Hearts of Iron IV was released in 2016 as the latest entry in Paradox Interactive’s long-running Hearts of Iron series of grand strategy games. Continuing the tradition of its predecessors, the fourth title brings players the full scope of the brewing world at war, with 1936 and 1939 scenario start dates. Players can take the roll of any existing nation on earth at the time, and must manage resources, industry, politics, the development of new technologies, and the organization and deployment of their armed forces as the globe erupts in war.
As with its more immediate predecessors, Hearts of Iron IV, or HOI IV as it is often abbreviated, continues to present Paradox’s traditional grand strategy model with many changes to the nuances of combat and diplomacy from previous titles. A new resource was added, political power, that enabled each nation to make changes to its government and laws, engage in direct and indirect political maneuvering, and research national focuses. Political power accrues at a base amount, with modifiers adding or subtracting to the daily gain as appropriate. There is no penalty for running out of political power, but if the player is reduced to a negative gain of power they will be unable to continue developing focuses.
The national focus tree is perhaps HOI IV’s biggest addition to the series. Instead of scripted events guiding the course of historic events and developments, each nation now has a focus tree that contains numerous political choices that initiate diplomatic actions, develop countries, and lead to war. Historical events such as the Anschluss of Austria appear as part of a chain of focuses that guide the historic development of the Third Reich, culminating in war with France and England. Most nations utilize a generic focus tree which provides industrial development, military research, and the option to make a nation communist, democratic, or fascist. The great powers come with unique, highly developed focus trees, and with expansions more of the minor nations such as Australia and Romania gain their own special focus trees as well.
In past titles, players were concerned primarily with the assembling of armies and navies, who led them, and how they were utilized in individual battles. For this latest release a slew of detailed mechanics now define the operating parameters for division performance in the field. Divisions are made using templates which automatically draw the appropriate equipment from the national stockpile during training. Combat width, which increases or decreases based on the number of battalions a template requires, determines the operational viability of a specific template. If a template’s width is too high it will be unable to participate in most battles; if it is too low it runs the risk of being overwhelmed by larger opposing divisions.
The division template and how it interacts with the numerous combat mechanics is perhaps the most confusing and arbitrary part of HOI IV, and a hallmark of the game’s overall style. While the template is easy to learn and use, the reasons for its performance on the field are cryptic and at times illogical. Numerous guides exist online regarding appropriate templates for various widths and purposes, but performance of these templates in game varies heavily and the player is often at a loss to understand why a supposedly advanced template design is failing to overpower inferior combat formations.
This complexity permeates most aspects of the game and is certainly prevalent in the military side. The use interface serves perfectly well at informing the player about their ships, planes, and combat formations. However it’s over-reliance on symbols and parlance leaves most new players confused as to what any of the unit commands actually do. This level of complexity is more subtle in the economic and diplomatic sections, where symbols are more easily decrypted and effects are more basic. Yet nuances remain, with most players finding certain political actions restricted or even inaccessible depending on a variety of factors relating to their own nation as well as the world in general.
Of course, in typical Paradox fashion, all this complexity doesn’t exist without a way to subtly manipulate it. The division template designer allows for almost any combination of units to be applied as long as the player has enough army experience to afford it. Factories can continue producing obsolete equipment, and even when going the historical focus route players don’t have to make alliances or enemies with the traditional targets. Admirals and generals can be swapped at will, with a short travel delay, and air wings can have any type or number of planes assigned to them.
The user interface features a level of customization as well. Players can assign specific symbols to division templates allowing them to be identified at a glance. Ships, air wings, and armies can be renamed and the color and symbol utilized by each army can be modified for distinctive recognition. Notifications also crowd the top of the screen, highlighting production, diplomacy, or other areas that might need to be addressed. Clicking on each notification brings up the relevant screen and, although not precisely perfect, allows for quick examination of any deficiencies.
HOI IV goes a long way in telling the player what they can and should do. Sadly, it is also quite adept at telling the player what they cannot do. The default settings for a standard game are designed to funnel the normally free-flowing mechanics into the more predictable historical setting of World War II. Diplomatic actions, economic and military laws, and even national leaders are all restricted by a complex web of ideology, world tension, and military parameters. These cannot be circumvented, and the passage of game time has been observed to be the only true cure. Most nations have at least three years of in-game time to adjust themselves, but ambitious players will find the limitations on their goals frustrating and sometimes completely obstructive. It is highly recommended that players familiar with the basic mechanics adjust their game’s diplomatic and ideological settings to ensure the maximum number of options are available.
At its heart, HOI IV is a WWII simulator to the core. Its alternate paths and options are numerous and extensively developed, but prospective players should approach the game with the foremost notion that they will be playing through historical WWII. With this mindset, the restrictions and difficulties that may arise will seem more flavorful and less belligerent, allowing gamers to gradually ease into the notion that events need not follow a set pattern. Coming to HOI IV with the idea of immediately turning history around may lead to substantial disappointment that can overshadow the elements of the game that are actually done well, such as the division template designer and the nature of focus trees as player-driven events.
Grand strategy is a niche genre for a reason, and players may surprise themselves by finding that they like, or dislike, this style of play when it may have a great deal of, or no, relation to their preferred genre. Anyone that enjoys nation building and logistical organization will fit right into HOI IV and shouldn’t hesitate to try the game out. The new content from the many DLCs might seem overwhelming, but it helps in the Hearts of Iron series to start at the end of development to avoid learning strategies that are rendered obsolete by later updates. Of course, the game is perfectly playable with any DLC combination and is overall reasonably priced. Most importantly, prospective gamers should remember that failure is part of the learning in this game, and quite often the thrill of a hard won victory in the greatest conflict in human history is worth the harsh learning experiences required to achieve it.