As a both a World War II history specialist and a grand strategy enthusiast, the Hearts of Iron franchise has always been important to me. Few other games can capture the sweeping complexity of the war in its entirety. However, I always found it difficult (if not impossible) to convince my friends to play it with me. The long winded tutorials, complex hidden menu systems, and 87 page user manual meant that new players had to dedicate dozens of hours just to learn how to play the game. Hearts of Iron 4 attempts to do away with the needless complexities while retaining the depth and immersion of its predecessors. In most cases, it succeeds.
The Hearts of Iron series has never looked so good; the massive, beautifully rendered map is complimented by a day/night cycle and weather effects. The army sprites are faithful recreations of historic units: BF109 fighters clash in the sky with B-25 bombers, German U-Boats intercept convoys in the ocean, Panzers charge towards entrenched French colonial soldiers. All this serves to capture a gorgeous visual representation of the chaotic scale of World War II.
The most important part of the visual upgrade is its ingenious method of relaying useful information to the player. Every single animation, from dog fighting over your front-line, to the snowstorm on your eastern front, represents important strategic information that Hearts of Iron 4 can convey to you without the use of any menus. Retreating units stumble from battle, advancing units charge into battle while the assisting divisions kneel and take aimed shots at the enemy. Consequentially, the best armchair general only needs a quick look at his front-line to understand the current state of the war. This is immensely important when it comes to introducing new players to the franchise. Gone are the days of fumbling through weather/terrain/day/night map modes to decide the best plan of attack, as Hearts of Iron 4 conveys all relevant information on a single, beautifully refined map.
“Hearts of Iron 4 conveys all relevant information on a single, beautifully refined map.”
Aside from visual upgrades, Hearts of Iron 4 has taken many steps towards improving accessibility and reducing clutter. The tutorial for example has received a massive overhaul. New players are no longer thrust into a confusing wall of text, and are eased into the complexities and nuances of managing a major nation in World War II. The addition of battle plans is undoubtedly the biggest step towards accessibility. When selecting an army, players can set a front-line and draw a series of arrows to represent where they want that army to attack. Instead of micro-managing 150 divisions, players can now easily assign strategic objectives, and let their generals do all the micro work. Jumping in and micro-managing important phases of the battle plan is also possible, and sometimes necessary due to poor decisions that the generals sometimes make.
Another major improvement that Hearts of Iron 4 makes over its predecessors can be found in the research tree. Previous iterations of Hearts of Iron had players scrounging over a massive 12 page research “tree” that focused on researching the same item multiple times. Hearts of Iron 4 adopts a more standard method of research, employing an easy to understand research tree for each of the 11 different research categories. Its not a revolutionary change, but its definitely a welcome one.
In its bid to make Hearts of Iron 4 more accessible, Paradox tripped up in a few major areas. First of all, there are almost no after action reports. Many important casualty statistics are missing from the game, and it is incredibly frustrating. Aside from an arbitrary number representing air superiority, there is no way for me to see the effects of my strategic bombing campaign. The lack of battle results or casualty windows means that its nigh impossible for me to understand important factors, like how well my new tanks are doing, or the amount of soldiers that I’ve lost in a particular battle.
These aren’t the only issues brought about in an attempt to clean up clutter: naval transports and landings have also been altered. Instead of sailing your transports to a specific port and ferrying around, transports now appear out of thin air at the target port and drop units off at a chosen port before disappearing once again into the void.
Also, transport and trade ships now fall under a single category and remain in an invisible pool until they are conjured into existence by the Reich’s finest Warlocks. Worst of all is when you attempt to transport something across more than one sea: if you don’t have 50% naval control you can’t even send the transport across. When I wanted to send five divisions of Mechanized SS to the Caribbean to support an emergency assault, the game wouldn’t let me. As long as I understand the risks of sending the transports, the game should not prevent their transit.
The most frustrating problems with the transport issue become apparent during naval landings. Not only are you prevented from launching a naval invasion until the exceedingly long/obligatory planning phase is over, it is frustratingly difficult to launch any naval invasion that crosses more than three naval areas. Considering the fact that your fleets are constantly moving from one area to another, you have to closely watch the tooltip until all the planets have aligned and all of those requirements are met at the exact same time. Even when these requirements have been met, you still might not be able to send your armies across the ocean, and the game won’t tell you why.
Finally, the last issue I want to bring up revolves around the historical/ahistorical modes. When starting a game, players have the choice of setting the AI to a historical or ahistorical focus. The former means that they will either attempt to simulate the alliances and events of the Second World War, and the latter means that anything can happen and every nation should be considered a loose cannon. It led to some historical changes that demonstrated a lack of knowledge in that field.
All thing considered, Hearts of Iron 4 is not without its growing pains, but luckily none of its grievances detract from the core of the Hearts of Iron experience. At its center, the game is a satisfying, deep, and lovingly crafted opera dedicated to the history of World War II. Hearts of Iron 4 is the most accessible game in the series and the great efforts Paradox Studios took to ease new players into the series are clearly visible. Everything from the art to the music oozes with passion and a love for history, I cannot wait to see what they come up with for later expansions.
Gamer Professionals would like to thank the team at Paradox Studios for providing a review copy.