Hearts of Iron is a game about the inevitable. The tides of war are coming, and all you can do is best guide your nation – be it to partake in the conflict, or to try and stay out of it. Paradox has tried, and for the most part succeeded, with its policy of cutting out the fat and leaving only the interesting in the game, and even when I played the behemoth that the USSR was I never had to bother with the minute details of economy and production, and when the war came and I had to fend against Germans and Japanese on fronts that were continents apart, I found myself with a system that both allowed me to control it in detail or delegate the tactical decisions to the AI.
The fourth entry into the World War II simulation series is also its cleanest, and the first thing that came to mind when I started my first game, a playthrough that would culminate with my French Commune leading a second communist alliance alongside the Comintern and Allies to victory, was how good looking the game is. There’s a day and night cycle, and when you zoom in you can see storms and rainfalls crossing the continent. Cities spread across provinces in convincing sprawls, and while some would prefer the NATO counters to the 3D units, I did enjoy seeing the different tanks and infantry walking into battle. Resounding horns and dramatic violin pieces gave scope to the drama that war is, whether I was defending as the British or invading as the Third Reich.
It’s not all for show, however, and as I got better at the game I learned to use this day and night cycle to my advantage and often found myself stalling invasion plans due to sweeping storms that could endanger my operation. Combat in Hearts of Iron IV is the most complex I’ve seen in any Grand Strategy game, with factors such as terrain, entrenchment, flanking, multiple fights, air superiority, division composition and many others all compounding into how well your battles and wars go out. In a game as the United Kingdom, where I had placed a large research and national focus emphasis on upgrading my air force, I was able to deploy my aircrafts under the cover of night with unparalleled efficiency, destroying German infrastructure and aiding my ground divisions in their incursions into enemy territory.
The core of the game and what gives its different nations significantly different paths to development and victory is the National Focus tree. A generic set is given to all nations, with independent lines of focus that focus on industrialization, politics, modernizing your armed forces, among other things, and each of these branches have diverging paths: in one game you might opt to adopt a leftist rhetoric within your government, increasing the power of the Communist party until it takes power (by civil war or other, peaceful ways), or choose to emphasize an offensive approach to war over a defensive one. These work great to give any nation, from Brazil to Estonia, a way to rapidly change their political, industrial and military scenario from the game’s 1936 start. The major powers of the time – the Soviet Union, France, the Third Reich, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Japan – along with Poland, all have specific trees that take into consideration their current conditions to offer specific bonuses. As the USSR you start with a diminished national unity as a representation of the division between Stalin and Trotsky, and one of the National Focus trees’ involves purging the Trotskyite plotters and unifying the nation under Joseph Stalin.
Aside from the National Focus choices you can also carve an exclusive path of development for your nation by choosing among the different research options. With areas concerning military units and equipment, armed forces’ doctrines and industry and technology, I found myself having to choose between focusing on developing my country’s industrial capacity early on at the cost of taking longer to improve my military. Different research nodes are placed beside pre-determined years, and trying to unlock them before their “historical” time will have a negative impact on your research time. There’s also a risk present in experimenting with the more advanced forms of technology, such as unlocking advanced rocket technology and nuclear ordnance: as a hard-pressed France I found it safer to invest my research time into consolidating my army as opposed to risking the development of an atomic bomb that might come too late for you to deploy it, while a far-removed and less immediately pressed USA might have some more leeway into researching these end-game technologies. When you create a game you can either tell the AI to follow the historical route, developing its nation, military and politics according to what actually happened; or to disregard it, which can end up in unlikely scenarios, such as a Fascist France joining the Axis in their war efforts.
Production and trade are other major factors, as how good your industrial policy is will determine your capacity of waging protracted wars. Fortunately, Hearts of Iron IV streamlines a decent bit of both aspects without actually losing much depth: you’ll still have to strategically place your industry to avoid it getting destroyed by enemy bombardment, and while you have to mind that the enemy doesn’t capture the provinces with valuable resources such as oil, you won’t get bogged down by having to manage an excess of small things. You can easily check how many small arms, motorized vehicles, artillery and other military objects you are producing and alter that according to your needs, re-assigning military factories to different production lines, whose efficiency is cleverly dictated by how long it has been producing the same type of thing: an armaments industry line that has been producing since 1936 could be twice as effective as the one you just created. Managing how long you spend on consolidating your civilian infrastructure, responsible for building everything apart from military equipment, is a balancing act that depends on how soon you think war will come, as a strong industrial base could also mean a weak military one.
The political aspect of the game is also intuitive to use, and offered most of the options I wanted to have as a nation embroiled in the years leading to the second great war. You can improve the standing of your political group in other nations, stage coups (these two often go hand-in-hand), join factions such as the Axis and the Comintern, or create one of your own; send equipment aide to countries in war via lend-lease agreements or go a step further and send volunteer forces of your own, which you control and can use to help another nation without actually joining the war, among other things. The political power you accrue on a daily basis is used for certain political actions and can also be spent to hire experts that can aid you in military development, industrial research, battle tactics, political growth of your party among several other things, or to spend your conscription, trade and economy laws.
The sheer amount of actions you can take means that at no point during my playthrough did I have to sit and wait, and as the French Commune I was constantly managing my international affairs, be it influencing Yugoslavia, a potential third front against Germany and Italy, to my communist ways, or sending hefty amounts of resources and voluntary forces to Republican Spain after the fascists had began their uprising, one which I played a significant part in quenching and guaranteeing another communist ally alongside the USSR. This is aided by the fact that your national reforms, researches and construction queues are constantly finishing and demanding your attention, and given the fluid nature of what is needed in a context of shifting allegiances and wars I was constantly re-evaluating what I should do next.
The meat of the game is undoubtedly on the military and combat aspects, however. Managing your armed forces efficiently can be a daunting task, as you have to split your navy between searching out enemy fleets and protecting the convoys that bring you much needed supplies; allocate your air wings across your air bases and carriers according to which regions you currently need to defend or attack, guaranteeing air superiority and defending your industry from bombardment; and deploy your ground troops and armored vehicles across your many fronts, devising battle plans with routes and fallback lines to guarantee the safety of your manpower. Continued military actions or the presence of military theorists gives you experience, which you can then use to improve your ground, sea and air forces. Everything else is clearly done as a preparation toward the wars you’ll fight, as military researches give you the upper hand in equipment, a consolidated military industrial complex guarantees a steady supply of ammunition and weapons, and political reforms increase the national unity that is responsible for keeping your people steadfast once the woes of war come.
Fortunately, Hearts of Iron does right that which is most crucial in grand strategy games: the UI. Different tabs and actions all have hotkeys or are one click away, and each action you can plan for your army or diplomatic action you can carry out against another nation is accompanied by a succinct tooltip. The mapmodes guarantee an easy way to view your supply lines, battle plans and areas that your navy and airforce can influence, and transferring fleets from different ports, assigning divisions to garrison front lines and distributing my planes across different air bases was quick and easy.
Hearts of Iron IV is the fourth entry into the series, and it shows. There’s a level of polish and detail that’s clearly consequence of continued development and effort, as if every mechanic and concept has been fine-tuned across the years in order to deliver what is undoubtedly the epitome of World War II strategy games, something you could indeed only find within the wide scope of the Grand Strategy genre. With its intuitive UI and an artificial intelligence that allows you to choose anywhere between acting as a Commander or a Field Marshall, this is a strategy game where you’re as much of a tactician as you want to be.