Reviewed: February 26, 2003
Released: November 26, 2002
Everyone and their grandmother can tell you why they think Hitler lost WWII. The can cite reasons like he sent his troops into Russia in winter with no winter gear, he got involved in fighting a war on two fronts, he didnít take care of Britain before turning his attention east. There are as many different reasons as there are people to talk to about it. All I have to say is: you think you can do better? You do? Well hereís your chance to prove it to all those other armchair generals out there.
Hearts of Iron is a WWII game of truly epic strategic scope. The game map spans the entire world so you can wage war on any front. Are you tired of the age-old conflicts? Germany and the U.S. and England and Japan and everyone else; itís all been done. Youíve played enough Axis and Allies to know how to win with those nations. How about playing Communist China? Or maybe even Nationalist China? Why not try to conquer the world with Afghanistan or maybe Mongolia or Tibet? In short you can play any of the countries existent at the time.
Other key features include:
Grab your coffee because this could take a while. Any strategist or tactician worth their salt is familiar with WWII and itís situations so Iíll skip the details. There are three different scenarios to play in this game. They only differ in what time period they cover, not in goals. You have to have the most points by the end of 1947 in order to win. As always, conquest is one option, but so is technological or economic superiority. So diplomacy, industrial infrastructure, scientific research, and domestic policy all play a role in your pursuit. So weíll tackle this in stages and begin with the military.
If youíre going to put the world to the torch in order to march over it with your unstoppable waves of tanks and storm troopers (make sure they watch out for low doors), be prepared for a challenge. Not only do you have to be sure you have the industrial capacity to keep your troops well supplied, but also to produce more troops and perform enough research to keep yourself competitive. Think thatís not enough. All right; each unit has a commander that affects their effectiveness, and if he isnít good enough there are plenty in the wings. Did Rommel need to be on the beaches at Normandy? He can be. Thatís the level of detail involved with this game. Not only do your units have commanders that effect combat, but they are almost all historically accurate people; it gets even worse with the politicians, but more on that in a moment.
Not only do generals add modifiers, terrain, number of troops being commanded, fortifications, dug-in defenders, attacking from different directions all add various bonuses or weaknesses to the combat. This is one of the most in-depth tactical combat simulations Iíve ever seen. You can coordinate different units to all attack on the same day at the same time, even with air strikes to soften up the opposition before hand. You can blitz with armor units. The detail, accuracy and sheer scope of this game is jaw dropping, and this is only one aspect of the game. While all the combat maneuvering and engagement is taking place you still have to be aware of political developments and keep an eye to your industrial and technological progress. Did I mention naval combat and submarines?
Diplomacy is a little easier to deal with. The only real way to woo another nation is to share technology with them, while to antagonize them you can do anything from attacking an ally of theirs, taking territory from them or an ally, etc. However, this also means that you donít have to annex a nation to control it. You can set up puppet governments that bend to your will, request alliances to help protect yourself from aggressors, stage coups, while the diplomacy isnít quite as in depth as the military interface, it still plays a role and one that can be fairly telling in the long game. Also, as far as home policy is concerned, Democracies hold elections, that change the leaning of the government and the peopleís approval of you. The head of the government and various cabinet members can all be replaced, which affects some of your ability not only diplomatically but also domestically. The politicians almost always have a short biography accompanying them including a brief description of their personality and policy stances. Again, detailed to the hilt.
Economics is also pretty similar to most games of this type where you have so much industrial power and about four different places to allocate spending: domestic products (keeping the rabble in their place since 1066 A.D.), military supplies, production capability, and research. Spending more in one means you spend less in others, and there are certain minimums if you want to keep control of your country and military units fighting. You can also trade on the world market and create and defend convoys to make sure that supplies continue to move through out your vast empire. You can increase your industrial capacity, but that takes about a year, and while youíre doing that you canít fortify that portion of the country in any way, including the addition of AA guns, or the improvement of infrastructure which enables troops to move through that sector more quickly so there are other costs to consider.
Time is really your enemy though because you either have too much of it or not nearly enough. Research and industrial development take forever if you have the game speed set so you can take care of military incidents. If you have the game set to accelerate those progresses then the SS may be pounding on your door in the middle of the night sooner than you think. Of course my big problem with it is patience. I want the world and I want it now (thank you Veruca Salt), so I canít wait for those new troops and the better sub machine guns and the coastal fortifications. So if youíre like me, either learn to curb your enthusiasm or have it stuffed back down your shorts. On the other hand if youíre someone who after playing A&A for twelve hours is just now beginning their conquest you're going to love this.
