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World War II from the Top Down
There are a lot of games set in World War II. First Person Shooters let you experience the front lines as directly as a game can, and you can work your way up the command structure, moving through controlling a tactical team, taking over a battle, or running a whole military theatre. But for some out there, perhaps out of historical interest or just because this challenge is most interesting for them, the most exciting places in the war were miles from the sounds of combat: unassailable shelters full of cigar smoke and gentlemen exchanging communiqués with spies, diplomats, world leaders, and generals, using t-shaped sticks to push small armies around a map of the world on a massive table.
Hearts of Iron III delivers just that experience. If you’re in the mood for fast paced fragging, this obviously isn’t your first choice. Even a die hard fan of traditional Real Time Strategy games that involve directly commanding the movement of units will find Hearts of Iron III to be a much slower pace.
For those that want the armchair leadership of a nation during WWII, and not just its military, but economy, diplomacy, espionage, research, and politics, it is here: and in droves. The game has an intimidating amount of detail, but the ability to delegate just about any function to helpful AI advisors and generals means you don’t get bogged down in micro-management. Despite this, the game still has a very steep learning curve, which, along with the pacing, will likely make it a love it or hate it prospect for most people.
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Hearts of Iron III Starting Experience
Even with the AI doing its best to help you out, there are still hours to spend in game just learning basic operations, and reading the manual. This is the first game I have read the manual for in many years. There is a tutorial, but it is pretty much an amusing text that describes a few numbers about your economy and army, and doesn’t do much to help you get a handle on what you are supposed to do.
Going from the tutorial to playing Japan in 1942 left me quite flummoxed. Some time with the manual and playing as Canada, which starts with far fewer units and far from the fronts, allowed me to get a better grip on things. Unless you have played previous Hearts of Iron games quite a bit, you won’t be jumping into this one comfortably. Anyone that enjoys strategy gaming in an ultra detailed vein, or even WWII history, and has a good deal of patience, a bit of an analytical streak, and doesn’t mind reading a manual, can probably get a lot out of it. To put it one way, it takes longer to learn how to play Hearts of Iron III than it takes to beat many other games.
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Hearts of Iron III Gameplay
Putting in the time to learn how to play can be very rewarding. I don’t recall a game with this level of detail. EVERYTHING is modeled. The map isn’t broken into countries, or even provinces or states, but thousands of tiny regions. A country the size of Switzerland has a has over a half-dozen regions. Each region has, along with traditional strategy factors like industry and terrain defense bonuses, weather conditions which are modeled in connection with their neighbours. Rain can make jungles muddy, increasing attrition to disease and slowing progress, while attacking Stalingrad in the dead of winter is never any fun. Sending up bombers on a stormy night makes for slim odds that they will find the target.
Non military factors are also hugely interrelated and detailed. The tech tree is massive, and the more you research or manufacture a certain type of technology, the faster you can research and build it as well as related technologies. For instance, if you have done a lot of research on Capital Ships and other naval units research on Carriers will be faster.
Keeping the economy going strongly involves managing four natural resources to make four items you need to keep your army and country moving and growing. You have to balance your industrial production between upgrading troops, supplying them, producing more troops, and consumer goods to keep the masses happy. Economic and societal factors in your country create a pool of educated people that need to be balanced between research, diplomacy, espionage, and officers.
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HoI III AI Assistance
If fighting a war across thousands of regions with realistic weather while managing a sprawling tech tree and diplomatic relations with dozens of countries seems daunting, you are right, it is. This used to be a great joy for some detail oriented types, and a bear for everyone else. Hearts of Iron III lets you assign various functions to the AI with rather fine detail. You can shunt control of the tech tree, production, politics, espionage, and diplomacy to the computer individually, leaving you free to focus on the aspects you like.
For most strategy fans, that will be the military side. Though you can control each unit down to a division level containing one to four brigades, the AI offers some interesting options here. Your units are in a command hierarchy where they gain bonuses from leadership all along their chain of command and rely on their Head Quarters for supply (which is affected by distance, weather, infrastructure, and so on). You can assign objectives and stances to Head Quarters units, and they will use all the units under them, including air and navy, to try to achieve a goal.
This feature, once you figure it out, is pretty brilliant. You can tell one army to defend a front and another to attack a spot on it, or position divisions by hand, or decide this front or theatre isn’t that interesting at the moment and put the whole Army Group or Theatre Command on auto pilot.
Commanders under the AI will actually request more troops to complete their objectives, and you can add them to your build queue with the push of a button. If you have the production AI turned on, it will try to deliver requested units. All in all, you can be involved in every decision, and turn on AI one bit at a time until you are essentially telling generals to get things done and not bother you with the details, which is fun in its own way.
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Grahpics, Sound, and Performance
A game like this doesn’t really need cutting edge graphics. The unit symbols will be familiar to any WWII gaming or history buff and do their job well enough. The only problem being that one can’t tell if a unit is stacked (i.e. it shares space with another unit) by looking at it: one division or twenty, you just see one counter.
The map itself, though, in any overlay mode, borders on ugly. Zooming in won’t make the map prettier, but at one point the unit counters change into little animated models that are actually pretty good: you just won’t be playing that zoomed in very much.
Zooming out too far means that the counters disappear, which makes it only worth while if you using an overlay to check something out. Moving around the map in general is a pain actually, unless the speed is set to pause. There is just so much calculation going on in the background to track all of the details and decisions that it will bury many a CPU depending on what speed you’re playing at.
The music is a nice selection of classical tunes, very much the kind of thing you would expect mustachioed generals to have in the background while they sip tea and plan supply chains. I am not sure if the battle sound effects were meant to sound like they were coming in over a World War II-era radio, but unfortunately, they do.
While a game like Hearts of Iron III lives or dies by its depth, not its presentation, there might as well have been something for the graphics card to do while the CPU decides if Chinese partisans will rise up against their Japanese occupiers.
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Rating a game like this is difficult. Most people won’t like it. Many will have no interest in a game that takes a few evenings just to learn how to play it. Some will find that even once they know left from right, the game has a slow pace, and is about as far from the battlefield as a war game can get. The game will make you feel like you are in the nerve center of Downing Street or the Reichstag, not on the beaches of Normandy.
That isn’t a bad thing though, depending on your tastes and your mood. The people who will like Hearts of Iron III, such as fans of the series, will probably like it more than any other game they play this year. Die hard strategy wargamers aren’t going to mind the graphics, and the stutter at high speed will be forgiven. If you want the most grand and detailed World War II simulation out there: this is it.
The AI assistance, once you figure out how to take advantage of it, allows you to tailor the experience to the types of decisions you want to make and how directly you want to control your military. It still can’t be called an easy game to pick up, but the AI does make Hearts of Iron III much easier and more enjoyable to play than if you were forced to handle all the micromanagement.