Like the original Hearts of Iron, this Paradox Entertainment-developed sequel is a real-time game, set during World War II, that emphasizes global strategies over unit-by-unit tactics. The game's main interface is an iconic, nation-level map, through which troops and equipment can be moved, diplomatic measures applied, and attacks launched. Players can take control of one of more than 175 countries and aim to turn the tides of war in their favor. Though the game plays out in real-time, with all countries making their moves at once, the single-player game can be paused to give time for consideration and organization. Multiplayer competition is supported over a LAN or the Internet, and cooperative multiplayer games allow two leaders to share control of the same country.
With the first Hearts of Iron, there was a sense that Paradox Interactive was using the wrong tool for the task. Their Europa Universalis engine was developed for the slow, stately progression of a Medieval kingdom over a few centuries, not the whirlwind months of World War II. An engine built to track a hundred years on a global scale was bogged with minutiae about researching snorkels for your submarines, setting patrol times for your fighters, and carting shiploads of rubber from Indonesia. It was the gaming equivalent of pounding a square peg into a round hole.
You'd think Paradox would have learned its lesson ... which it did, in a way. It set about the task of streamlining everything -- and here's the kicker -- without sacrificing any of the first game's meticulous detail. The joke is on those of us who thought it wouldn't work, because when it comes to grand strategic World War II games, Hearts of Iron II is as good as it gets.
In marked contrast to the first game, the economics of Hearts of Iron II are actually pretty simple. Territories can give you oil, energy, metal, and rare materials. With the exception of oil (which is used to move vehicles around), factories use these resources to produce industrial points, which are then spent on production, supplies, and replacements. Leftover points generate cash, which is used to pay for technological research and diplomacy.
And that's pretty much it. For all the considerable sprawl of a thousand provinces and armies, the economic sub-game is distilled into something manageable and even elegant. Lines of supply are tracked with a system of depots connected by abstracted convoys. The new research system is cleaner and more direct. It all comes together in a sophisticated but simple model designed to let you spend more time with your armies without compromising the grand strategic element. In practice, you'll need to twiddle the slider bars on your production screen quite a bit if you want to maximize your efficiency, but it's far and away a better system than the previous game.
Taking a page from its last game, Crusader Kings, Paradox plays up human element of the drama. Crusader Kings played like The Sims meets Shakespeare's history plays. But instead of managing a royal family over generations, here you manage military leaders, scientists, and the men of your nation's government, all with unique abilities and based on historical characters. This brings into play the dramatis persona of World War II like Albert Einstein, General Montgomery, Foreign Minister Molotov, and a hundred other people you've probably never heard of. It drives home the idea that in war, exceptional individuals play a significant role.
Using the technology research, they also bring into play historical companies like Ford Motor Company, Krupp, and Mitsubishi (in three different flavors), which are among the assets you can use to research specific technologies. You can mold your nation's philosophy by occasionally nudging a slider bar on the government screen, perhaps leaning towards a free market economy for more efficient production or pushing an interventionist agenda to make it easier to get into the action against Germany. Scripted events will come up allowing your choice of reactions, although these are used sparingly. All of these are ultimately just different ways to tweak the numbers, but they're an example of how Paradox knows how to lend personality to what would otherwise be an enormous impassive spreadsheet.
Although the fighting in Hearts of Iron II is a huge messy sprawl, it's not half the huge messy sprawl that it was in Hearts of Iron. This sequel has arguably done everything possible to streamline the art of war without cutting out all the tactical detail. You can still plan a coordinated attack on a province days in advance, timing your troops to open fire at dawn. Maneuvering around rivers, taking weather into account, and managing combined arms are still a central part of the planning. And although the mechanics of battle are out of your hands, they're laid out before your eyes on the battle screen, complete with a breakdown of all the modifiers.
Air combat and naval actions are largely automated so that you give a squadron or fleet a mission and a general region, at which point it does its own thing. This can be a bit annoying on a crowded front, with a dozen little airplane graphics flitting around, but it's a much better solution to the previous game where you have to all but fly the planes yourself to get them to do their jobs. And, although the A.I. occasionally does some questionable things on a larger scale (Why hasn't Germany attacked me yet? Is China every going to mobilize its defenses? What is Japan doing dithering around with its carriers in Indochina?), it plays a very competent tactical game. In the past, Paradox's games were challenging not because they were smart, but because they were elaborate. That no longer seems to be the case.
Hearts of Iron II also does a much better job than any other Paradox title of easing you into everything. There are smaller, focused scenarios that limit the game to certain areas, both in terms of geography and gameplay mechanics. For instance, if you want to try your hand at invading Japan during the end of the war, you don't have to play all the way up to that point in the 1944 grand campaign. Instead, you can just load up Operation Downfall and enjoy a hypothetical scenario without production, research, or diplomacy. These aren't just a great way to learn the dynamics of the game, but they're worth playing as standalone games.
The tool-tips are as thorough as ever, and an excellent complement to the manual, which is as comprehensive as the game itself. At last, a Paradox game with a worthy manual! Paradox wisely hired someone from the fan community to write it. The manual is dark and dense, printed with a tiny font against a distracting grey pattern. Writer Chris Stone has an odd penchant for sticking parenthetical comments between colons: something I've never seen before: but he explains everything thoroughly, using a well-organized and informal style. This is the first Paradox game where a big part of the learning curve isn't trying to dig up information online to make up for the bad manual.
Finally, the interface is clean and specific. There are really only four screens in the game, one each for research, production, diplomacy, and game map, which is where you'll spend most of your time. There are handy lists of land, air, and sea forces set off to one side, as well as all sorts of filters for displaying information on the map. If you want to dig deeper, which you will from time to time, you can pull up lists of statistics. For the most part, there's no flipping back and forth to check and cross reference things; if you want to know something, it's probably on the screen in front of you, or no more than a single button press away. Hearts of Iron II has gracefully made manageable a staggering amount of information.
However, it's important to keep in mind that this is not a game to be approached lightly. Although the smaller scenarios are easy enough to wrangle, the point of this game is to guide your choice of nation through a full campaign, which requires an enormous investment of time and attention. Just as some RPGs will easily take over 50 hours to play, so it is with Hearts of Iron II. This is the sort of game you'll play over the long haul, moving slowly, a few days of the war at a time.
Paradox has done everything they can to make it easier on you (you can automate some of the micromanagement, like leader assignments and convoys). But to get the most out of this game, you have to really want to play out the epic sprawl of World War II in extreme detail. Unless you're dedicated -- and let's face it, "dedicated" is just a polite way of saying "obsessive" or "fanatical" -- the whole thing will probably crumble into a swarm of army sprites jerking around on a map of a thousand colored blobs representing provinces with foreign names that don't mean diddlysquat to you.
But if you're interested a day-by-day re-creation of what is arguably the most dramatic decade the world has ever known, presented in a staggering amount of detail using a complex and sophisticated simulation that affords all sorts of freedom for hypothetical situations, then you won't want to miss Hearts of Iron II.
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