Reviews

Hearts of Iron IV Review – Terrible Performance, Great Gameplay

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Paradox
Publisher: Paradox
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

The grand strategy genre is dominated by one name: Paradox. Creators of the newly released Stellaris, the Europa Universalis series and the Crusader Kings games they have established a dedicated following. They also create and publish the Hearts of Iron franchise which takes Paradox’s now well established formula and slaps it into World War II. Now onto its fourth game Paradox have put considerable effort into making this the most accessible title yet without losing any of the depth that fans have come to expect from the company. So what better time for somebody who has never played Hearts of Iron to step forward and try to lead a nation to victory? As a relative Paradox noob I reached out to the company and asked if they were interested in having the game reviewed by somebody who wasn’t familiar with their mechanics nor their famously convoluted interfaces. With my lack of experience surely this would be a perfect test  to see whether Hearts of Iron IV is a little easier to get to grips with? So, if you’re looking for an in-depth article talking about the changes that Paradox have implemented since Hearts of Iron III look elsewhere – I’m sure there will be plenty of awesome guys and gals out there who can tackle that subject with skill, especially on the forums.

Taking place from 1936 or 1939 onwards (the choice is yours) Hearts of Iron 4 puts you in control of a nation of your choosing, letting you guide it through the relatively gentle years before becoming embroiled in World War 2. This quiet period lets you begin constructing the basic infrastructure needed to develop a country and prepare for all out war. Political alliances will be formed, battle plans drawn up, laws changed and research undertaken to further your capabilities. With the historical focus option on the AI will attempt to follow the path of history to the best of their abilities, while you are free to try to change it as you see fit. Want to lead the Soviet Union on a stampede across the world? Can do. Want to take America and form an unholy alliance with Germany? Yup. Ostensibly the goal is to end the game  with as high a score as possible, but really this is a sandbox game where you set your own goals, be it trying to hold off the German offensive as Poland or leading China on the warpath. You pick an objective, fire up a campaign and set to it.

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The game demands that you think of just about everything. Let’s take a naval invasion of Japan, for example. First you need to sort out the divisions you’ll be sending over, so infantry must be trained, perhaps in the form of marines who are more adept at gaining a foothold when storming out of landing craft. Infantry require equipment, though, so under the production tab factories must be assigned to crafting weapons and support gear for troops, otherwise they’ll have to be deployed to the field with old weapons or nothing at all which obviously hugely reduces their combat abilities. If you want your troops to take artillery, medical supplies or anti-tank weapons then those too will need to be produced in large enough quantity. If armored divisions are to be sent on the invasion then tanks will need to be constructed, too, while crews are trained alongside regular infantry divisions, which takes up more manpower. You’ll also need to carefully consider exactly where you’re going to be landing troops because they’ll need to be reinforced and resupplied, so it’s a good idea to assault a city or naval port since that helps hugely. Without supply lines or without enough production to feed armies with the equipment they need in the field you’ll incur substantial penalties and will likely be decimated by the enemy force fighting in their own territory where supply lines are strong. But the fun doesn’t end there because a naval invasion requires you to have naval superiority in every sector of the sea you intend on crossing, so naval yards will have to be assigned to building destroyers, subs and battleships that can be sent out. You’ll also need to consider air support for the landing troops, so close support aircraft will need to be built along with fighters that can hold off the enemy airforce, so that’s more factories which need to be alloted. To field those aircraft requires either an airfield that’s close enough to the front lines for your planes to make the journey, perhaps one you’ve captured from the enemy, or you’ll need to begin work on carriers that can sit off the coast. It’s a lot to manage, but that isn’t the end of things. Chances are you’ll wind up short on resources so trading with other nations will be vital, something which means you have to give up some of your civilian factories and convoys for. On top of that you’ll need to protect your convoys or the enemy can begin attacking them, crippling your military production capabilities. Furthermore pumping out things for one offensive could leave you struggling on another front if you aren’t careful.

Hearts of Iron wants you to think about a lot of things, then. Even if you launch a successful naval invasion there’s even more to do. If you’ve bombed the living hell out of the areas that you’ve gone in and captured, for example, then the infrastructure will be shot which will slow down supplies, so they’ll need to be repaired and possibly upgraded to help feed the front line. As for your airforce you’ll likely want to move that up become the further away planes are from their assigned regions the less effective they become, so you’ll need to either prioritize capturing existing airfields from the enemy or consider building new ones in the territory you’ve acquired. Meanwhile you’ll still need to think about defending your supply lines, keeping production running smoothly so that you’ve got everything you need at hand and work on new plans to assault the enemy,.

