Publisher: Atari Games
Developer: Paradox Entertainment
Platform: PC (Pentium 300 MHz, 64 MB of RAM, 2MB graphics card and Windows 98\ME\2000\XP required)
Release date: Q4, 2002
The Big Idea
Hearts of Iron is a strategy game on a global scale that allows the player play through World War II as any nation in existence at the time, be it Germany, Bhutan or Switzerland. Its basic campaign is The Road to War, which covers the era between January 1st, 1936 and December 31st, 1947.
While the history behind the events of the game has been carefully researched for the game, the main attraction is the fact that ahistorical results are the norm, not an exception. The game does not force the player's hand on their decisions. It does set the scenario so that ridiculously unrealistic events are not impossible but require a lot of effort. The United States, for instance, can join the Axis.
The game is very complex, and this write-up will not even try to exhaustively cover everything of everything.
With HOI, Paradox Entertainment took a step towards solid war gaming after the Europa Universalis series. The EU games had detailed aspects of trade, colonization, diplomacy and social changes in them, but Hearts of Iron concentrates completely on building and running a war machine.
Interface. The game is controlled through a single interface. Most of it is dedicated to showing the map of the world, with a top bar indicating current amount of available means and resources. A side bar controls the rest of your empire: diplomacy, distribution of resources, research, and construction of units. Units are moved with a few clicks of the mouse, in large or small stacks. When a battle takes place on the map, selecting the unit involved brings to the sidebar information on the course of the battle.
Flow of time. HOI is a real-time strategy game with time passing in increments of one hour. Before you recoil in horror and go to read about a real game like SMAC or Panzer General, note that the clock can be stopped at any time and its pace can be altered.
Geography. The entire world map has been pieced down to provinces. A country has ordinary provinces and key provinces - the control of the latter brings victory points. The amount of VPs per province depends on its importance: Moscow and Leningrad are worth 50, the Finnish province of Seinäjoki is worth none.
Provinces are taken by land forces, but if a state of war exists and the nation owning the province is still around, they are merely controlled. If all key provinces of the owning nation are under the player's control, the country can be annexed. If the player controls only 66% of them including the province with the capitol city, a puppet regime allied to the player can be installed.
Economy. Each province produces a certain amount of Industrial Capacity (IC). IC is everything - IC researches techs, produces supplies, keeps the people happy and builds new units.
The other part of the economical model are natural resources, of which there are four: coal, rubber, oil, and steel. Some provinces produce none of these, some produce all of them. This is where historical detail kicks in: the provinces located in the Caucasus and the Middle East produce copious amounts of oil, including them in the war plans of any aspiring Führer.
To produce IC all of these resources are needed, and if there is a shortage the amount of IC one can use is reduced accordingly. Also, without any oil in store motorized divisions, ships and aeroplanes will not budge. Oil can be converted from coal and to rubber, but the process is wasteful without advanced research. To make conquest harder the resource production of conquered areas is reduced to a fraction of normal.
Manpower and logistics. One final component to produce units is manpower. Heavily populated areas supply more manpower, conquered areas supply very little. If a unit takes losses it can be replenished at the cost of more manpower and supplies. Logistics are key in the game otherwise as well, without supplies (and oil if needed) units become disorganized and slowly start to lose their manpower, reducing their combat efficiency drastically. And even if a unit is properly supplied, if it has to trace them to a far-flung province its efficiency is still very low. This prevents e.g. carrying out Operation Overlord with troops launched directly from Boston.
Events. To spice up gameplay events can take place. These present the player with a choice, with each choice having its own ramifications. For instance, the German player can throughout the late 30's deny the Anschluss, the annexing of the Sudetenland, the partition of Czechoslovakia and finally the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This may avoid a war between Germany and the Allies altogether and prompt a more isolated war between Soviet Russia and Germany.
