If ever there is an era that has been hashed and rehashed, plundered and strip-mined by popular culture, it must surely be the years 1936 to 1948.
Every year books, movies, television series and videogames recreate the violence and inhumanity of the Second World War as surely as the changing of the seasons. The History Channel makes a tidy existence almost exclusively by replaying archive footage of the Second World War. Any visiting extra terrestrial could be forgiven for thinking that human history began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Curious then that grand strategy World War II games are so thin on the ground. Maybe it’s because to truly recreate the tumult of those years requires an incredibly nuanced attention to detail, and a balance of sensibility and historical accuracy when approaching an era within living memory. Or maybe it’s because the Hearts of Iron series have cornered the market.
The latest iteration of the title puts you in control of a country either before or during World War II. You control everything from diplomacy, politics and intelligence, to technology, production and most importantly, warfare. You can play as any one of more than 100 countries (including New Zealand), all of which are populated by historical figures. All countries are broken into regions (there are more than 14,000 provinces in total) and each is accurately depicted in terms of available resources. Start as New Zealand, for example, and your cabinet will be composed of such contemporaries as Michael Joseph Savage and Walter Nash. You’ll find yourself short on crude oil but with an abundance of food to trade.
The campaign map’s geography leaves something to be desired. Only Western European cities are placed with any thought to accuracy. New Zealand, Australia and Japan, amongst most others, are bereft of urbanisation. New York is in New Jersey. Los Angeles is missing. Fiji is due east of Northland. Go figure.
Each nation has a shifting and shiftable political ideology literally triangulated between democracy (Allies), fascism (Axis) and communism (the Comintern). As the appeasement of the mid-thirties evolves into the cold war of the mid-late thirties and, eventually, total war through to the mid-forties, you’ll find yourself gravitating toward your natural allies. Unlike other real-time strategy sims, Hearts of Iron III puts great impetus on historical “accuracy” but, of course, throwing your hat into pages of history can see anything happen. Perhaps Japan will carry out its invasion plan for Australia, or maybe the blitzkrieg will be brought to a halt outside of Paris.
A curious aside on historical accuracy: Nazi Germany is faithfully recreated but for one detail: The flag of the German Weimar Republic is used in lieu of the Swastika. Arguments for and against its absence in the game are readily available, but none of them will be elaborated upon here.
The resource limitations set on each nation mean that you’ll never be able to directly advance a nation far beyond its capacity or stature within the time-frame given. In other words, if you choose to play as a minor nation, you’ll be playing as a small cog from start to finish. However, this in itself adds an interesting element to the game. Other strategy games may allow you to take control of nations or factions with starting disadvantages but the playing field is usually levelled with a few bold strategies. Not so in Hearts of Iron III, which faithfully recreates the sensation that you’re a pawn (maybe a well-liked pawn, but a pawn all the same) to more powerful forces.
The game takes place in “real” time with a live pause function: Playing at the fastest possible speed and without pausing will see you completing one day every 24 seconds. But you’ll pause. Often.
For casual fans of the strategy genre, the devil is in the details. Hours of meticulous micromanagement are required before executing any action. If you’re approaching the series for the first time, you may be overwhelmed by the volume of seemingly arcane information at your disposal and in spite of advances, the learning curve remains comparatively steep. You’ll not just research a new vehicle, you’ll have to research the armour plating, the engine and the barrel—and you’ll have balance that against everything from consumer demand to trade agreements that are in constant negotiation.
But Hearts of Iron III isn’t designed with every gamer in mind: Paradox Interactive knows their audience and caters to them superbly. The game also includes an AI control function that allows you to step back from various aspects of nation-building if you so desire. Importantly however, the AI yields to your manual inputs, allowing you to step in and steer the ship only when and if you think necessary.
Naturally, the game controls all other nations and the computations taking place behind the curtain in Hearts of Iron III will bring a relatively late model processor to its knees. As a result you’ll occasionally find yourself skipping around the campaign map but it’s more irksome than debilitating. This is all the more curious when you consider that the hardware usually struggling with any latest-release title is your six months-old graphics card. The graphics are underwhelming, but then the game isn’t supposed to be eye candy. The campaign map is 2D, but is superimposed with 3D models representing your armies, flotillas and air forces. The increased number of provinces greatly enhances the tactical strategy required and the ability to use the map to your advantage: Fret about an unpinned flank or recreate the battle of the bulge by isolating a jut in the enemy’s line.
Like the nation-building tabs, you can let your field commanders take full AI control of a theatre. Deliver an objective to an HQ and your commander will respond with what resources they require before carrying out your orders with admirable intelligence. As with the nation-building AI, you can always step in and issue orders directly to capitalise on any opportunity you see.
The tutorial is woefully inadequate. A thinly veiled Adolf Hitler walks you through the various tabs, pointing out what each box is, but not how to maximise them. Its low-hanging fruit I know, but Swedish developer and publisher Paradox Interactive would do well to employ a grammar Nazi: The typos and syntactical errors of the text-only tutorials and alerts are about on par with a forum. While it’s intelligible, it jars the player’s experience and makes the game feel unpolished.
In an era where most developers place great importance on user-friendliness and water down their releases in order to make them more palatable to a wider audience, Paradox Interactive’s commitment to strategy micromanagement is profoundly admirable. But it also means that the game will not appeal to a great many consumers.