It’s hard to figure out where to start reviewing a game as massive as Hearts of Iron IV, a problem made even more complex when trying to figure out what perspective to review it from. With a long legacy of grand strategy gameplay from one of the genre’s most venerated developers, does a critic approach it from the perspective of veterans, or start a conversation with those who might be jumping in for the first time?
Normally something in between would probably be proper, yet Hearts of Iron IV comes at a time when the popularity of Stellaris has reached critical mass for Paradox Interactive, having broken all their existing sales records, and this means new fans will be wanting to see what else is happening with Paradox Development Studio. While the themes of the two games couldn’t be much more different, there are a lot of smaller similarities, and Hearts of Iron IV is an attractive package that may well entice curious newcomers to the franchise after Stellaris’s success.
Those people are in for an engrossing experience, to say the least, one that will reward the time spent with it, but demand much more than it might seem to up front—certainly more than Stellaris. Veterans of the franchise will find a shifting landscape of features that may or may not appeal to their personal vision of which Hearts of Iron game is ultimately the best, but will still find the same deep, layered game they expect. Newcomers will as well, but will also discover that truly grasping those layers is a task that requires considerable diligence.
At its core, Hearts of Iron IV is a military strategy game that asks players to consider what could have gone differently during the course of World War II. For the budding revisionist historian, it allows for crazy “what if?” questions by letting players run, say, Japan as an ally of democracy, or France as a fascist regime. What if Ireland became a naval powerhouse with a fleet of submarines, or Italy never succumbed to infighting, resisting the Germans and taking North Africa for its own? These are fun questions to answer through gameplay. However, if you’re more of a purist, there are options to play a straighter version of the war, where things will attempt to go more closely according to history, and major nations have certain incentives to follow their historical paths via large branching trees of national focuses that can be developed over time.
Watching the results of these endeavors is exciting and motivating, as Hearts of Iron IV has an authentic look and feel. Sweeping music gives a backdrop for the world map, which slowly (or quickly, depending on circumstances) becomes a beautiful mess of strategic movements across colorful world territories. It can be a lot to take in, especially given the different strategic views available to take of the map, but aside from a few UI issues that could use improvement, it’s a game that provides all necessary information and looks great doing it.
Getting to a point where one might be able to appreciate these many nice qualities, however, can take an awful lot of work. The game does feature a tutorial that gives players a chance to get their feet wet by guiding them through the basics, but those basics really aren’t enough to approach the game properly and understand how the different systems fit together. While it touches on most of the major stuff, and has one go through menus, pressing buttons to show how a lot of things are done, it doesn’t do much to demonstrate the true relevance of those actions. Instead of one long scenario taking place in a real-game environment, a handful of more artificial segments that teach systems in more detail would probably be more valuable to new players.
What this means for non-veterans is that their initial time with the game will need to be spent poring over beginner’s guides or slogging through a few slow and confusing games before they pick up on how the basic systems really function. Thankfully, Paradox has anticipated this and provides a lot of information online, and the game’s lively community has offered a lot too. But it’s still a shame that more of it wasn’t included within the game proper.
What awaits players who do put in the time and effort to understand what’s on offer is a veritable feast of historical wartime delights, from representations of various World War II-era military machines (submarines, artillery, cruisers, capital ships, fighters, bombers, tanks, you name it) to infantry divisions and classical real-world technologies. Research trees are in effect, allowing for gradual directed progression, and individual games can be started in either January of 1936, allowing for a longer strategic front-end to the game where players can mold their infrastructure, or August of 1939, moving into headier territory where major historical movements have already taken place. It’s nice to have this choice, as time moves slowly in Hearts of Iron IV. The game passes in hours rather than days, and even with the adjustable timescale set to the fastest setting (which is welcome in games where long stretches of building are necessary, especially as smaller nations with less to actively do), time doesn’t just rocket by.
Once your infrastructure has been bolstered and your recruits have been outfitted, manipulating your armies is an exciting experience where tactical planning rules the day. Drawing defensive and offensive lines and watching your units scramble to carry out your orders is satisfying, especially when an attack goes as planned, though individual combats are resolved gradually and automatically based on number and composition of divisions. A coordinated attack using armies, naval forces, and contributing squadrons of fighters and bombers is a joy to watch come together, especially if you’ve put in a lot of time building and researching your way toward that end goal.
Whether you play in single player or multiplayer modes, Hearts of Iron IV provides an impressive feast of deep strategic gameplay, but it’s never a game one can take lightly. Newcomers to the franchise, even if veteran strategy fans, will likely need to invest many hours before getting to a point where they’ll feel comfortable, and it’s a barrier to entry that will be too high for many. Stellaris players will notice similarities in the engine, notably the way statistical tooltip information is conveyed, but should still expect a much steeper learning curve without nearly as much in-game assistance.
While Hearts of Iron IV does suffer from some unfortunate performance issues, especially during endgame periods where so many AI considerations need to be computed (especially rough when time is sped up), Paradox is known for steadfastly supporting their games, so hopefully they’ll improve those things in the short term before working on upcoming DLC. Either way, players who have the patience to deal with the game’s few technical issues and the lack of worthwhile tutorials, will find a deep game, a responsive developer, and an active, helpful community to be their reward.