Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday Review

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Extremely in-depth, game can automate a lot of menial tasks, good number of military-only scenarios (for violent people)
The Not So Good: Significant learning curve, overwhelming and hectic during war
What say you? A stand-alone expansion for hardcore strategy gamers who want a comprehensive review of World War II: 6/8

There hasn’t been a more simulated war than World War II. From movies to video games, it seems that people everywhere love to cover the last true global conflict (unless you count the Battle of the Network Stars). Personally, I’ve had enough with the whole World War II thing: essentially everything that can be done with this particular event has been. Of course, you could always take a previously-existing game and make a couple of small changes to it, and that’s what’s been done with Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday. What would have happened if the Cold War had escalated into a worldwide event, full of nuclear goodness? That’s the question posed by the latest iteration of the Europa Universalis lineage, which takes the original Hearts of Iron II and adds a couple of scenarios and enhancements, all for a budget price. Will this be enough to entice owners to make the switch? Is the game still really freakin’ hard? Why do fools fall in love? Have Scientologists taken over Katie Holmes’s brain? Will this string of unrelated questions ever end?

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday still uses a modified Europa Universalis engine, which displays the game world on a 2-D map. This engine looked outdated when it was released in 2000, so it’s not surprising that Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday doesn’t hold its own against other titles in 2006. I think the EU engine has seen its last legs, and needs upgrades in several areas. The engine struggles to contain all of the data Doomsday offers to the player, and the result is a complicated array of different map overlays and multiple pages of statistics. Doomsday tries its best to have an easy to navigate user interface, but there’s just too much information that needs to be relayed to the user. Now, we can have map-based games that look good and are easy to navigate, such as Birth of America. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday feels too much like an automated board game and not a realistic or compelling wargame. The sound is much the same, offering only the basic sound effects surrounded by the trademark high quality background music (a staple in EU-based games). The EU engine is definitely showing its age, resulting in a game that looks and sounds like it was made years ago.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday has some additional features over the original game resulting from extending the game time line to 1953. This brings about an expanded technology tree to include helicopters and tactical nukes, spying, a World War III campaign, and a scenario editor. There is a large number of scenarios in the game; in addition to altering the starting year of the main campaign (1936, 38, 39, 41, 44, or 45), there are military-oriented missions covering things such as the invasion of Japan, battles in North Africa, or the much-touted conflict between Argentina and Brazil. A lot of these stand-alone missions are pure military conflicts, offering none of the research, manufacturing, or economic trappings the full campaign does. In this aspect, the game plays much like Birth of America (which is all military), although Birth of America does the military-only thing a lot better. The game can be played both against the AI and online: the in-game matchmaking makes joining games very easy. There are also tutorials available for new players; the tutorials cover a lot of the concepts found in the game, but leaves some key parts of Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday out, so reading the manual is a must. The AI you’ll be playing against can be set to one of five difficulty levels; this just gives the AI positive or negative bonuses (cheaters!), instead of making them smarter or dumber like in Galactic Civilizations II. The AI plays OK, but not at the high level you’d expect for a game that’s essentially been in development since 2000 and has been released several times over.

The goal in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is to help lead your alliance (the Allies, Axis, or Comintern) to the most victory points through diplomacy and/or (usually and) military conquest. Although you can choose to lead any of the game’s 80 or so countries, it really only pays to play as a member of one of these pre-set alliances, unless you plan to join one of them later. In order to run an efficient nation, you need to produce goods, and this is done through acquiring natural resources, either by owning land that contain these resources, or trading with other countries. There are four categories of natural resources (energy, metal, rare, and oil); the first three of these are used to produce industrial capacity, and oil is used by mechanical units to move and generally remain operational. The industrial capacity is a measure of your country’s ability to manufacture goods, which depends on the number of factories contained within your borders. You can produce a number of things with your industrial capacity: new military units, ammunition, supplies, upgrades, and consumer goods to make the people happy. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday includes an interesting concept of a “gearing bonus:” if you produce the same unit multiple times, each successive time, it’s completed faster. This is a cool concept that makes sense: people will get better at producing a certain unit the more times they practice it. Of course, the downside is that your military may become skewed towards certain units, but therein lies the strategy. You can also convert surplus industrial capacity to money to fund research. You can move sliders around to distribute the industrial capacity how you wish (the game indicated the minimum levels needs to remain at smooth levels of operation) or have the game do it for you. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday tries to take the abstract concept of production and make it a concrete game component, and overall it succeeds: the economic model is fairly easy to understand and a definite cause and effect can be seen in producing goods. You’re normally given a large amount of surplus resources at the beginning of the game so that you can rectify shortcomings in natural resources before your country grinds to a halt. As long as you don’t outpace your production, you’ll be in good shape, and the best players will be able to balance the different aspects of the economic model.