The Axis and Allies reference made above is really appropriate for this game because at first blush thatís what this game looks and feels like. The major portion of the graphics is the world map and that doesnít look that different from the board for A&A. Also, your troops are represented with one icon per map section, which is reminiscent of the board game as well. Countries are divided up into constituent segments so conquering a country happens piecemeal, not in one military conflict.
Overall, however, the unit designators and the map arenít that impressive to look at. They do look fairly crisp and well done, with the units even having some minor animation to them for movement and combat, though itís nothing you havenít seen before. The graphics to note are all of historical significance, because to beat a dead horse with this review (which I will be doing because this is the one truly outstanding factor in this game), the detail they have included is amazing. There are photographs for almost every important figure in the game, including members of government aside from heads of state and generals and other military staff.
Additionally, at the country selection screen there is either a war propaganda poster or other national icon for every country in the game. The technology menu within the game also has pictures to go along with almost every research in the game. Actually, you have to wonder exactly how many library books went over-due to get this game to print just for the pictures.
Hitler loved Wagner, and itís easy to see why when every time you start this game Flight of the Valkyries fires up. Thereís something about those French horns thatís somewhat akin to the smell of napalm in the morning. It just stirs the conqueror in you. That being said, yes there are two hours of MP3 music for this game. What you donít know is that it is all classical music. There is nothing like beginning a massive panzer offensive toÖ all right so I donít know the titles of anything other than the afore mentioned Wagner piece. So sue me. What I can say is that the music is all beautiful and quite well suited to the style and pacing of the game. It is one of the best marriages of music in the genre.
The other truly outstanding thing is that there isnít really a break in the music. It begins at the title screen and excepting the lulls between pieces there are no stops. Picking a scenario, country, or even starting a tutorial or loading screens wonít stop it for a moment. It feels almost like youíve put a CD player on and turned the game way down.
Effects are excellent as well. Planes throttle and hum, troops march and fire, trucks and tanks putter and purr along respectively. For those of you foolish enough to employ cavalry, horses even whinny.
In order to play this game with any reasonable expectation of control it takes about 4 hours for a year to pass, so with about seven years of game play to be had, give or take depending on the scenario, you have roughly 28 hours of play for any particular country youíd like to tinker with. Changing the country changes your situation considerably. You can start as Russia in í42 with the Nazis burning down the front gates, or as Japan in í39 and have Mainland China conquered within a year. Every different country and starting point comes with its own set of challenges and ways to meet them, so there is a virtually endless opportunity for replay inherent even before you get into multiplayer possibilities.
The endless game play is augmented by the fact that if you need to do research on WWII I wouldnít call this an impeccable source for in depth facts, but it is incredibly accurate not only in outlining the political aspects of the war and of the position of many of the people who influenced the course of the war. The manual alone devotes almost 20 pages to a timeline of the events of the war as they happened and while I am by no means an expert of WWII history there were a lot of facts in there that I never knew. So while I wouldnít list this in a bibliography or anything I would say you could still learn a few things from this game because of the extensive research done by the developer.
The first thing you notice about this game is that it is very detailed and in-depth. This level of commitment is rarely seen in the industry, and while ultimately the game does kind of boil down to a more complex version of Risk or Axis and Allies, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Also, the detail built into the game; the inclusion of historical figures, photos, war posters, etc. does an excellent job of setting the tone for the game and immersing you in that era. The classical soundtrack and kind of faded color scheme all make you feel like youíre there sitting over a map spread across a folding camp table planning the assault; not pecking away at a keyboard in your momís basement. Never underestimate good style, just be sure to back it with substance.
Hearts of Iron does exactly that. There is a truly massive amount of gameplay to be had set in what is rapidly (many thanks to the WWII Ė I mean the History Channel) becoming a very intensely studied era. There is enough replayability and truly just enough raw data to keep you coming back for more again and again. While the game is a little complex and just a tad on the slowly progressing side it more than makes up for it with an asking price of $39.99 and the extreme pleasure you get from overrunning those Nazi bastards before the even saw it coming.