Hearts of Iron IV review

June 6, 2016 by Jonathan Bolding

Deep strategy and questionable history combine into a tour de force.

Starting in 1936, Hearts of Iron IV is a World War 2 grand strategy game that charts the mid-20th century’s conflicts, leading almost inevitably to the Second World War itself. In my time with it, I found a superb game with excellent strategy elements and enjoyable nuance. As I helped Germany conquer the world as Italy, launching naval invasions of India and South Africa to deprive England of precious resources, I loved every minute of it.

Sure, I had to deal with some of strategy gaming’s persistent bugbears like bad AI choices, self-inflicted hindrances, and utter misunderstandings of the map icons. When I fomented a Communist revolution in Poland and allied with the USSR in an attempt to prevent that country’s horrible historical fate, to smashing success, I enjoyed myself immensely. Through all of it, I became increasingly curious about my reaction to the game’s decision not to treat with some realities of history and warfare while diving into others.

The game starts in either 1936, for those who’d like the possibility for pre-war buildup and politicking, or 1939, for those who’d like to play a wargame that mostly re-fights the war “as it was.” In practice, the 1936 scenario is where most players will always start, because it allows you to avoid some of the key mistakes that any given country made during the buildup to the war. It also gives the most opportunity for alternate histories to develop: A non-German aligned Italy, Communist America, or victory for Republican Spain in that country’s fascist takeover. Or further afield: An independent India taking the fight into the colonies of Asia for democratic principles and freedom from Japanese or European interference.

That’s not to say the game doesn’t develop pretty ahistorically even if told to follow historical patterns (a setting for AI-controlled countries) on its own. That’s not perfect: In some 70 hours of play I’ve never seen Francoist fascists win the Spanish civil war and I’ve never seen Japan succeed at holding a presence on mainland China.

Much of the politics and economics are handled in typical grand strategy fashion: Percentage bonuses and currencies. Hiring advisors, spending political power to influence other countries’ affairs, building up your industries, and carefully managing what you’re importing versus what you’re exporting. These are elegant, numerical subsystems within the game.

They’re satisfying to manipulate and provide a typically Paradox nuanced diplomacy and politics that you don’t see in most games. Throughout this early game you get event popups about real events from history as they happen - or don’t - like the disappearance (or not!) of Amelia Earhart. Those events taper off as you approach the early 1940s and disappear entirely by the uncharted, likely way off the beaten track, middle to late 40s and even early 50s.

Unlike other Paradox games, Hearts of Iron IV doesn’t have a hard end date aside from a score screen in 1949. You can play well into the Korean or Vietnam War eras if you like, but the technology tree does have its limits, and the political situation will get increasingly strange. You can invent “Modern Tanks” but you’ll never invent helicopters or nuclear missiles no matter how much you want them.

For the wargame nerds out there, HoI IV is a division-scale strategy game. The basic formations involve thousands of men, hundreds of tanks, and all the support equipment that entails. You get to design those divisions, down to precisely what equipment they’ll use.

Designing divisions integrates satisfyingly into the supply, production, and research systems. You can emphasize heavy, slow tanks and towed weapons in your army because you know you’ll be fighting mostly defensively. I fought offensively, using great masses of infantry to bog down my enemies, then concentrated armored and motorized divisions into a fist to punch through their lines and snatch key territories from them. You organize divisions into armies under generals, who gain defining and quirky traits like “Desert Fox” or “Logistics Wizard” as they fight - based directly on where they’ve been fighting and how.

For all the complications of army composition, actually fighting is quite simple. Battle plans are a system that you intuitively snap onto the map and assign units to. Just like a map of a historical offensive in a textbook, you draw a defensive line, a front line, and angle an arrow of attack. From there, your AI general does some planning and, when you’re ready, you execute the plan. Then they go on the offensive (or defensive) all on their own. Meanwhile, you can go back to planning other attacks, or managing your industry. It is, frankly, the most approachable and enjoyable computer wargame at this scale I’ve ever played.

(Oh, during all this automation, you can grab a few divisions and take advantage of any opportunities the AI isn’t exploiting with precise orders. They’ll just go back to the plan once they’re done doing as you ask.)

And it works. That’s the real amazement for me. While the planning can be finicky or occasionally frustrating, for the most part it goes off without a hitch. The only truly annoying part of warfare is micromanaging your air forces, which have no automation to speak of, need to be told to advance alongside your infantry from region to region, and are inexplicably managed on a single-plane basis.

Otherwise, it’s smooth, and lets you decide you’d like to concentrate your armored divisions here, under that general, between these two rivers, to drive towards this particular city and capture it. You’ll let the field marshal in charge of the front’s majority forces fill in the gaps. It’s also pleasant that the non-player nations play along with this system, and you’ve even got a toggle to see what your allies are planning, from naval invasions to massive offensives - so you can either prepare for disaster or exploit their maneuvers.

That’s not to say it’s all perfect. The interface is information dense, crowded, and often confusing during your first hours with the game. Though the landscape is pretty, and the maps clear in most modes, the naval and air management can get so crowded with tooltips and flashing lines that you’ve got no idea what’s going on - nor how to find the information that you’re looking for. Sometimes you’ll invade a region only to have it fall under an ally’s control for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but have something to do with the game’s multi-state alliance Faction system. You really need to pay attention to the composition of an enemy’s divisions to beat them, but you only see that information if you mouse over one of them and wait for the detailed tooltip to appear.

