In an alternate timeline, Germany didn’t wait until 1st September 1939 to invade Poland. They didn’t even wait until 1939, nor did they sign a non-aggression pact with Russia, and their mad rush for Warsaw in 1936 saw an attritional failure as their forces were trapped and the angered French rolled through mainland Germany almost unopposed.
As Germany’s leader, I had failed. My recklessness matched only by my unfamiliarity with how to play Hearts of Iron IV. It’s not like I haven’t had my chances to dive into this series in the past, one of Paradox Interactive’s key Grand Strategy games over the last decade, with copies of HoI 2 and HoI 3 hidden away in my Steam library, but I haven’t.
Had I done so, I would have known how to create divisions, how to assign them to commanders and then marshal my forces in a logical and coherent fashion, so that they would have marched forwards under plenty of air support, heading towards a newly defined front line. Of course, doing this too early in time and before I had a large enough army would still have seen Germany crushed by France’s armies from the west. These were both lessons I learnt from looking over other players’ shoulders.
Though you can play as any nation and guide them through the Second World War, playing as Germany is probably the simplest way to get into the game – and HoI as a whole is perhaps the most accessible of Paradox’ games, simply by virtue of its more recent historical setting. This campaign picked up at the start of 1936 – the earliest possible start point – with historical events leading you by the hand, should you follow the most obvious national goals.
It started with the remilitarization the Rhineland, as you move a handful of divisions in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, but from here, you can very swiftly move towards securing Anschluss with Austria, using a spy to help further the National Socialists’ agenda in that country. Naturally, the Munich Agreement and the annexation of Czechoslovakia comes next. As I found, these objectives are remarkably simple to complete, but they are merely overarching goals to which you can aspire.
Though it has something of the appearance of a turn based game, time flows continuously within HoI – unless you pause it entirely – with the ability to speed up and slow down the passing of each day. On all but the fastest speed, there’s the quite arresting visual shift from day to night, with military units casting shadows on the world map and a glassy appearance to the seas and oceans that is quite gorgeous. It won’t blow your socks off, but it’s a huge step up compared to HoI 3, that instantly makes it feel more accessible.
However, it’s a graphical sheen to a game that’s just as heavily reliant on menus and buttons as ever. For the veterans of Paradox’ other grand strategy titles, it will be like putting on a pair of old boots, but even though this should be the most accessible HoI yet, newcomers will have to stretch the leather and wear in those metaphorical boots. To succeed in the war as a whole requires that you immerse yourself in some of the nitty-gritty and finer details of running the country under your leadership.
Your aim isn’t to directly control your armies, but to give your generals the targets and the tools with which to do the job at hand. That means using your industrial capacity to build guns, tanks and planes for your conscripts to be equipped with. You need to create the production queues, assign factories to pump out tanks and weapons as fast as possible, so that you can then create divisions with them.
However, there are further wrinkles to this. You need to also secure the resources needed to maximise your production, whether through conquest or trade. Russia is a particularly useful trade partner for Germany early on, for example, allowing you to build the early tanks in large numbers and quickly grow your military.
As time passes, newer and newer technologies and vehicles start to be made available to you, based of their historical development. In some cases, it’s a straightforward tech tree, but when it comes to the vehicles, you can try to skip ahead. However, researching a plane from 1939 in 1936 will actually take longer than simply waiting until 1939 to do so. Researching more advanced technologies does present an interesting conundrum, though. Do you dedicate your production to building fewer but better equipped vehicles and more advanced weaponry, or do you churn out older equipment and try to win through weight of numbers? The answer is probably somewhere in between, depending on the balance of the war.
Similarly, the path to victory and surviving WW2 as a nation isn’t necessarily going to be following the trail of historical breadcrumbs, but rather be about finding your own path where you can. When playing as a smaller nation, your national goals won’t necessarily have such a grounding in history anyway, leading to a very different and less war mongering style of game, but even playing as giants like Britain or Germany, you can head down a rather different path, whether of your own devising or by following the alternate reality goals in the game.
A new element in the game that helps and hinders you is the concept of political power. You earn it from successfully completing your goals, with the grander objectives granting the greater political rewards, but then spend it on pushing your government in the direction you want. Of course, in countries where you need to hold elections, there’s the decision between keeping the voters on your side or pushing ahead with what you think is the right thing to do, lest your leader be voted out of office, and declaring war will always need a justification and strong support within your country.
Through all of this, I’m merely scratching the surface of what Hearts of Iron 4 is. It features a complexity which will be off putting to most people, but caters quite specifically to a very particular niche audience – something which has been Paradox’ specialty over the years. There’s an incredible degree of depth to the game that will be almost baffling to a newcomer – hence my abject failure to conquer Poland – and yet, for me there’s a distinct appeal to the grand scope and scale of waging these wars.
I just hope Hearts of Iron 4 comes with a really good tutorial.
This preview came through attending PDXCon 2015 in Stockholm, Sweden, for which travel and accommodation provided by Paradox Interactive.