The Cabinet. The player has a cabinet of ministers helping them out with running the nation. They will not intervene in any action, but appointing various ministers and chiefs of staff brings different sorts of numerical advantages. A docile Minister of Security will make the people more happy, but he won't be able to wring out as much IC from provinces as a prince of terror.
Combat. Combat is all about the numbers. Each ground unit is assigned values of various sorts of attacks, defending, speed and organization. Each unit can also be assigned leaders of different abilities: for instance, General Rommel will be most efficient when leading an army group made up of tanks.
When two units do battle, terrain, weather, morale, the capabilities of the respective leaders, ministers, logistic distance, supply situation and several other modifiers are computed. Attacking across a river, for instance, hampers a land offensive severely. Armoured units are helpless in mountaneous terrain and units with artillery brigades mince infantry down to nothing.
Additionally, when a unit is defeated, it is not destroyed, its remnants simply pull back to the closest friendly province, unless the unit is surrounded - then it will fight to the death. Hence careful planning and managing of fighting forces and their use is needed to pull off a succesful campaign.
Winning the game. To win the game, the alliance (more on those later) of the player must control more victory points than any other alliance at the end of the time allotted for the scenario. Alternatively, the alliance of the player must be the last one standing to end the game ahead of time.
The Good Things
Purity of war. HOI lacks any mention of the horrors of the totalitarian regimes of the time, or any other hot topics. The German emblem for instance does not contain the swastika. The ethics of war are left strictly as an exercise for the player, and the game focuses on pure war itself. The game does not outright deny any events, but simply sets them aside, making them irrelevant.
The game does, however, emphasise the ideological nature of WW2: the world is split to three blocs, the Axis, the Allies, and the Comintern. Countries have a political stance ranging from National Socialist (Axis) to Centrist (Allied) to Stalinist (Comintern) with varying degrees between them, e.g. Leftist Radical or Paternal Autocrat. This stance dictates which alliance the country can join. Neutrality is also a possibility, no matter what the stance. The only way stance affects gameplay directly is that democratic nations can not declare war at whim.
Mods. HOI is one of those games which have their longevity increased ten-fold by mods. Modding it is quite easy, important files are stored in plain text and can be altered with a text editor and simple understanding of the game. The modding community is strong and has produced many good mods, such as The Great War which changes the entire setting to World War I, and Community Open Resource Exchange (CORE) which introduces more difficulty and realism.
Scope and atmosphere. With any nation playable on a world-wide scale for over up to eleven years, it's a strong contender for the title of The World War II Game. One can carry out any "what if" scenarios, after all, hindsight is 20/20, and you can avoid any fatal flaws. You can do it right this time.
Units and unit types have historical names, and almost all major power leaders down to the most insignificant major general have their portraits included. The vast tech tree is relatively accurate and informative and contains many branching choices. This possibility has been better used by modders, though.
The community. The Paradox Entertainment's own website at http://www.paradoxplaza.com hosts the official fora. The community is after nearly two years still bustling with activity. On the forum discussing the more contested aspects of war, as mentioned earlier, is not allowed, and this helps to keep things calm. The lead developers of HOI also tend to the forum, and there are official wishlists for the next patch, and the dev team is constantly letting out more information on Hearts of Iron 2, slated for release in early 2005 or late 2004. Update Feb 8th 2005: HOI2 was released on January 4th 2005.
Multiplayer. The forum is also a good place to arrange a multiplayer game, which in the game is carried out satisfyingly without any glaring errors. Paradox also has its own network, Valkyrienet, which can be easily accessed through HOI's menu, and on the HOI channel there's always a person or two waiting for a new sapling to arrive. The MP community has and enforces a strict set of rules that are for everyone's best interest, and most people are civil. Multiplayer games are also possible through the traditional methods: LAN and the Internet with IP addresses. Due to the complexity of the game, games are long and require patience, and even after toasting the AI on Very Hard you will be wiped the floor with, as is usual with MP gaming. Once you get the gist of it, the scope makes for very fun games once you get to match wits against real people.
