Sunday, August 09, 2009

Hearts of Iron 3 Review

Hearts of Iron 3, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Quality interface with structured access to units, optional computer control of entire theaters, custom division design, instantaneous bonuses from enacted laws, comprehensive technology tree with nation-specific bonuses, reduced production and research time for commonly created units, detailed game map, advanced logistics and supply model, useful specific naval and air orders, realistic weather system, robust yet streamlined enemy intelligence options, multiplayer, easy to modify
The Not So Good: Excessively slow and laggy game performance, peacetime is rather boring, starting dates restricted to key events, complexity may scare off more timid novices
What say you? Comprehensive yet user friendly, significant interface upgrades and optional AI automation makes this a more accessible grand strategy title: 7/8

I'll be frank (you can choose any name you would like for yourself): I never really liked the Hearts of Iron series. It was too overwhelming, with tons of units strewn over a huge map (you know, the Earth). The amount of micromanagement required to put together a decent attack was above and beyond my level of comprehension. Did I mention there were too many freakin' units? Anyway, the lessons learned in personal-favorite Europa Universalis III have migrated their way over to World War II in the form of Hearts of Iron 3. New features include an enhanced interface, including the useful outliner, and optional automation of entire theaters of units, just in case you want to ignore the Pacific Ocean (what has it done for me lately?). Do these changes make the game more approachable to a broader audience?

As with Europa Universalis III, Hearts of Iron 3 makes the transition to 3-D graphics with average results. The map terrain is decent enough and the animated units look fine though a bit stiff. I suspect most people will be playing using the NATO counters anyway, so the simplistic nature of the 3-D models aren't that much of an issue. There is a good variety in nation-specific textures, though. Combat effects are non-existent, but you can imagine the chaos of battle based off the sound design. Fitting background music accompanies the sounds of war. The most significant improvement in the realm of graphics is the introduction of a lot of the interface innovations Europa Universalis III brought to the table, most significantly the outliner. This listing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen displays all of your units in their order of battle hierarchy; you can expand the list much like a file browser to see how units are organized. It's a great system and makes controlling a huge army actually possible. You are also given alerts (like not using all of your industrial capacity) and icons diplomatic offers. Hearts of Iron 3 also has an impressive array of map display modes, from weather to supply and infrastructure. The presentation is not all wine and roses, however, as the game's performance leaves a lot to be desired. During moments of heavy combat, the game slows down considerably; this isn't a huge issue, except that there is significant lag as you navigate around the map. One moment you will be scrolling through Greece and the next you are near Finland. This extends to performing and in-game actions, like orders and trades and the like. It can get quite annoying. I have also experienced a handful of lock-ups at random times during play, usually right after a major military victory yet right before I save my progress. Overall, nothing in Hearts of Iron 3 is surprising in terms of the visuals, delivering what you would expect in the next entry for this grand strategy series.

Hearts of Iron 3 is a real-time grand strategy game that takes place during World War II (also known as World War I Was Too Much Fun, So Let's Do It Again). You are given seven starting dates of importance to choose from between 1936 and 1944. They are not evenly distributed, as I would like to have something in 1937 in order to skip some of the initial build-up boredom. The game map has an impressive level of detail with over 10,000 land provinces all over the Earth. Included in this disturbing attention to realism are all the orders of battles for each country, which are seemingly realistic from my novice historical perspective. Hearts of Iron 3 also has an impressive weathter system with fronts that move across the continents and appropriate temperature ranges for each season in every province. In addition to single player action against the AI, you can go online using Paradox's metaserver and find others to play nicely with. I'm not one that has enough spare time to join and maintain an online match, but it's nice the feature is there for those with high interest in the game. Hearts of Iron 3 also comes with a suite of non-interactive tutorials that play out like slide shows, narrated (in text only) by a certain German leader. They cover the basics of the game, but you are better off reading the manual and strategy guide in order to figure out what exactly is going on (everybody loves reading!). The game has several levels of difficult that grants economic penalties on you or the AI in order to adjust your competitiveness. Like other Paradox games, Hearts of Iron 3 is easily modified by making adjustments to the text files; one suspects mods will appear shortly.

