on a military level for much of the game.

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Compared to EU, time resolution is obviously increased. The overall historical span of the game being much shorter, it nevertheless last almost as long as its older sibling. Military operations can and need to be managed in much finer granularity, whereas diplomacy, economy etc. have been reduced to rather rudimentary support features.

It all starts with a broad selection of unit types which can even be customized to a certain degree, and combined freely into larger armies. Movement and attacks can be timed by the exact hour, allowing for explicit cascades of combined maneuvers. Weather and enemy intervention allowing, of course. Such strategic alignment is, unfortunately, not possible between allied nations. Computer-controlled allies will function in useful ways, but completely autonomously. Even very basic mutual support, like transporting another power's army, is not foreseen by the rules of the interface. And there you were thinking that maybe the Italian fleet could get some German tanks to Africa…

Priority can be given to blitzkrieg tactics based on fast panzers or rather classic frontlines held by infantry, advancing in unison, leaving no flank open. Supply lines need to be considered. Commando units may be able to advance deeply into enemy territory, but without the possibility to re-supply, they may also be lost just as quickly. Such tactical considerations increase depth significantly, as they give even seemingly weaker armies a winning chance. The supply scheme works quite intuitively over land, but it is unfortunately subject to a rather awkward manual convoy planning when there is no direct land connection.

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World War 2 was also the first big military conflict to be fought in the skies right from the start. Achieving and using air superiority turns out, however, to be a rather annoying task. Aircraft operations happen much too fast to effectively command them, requiring too many repetitive clicks, lacking sensible automation. Rocket strikes, nuclear warfare included, don't work in any satisfying way, either.

The technology tree, on the other hand, injects some rather interesting decisionmaking. Indeed, military research was at an all-time high during those historical years. Comparing the early panzers with which the Germans overran the Polish cavalry (!) with the models used at the end of the war, there are already striking differences. It was the time the first mid-range explosive rockets were in development. It was the first war where submarines played a major role. Last, but not least, atomic fission found a deadly conclusion when actually, everything was already over. In game terms, this enables an interesting aspect of long-term vs. short-term strategy. Geographical position, resource needs etc. imply different priorities with respect to immediately strengthening the army versus developing superior technology to be build and used later.

Tactically, the game is further enhanced through a system of commanders which can be assigned to armies. Minimally inspired by No Greater Glory, they don't just enhance certain basic weapon abilities, but there is the major aspect of rank. Rank and ability are, interestingly, completely detached in gameplay terms. A very able commander may be of low rank. Meaning he cannot command a large army without facing penalties. Whereas those who can may not be the strongest ones otherwise. So what to do? Rely on those senior generals to win battles through superior numbers and technology? Or rather split them in many smaller units under the command of a new generation of, let's say, colonels, taking out enemies with hit & run or commando tactics? Is this star commander rather needed to defend one's own capital or should he lead the attack on the enemy's industrial centre?

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It is those sort of considerations where Hearts of Iron shines. Equipped with nice commander portraits, technical drawings etc. making everything much more tangible, it is a far cry from the classic wargames of the 1980s on the surface. Though then, like those games, it does have its fair share of rough edges. On top of the ones already mentioned, even the otherwise fine world map fails to convey some highly essential information at times. Some zones of the world being deadly, for example, cannot be discerned other than by just going there and watching the number of soldiers dropping by the minute. Like radiation effects after nuclear attacks, this is something which the game apparently expects the player to simply memorise.

There is just no way around it, no matter whether you turn it one way to see the positive sides or the other to showcase the game's problems. At its core, it is still a game purely for dedicated specialists. All others will give up immediately when after thirty minutes, they will already have been overrun. Which happens to everyone on their first attempt.

Though even for the target audience, there is a significant downside which prevents it from lasting very long. There is simply too little variety in the scenario. Realistic ways to diverge from the historical set-up of Allies vs. Axis vs. Comintern are simply impossible. In the same manner, the double-edged sword of the pre-defined historical events as found in EU, turns rather clearly negative here. Although those events are for sure necessary to get things going, especially at the beginning of the game, they prevent the simulation from really running the game.

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All players will know that the Annexation of Austria will occur in March and the Munich Agreement will happen in September 1938, without any requirements for players to earn it. The inevitability of it dictating actions of all nations before that date. Sure, the German player could in theory declare war before that date. Though that will stop all those historical annexations from happening, making this strategy (regardless of other considerations) extremely unattractive. Playing as France, you will know that the Germans will try to circumvent the Maginot line. So you will start building fortifications at the Belgian border right away. Though stopping the panzers is effectively impossible anyway.

In this spirit, Hearts of Iron is a worthwhile game for fans, in many ways a table-top wargamer's dream as far as abundance of details is concerned. Though do all those details really lead to complexity? Its insistence on many axes of historical set-up (commanders available, historical events etc.) decreases its value as a conflict simulation which it pretends to be. It plays one specific military conflict, nothing more. A lot of care has been put into setting this specific conflict up in great detail, but this same care prevents it from becoming more. In the end, it is a giant Risk on steroids. Which is amazing to play once or twice, but afterwards, I need to put it away for a couple of years before feeling any desire to give it another go.

Comments (1) [Post comment]

Mr Creosote:
Diving into my own past of (virtual) warmongering again. Well, sort of. By the early 2000s, it was not even remotely my favourite genre anymore. But old love never dies. After enjoying Paradox Entertainment's Europa Universalis immensely, it was a given I would also buy their next title, Hearts of Iron.
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