The Bad Things
Music. The soundtrack is fine classical music, but some of it just doesn't fit the atmosphere. The only truly apropos song is the Ride of the Valkyries, but you can listen to it only so many times. The soundtrack also has about ten to twelve songs making it repetitive. Fortunately it's a trivial matter to disable music entirely and use your program of choice to play your own selection.
Diplomacy. HOI's diplomacy is quite lackluster. Leaving a military alliance is not possible, and options are limited to declaring war, demanding territory, sharing technology, influencing towards your own ideology, asking for military access and joining or inviting to an alliance. These actions cost Diplomatic Influence which is accrued over time. International relations are nonexistent and the tendency of countries to declare war on each other is based more on triggered events rather than growingly deteriorating relations.
The Navy. The role of the Navy in the game is strictly to get your land forces to an overseas province. Naval operations as such aren't worth much. While sea convoys are in the game and vital to transport resources and supplies, blockading them requires a lot of multimanaging and is usually not worth the effort. So no terrorising of the Atlantic with your U-boats, son.
That in mind, submarines are underpresented in the game: they are in effect just another type of boat, but with their own separate tech tree. Using IC to research them is pretty much a waste. Complicated operations are made useless also by the enemy naval AI: the AI ships move all in a single huge stack that eradicates everything in its path, and most naval engagements with the AI become a matter of a sequence of decisive battles with the entire force of both navies. On land the AI isn't quite as brain dead, and poses a decent challenge on the hardest difficulty levels.
The Air Force. The Air Force suffers from the same problems the Navy does. Strategic bombing does not have a devastating enough effect on an opponent's infrastructure without huge devotion of capacity to building bombers, and the effect of air cover and tactical bombing in ground attacks is minimal. In other words, the ICs are best used to build tanks and infantry. The air weapon is mostly good for only keeping your lands clear of any Enola Gays carrying nasty surprises. HOI does, indeed, include nuclear weapons.
Nukes. Because the society aspect of HOI is nonexistent, The Bomb turns from a weapon of terror into a weapon of convenience. A nuclear attack wipes out all the forces in a province and eradicates its resource production. Combine that with the AI's tendency to move land forces in massive stacks as well, and you have the perfect defensive weapon. That's all they are good for, however, save for the satisfaction of getting to throw a nuke at the best provinces of your nemesis.
The missile tech branch also allows to research and build rockets from the V-1 to ICBMs, which can make for interesting late game gambits. Due to the fact that the nukes can be mass produced at a very quick rate and because they prevent any decent build-up for offensives, the use of nukes tends to be banned in MP games. There is a lot of potential lost, as the method the United States used to force the surrender of Imperial Japan can't be used in the game.
The manual. The manual is horribly short considering the nature of the game. The community is trying to correct this error by writing its own manual. Unfortunately the booklet does make the initial learning curve rather steep, especially since the in-game tutorial only helps to learn the very basics.
Bugs. Paradox' games have a nasty habit of shipping without any final polish. Hearts of Iron 1.00 was ridiculously easy and riddled with nasty bugs. At 1.06b the game is still somewhat unstable, but diligent patching and connection to the community does alleviate the problem. Patches can also greatly modify the gameplay itself, fixing any major trouble. Many taken for granted features of 1.06 were not even dreamed of when the game originally shipped. Patching also continues far into the future, Europa Universalis II for instance has been patched to 1.08 over the course of several years.
I want it! So... how do I get it?
That can be tricky. Paradox' games cater to a small audience, so their sales aren't too high. The company, which does some of the publishing itself, is setting up a store at their website that you can order from globally with a credit card, and many retailers, especially web-based ones, do have Paradox games in their stores.
Paradox Entertainment's website: http://www.paradoxplaza.com
Official HOI fora
: http://www.europa-universalis.com/ forum/forumdisplay.php?s=&forumid=78