It's no secret I'm a pretty huge fan of Paradox's grand strategy titles. Both Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV are still in semi-regular rotation on my days off, and I could bore you to death talking about setting colonial trade policies.
But Hearts of Iron, Paradox's take on World War II, has yet to receive the modernized overhaul that EUIV and CKII underwent. You know: A semi-functional tutorial, stylish artwork, an emphasis on being at least somewhat accessible. Basically, the things that make Paradox's grand strategy games somewhat broadly playable nowadays in a way that past entries weren't.
It's especially notable in the case of the Hearts of Iron series because Hearts of Iron III was...problematic. Enough so that most fans will still tell you to play Hearts of Iron II instead. I don't know, because I found it intimidatingly hard to get into either of the two.
So now Hearts of Iron IV is on the horizon. I got my hands on the game recently, playing as both Germany and Japan. Here's what I learned.
This game is still insanely hard
Demoing a Paradox game is probably the worst trial-by-combat I've ever experienced in this industry. Ideally, a Paradox grand strategy title is something you ease into, like training for a marathon—except instead of limbering up and gradually building endurance, you're sitting in a desk chair for hours on end sipping scotch and occasionally muttering to yourself about tariffs.
The first time I demoed Europa Universalis IV the dev team wanted to play a bit of multiplayer with us. I decided to try and play as the Golden Horde, at which point I was promptly conquered by my neighbors in the first five minutes and booted from the game. The Paradox team laughed at me and basically said "Yeah, that's a horrible country to try and start as. We'll restart the game so you can get back in."
My time with Hearts of Iron IV didn't go much better. Paradox wanted us to start as Germany in 1936 because it's a fast-paced start with an immediate objective (capture Poland) and a fair number of troops at your disposal (in contrast to starting as Sweden, for instance).
Like Paradox's other grand strategy titles, the game is sort of a hybrid of what you'd expect from real-time and turn-based strategy games. The game runs at a steady pace, but you can pause at any point to make decisions (at least when you're playing alone), and troop movements or research take a set period of time. Since this is World War II and not the entirety of the colonial era, these periods of time are reduced from "years" in Europa Universalis to mere months or even days in Hearts of Iron IV.
Researching a new tank? That'll take a year or so. Researching the radio? A few months. Building rifles for your infantry? You can do that in a day.
The interface is much improved from the previous Hearts of Iron, most notably by making it obvious how many divisions are in each region again. The map is also a work of art—as each day passes, real-time lighting indicates whether it's day or night. Combine that with the art itself, which mimics the look of a World War II-era troop map, and it certainly matches (or even surpasses) the production value of Paradox's recent work.
Back to Germany and my humiliating loss. I'm going to blame it on a number of factors, although you're free to just laugh at me.
For one, I was trying to rush things. That one's totally my fault, but with only an hour to play the game I definitely forced a conflict with Poland earlier than I should've. I didn't have enough troops.
Once the war started, however, I found myself thrown off by two factors.
1) You have to simultaneously manage equipment for troops and raise the troops themselves. The equipment is obvious. You designate factories (another resource you build in your country) to build items for your troops.
What I didn't know is that these items then just basically lay in storage unless you are actively training units to use them. Training units also takes months and months, so the whole time I thought I was "making new troops" I was actually just "throwing piles of rifles into a warehouse somewhere in Eastern Germany."
2) Germany starts with a number of aircraft, but you don't directly control these forces. Instead, you assign each air unit to a theater. I understood that much at least! The problem? I assigned all my planes to the East Germany theater, thinking that meant they'd launch attacks from there. Nope. Instead they were just aimlessly flying around my own lands while the Polish air force cut my army to shreds.
Berlin fell to Poland. So much for the German war machine.
Just like starting over
The good news: Like all of Paradox's games, you live and learn. While Paradox wanted us all to play Germany, they let me start over as Japan after my horrible defeat with the precaution that "Not all of the Japanese art is in the game yet."
Japan's a much slower start. You don't have a ton of troops, and those you do are stationed in Manchuria. Your initial goal is basically to pick a fight with either the Soviets or China.
This time around I understood how to train troops and assign aircraft, and my war efforts went a bit smoother. I initially massed on the eastern border of China, but when the Soviets started sneaking forces in to the north I ended up refocusing. I executed a pretty gorgeous pincer move on the Soviets and captured about a dozen provinces just as our demo time ended.
The bottom line is: It's Hearts of Iron. It's a hardcore World War II sim for people who presumably love Band of Brothers and early-2000s History Channel, who maybe own an M1 Garand and have read Stalingrad multiple times. It's not light and endearing in the same way as Crusader Kings II, nor is it the slow dance of monarchs that is Europa Universalis IV. It's war, war, and more war. A Great War, if you will.
That might turn some people off. If you play strategy games as mostly a peace-loving, diplomatic do-gooder, this isn't really the game for you.
But if you've gotten a taste for Paradox's grand strategy games and are interested in this period of history, it's looking like (barring a few obtuse UI elements) Hearts of Iron is getting thoroughly modernized and made a modicum more accessible.
We'll take a more thorough look at the game upon release. (Playing as the Americans, of course.) Until then, I guess it's back down the Europa Universalis rabbit hole.