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Hands On: Hearts Of Iron IV

The best laid plans

Hearts of Iron [official site] is my Moby Dick. I've spent an inordinate portion of my adult life playing grand strategy games, particularly those of the Paradox variety. I'm slightly unusual in that Europa Universalis wasn't my gateway game – I entered the fold by means of the first Crusader Kings, which swiftly became one of my favourite games, despite its problems. From there I moved to Europa Universalis II and struggled to infiltrate the colonial powers of Victoria. It wasn't until the sequel that I learned to enjoy the nineteenth century.

Hearts of Iron IV might finally bring me into the heart of the twentieth century.

The series has always been there, rumbling angrily in the background as I play with its grand strategy siblings. I've tried to love it over the years but the condensed timeframe seemed to leave little room for the kind of wild tangents away from the historical path that I enjoy. Too often, I'd begin a campaign and abandon a couple of hours later when I felt locked down on the path to all-consuming war.

It's not that I expected to play a World War II game without any warring whatsoever, but the inevitability of the conflict meant that my approach focused on victory from the start. Rather than playing with the possibilities of the world and experimenting with short- and long-term strategies, I was obliged to work toward very specific goals from day one.

On the whole I like to play with a crisis of my own making, or at least one that I feel is personal to my experience, rather than a preordained series of events.

There's reason to believe that Hearts of Iron IV will allow for greater deviation from history, particularly if the plans for minor nations work out. Rather than the guidance of scripted goals, minor nations should have a set of dynamic objectives that adapt to the wider strategic situation. Given the enjoyment I've managed to find playing the secondary powers of Victoria II, particularly since the Heart of Darkness expansion, I'm inclined to give Hearts of Iron the benefit of the doubt in this area but I've only had chance to play as Germany so far.

I am a terrible Adolf Hitler. Perhaps I should find that reassuring and in some ways I do, but for the last fifteen minutes of the hour that I spent with Hearts of Iron IV, I was on the verge of screaming horrible insults at Warsaw. It refused to fall, you see, and as the session came to an end, I was determined that I'd claim Poland as my final act. It wasn't to be.

In less than an hour, I prevented World War II by screwing up the invasion of Poland so efficiently that the French army had marched into Berlin by 1938. I'd been following scripted historical goals – y'know, remilitarising the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the kind of to-do list that caused me to wince everytime I glanced at it – but had jumped the gun somewhat, declaring war before my troops were fully prepared. In the final moments, the French invasion on the Western Front was pushing my troops back faster than I could push into the East.

Watching military action in motion is exciting in Hearts Of Iron IV. You're watching blobs, lines and arrows moving around on a map, yes, but it's a very handsome map, with light melting across the globe as day and night cycle. It's the most attractive Paradox grand strategy game to date, presenting the movements of troops at the strategic level but managing to capture some of the thrill more commonly associated with operational tactical level combat.

As I've only played a little of a game that will demand an enormous amount of time to understand, I'd like to sprinkle my positivity with caution. If strategies don't play out credibly over the long-term, and if the AI can't offer both unexpected interruptions and a decent challenge, the finer details won't matter. But, for now, it's worth noting how fine those details are.

Rather than butting heads as numbers tick down in a box at the side of the screen, HOI IV's armies perform manoeuvres. They stand off and regroup, they bunch together and blitz, and they encircle isolated enemy forces. All of their actions are the result of (hopefully) careful planning, which takes place across several phases. For the sake of flow, I've divided my invasion into five distinct actions, each of which illustrates how the game works, particularly in relation to earlier entries in the series.

The phases are Production, Deployment, Politics, Preparation and Action.

The Production phase took me by surprise. I expected army construction to be far more complex than it is, which left me struggling to understand what my next step should be, sitting with the game paused while I clicked through menus. As it turned out, I'd taken all the necessary steps and just had to set the game in motion to see the fruits of my labour.