Of course all of these things can also be considered when attacking the enemy. Cutting off supply lines across the sea using submarines can leave an enemy struggling to get materials needed for construction to their country or new troops and equipment to their frontlines. Long-distance strategic bombing can decimate their factories, slowing production of weapons, support, tanks and more.  Focusing on wrecking naval bases will slow down the rate at which new ships can be launched, while hammering airfields can give you the edge in air superiority. All of these mechanics reward smart play, and just like the real war victory is achieved by combining everything correctly. Stat bonuses for doing certain things can be huge, so sending in tired divisions against experienced, well-rested troops is practically suicide, but attacking with well equipped infantry against an enemy who has had their supply lines and equipment production ruined is a piece of cake. It’s all about learning how to set up an attack, rather than the attack itself.

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how all this works. Firstly building in your nation is handled across three different levels; state structures include infrastructure, which dictates the speed at which supplies and troops can move around; airfields; radar, and anti-air. Provincial buildings are land and naval forts, and ports. The biggest area you’ll focus on, though, are the slots available in region where you can build up a variety of things. Civilian factories are the most basic and versatile. You’ll need to ensure there’s enough of these to create consumer goods for your people, as indicated by your chosen current economic law. As you move closer to war and modify these laws you’ll need to have less consumer goods being created. These civilian factories are also used when trading with other countries for resources, their production ability given over to the other nation in return for whatever you need, thus while you’ll almost always have to import resources being able to export a lot of stuff will make your nation much stronger. Civilian factories are also used in the construction of military infrastructure. Military factories are obviously used to pump out the many things needed to fuel a war, including weapons, tanks support equipment, planes and artillery. When you enter the production tab you can specify how many factories will be assigned to creating whatever you’ve chosen, with efficiency bonuses being granted for production runs that have been going for a while. Naval factories work the same way except they can only be built on the coast and are used to put together ships. There’s a finite number of slots in every area of your country in which factories can be placed, and you’ll also need to leave room for other things such as synthetic oil, so managing your production capabilities is important. Thankfully civilian factories can be converted over to military use and vice versa, although it does cost.

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The research screen is an impressive beast with no less eleven tabs covering infantry, land doctrine, planes, ships, navy doctrine, air doctrine, support, construction and more. Each of these tabs then offers up a sizable selection of things to choose from as well. Land doctrine, for example, has no less than four trees of its own, although you can only choose to develop one them. These then split off as well, giving you further development options. Planning out your initial strategy and goals is absolutely paramount since focusing your efforts can result in much more powerful armies. There’s no point in wasting time on developing a strong navy if the majority of your battles will be waged across the sprawling landscape of Germany and Russia where infantry and airforce will be key, after all. Your only limitation is that technology is held back by the time period, thus if you want to research anything that’s ahead of its time there will be a penalty applies, although with certain bonuses it’s still possibly to develop tech slightly before it became available in the real world, giving you a potential edge over your enemies.

While researching technology can shape the battlefield by granting access to things like Mustangs for air superiority, advanced support artillery and hulking battleships, the political front lets you shape your nation and your relationships with the rest of the world. Using influence, a spendable resource gained over time, you can alter the laws of your country, enacting harsher recruitment policies that increase manpower or opting to change the economy. You can also assign a variety of people to roles within the government, using influence to hire tank designers, military advisors and more that all provide stat bonuses to a variety of things, such as increasing the speed at which you can research new types of heavy tanks. As for dealing with the other nations you’ve got the expected suite of options for requesting military access, offering guaranteed independence and more. On top of that you can attempt to initiate a coup and then proceed to help support it by delivering weapons, troops, tanks, planes and ships, an offer that can be extended to every country. I have to admit that building up a party’s  status within a country and then using that to launch a coup was one of my favorite things to do in the game. Indeed, in one match I massively weakened Japan by initiating a coup and then helped supply it with weapons. Trapped between a civil war and trying to fight China it nearly brought Japan to its knees, and left them unable to really fend off my naval invasion.

Then there’s your national focus panel which is essentially a collection of political, economic and diplomatic research trees for your nation. Each of the seven major nations within the game gets their own unique nation focus trees, while everybody else has to settle for a generic selection, with the exception of Poland which will be receiving free national focus DLC upon launch. This perhaps indicates that other smaller nations may get unique trees through DLC in the future. If you’re playing as Japan, for example, you choose to research the Chinese bridge incident which could allow you to incite war with your neighbor, and you can even acquire the ability to conduct kamikaze attacks against enemy ships. America can issue war bonds if certain requirements are met, or focus on making their carriers more powerful and useful. These all take 70-days of in-game time to research and cuts your influence gain by half in the process. They are also typically heavily historically influenced, thus Japan has a branch that drives them toward war with America due to their oil supplies being cut off.