Hearts of Iron 3 features three main sides with differing political ideologies: the Axis, the Allies, and the Comintern. The side with the most victory points when time runs out “wins,” although in war everyone loses. Except for the winners. They win. Nations will tend to drift towards a particular faction, and a triangle shows the current status of all countries, though it tends to get a bit crowded. Diplomacy is mainly used to trade for resources, as most (if not all) nations have at least one resource they are lacking. All resources are traded for money, rather than resource-for-resource; the interface does a good job letting you filter countries by faction and sort them according to resource surplus or deficit. You are also given a number of political actions, from declaring war to asking for transit rights and guaranteeing independence. The diplomatic options aren't terribly deep, but provide decent enough choices to keep your economy humming along.

All of those precious resources (energy, metal, rare materials, and oil) are used to produce industrial capacity, the catch-all value for making things: upgrades, reinforcements, supplies, new units, and consumer goods. Your industrial capacity is determined by the number of factories contained in your provinces, in addition to being altered by laws and cabinet members. Most of your industrial capacity will be used to produce and supply military units, though industrial capacity can also be used to upgrade buildings in your provinces, from airbases to roads to rocket research.. Hearts of Iron 3 operates at the division level, and you can customize your divisions to consist of two to five (usually four) brigades of your choosing. This lets you put your own personal touch on your military composition instead of being limited to generic “infantry” and “armored” divisions. You can construct divisions to counter enemy units more precisely. Land units include tanks, motorized infantry, marines, tank destroyers, artillery, and paratroopers. Air forces consist of tactical bombers and carrier air groups, while naval battles will feature battleships, cruisers, and carriers. The amount of industrial capacity dedicated to each aspect of your production is adjusted using sliders; you can right-click to instantly lock the slider to the level of demand, although there is no way of having it always follow demand, as supplies, upgrades, and reinforcement levels annoyingly adjust on a daily basis.

Technology and research has gotten a slight overhaul since Hearts of Iron II. Gone are the neat companies in favor of more generic but more intuitive theory and practical ratings. Each country receives a research bonus in fields they were historically adept in, and bonuses are increased further by producing and researching units of a particular type. The technology tree is comprehensive, covering infantry, armor, capital ships, bombers, industry upgrades, and theoretical developments. This comprehensive nature really lets you customize the attributes of your units, like choosing better armor over faster engines; it's a neat system. It would be nice to have a filter system to show research options that use specific bonuses, so you can dedicate your time on worthwhile tasks. You do feel overwhelmed in the beginning, trying to choose the most appropriate techs for your country. Sliders are again used here to distribute your knowledge towards research, officers for headquarters units, espionage, and diplomacy.

One person does not run a government by themselves, and you are not alone in Hearts if Iron 3. You are given a suite of ministers to form a cabinet, each of whom give small bonuses (both positive and negative) to various aspects of your country. You can tailor your overall strategy here by choosing advisers that share your views. Also, you can invoke laws that can be instantaneously changed, unlike the sliders of past versions that could only be altered every so often. This is a better system that allows you to react to an attack more quickly. You can also set how to deal with invaded countries, rebels, and governments in exile. Spies are also an important aspect of the game, as intelligence can provide information on enemy troops and technology levels. You can also disrupt production and research in rival countries. I'm tellin' y'all: it's sabotage! Spies can also be used domestically to counter enemy spies and support political parties. Using spies is straightforward: much like the merchants of Europa Universalis III, you set priority levels for each nation and let the game take care of the rest.