Every nation has military and civilian factories, and each of those factories can be added to an order. If I want to build tanks, I attach some military factories to an order for the specific classification of tank I need (unlocked through research). The game tells me how quickly those factories will churn out units and then I can unpause and wait until they're ready to be deployed.

The system of assigning factories cuts down on micromanagement, setting up production lines that continue unless they're interrupted by outside interference or a change of plan. One way in which the game will model different national approaches to the makeup of military forces is through the updating and alteration of those production lines – research a new piece of kit and you'll need to retool your factories to put it into production.

In theory, it's possible to shut down all production while refitting your factories but if you're caught in the middle of a conflict, that means you'll be unable to reinforce units or replenish your forces at the frontline until all of the new gear is in place. Instead, most nations will convert factories a few at a time, keeping the bulk of their lines in action, even if the final product might not be cutting edge. Because factories become increasingly efficient when producing a specific kind of hardware, it could even be worth sticking with seemingly obsolete tech. An outdated army that outnumbers its flashy opponents five to one might burn through manpower quickly, but it could be the right choice in certain circumstances.

Deployment is simple. Units are assigned to a commander and placed into a friendly territory. Before placement they're kept in reserve, moving from the factories to an off-screen pool. Commanders have specific skills, and might be better suited to infantry or tank command, as well as a preferred maximum unit count. They can exceed the displayed upper limit but won't provide any of their bonuses to units beyond their command capacity.

I'm going to skim over politics because I mostly shouted at people. I shouted at Austria and applied influence to encourage everyone to vote for the Fascist Party. I followed that triumph with a quick bout of yelling in the general direction of Poland. Well done, Adam. What a piece of work.

Essentially, when it comes to war, you'll need a reason to declare war. If you're playing as Germany you can probably fulfil a historical goal or two to unlock an Aggression claim on a territory. That was my experience at least. And then I committed the mistake that led to the fall of Berlin. I declared war on Poland BEFORE setting up my armies. Oops.

I'd gone through the Production and Deployment phases just fine but I hadn't set an actual battleplan in place. That was very silly of me because I basically did that daft thing fighting game characters sometimes do, yelling out the name of my special attack right before doing it. I phoned Poland up and shouted Blitzkrieg down the phone and THEN I started moving my tanks into position.

Battleplans are my favourite part of the game because they let me scribble all over the map. Once units have been assigned to a colour-coded group, a front can be painted across national borders, showing where they should fight and attempt to contain the fighting. Arrows can be dragged across the map, describing not only the route that your forces should follow, but also where they should stop their advance and settle into defensive positions.

It all feels natural. Arrows make sense and, as mentioned earlier, the movement of troops is clear. I found the invasion tense and dramatic, as the route back to safety was sealed leaving thousands of infantrymen stranded behind enemy lines. Watching tanks punch through defences in a way that watching numbers whittle down in Crusader Kings II will never be.

I've rolled the Preparation and Action phases together because they feed into one another in a loop. As the situation changes – whether that's because an ally joins the fight on either side or simply because a plan doesn't quite come together – new plans are needed and, theoretically, the cycle of order and action could continue for six years or more. Even though I failed in my bid to conquer Poland, I wanted to see what happened next.

That's the hook. What happens if...? The big surprise is that I didn't get to see any 'what if' scenarios because I was following the historical script almost to the letter (just a little earlier and with inferior planning) and yet I still enjoyed playing. I played the parts of Hearts of Iron IV that I expected to bounce off, as I have in the past, but found them absorbing.

The interface feels slightly clumsy, with the flow from one set of information to the next not always as natural as I'd like, but I never felt as swamped by data as I did in Hearts of Iron II or III. This is a game that wants me to concentrate on painting the map, with the colour of my nation, with stonking great arrows and with glowing battlefronts. There's space for tinkering, in the depths of the research tree and the intricacies of trade, but your nation feels like a machine in need of direction rather than a heap of spare parts in need of a machinist.

I haven't even seen the possible alternate histories the game might create and I already feel like I've lodged a harpoon in its side. Next, I strike at the sun.

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.