Crispy Gamer

Hearts of Iron III (PC)

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it. -- Winston Churchill

Historical strategy games pull on two contradictory impulses. First, they depend on the desire of the audience to relive the past, to put itself in the shoes of Napoleon or Jefferson Davis or Adolph Hitler. Second, they embrace the Time Lord in all of us, challenging players to undo history, to write a past that will never be. Bring Britain to its knees. Win independence for the Confederacy. Take Moscow before winter comes.

World War II is the most popular setting for strategy and wargames because it tugs on both of these threads. In many ways, this largest of all conflicts, with nations becoming heroes and villains, is the founding myth of the post-imperial age. But because it's a story that almost everyone knows, armchair presidents and prime ministers can point to where the whole thing could have gone off the rails.

Hearts of Iron III
Poland is a pushover.

Paradox's Hearts of Iron III straddles these contrary desires. If you play the grand campaign from 1936 forward, it looks like history is moving in lockstep as Austria and Czechoslovakia fall to the Reich without a shot. And then the Republicans win the Spanish Civil War, Turkey forgoes neutrality, and all hell breaks loose in Sweden.

This is, admittedly, old hat for Paradox at this point. Games like this are its forte, and the Hearts of Iron series is the most popular of its franchises. It plays more like a wargame than a grand strategy game, forcing you to be general and president, supply chief and researcher.

Hearts of Iron III's big achievement is to make balancing these roles more user-friendly. It allows enough micromanagement to satisfy the grognards, and has enough macro-level tools to make the Liberation of Europe that much easier. Never has a game this deep allowed you to customize so much of your involvement.

Fighting the war itself is the best example. Your army is divided into headquarter units (HQ), each over or under another HQ, up to the theater-level commander. If you are having trouble making sense of just how to break through an enemy line, you can give any HQ a general objective (defend Potsdam, attack Warsaw, and so on). The HQ and any other units under its command will move to a reasonably efficient position and progress toward your objective. Any air or sea units under the HQ's control will also be given tasks to help you meet the overarching goal. Once you have given an HQ objectives, you cede control of every unit under its influence; so the higher the HQ you instruct, the less flexibility you have to adjust things on the fly. But if the Eastern theater is a mess and nothing's going on to the West, you can fine-tune your plans depending on where the troops are.

Hearts of Iron III
The Decision system is imported from the recent EU games.

It gets better. One of the big problems for newcomers to games like this is that they never quite know what kinds of units they should be building. HoI3 tells you. If your HQ has an objective to meet, it will let you know what additional troops it thinks it needs. You can add all these to your production queue with a click. Then it can even deploy these troops automatically, though it is very cautious with the deployment. (When America is fighting for freedom in Flanders, sticking a tank unit by the Canadian border shouldn't be a priority.) The HQ management can get confusing at times, and there should be a smoother way to select an HQ and all attached divisions to be sent to a region. But it is a major step forward in war fighting.

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You can automate research, automate intelligence gathering, automate diplomacy; it's a lot of autopilot. But where some games let you cede control to the computer, but divorce you from what is happening, HoI3 never leaves you at a loss for how things are going -- even when the virtual viceroy is managing your convoys (which it does by default) or pushing technology forward.

Most of the game's systems are changed in subtle ways from earlier versions in the series. Research, espionage, diplomacy and officer recruitment are in a resource pool separate from production, reinforcement and supply. There is a feedback loop between research and practice; build and use a lot of planes and you can research aircraft faster. And if one of those aircraft techs involves electrical engineering, then that research track also moves faster. It's an elegant system that takes some getting used to, but it helps bring to life military doctrines -- German blitzkrieg warfare will work best when you can bring all the supporting techs along.

Hearts of Iron III
Americans want consumer goods until the war starts.

Diplomacy incorporates ideas like ideological drift, neutrality, threat perception and the like. You can use spies or diplomats to push nations in some of these categories, so you have some control over how others see you. But this is definitely not a game where the United States can just invade Mexico to see what happens. There are constraints on how you can behave -- sensible constraints that stick with the original appeal of these games. After all, if the world ends up divided along very different Alliances, then it's not really a World War II game, is it?

There are a lot of calculations going on behind the scenes, and this takes a major toll on HoI3's technical performance. Once large armies start squaring off, the game can grind to a pause even on the fastest speed. Click on a slider, and the lag can cause you to drag it across the screen. Map-scrolling becomes a tiresome chore as you zip far off into the Atlantic because the game decided to wait a few seconds before processing. Whether this is due to a memory leak or suboptimal artificial-intelligence coding, it is something that needs to be fixed soon. Yes, this is a game for the patient, but there are limits.

Hearts of Iron III
The arsenal and research lab of democracy

Despite the mostly excellent interface, there are still lots of places where necessary information is absent. Since a nation's surrender score is tied to how many major cities it has lost, it would be handy to have a list of which cities are left to fall, so that you can advance or reinforce as needed. And the research screen needs a better way to sort ongoing technology and theoretical classes.

Hearts of Iron III is not an unmitigated success, but it is a success. The changes to general management are welcoming to newcomers, but also let veterans focus on what they enjoy most. The air war is much improved. The naval war is still underdeveloped, but this is a nut that few sims of the era have really been able to crack.

Most importantly, it just feels right. From the race to advance your radio and decryption tech to detect enemy strong points to the ability to open new fronts via diplomacy or daring amphibious assaults, Hearts of Iron III is the best representation of the military and foreign relations of the period yet made for the computer.

This review is based on a review copy of the game provided by the publisher, patched to v1.01.