It is the 19th March 1940, Germany has taken control of large swathes of the United Kingdom and Poland. France has long been split between German and Vichy French control. This is just some of what happens when you play Hearts of Iron 3, the grand strategy game from Paradox Interactive. I truly do mean grand, this is a game in which you are able to take control of any country ranging from the United Kingdom to Persia to Brazil. I haven’t even mentioned the countries in Asia! Any country that was around in 1936 is ready for your leadership to lead them to, well whatever future you have in mind for them.
Of course you can’t do absolutely anything you want, there are limits, but unlike the previous game in the series there definitely is much more room for changing the course of histroy. You don’t even have to be controlling a country to see the vast number of events that can take place. In the game I have been playing I have controlled Turkey and I have made several attempts to move the country closer to the Axis. Maybe it was these attempts that led to Germany launching their invasion earlier, or maybe it was my constant attempts to start a war with Bulgaria? All I know is that it makes for a fascinating game and a deep one.
Yes, it is a game that requires you to spend lots of time looking at various menus and sliders, in some ways it reminds me of football management games, but these are what you will control your country with. Of course you will spend time sending your armies into battle, but you can’t fight without troops who are trained with the latest equipment can you? And you certainly can’t enter combat if you don’t have any one to go to war with. This is why when playing as Turkey I was constantly looking at the Production, Technology, Intelligence and Diplomacy screens. You will find you are checking these screens all the time when playing as any other nation, you don’t want to risk wasting your industrial capacity (IC) if you are Germany and are getting your army ready for war is there?
Whilst I am talking about Production I have to admit I have some gripes with this section of the game. I may have briefly talked about them in my preview a while back, but it becomes clear that there is a problem lies with the sliders. These are the things which determine how much IC should be applied to building new units, upgrading and reinforcing current units and making the supplies they need and creating the consumer goods that are essential to keeping your army working. You can manually adjust the sliders or tell them to auto-adjust to the level of IC required for each task, unfortunately the auto-adjust only happens once, it won’t keep the amount of IC being used at the required levels for ever.
You can use the AI control feature on Production to let the computer handle this, the problem is that if you do this you have control over what units are being produced. This is where an intermediate level of AI control is needed. This may seem a small issue to those of you who haven’t played the game, but when you are constantly having to fiddle around with the sliders to ensure everything is balanced correctly it will get annoying, and pretty quickly at that. This is a big miss step for Paradox, all the other main screens that I mentioned earlier can be passed over to the AI and you can even let the AI control various levels of your armies, here it is missing that vital middle ground.
While I have spent the past two paragraphs talking about this issue it is important to note it is not a gamebreaking one and it doesn’t take away from the excellence that is found throughout the rest of the game. You have the ability to do so much with everything, I spent the first hour of my game as Turkey simply reorganising my army, it took me a while to figure out what was what as I am not too clued up on my NATO unit symbols. However, once I had figured out that varying amounts of x’s above a unit type image indicate where they fit in the hierarchy I was able to get things moving. Move these chaps over there, assign them to the East Army Group, move these chaps to the border with Bulgaria as part of the West Army Corps which is run from the bosses in Ankara, easy and ultimately great fun for the mini-general inside all of us. Important too as poorly organised armies won’t be of much help when war comes.
If you think your troops are lacking in some skills then the Technology screen is the place to be. It will seem daunting at first, as do most of the screens but once you have things figured out you will know what you can do in it. If you want to start building Mechanised Infatry units you will need to research several other techs to the required level first, most of which will improve the fighting abilities of other unit types already at your disposal. You are not limited to researching improved units, you can look into secret projects, one of which will eventually let you build a nuclear bomb. You can also research tech related to industry, this is an easy way to improve your IC and, through the Education technology you can increase your leadership which will let you research more things.
This goes to show how everything is linked together in the game, the technologies you research impact on your IC and what you are able to build, more leadership will grant you more diplomatic points which are used when you try to align your nation with one of the three factions in the game (Axis, Allies and the Commintern for those of you who don’t know your history). Your leadership rating also determines how many spies you have, this is another area of the game which is a not quite as refined as it could be. For instance I have an agent spying in the Phillipines and I don’t have any way of bringing him back home. Even then I wouldn’t be sure that I would be able to send him where I want, say Bulgaria (I have nothing against that country, I just want to be able to fight them!) as spies are sent out depending on the priority you assign different nations. This all seems a bit superfluous to me, why it isn’t possible to simply send each spy here or there is beyond me, but at least there is plenty of work for your spies to do. They can gather information about what a country is researching and attempt to undermine the party in power. All very useful yes, but not as intuitive as it could be.
You can start the game from a variety of time periods, I started as Turkey in the Road to War scenario which starts in 1936, if you so wished you could start in a variety of other years with the world looking as it did at that time in World War Two. If this isn’t your cup of tea then you have several quick start scenarios to chose from. You can play as Germany, Japan the Soviet Union and the USA in these, each scenario has a different focus, for example the German one throws you into the middle of the war in 1939 and focuses your attention on the combat. On the face of it combat is pretty simple in Hearts of Iron 3, you select your group of units and send them to the province you want them to attack. However you have to keep in mind supply routes and the strength of your troops, if you advance too far without ensuring your armies are in fighting condition you run the chance of being counter-attacked. There really is a lot of depth to the combat, as there is with the rest of the game.
This depth is what sets Hearts of Iron aside from other games in the RTS genre, unfortunately this is what makes the game so daunting in the first place to newcomers. It is no suprise that the game comes with a manual, a quick start guide and a strategy guide. You shouldn’t let this put you off though as the best way of learning how to play the game is to do just that, play it. You will quickly learn the basics, even if it takes you a while to pick up the more subtle elements of the game.
The game is far from perfect, if you just glance at the official forums you will find reams of threads will the hard core fans of the series finding different faults and bugs in the game. One of the main ones that people are experiencing concerns some nations requiring massive amounts of consumer goods while others are experiencing major slow downs when playing for a length of time. Personally, whilst I had to deal with some off looking borders due to the review code I was playing, I didn’t experience many problems, well apart from seeing Finland joining the Allies pretty early.
You will easily lose track of time in the game, in that way again it is comparable to management games. Hearts of Iron 3 is a really good game and will be better once the various issues are fixed up, something Paradox are always keen to do. It is well deserved of a ‘Headshot’, just don’t jump into it expecting to find a Command and Conquer clone, you will find a better game in many respects than that.