More precisely flawed is the game’s AI, which will at times behave brilliantly and at times bafflingly badly. I watched my German allies feed millions of men into a near-unwinnable attempt to conquer mainland Asia’s mountains and Siberia’s tundra. Meanwhile, it brilliantly plotted an invasion of India that I rushed to support. Then it declared war on most of South America and dragged the rest of the Axis along despite having no navy to speak of and no troops or allies on the entire continent. I saw America drop undersize naval invasions on provinces under my control, feeding them into well-defended regions and fortified coastlines. I saw the United Kingdom coordinate a multi-pronged naval invasion of northern Germany, cutting the heart out of Hitler’s reich by seizing Berlin before his troops fighting in France could pivot to face the new threat.

Further, designing divisions can be daunting. Do I need initiative? What about breakthrough? What about reconnaissance? And how, precisely, do those statistics interact with more mundane ones like health, organization, and attack? Should I be spending my political points on filling up empty cabinet positions or gearing up my economy for war? Wait, that’s the same currency I use to make friends with others?

The tech tree is the worst offender, because there’s a year or more of lead time between researching a technology and producing enough of it to outfit your armies. These are problems that’ll be familiar and enjoyable for strategy fans, but will cause frustration for those new to the genre. They take time - and wiki reading - to solve, so be aware coming in that you’ll invest time and effort not just playing the game, but solving its systems to your liking.

They’re good systems, though. It’s rare that I feel like every minigame and subsystem in a grand strategy or 4X is worth the player’s time, but nearly everything in Hearts of Iron IV has an elegance that I usually associate with tidy board game designs. Like the trade system that gives your trade partners control of your factories, cleverly mimicking globalization, or the imperfect yet clever naval combat that emphasizes the vastness of the sea and the problems of supply that go with it.

My enjoyment of the game grew steadily over my hours with it, and I grew to respect even the systems I did not particularly like. (Yes, even aspects of the too-granular air combat.) The best time I had with the game was when I started my second campaign, wallowing in the satisfying sensation that only system mastery and manipulation can provide. Creating revolutions where there weren’t any, alliances that didn’t previously exist, and shaping a history that allows you to ask “What if?” and then give yourself a satisfying answer.

In there, asking that question, you realize that you’re stepping into the shoes of - if I can use the phrase unironically - some of history’s greatest monsters.

Part of asking yourself about alternate histories engages with the ethics of history itself. Hearts of Iron frames itself as a game about ideologies. There are four in the game: Democracy, Fascism, Communism, and Non-Aligned (that is to say, literally everyone else.) The political conflict between these groups frames the world stage, decides who’ll join which major Faction, when they’ll join it, and how far they’ll go to support it. Swaying other countries to your point of view is a major factor in how an alternate history plays out. Those politics set the stage - at least in the 1936 start - for the conflict to come.

They precisely dictate who can start wars and when using a “World Tension” meter that allows hungry Fascists to start wars earlier than others, while Democracies must patiently wait to stir up trouble - or intervene where others have started it. It’s an imprecise if reasonable model of the world as it unfolded at the time. Because much of this game is about history, modelling history, and allowing history to unfold as it would, in theory, have unfolded.

At the same time this is, at heart, a war game. You build up infrastructure, train soldiers, and set laws exclusively surrounding wars. You do not set domestic policy, and only interact meaningfully with your government to influence what ideology or faction you align with, or to try and shift Democratic elections towards your desired course.

So this is a game which claims to be both about history and war, which is not necessarily a dualism most of the time but appears to be here. It engages with war very directly. You fight the wars. It engages with history via ideology and international relations. With the loss of soldiers through the ever-diminishing manpower score you use to reinforce your armies. What it does not do is attempt to engage with the historical reality of what these conflicts did to the people of the world.

It does not account for millions of civilians dying of hunger in city sieges, or as casualties during protracted campaigns. No matter how many armies pass through a region, how many battles are fought there, its population continues to grow happily along.

It does not attempt to engage with the brutal injustices and systemic evils visited upon peoples and ethnic groups by governments and conquering armies during this time - purges, holocausts, and internments. Resistance numbers grow in occupied territories, but deployed troops and “harsh treatment” policies keep that down. Perhaps more ominously, encircled and overrun divisions simply vanish from the map. If you know your World War 2 history, you know that often these soldiers were forced onto death marches and into prisoner of war camps from which few emerged.

When someone inevitably drops an atomic bomb, devastating an enemy state’s buildings and infrastructure, the message you receive is lightly chastising. It implies that the world will never be the same. The enemy state’s “National Unity” drops, bringing them one step closer to surrender.

This is either an appropriate way to handle the situation if this is a game about the strategy of war, or it is the least appropriate way to handle the situation if it is a game about the history of war. I cannot - simply am not - able to resolve that conflict nor even give it due articulation in the space of this review, but they are questions a responsible, ethical person interested in this game should ask themselves. It is history you should know, and Hearts of Iron IV will not teach it to you.

I say all of this because otherwise, this is a historical game. It is a game that cares about nations, their conflicts, origins, and histories. It cares about the way France, Italy, Japan, England, Germany, and the USSR used historical claims on land to fuel wars and further political goals. If it did not have a firm footing in history instead of the cartoonish parody of war provided by many games, these would not be criticisms I could level seriously. I emphasize this not because I am attempting to shore up its creative shortcomings, but because I recommend it despite them.

Hearts of Iron IV is likely to, given Paradox Development Studio’s history, get support for years to come. Some of its expansions and ancillary materials may well address and improve upon my criticisms - historical and otherwise. No matter what I say it isn’t doing, Hearts of Iron IV does do well with an era of warfare and politics wholly relevant to, though increasingly distant from, current events. It is a consummate, immediately iconic creation of the strategy video game. Do not skip this one.

Verdict: Yes

Jonathan Bolding is an American games writer and critic from North Carolina. Long live the Iranian revolution. No, not that one, the Communist one in 1938. No, not the real 1938, the 1938 that exists right here in a save file on his computer. Follow him on Twitter @JonBolds.