Even though you are the omnipotent leader of your country, you must still deal with government. You can set a number of domestic policies for your country that give bonuses in different areas (such as the economy, production, or combat). The policies include your government type, political leaning, amount of citizen and economic freedom, and level of isolationism. Each country has initial settings that are indicative of their overall beliefs in real life, but these can be changed over time to fit your strategy. You can also hire different members of your cabinet (head of state, head of government, foreign minister, security, military intelligence, chief of staff, and others) that can provide additional bonuses. Even if you do not subscribe to a democratic form of government, you still must worry about the people: if they don’t agree with your policies, the level of dissent grows: your troops fight more poorly and industrial capacity decreases, and eventually a rebel army can try to fight for independence. This can be offset by keeping military units present in place or dedicating a larger percentage of your industrial capacity to consumer goods. You must also deal with other countries through diplomacy. Each country has a relationship towards you (on a numerical and color-coded scale) and changes according to your decisions. There is a whole host of different diplomatic options, such as sending expeditionary forces, signing a non-aggression pact, granting military access, declaring war, and suing for peace. Peace agreements can have a number of different stipulations, such as territory demands, military disarmament, or full annexation. The AI does a fair job in negotiations; I’d like to see a better indication of what the AI would accept in a trade, like in Galactic Civilizations II. The AI sometimes is hesitant to accept some arrangements unless relations are really good, so making an alliance other than the three included in the game is sometimes difficult. You can also trade resources, cash, goods, research, or have the computer handle all of this tedious stuff.

New to Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is intelligence, namely sending spies to other countries to monitor what’s going on. Spies can be used to steal research, assassinate a minister, cause a coup, influence the global opinion against a nation, sabotage research, raise dissent, or create partisans (rebels). Spies can also be “asleep” or “awake:” active spies provide better information and results, but are more likely to be detected and “removed” by the opposition. The technology tree has also been expanded. I really like how technology is done in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday. You can use several different research teams, each of which has an area of expertise that speeds up research in that particular area. For example, Messerschmitt is really good at airplanes, so assigning them research in aircraft design will produce faster results. Not only is it fun to use historically accurate companies to conduct your research, but it results in some interesting strategic decisions based on your available research teams.

Of course, researching all of these new, exciting, and deadly weapons aren’t any good if you don’t use them. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday features all of the units made famous by World War II. There are some specialized units (such as garrisons, paratroopers, and marines) that are especially good at certain tasks. The combat uses a “movement is attack” model: battles begin as soon as a unit begins moving towards an enemy territory containing bad guys. This may not be totally realistic (it assumes that opposing forces will automatically find each other the instant combat ensues), but it does result in allowing units located in adjacent territories to support an attack: this results in battles that become more varied than one stack vs. another stack, and promotes good planning on the part of the aggressor. Attacking enemy territory is almost too complicated: you can assign a particular task and a specific time to attack so that invasions can be coordinated. This is almost too much detail for a game of this scale: should I be concerned whether an army attacks at 8:00 or 9:00? It adds an extra step to the equation that makes combat more complicated that it needs to be. Defending territory can be made easier by adding stationary emplacements such as bunkers, minefields, trenches, and anti-aircraft guns.

Each of your units has a level of organization that determines their ability to respond to orders. This reduces as combat becomes more intense, but can be recovered by resting units. This prevents moving halfway around the world with a powerful stack of units. The infrastructure (roads and rails) of the game also inhibits how large a stack can be: you can’t send all the troops of the German army along the same road at the same time, you know. Supplies in the game are transported automatically, or can be done manually by boats or through the air. The weather and terrain can also affect operations: attacking during nighttime is a bad idea, and mountains provide bonuses for the defender. Although most of the game will be played with land units (at least in Europe), you can have air and naval units engage in combat. This is largely automated: you just give an area to patrol, and the unit does the rest on its own. You can give more specific instructions on what to do, such as interdiction (slowing enemy movement), naval combat patrols, shore bombardments, amphibious assaults, maintaining air superiority, or cratering runways.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday takes place in real time, although I feel the game is better suited for a turn-based affair, especially with the amount of data you need to crunch. You’ll end up pausing the game a lot: this results in essentially a turn-based game, so why not have the game do it automatically by default? The pace of the game is very erractic: you’ll end up having large period of time with not much to do, broken up with hectic times of combat. During combat, the screen will become a flutter of airplanes flying in and then disappearing; it’s hard to follow what’s going on without slowing down the game to a snail’s pace. I found the real-time gameplay to be more a hindrance than a benefit. I suppose it’s trying to portray the frenzied nature of war, but it doesn’t make for a completely enjoyable game experience. The game engine was really more suited for the slower-paced combat of Europa Universalis, not the quick-strike methods of fast-moving machines found in World War II.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday ended up being pretty much what I had expected: an all-inclusive game geared towards veteran players filled with loads of information that’s a little too much to handle in real time. The game features pretty much everything you’d ever want from a grand strategy game covering World War II: a good number of scenarios, multiplayer, advanced economics and production, interesting research, tons of units, specific combat options, diplomacy, espionage, and trade. Of course, the problem with having all these options is that it makes the game cumbersome at times: keeping tabs on all of these aspects of your empire is hard work, especially in real time. The game can run some of these areas automatically, but the game is still a lot to deal with. Also, Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is very similar to the other titles in the series (Hearts of Iron I and II, Victoria, Europa Universalis I and II, Crusader Kings, among others) so we’ve pretty much played this game out. I’m hoping this is the last game in the World War II series of the Europa Universalis engine, as I can’t see there being much more areas that haven’t been addressed. Strategy veterans will find everything they’d expect in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday, while new players and those looking for a more military-inclined affair might want to check out other titles.