Hearts of Iron is a strategy title that focuses on the events leading up to WWII. Like its predecessor, Hearts of Iron II focuses on the period between 1936 and 1947. Using the same design concept that powered the critically acclaimed Europa Universalis II, Hearts of Iron lets you command a nation as large as Great Britain to something as small as Liberia. The sequel here maintains as grand a scope as before so it falls into a similar trap of being too much for the strategy novice. No other title on the market today, however, comes as close to giving a complete macro level simulation of WWII as this one does.
Most strategy titles are content with modeling a single battle full of soldiers. More ambitious ones will model a war on the division level a la Risk. But Hearts of Iron contains a domestic as well as a military front. Internally, each province under your command generates a certain amount of resources. Resources fuel factories which generate industrial capacity (IC) points that will in turn fuel production. You can dictate where to focus IC points on. The production interface, which has been centralized on one screen, provides sliders for you to allocate points to consumer goods (to keep the population happy), to military endeavors (reinforcements, supplies, etc.) and finally on production of items, which can be everything from infantry, tanks to factories, radar installations or missiles. Generally, you’ll be able to pull off the production of a half a dozen units or less if you make your entire nation focused on production full tilt. Some things, like a new factory, or an aircraft carrier, can take more than a year to produce. And that’s if you keep production levels at 100%. During shortfalls, some items may be hobbling along at lower levels than that.
You’ll see from that example, to wage any war or supply any amount of troops, you’ll need to have constant access to free IC points. But simply building factories won’t help. You have to have resources available for those factories to work. A shortfall in any resource, whether it be oil or rare minerals will definitely hamper your grand crusades. Shortfalls can be made up by acquiring territories that are rich in resources or they can be acquired by trading with other nations.
As you eye for territories, Hearts of Iron will aid you with various map modes but the most important map you’ll use is the political map, which marks the sovereignty of all territories. Unless you are playing in a localized scenario, the entire your world is open to your conquest. But this isn’t Warcraft, so it depends on whether you can logistically get there. Once you start occupying territories, you’ll need to find a method of supply or your offensive units will slowly be whittled away by attrition.
To help make the world smaller, Hearts of Iron offers three main factions that you can join – and in fact, in the grand campaigns, joining one is crucial to winning the game. The Allies are led by Britain, the Axis by Germany and the Comintern by the Soviet Union. On a diplomacy level, Hearts of Iron offers a pretty in-depth model that operates on currency. Staging a coup ranks among an expensive option.
Improved from the previous game is Hearts of Iron’s treatment of allies. Allied countries will now actively assist each other. Leading allied members, for example, will give blueprints to technological advances to more junior ones. Long after Netherlands fell, the nation in exile offered its colonial resources to make up for my own nation’s shortfall. It’s things like these that make the game’s artificial intelligence more challenging.
Another element of Hearts of Iron that deals with currency is research. The research tree in this title continues to be massive. A new feature allows you to put specialized teams or people to research different items. A notable admiral would be good for naval strategy. An aircraft engineering company would be perfect for making a bomber. Most of the companies are historical too, although for minor nations there may not be enough in the well to draw from. In Canada, for example, I eventually had to settle that the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was the best candidate to do my infantry research.
Every nation shares the same tree but because the game only covers the span of a decade, there’s no way one nation can actually be the most advanced at everything. For one thing, a nation can’t simply give away all of its research to another one. You can only give blueprints that still require (reduced) research effort. Most nations, save a few of the great powers, will find themselves focusing themselves on a few elements: infantry, tanks, cruisers, submarines, etc. You’ll also need the methodology and doctrine put these units to effective use. Some items, like artillery, are add-ons attached to existing units. Not all research items are tied to war though. Some are tied to improving production. Others involve the progression of science with a tangent off to secret weapons (the nuclear bomb being one). It’s all very complex and while Hearts of Iron is sprinkled with historical anecdotes, I was a bit saddened to see there weren’t any to explain the numerous research advances. That, however, is a minor gripe.
In combat, it’s not the best technology that wins. It’s certainly not the nation with the most numerous army that wins either. You could have a dozen militia units that wouldn’t dent German panzer armor. But in Hearts of Iron, in addition to technological strength, armies have to be supplied. Armies also have to be organized and that’s where the appointment of an appropriate general, the presence of a headquarters/command units, the use of appropriate battle methods and doctrines come into play. In fact, unless you send your troops on a suicide mission, chances are low that they will be annihilated completely. Most likely, they will retreat, until there’s no place to retreat or they are surrounded and supply is cut off, in which case they will simply disappear.
