In the best way possible, Hearts of Iron III is exactly what I thought it would be: an unbelievably massive, obsessively detailed, defiantly hardcore military strategy game. I say "game" but perhaps "simulation" would be a more accurate descriptor. No other game I've played has come as close to modeling the breadth and depth of the decisions made by the political and military commanders during the war, or rendered the tremendously far-reaching consequences of those decisions in as plausible and thorough a manner. Not surprisingly, this makes for an extremely complex and, to some, overly complicated game that requires a high level of focus and study from anyone who hopes to make the most of it.
Paradox has refined the interface somewhat, taking advantage of the more refined and polished presentation found in Europa Universalis III and EU: Rome, but that still won't make Hearts of Iron appealing to many outside of the hardcore grognard community. Since publishers of PC games of the last few years seem to have embraced the misguided notion that every game ought to appeal to every gamer, the unashamed complexity of Hearts of Iron III is, in my opinion at least, an awesome and rare thing. Still, be warned that this game is most definitely not for everyone. For the minority who appreciate the subject matter and are willing to invest the time to actually explore the features, there is a lot to love about this game.
Hearts of Iron III is a grand strategy game on a global scale that starts in 1936 and ends in 1947. It also includes a number of pre-set dates so players can jump right into the action after a key moment. Players can choose to lead any nation they want, from Canada to South Afrika to Japan, and will be in charge of selecting domestic policies, research goals, production priorities, diplomatic positions and army and navy orders. And while that's true of many grand strategy games, Hearts of Iron III gets down to such details as hiring and firing specific cabinet ministers, licensing designs for foreign production, building individual brigades, setting invasion times to take advantage of daylight and weather effects, and selecting sites for new rocket test labs.
The game also improves on the scripted history of Hearts of Iron II with the addition of new decisions and laws that come up according to preset conditions. So you may play a game where France holds out in a war against Vichy France, or where the US joins the Allies in 1937, or where Ecuador and Peru find themselves drawn into the alliances and wind up fighting their own war in South America. While the general alliances of the main powers are fixed, the game can go in many interesting directions from there. In one of our games, the Chinese crushed the Japanese invasion and Russia was able to liberate Europe by the end of 1943.
While it sounds like the player would soon get bogged down under such an avalanche of seemingly minor details, the sum total of all those individual details can add up to huge consequences. When facing a supply shortage, for instance, you may reduce consumer goods in order to trade other commodities on the world market in return for rare metals that your factories need. When they help increase production, you can start cranking out supplies for your soldiers, but dissent has risen because you cut consumer goods, so your population isn't producing as much as they were before. Now you need to balance your nation's industrial capacity between the two so your people are happy enough to keep working and your soldiers aren't left unsupplied on the battlefield. And that's not even considering that your factories are also responsible for upgrades and reserves for units in the field and for the production of new combat units, ports, radar stations and such.
That's just one small slice of a very large pie that also includes technology, diplomacy, espionage, military organization, theater strategy and even the occasional intervention in concerns over freedom of the press, worker strikes and suspicion of government officials.
It's not just the decisions you're making at a high level either. Hearts of Iron III has several thousand individually modeled territories, of which around 10,000 are on the land. That something like four times as many in the previous game in the series. While it may seem a bit overwhelming at first (and, face it; it is) the number of territories actually works to make the combat more tactical. Rather than having a front that's just a few territories across, you'll now be fighting on fronts that are 10-20 territories across. This means the attacker and defender will have smaller concentrations of units spread out over a wider area, which makes breakthroughs, flanks and envelopments even more sophisticated than before. Added infrastructure limits and supply needs make it impossible for players to create the capital-bound steamroller armies that appear in some other grand strategy games.
Here's where the big improvements in Hearts of Iron III begin to show themselves. First and most significantly, you can now lead entire armies by giving a single order to the HQ. So if you want to mobilize an entire theater, you just have to find Zhukov or Guderian and tell them what their main objective is. From them, the order gets passed down the chain of command and individual orders are generated for all attached units. You can then fine tune individual orders if you wish to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. The AI is actually very good at this and seems to know how to apply the right forces in the right way to achieve your objectives. Even better, the HQ will send production orders directly to your production menu if they feel they need additional units. You just have to click on "build" and the new units will be put into production and delivered automatically. The only real pain in this system is that it's not very clear how to create or disband HQs to make the best use of your current officer pool. In fact, the very idea that you'd even need to do this in the first place isn't as apparent as it might be.