Hearts of Iron 3 features a very structured order of battle. Used in conjunction with the outliner, it's very easy to keep a high level of organization. The smallest unit is the brigade, which are organized into divisions, the smallest directly controllable unit. From there, it goes up to corps, armies, groups, and theatres. Each unit is directed by a commander that has traits that affect the unit's effectiveness. Ordering units around can be as simple box-selecting units and right-clicking, or you can get more specific by coordinating arrival times. It's somewhat surprising (and initially confusing for me) that issuing a command to a headquarters unit does not automatically issue the same order to subordinates. In order to prevent super-stacks of units, each province can only support a certain “width” of troops; the remainder are kept in reserve. This makes attacking from multiple territories instead of a single one is the more desired strategy. Orders for air and naval units are more varied: convoy raids, interdiction, air superiority, patrol, invade. Giving commands to air units is kind of neat, as you can define a zone or cone of operation.

Probably the most significant addition that Hearts of Iron 3 brings is the ability to put units under AI control, directed by objectives. You can put any unit under AI control, a very helpful feature when you are fighting a multi-front war simultaneously. You issue a stance (prepare, defensive, offensive, and blitz) and province objectives to the HQ unit and let the AI do the rest. The commander will ask for units in order to accomplish their tasks, although they tend to ask for a lot of air and naval units they don't actually need. Still, I found the feature to be quite useful and the AI to follow your orders well and within reason. It also never felt like I was just playing half a nation, since you can specify objectives and not just have the computer completely take over. Supplies are automated: just make sure there is a port nearby with convoys taking precious supplies to and fro. You can target convoys with submarines (or other ships) or escort ones as well; it's a neat game-within-the-game.

I did not notice any weird behavior with the AI, such as questionable diplomatic decisions or insane military operations. In fact, I was almost impressed by some of the unpredictable moves the AI made, such as a British amphibious assault on Germany during the invasion of Poland, or Italy taking over France before Germany had the chance. This less scripted nature of Hearts of Iron 3 makes things much less predictable: you can't rely on things happening exactly on their historic date and prepare accordingly in advance. There aren't many random events to worry about, though, and the lack of missions (a feature of the last expansion of Europa Universalis III) makes peacetime really boring. Since your standing army is provided, there isn't much to do other than research and minor production. Getting missions, like improving relations with a certain nation or researching a particular technology, would make this time more interesting. Maybe missions are being held for an expansion, but in the mean time, it's war or bust.

Finally, Hearts of Iron 3 has become playable for a range of experience levels. This is due in large part to the interface features imported from Europa Universalis III working with the optional AI control of troops, anywhere from a single division up to an entire theater. You aren't completely giving up control, however, as you can specify objective locations and the AI will follow them to the best of their ability. In addition, the AI commanders provide troop requests to make leaving an entire front alone a viable choice. The game simulates the entire Second World War, although more start dates would be welcome. Multiplayer action is included for those who are interested, and the game is easily modified (and most likely will be in the near future). Allowing users to customize their divisions gives you the strategic flexibility to counter any enemy plan. Units are organized in an easily accessible order or battle, and restricting the size of stacks in a single province results in a more realistic-looking front. Ordering units is straightforward, from simple move commands to more complex (but still easy to execute) convoy raids or air interdiction. Supplies are automated as well, but you are able to attack (and escort) precious trade routes at sea. Sliders for distributing production and research assets, along with laws and cabinet members, allows you to tweak the direction of your superior nation, although you cannot automate the sliders to always meet demand. I like how research and production is faster for units you produce more often, and research bonuses are granted for specific nations to produce more historically accurate results (there were totally fleets of German aircraft carriers!). Countries are assigned priorities for automated spies, an important aspect of the game that can give very useful information. The multifaceted AI provides plausible competition. When you are not actively shooting foreigners, Hearts of Iron 3 can get on the boring side, as you must occupy your time with diplomacy, trade agreements, and limited production. Semi-random events don't happen often enough to give you something to do, and missing the missions from Europa Universalis III means there is no real point of playing a nation too long before they enter the conflict. Luckily, the peace doesn't last for long. The game also suffers performance issues during heavy combat, which is most of the time. Still, Hearts of Iron 3 retains the depth of its predecessors, but allows less experienced players to automate tasks to keep large empires operating smoothly. It is certainly more accessible than scary-complex strategy games, and the game's depth and engrossing gameplay can now be enjoyed by a larger crowd.