If you’re wondering why you have to drive countries toward war rather than just declaring war and rampaging across their borders, a wargoal is always needed before being able to declare war officially, and usually just boils down to wanting territory. However, ideological alignments can affect this, thus democratic countries can’t declare war against other democracies and can’t fight anybody who hasn’t increase world tension by doing iffy things. On the opposite end of the spectrum fascist countries have almost no restrictions when it comes to wargoals, making it much easier to be power-mongering bastards.

Speaking of attacking the enemy this can be done by picking out some divisions and clicking on a sector to have them launch an assault, but the game really wants you to use its planning tools for that authentic feel. Firstly divisions need to be assigned to a commander who can take control of them. First you establish a defense line where your troops will start. This is typically a border to another country, but not always. You can also manually paint defensive lines in order to assign specific divisions to smaller areas if you wish, instead of just clicking on a border and letting the AI automatically distribute your army. This lets you do things like place your armored divisions in a specific area, ready to push through to an important city, for example. By clicking on the offensive line command you can then draw a line where you want your divisions to end up, at which point when you hit the button to launch your plan they’ll attempt to advance toward their intended goal, capturing territory as they go. You can drawn multiple lines for an army, thus letting you create more complex plans and execute specific attacks. Because you can pause the game at any time and launch a string of commands at the touch of a button Hearts of Iron lets you build up multiple order across numerous commanders before executing the entire plan, making it quite easy to properly co-ordinate. Substantial stat bonuses are granted for not only giving your troops time to rest up, get organised and hand supplies, but also for giving the plan time to be properly developed. While you can just paint a line and have everyone attack, by drawing up a plan and then waiting you’ll be given a sizable bonus. This encourages you to plan out moves in advance rather than on the fly. However, one small flaw is how it’s possible to draw up an offensive plan and simply never use it in order to gain the associated bonuses which can also help in defending territory. The bonuses should only become activate once the attack begins.

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The airforce and navy are controlled slightly different from regular divisions. Rather than drawing up offensive plans  naval fleets are assigned to sectors of the map and given missions to carry out, such as raiding convoys, patrolling or going on search and destroy rampages. Likewise planes are given specific areas to operate where they can fight for superiority, bomb enemy factories or provide close support for ground troops. Both naval and aerial missions are affected by a number of factors that increase or reduce their efficiency.

All of these units can be modified as you go along. Using the division designer you can increase the size of a division, add varying types of support such as field hospitals, recon units and artillery, and even change the equipment their using so that they get the best of the best, or the worst of the worst. The detailed array of stats at the side of the screen will change in real-time to reflect the changes you’re making. Aircraft and naval vessels can also be upgraded, thus bombers can have their range increased and carriers can have their decks bolstered to carry more planes into battle. All of this requires points to be spent that are earned when units engage in combat, thus to improve your marines your armies need to acquire some actual combat experience first.

Paradox’s A.I. is somewhat well known for being less than impressive, and that holds true here. The ability to plan out attacks in details is somewhat tarnished when allies are introduced into the mix who’ll frequently just do their own thing, and there’s no way of working directly with them to form more effective plans. As for the enemy they seem to struggle to handle multiple fronts. They also don’t put up much fight when it comes to naval or air superiority. Some work is needed here.

From a performance perspective the game gets progressively worse as matches stretch on. Once the war starts proper the game seems to find it difficult to keep up with everything that’s going on, a problem that only gets worse over time. The framerate would drop below 20 when zooming in to get a better perspective on the tactical situation, and nothing I did seemed to remedy it. Even panning across the map when fully zoomed out resulted in serious juddering. Running an AMD FX-8350 I don’t have the most processing clout, but it should be able to handle Hearts of Iron without a problem. Indeed, my system is vastly superior to the recommended specifications, making this dire performance more frustrating. I’m going to be watching the forums carefully to see if anyone else is struggling to maintain a smooth framerate after launch. For now, though, from my experiences the game needs some major patching to get it up to par. Such huge framerate drops aren’t acceptable in a title that simply isn’t very demanding. It’s just a good thing that as a grand strategy Hearts of Iron can still be played even with a horrible framerate.