All the other features of the game can be automated as well, which serves to lower the barrier of entry for newer players. Handing over trading, diplomacy, and politics, for instance, will let the player really dive into the technology and production systems. You could even hand over everything except the direct control of units in a single theater and pretend that you're Rommel or Eisenhower.
Following on the refinements of the previous Paradox strategy games, Hearts of Iron III manages to make the various elements of the game surprisingly comprehensible, or at least as comprehensible as they can be given the tremendous level of detail. The pop-up windows are still incredibly obnoxious by default, but you can opt to have the least helpful messages transferred to the history log. If you don't, you're going to spend the whole game closing countless notification windows.
Where the game really falls short is in the tutorial. Naturally, a game this large can't hope to cover all the necessary features in a tutorial, but the one included here is still very poor. In keeping with the series' tradition it's not a hands-on affair, but even the few things it does explain (in an amusing but error-prone manner) leaves some considerable gaps in the player's knowledge. Veterans to the series will have a head start but we have sympathy for the newcomer who gives up on the game because he can't tell why his naval units won't move away from their port.
Even if you do figure out how to use everything, there's no getting around the sometimes-tedious nature of the game, particularly if you start at the very beginning of the campaign. Though the Axis countries and their neighbors have some interesting decisions here, many of the other countries in the world will spend the first few years just setting research paths and developing the infrastructure and units they'll need once they're drawn into the war. Considering that it takes almost an hour to get through a whole year running the game at full fast-forward, it'll be a while before you can try out your new toys. Still, we had a bit of fun playing "what if?" as the USA in this period, focusing on carrier doctrines, radar and rocket technology and seeing just how quickly we could get the bomb if we raced straight toward it.
The game lists a starting date for every technology; research it before that date, and you'll suffer a research penalty. It's a bit arbitrary but it's a nice way to keep countries with lots of spare leadership potential from bypassing early techs and going right for the super weapons. Another nice feature of the tech system is that your technology decays if you don't use it, so if you build up some impressive armor technologies and then never really get your tank brigades up and running, you'll start to lose some of the research you've acquired. (The same is true in terms of producing goods, which helps to keep players focused on creating balanced forces.) The only real strike against the technology system is the inability to queue up a research path. If you want a certain type of bomber, for instance, you have to check it's listing and then select all the prerequisite technologies by hand. Since there are multiple levels of each technology it's not always clear what you've got and what you still need.
In any case, it was fun trying to build up the USA to fight the way I wanted to fight, rather than just starting the game on December 7, 1941 and making do with the status quo. Then, of course, the game crashed in 1940. No matter what I did, the game just wouldn't move past a certain date, even if I switched to playing a different country. Then the same thing happened in 1942 during a game I was playing as the Japanese. I was eventually able to get this one up and running again but I still have no idea what the error was. While it may be unrealistic to expect a game like this to be running perfectly right out of the box (even with the release day patch installed), it can take a good week or two of committed playing to finish a game. When a crash ruins the experience after you've already invested twenty hours, it's heartbreaking.
Visually, Hearts of Iron III is a big improvement over the previous games in the series. The map is much more legible and the interface elements have been refined and positioned in a way that makes them obvious but not distracting. Of course, it helps if you can play the game in 1920x1080, but even at a lower resolution, it's still easy to see everything that's going on. The game makes use of new 3D counters, which adds a bit of visual flair, but they're not as informative as the optional unit counters. The sounds add a bit of window-dressing and help support the illusion but, as with most games like this, you're more likely to play your own music in the background. If you like Verdi and Mozart, the game music's not so bad.
As with most of my favorite grand strategy games, there's just more in this game than we can possibly cover, from convoy support to government elections to amphibious invasions and a whole list of other engaging features. Rest assured that there are dozens of other elements you can toy with here and they're often as detailed (and sometimes as vague) as many of the features we've already covered.
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