That’s why it helps to employ tactics besides a full frontal assault and you can achieve this by sending armies on specific missions. Aircraft can be told to bomb infrastructure, attack ground forces or take out ports. Infantry can be put on support or reserve missions. Say you have an expeditionary army in France helping the Allies. You don’t have enough troops to attack on your own, but you can leverage your troops in an attack with the French by tasking your troops to support an attack on a province across the border. Alternatively, you can set up simultaneous attacks between divisions in surrounding provinces. Again, the point is not to march hundreds of divisions into war. The point is to put enough pressure on the other side to retreat.
Managing all of this can be kind of hectic, especially if you play a great power. Britain, for example, has a vast array of fleets spread across the entire globe (ever heard of the saying the sun never sets on the British Empire?). Hearts of Iron lets you slow the game down to a trickle to manage the conflicts but at times, it can feel overwhelming. At least in the sequel, you’re able to get aids on managing your supply convoys; a major headache in the first game. And some elements, like aircraft carriers are handled better as units can be commanded to do sortie on missions within a certain timeframe.
The genius of Hearts of Iron is its inclusion of historical events. At certain junctures in the game, a nation will be offered important choices. Japan can opt to wage war on China and join the Axis. The United States can opt to join the Allies, so on and so forth. Picking campaigns closer to the end of the timeframe will more likely yield results closer to reality. However, if you start all the way from 1936, you have a real chance to play out some nifty what-if situations presented to leaders at the time. History buffs will get a real kick out of it.
Those wanting a faster game will appreciate the multitude of smaller scenarios. These are localized conflicts that are separated from the world map. You can play Australia or United States against Japan in the Pacific arena. You could play Romania in helping the German attack on the Soviet Union. These smaller conflicts don’t have the regular production or domestic activities in play. Indeed, your units aren’t even reinforced so you have to make do with what you have. Since these scenarios play at a quicker pace, they make Hearts of Iron more palatable to casual strategy fans. It also makes multiplayer sessions a lot shorter. True historians will miss the domestic side of the game.
The best improvement in multiplayer is the ability to speed up or slow down time at will. This makes the game more playable especially on longer campaigns. While there were some occassional crashes in long multiplayer sessions, the sequel is significantly more stable than its predecessor.
In gameplay, there are still some notable bugs I ran into. When setting the range for an aircraft sortie, your map is darkened out except the provinces in range to that particular craft. I find when a historical event or something crops up, the game will be stuck permanently in that mode even if I click on all the map modes to try to get out of it. Funny things also happen on the supply side. When Vichy France surrenders to Germany, all remaining territories are split between Vichy or Germany. Allied troops still in France will appear to have one of two fates: if you’re stuck with a French army, your army completely disappears. If you’re in a French held province yourself, you gain that province for your own nation (also doesn’t make too much sense since normally any province you conquer goes to the nation who supplies your army). Since no one ever warns you about this, there are still instances in the game where you’ll go, “Huh? What happened my armies?” Although compared to the predecessor, it happens far less here.
It would be nice for the game to pause and notify me if I have aircraft stuck in a forward airbase that’s about to be captured by my enemy. At least with that warning, I can try to save my aircraft by relocating it.
Hearts of Iron II, compared to the original game, is still fairly blasé in the audio-visual department. You basically won’t hear any sound effects until you click on an individual conflict. And because it’s a passive affair of watching ‘dice-rolling’ between two armies, you won’t do that too often either. The music in the original game was filled with a who’s who of classical music. Tracks like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkiryes really help set the mood. The composers in this game have taken some inspiration from it (I swear one of the pieces shares some of the same bars as that Wagner piece) but are not as good at evoking pathos from the player. Simply put, it sounds too militaristic, like calling a high school marching band full of brass a full orchestra.
Hearts of Iron, is, as I said before, a historian’s best ticket to replaying some of the biggest what-ifs in the twentieth century. The depth in this game is almost unparalleled but it is a double-edged sword. At times, it can seem like the game is filled with a lot of waiting for production (when you put the game at the fastest speed) and a lot of micromanaging your troops (when you put the game at normal speed). As such, hours seem to just melt away whenever I start the game. It’s gotten so bad that I’m rather scared of clicking on the icon. But if you have any genuine interest in strategy or history, you will be richly rewarded.