There are other problems, too, like divisions sometimes ignoring orders or failing to be assigned to plans You might hit the button to execute a plan, only for the entire army to do nothing. I also noted that when planning a naval invasion I’d often be told that one or more divisions were still preparing, yet no amount of time would fix this. They would just sit like that forever. Naval invasion fleets would sometimes turn around for no apparent reason, too. Meanwhile divisions wouldn’t travel to the start point for a naval invasion, and would instead just sit around.

With that out of the way we come back to the question I began with; just how hard is Hearts of Iron IV to play? The interface is what presents the game’s biggest hurdles to overcome. There’s a lot of information to be conveyed about a variety of subjects, and to be entirely fair it’s impressive that the UI isn’t more cluttered than it is. Having said that handling the many menus is still the biggest challenge within Hearts of Iron. Finding certain bits of information and even simply directing armies isn’t as intuitive or as straightforward as most strategy games, so there’s certainly a learning curve. However, within an hour or two you’ll be much more comfortable in controlling armies and finding the information you need to make informed decisions at a quick pace, and there’s always the pause button in case you get complete stuck and can’t figure out what’s gone wrong with supply lines or why divisions don’t seem to be done anything. The tutorial that tries to get you through all of this is frankly poor, and you’ll be much better off heading to Youtube and watching some of the tutorial videos, or Paradox’s World War Wensday series. Once you’ve plumbed the depths of the interface the game’s mechanical depth will slowly but surely absorb you. Despite being a noob I didn’t feel like it was overly difficult to learn some of the basic tenants behind managing a nation and waging war. At the same time becoming familiar with these elements was very satisfying because the game doesn’t go out of its way to show you everything. You need to learn through experience, especially if you want to tackle the multiplayer where Paradox veterans will be read to whoop ass. Sadly I wasn’t able to test multiplayer properly before launch, although for my own ego that’s probably a good thing. The way the game is built allows you to either take a broader overview using the planning tools, or micromanage battles depending on your chosen style.

What impresses me the most is just how well everything feels like it ties together. In most strategy games actually playing tactically often doesn’t feel as though it is making as much of a difference as it should, but in Hearts of Iron IV learning how to handle every aspect of an assault leads to big rewards. Failure to manage supplies, reinforcements or to properly advance can lead to a massive disadvantage. You always have to consider supporting troops with airpower and giving them time to rest up before launching a new attack. On the easiest level I did quite well with my first campaign, and by time I was half-way through my second with the difficulty ramped up I was much more adept at managing multi-staged attacks and ensuring my military economy was running smoothly, pumping out the planes, ships, tanks, supplies and troops needed to fuel my offensive. Once the third campaign came around I was learning to more greatly appreciate the research trees and how important it is to understand WHEN to research to something. I was developing long-term plans and using the national focus and research trees to better implement it. It was fair to say that by this point I was hooked.

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And that makes the shoddy performance all the more infuriating. Due to the games nature you can muddle through even with a low framerate, but it stilled heavily damaged the experience for me. The A.I. also seems to need work because it has trouble handling large wars on multiple fronts and was surprisingly easy to defeat at times. It seemed particularly willing to let me asset naval and aerial superiority with minimal resistance.

It seems like Paradox have tried hard to make their long-running franchise more accessible to new players, but despite their efforts this is still a tricky title to get to grips with. The way things are controlled and the interface in general take a while to really feel second-nature. IN other words you have to be willing to devote considerable time to Hearts of Iron IV, because once controlling troops and laying down plans becomes natural the depth of the gameplay comes into focus. There are strategy games out there that offer more complexity and depth, certainly, but not many. This is for gamers who are looking for something that needs commitment, and rewards that commitment. Of course I’m a relative noob to Paradox’s grand strategy games, so I’m coming in with an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps prior entries in the series have been better, offering more depth and strategic option. Maybe the die-hards are right and Paradox have mistaken dumbing down for accessibility, although it doesn’t feel like it to me. Indeed, they feel like one of the few companies that understand accessibility doesn’t mean streamlining systems or removing things entirely, but rather it just means learning how communicate mechanics and ideas in a clearer, easier to understand manner through tutorials and the interface.  So from this newcomers perspective Hearts of Iron IV is incredibly engrossing. Yet, I can’t stick a recommended sticker at the bottom of this review, not with that crappy performance holding it back. For now it’s only a purchase if you’re a big strategy fan. Once a patch or two hits and gets everything smoothed out this will be an easy recommendation.

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