“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine...
...It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is Hell.” - General William Tecumseh Sherman
The award for best boxing lessons of 2016 goes to Paradox Interactive. They've successfully brought the sport back to its roots with a textbook example of the “old one-two.” First, they hit us with the light jab of the more simplified and user-friendly Stellaris back in May, then they follow it up with the heavy right cross of the complex WW2 grand strategy game Hearts of Iron IV. HOI has a reputation, even among Paradox fans, as being maybe the most intricate of their grand strategy collection, so for those of you who found Stellaris a little too simplified for your tastes, Paradox has a new Nazi-flavoured confection for you to try. As a military history fan, a strategy gaming fan, and a Paradox fan, you might imagine I was a little excited to get to try out HOI. Thankfully, all the hype surrounding this release seems to be justified, as Hearts of Iron IV is now easily one of the best strategic war games I've ever played. With some future patching and the always to be expected DLC content, HOI might become the definitive paragon of its admittedly very niche genre.
Speculate all you want about why people are so fascinated by military history, but for those of you armchair generals who may or may not have a megalomaniacal complex, HOI 4 is going to make you jubilant.
People familiar with Paradox as a studio know that just about all of their games may look similar to one another - "here's a map of the earth, you control some nation, and you try to take over the world in some manner or another." Closer inspection reveals that the inner mechanisms of each title are significantly different, each having a more heavy focus on different aspects, such as trade, politics, or war. HOI takes the war category and turns the dial all the way past 11; it gives you such control over your ability to wage war like no other game I've ever played. For those who are willing to put in the time it takes to learn all of it, they will find themselves a dealing with complex logistics of armies, resources, production lines, and wondering why in God's name they stayed up till 4 AM playing a game when they have to wake up in 4 hours.
When you first boot up HOI 4, it's understandable to feel a little intimidated. Paradox boasted about their improved tutorial system before launch, but to be honest I'm not exactly sure why they thought that. The in-game tutorial is extremely basic, only really giving you the absolute beginner tools needed to understand the interface. If you want to comprehend the details of company composition within a division, the intricacies of maneuvering navies or airplanes, or figuring out how to get naval invasions to work properly, you're going to find yourself digging through the wiki to learn more. The new HOI tutorial system has the same major flaw that Stellaris had. It feels more suited toward players already familiar with Paradox style mechanics and interfaces. You won't learn about certain interfaces or mechanics unless you open the page on your own, at which point the game pops in and gives you a description. So if you kind of know where to look for stuff, then the tutorial will get you familiar with most of what you need, but if you're a newcomer to Paradox grand strategy as a genre, then you might only see half, if even, of the tutorial. If you've never played a grand strategy game like this, well...to be honest, Hearts of Iron IV might not be for you. HOI is definitely more geared towards the strategy gaming enthusiasts crowd, but if you're a brave little soldier and still want in, then I'd recommend you head over to YouTube and look for some better guides there.
On the technical spectrum, HOI is more of what we've come to expect from Paradox in the past, both the good and the bad.
The map looks great, the units look great especially with the DLC unique unit models. The interfaces all look relatively clean. The logistics tab is especially amazing - just for its overall usefulness for monitoring your equipment usage. The music was quite enjoyable, instills a great sense of kinetic energy to the game, and gets you amped for the upcoming world war. I enjoyed listening to it at first, but like I always do I ended up just turning it off and playing my own music or some TV show on my other monitor. It's not a knock on the quality of the music, it's more just that the nature of the game doesn't really require you to need their sound on. Unfortunately, the same issues that have always plagued Paradox when it comes to framerate issues still exist. Even on the beastliest of machines, when HOI gets into the 1940's it will struggle to keep up. Thankfully, because you can pause at any time, your gameplay won't actually suffer, but the user experience can get frustrating at times when the AI has to compute thousands of different moves constantly.
Players will be leading their nation over a period of 12 years from 1936 to 1948. As they've done in the past, you have the option for alternative starting dates. So if you want to skip past the whole “building up” phase of the game and get right into the war, you have that option available to start in 1939 - moments before Germany declares war. For most of us, however, we absolutely must min-max as much as possible early on so that we can dominate just that much harder later on. HOI gives you plenty of tools to develop your nation, whether you want to play a powerhouse like Germany or the United States or random small countries like Bulgaria or Siam.
It's not enough to just recruit troops, throw them in some boats and send onto the beaches. First, you need to develop your infrastructure to make sure you can support your grand army. You'll need to build supply lines to create your weapons of war. You'll erect factories to increase your production potential as well as your trading potential. Suffice to say that, even when I was only just starting out and war seemed so far off, that I may as well not even care because I was never bored. You'll always be faced with difficult decisions on what to build, what to research, how to design your divisions, or how to draw up your battle plans.
Each large nation has its own unique research tree called its national focus. These function almost like a political research tree and contributes largely to how you will direct your particular run of a certain nation. About half of the tree is filled with things that will make you stronger by giving you new buffs, more factories, bonuses to research, or other such boons to infrastructure. The other half of the national focus tree is much more politically charged. These are the focuses you will use to determine what side your nation will fight on in the upcoming war - if you even have a side. You see, like Paradox's other historically-based games, you can certainly follow the straight and narrow path and play for the historical narratives. If you wanna play as the United States and storm the beaches of Normandy you can. I certainly did. Well...actually, I never had to do a Normandy invasion because in my USA playthrough, the moment Germany went to war with the Allies I had 100 divisions, armed to the teeth, ready for them. Germany never even finished off The Netherlands before my armies arrived. Germany declared war in 1939. By the end of 1940 Germany, Italy, and Spain were no more with only Japan still left to feel the might of American steel. However, if you prefer to walk the less traveled path, the national focus tree provides you with the ability to steer your nation in other directions. If you want to turn Germany into a democracy and fight against the Soviet menace, you have that option. If you want to play a fascist America and conquer everything, it may be difficult, but you can try! My one major complaint about the national focus tree is that there's currently only enough in the tree that after about 5 or so years you will literally have nothing left to research. Perhaps it's an intentional decision and the national focus tree is only meant to give your nation both an early kick start and inject some unique flavor to each country, but I do think it would be nice to have some more options for the late game.
Hearts of Iron IV is both a military history fan and a war game enthusiasts dream. Those players who are willing to put in the time it takes to not only complete an actual playthrough but to learn all the nuances of the game will find a deeply strategic war experience that will keep you entertained for absurd amounts of hours. Of course, you can also expect plenty of future support and expansion packs to improve the depth of the game even further. For now, though, Paradox has made all of the armchair generals in their audience triumphal.