The Grandest Grand Strategy
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Hearts of Iron III is a marvelous and highly complex grand strategy game that pushes the limits of what most people (and their computers) can handle. Master this game, and you have earned the title of supreme armchair general.
Every time a Hearts of Iron game comes out, it adds a bit more complexity to the field. While this will enthrall hardcore strategy gamers like myself, it moves the series father and farther away from anyone remotely like a casual gamer. HOI3 is a lot like the other games in the series in that there is a huge learning curve that might take days or even weeks to mount, but has even more rewards on the other side. I can't stress enough that it's worth it on the other side of that curve, but most people will probably see the steepness of the challenge and surrender. Just a warning before we begin.
For those of you who have played Hearts and Hearts II, the main difference here from the last game is the importance of the diplomacy interface and shifting military commands from a tactical down to a more operational level. Those are the two biggest changes anyway. There are others which I will cover, but if you are looking for the big bullet points, those are it.
The change in diplomacy is more than welcome. Even with Hearts II, the whole diplomacy thing was a bit of an afterthought. You could pretty much ignore it and nothing too bad would happen. Also, it seemed impossible in previous games to do very much in terms of actually changing history with the diplomacy menu. But in HOI3, that has changed. Anything can happen now, and countries are a lot more open in terms of accepting proposals that benefit them, even if they also benefit you. Before, they were more closed-minded. Even if you gave them a lot, they would still turn you down because historically they were supposed to hate you, or because the same proposal would benefit you in some small way. Now, you can truly change the world by getting Russia to join the Allies, or having the United States back Germany. It's not easy, but even the core belligerent nations can be swayed, especially in scenarios like the one that begins in 1936, where you have time before the war to shift alliances using both open diplomacy and behind the scenes techniques like spies. I've not been able to completely avoid war all together just yet, but it might be theoretically possible if you are playing a country like Germany or France.
The flip side of this is that you can't ignore the diplomacy menu. I did this the first time I played and it was a disaster. Most every country in the world was already at war with me, as Germany, before I even had a chance to move against France. Even historical allies like Hungary and Romania had been swept up into either the Communist or even the Allied camp, so that I stood alone. Don't let that happen to you. If nothing else, be sure to feed your spy network so you know what your potential enemies are doing, or even try to influence them as best you can.
Warfare is of course the heart of the game even with advanced diplomacy, as it always has been. Here the improvements are actually three-fold. The first is the movement down to the operational level from the strategic one. You can, for example, setup various headquarter groups at the Army level across your entire command structure. You can then give orders and objectives to various headquarters and the AI will do its best to achieve them, and will even tell you basically what it thinks it will need to accomplish those goals. So if you want to personally concentrate on one Army that has an important objective like conquering Moscow or Paris for example, you can tell the other headquarters around you to support your efforts or at least to hold the line so you won't get flanked.
The AI is smart, and this is the second of three improvements in the combat interface. And not just the combat AI either. If you are playing as the United States and need to build up your military forces for the D-Day invasion (in whatever form that is going to take in your game) then you can ask the computer to handle domestic issues for you and also the entire Pacific theater. The AI is good, so as long as you support it with resources, you won't get your last infantry unit in place in southern England ready for the big jump only to find that you have lost Hawaii and half of California in the meantime. Normally I'm wary of any AI, but I came to rely on the HOI3 one for all but the most demanding tasks.
In fact, it is the strength of this AI that makes the game whatever you want it to be. You can simply have the AI run the parts of your nation that you don't want to bother with. You could have it manage everything except the economy if you wanted and HOI3 would become all about international trading. Not that you would want to, but you could. My advice is to have the computer handle everything in practice games except the one area or two you want to learn.
The final improvement in the combat part of the HOI3 game is the graphics. Well, they look okay. This is not a game series that relies on eye candy. But you can now zoom in and see 3D battles going on. Little planes fly around and buzz the ground troops and stuff like that. It's nice as a little break in the middle of your grand strategy planning, though nothing too special really. Still, seeing a touch of visual flair isn't bad.
Like before, you can play as any country that existed in the real world during the period of World War II. In fact, it would be best if you tried some of the smaller countries to start out with. My recommendation would be a nation like Italy that is complex enough to be interesting and big enough to make a real difference in the war depending on how you want to go. But Italy is small enough that you won't get overwhelmed with the intricacies of international war and politics right at the start.
The music is the same classical score type that was found in other titles, which is a good thing and appropriate for a war game. It does seem to know when to change too, so that it gets darker and faster when you go to war.
Also, I have listed this game as turn-based, though in truth it's also real-time. The way it works is that time passes at the rate you set but you can pause it at anytime to give orders. But I found myself pausing the game so much (there is so much to do) that I think most people will play it this way, which is really the way a turn-based game works. You can speed it up for the "boring" times when nothing else is going on, though that will probably be pretty rare.
In terms of negatives, there are a few, though this is not unexpected in a game of this grand scale. The first is the system requirements. Whatever is recommended, you will need more. When the game is chugging along, you will likely experience a lot of lag. I did with my 3GHz single core test computer. HOI3 is running every aspect of every country in the world other than your own (and sometimes parts of yours as well) so that's a deceptively high amount of horsepower for a game without much graphical flair. I've had no crashes, but some major slowdowns in the real-time mode. Also, maps are either very realistic (there are proper names for provinces and cities for all of Russia) or very bland (major cities in the US are non-existent). It seems like much of the Pacific theater was glossed over, at least compared to Western Europe. And one final pet peeve - the Germans marched under the Nazi flag, not the flag of the Weimar Republic. If you are going to be accurate, get the flag right at least.
There are those that will dislike Hearts of Iron 3 because anything can happen. If you are a straight history buff looking for historically accurate scenarios, HOI3 might disappoint you. While everything seems correct in terms of historical accuracy at the beginning of each game, once the AI and the player starts, anything goes. WWII may look nothing like you expected here, especially with diplomatic options able to change the world before war even starts. So while HOI3 will provide a great study of war, it won't be the WWII that you are thinking, more of a "what-if" scenario and one that is only slightly influenced by your actions as one nation among many.
I very much enjoyed Hearts of Iron III, but again, I'm the type of gamer who will but heads with a game for a week or so just to figure it out. It's almost like second nature to me now, and I wear my competency like a badge of honor. If you fancy yourself a true strategy gamer, then you will too. But I freely admit that this is not a game for everyone, even more so than others in the series. But mastering this game, and eventually "winning" a scenario with your chosen country is an achievement that is difficult to match. I played from 1936 through the end of the war as France, Germany, Italy and the United States and had a good time with all of them. It just took me a weekend each time, and the results were always a little mixed. But it was great fun, if you like that kind of thing.
Dominic reviews odd games for GiN that don't exactly fit into main categories. He loves the odds and ends of the industry, and sometimes finds a real gem.