In Hearts of Iron IV there’s an early choice between starting in 1939 and playing out a broadly historical version of WW2, or beginning in 1936 with the historical focus toggled ‘off’. When you do the latter, you may very well play out a scenario in which a victorious Republican Spain teams up with newly Leftist France and a Trotsky-helmed Soviet Union to form an unstoppable bloc of Communist super-friends. As someone who’s new to the Hearts of Iron series, but always keen on Paradox’s recent grand strategy titles taking swerves into alt-events, the ahistorical 1936 start seems like it was aimed right in my direction.

I’m not equipped to critique how this release differs from Hearts of Iron III (or two, for that matter), but my 20-odd hours with Hearts of Iron IV mean I can offer the perspective of a modern-era Paradox player who’s wondering whether to enlist.

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Does this image make you panic? Don’t worry, it’s not usually this baffling.

The short answer to that would be a tentative yes. Hearts of Iron IV will appeal to the WW2 historians who like to play through hypothetical scenarios, just as Europa Universalis IV offers a sandbox of 16th Century nation states. Having at least a rough understanding of the political and military catalysts of WW2 makes their alternative versions that bit more satisfying. What if the annexation of Austria takes place earlier, in 1937, and Britain and France opt to go to war over it? How do things change if Italy make significant military gains early in the war? If the US remains out of the conflict, can the Allies still triumph?

Hearts of Iron IV provides the mechanics and the possibilities to explore all of those types of questions; at least within the game’s own closed system of simulations.

Getting into the game will take a little more dedication than demanded by contemporary Paradox offerings, though. While the user interface mostly does its best to be friendly and intuitive (the aircraft deployment section is a rare, clunky outlier), there can still be an awful lot of logistical and economic production information to process at once. The tutorial does a semi-reasonable job of introducing basic concepts like army battle plans and research trees via Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia, but by no means manages (or even attempts) to explain every aspect of the game.

You’re presumably supposed to fill in the gaps with the in-game links to the Hearts of Iron IV wiki pages. Except even post-release a lot of those pages aren’t even close to complete, so that’s not a great help. Their Beginner Tutorial video series is a more reliable bet for now.

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This tech tree seems pretty standard until you notice there are TEN OTHER RESEARCH TABS.

Persist through the plentiful tooltips, a bit of external online reading, and some trial and error, however, and most things will begin to make sense (though I sincerely doubt anybody at this stage really understands the full complexities of the military division designer). It’s much more of a Crusader Kings II than a Stellaris, but in the tradition of many Paradox games there’s much to be learned, and enjoyed, through mistakes and experimentation.

Hearts of Iron IV allows you to play as almost any global nation existing in 1936. But, while playing as a smaller power has its own charms, it’s the big seven of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States who offer the most distinct and defined variations. That’s partially down to their relative positions of strength, but mainly thanks to the National Focus tree which allows players to roughly plan what sort of direction they wish to take their nation. Every country has one of these, but only the big seven (plus Poland, thanks to some free DLC) get unique ones for now.

France, for instance, starts with large negative modifiers to the research of war doctrines (modelling a post-WW1 military complacency), and low national unity (which reflects how many victory points can be lost in a war before the country capitulates). In conjunction with technological research geared towards production, and a push towards military industrialisation, I tried to steer my French campaign towards defensive positioning (via extensions of the Maginot Line), and government reform.

With the Spanish Republic doing well to my south, circumstances (and, let’s be honest, personal preference) pushed my government to the hard left. Communist hands on the reigns of power did nothing for my national unity, but helping Spain push out the Fascists meant a safe southern border, a new ally, and a future compatriot in the Soviet Union.

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I think this particular stratagum is known as ‘The Soviet Squeeze’.

That plan worked out pretty well, with beefed up French defenses holding firm against German and (eventually) Italian advances, and the Reich being squeezed by the Soviets. Foolishly though, I’d not accounted for the collapse of Belgium, which left Germany a rather tempting path straight to the heart of Paris. It took some desperate fighting retreats and the deployment of some half-trained mechanised divisions to keep them out, but for a few tense weeks it looked like Hitler might be taking Eva Braun to the Champs Elysee after all.

Military pushes, defensive fronts, and ceded ground are most easily controlled though Hearts of Iron IV’s battle planning system. Like everything else, the deeper nuances of this system may take time to show themselves (I’m sure I only have an early-layer understanding of it at the moment), but are essentially based around establishing fronts and mapping expansive pushes for your divisions. With your plan laid and territory painted out, you can then initiate your tactical masterpiece and watch your hardy troops try to carry out the orders.

Divisions can still be handled and controlled on a more micro level, but there are large planning bonuses to be gained by using the in-built battle planner. Prior to activation, the UI will indicate whether the plan is deemed to be ‘risky’, advantageous, or just downright idiotic (noting important things like river crossings, provinces heavily defended by forts, outmatched forces and so on). It’s possible to tease some extra tactical finesse out of the system by giving separate divisions specific plans, like pushing a weak flank with armour while your soldiers sweep forward on a broader plain.

Things can start to get a bit confused with deep encircling maneuvers, because it naturally creates a massive front line that your AI-guided troops then automatically attempt to garrison, but a bit of close-level tweaking of where you want the actual front line to be can solve this. The majority of the time, the battle planning system acts as a competent tool to make your large-scale assault plans come to fruition.

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Ahh, the old sneak through Belgium trick. I should’ve known.

In theory, the naval and airforce interfaces should be more straightforward, as they only involve assigning placement and specific missions (search and destroy convoys, strategic bombing of ports and the like), but they come across as more complex due to rather more cumbersome presentation. The process of creating, moving, and deploying air wings in efforts to maintain air superiority seem particularly Byzantine at first, until you get slightly more used to their foibles. AI opponents seem to handle air power relatively well, protecting their skies and bombing player fleets where able. But they seem less capable when it comes to defending their own boats from bombing raids of your own.

Hearts of Iron IV’s AI is also pretty keen on launching naval invasions. This is hypothetically encouraging; as a player, you should be defending your coast-lines, and you’ll want your allies to help out with island attacks. Unfortunately, these invasions don’t tend to be very co-ordinated. Back in my France game, I spent a year or so watching with despair as the US launched dribs and drabs of single divisions to die on the shorelines of Japan.

This speaks to one of the persistent shortcomings of the game; the inability to truly co-ordinate allied invasions or attacks with your AI faction. They will join in with an obvious push once it gets started, but your country always seems to have to take the lead. A bit tricky when you’re France and the only foe left standing is Japan. A lot of the other diplomatic interactions are terrific, like the ability to lend other countries equipment, send volunteer forces, and attempt to sway political opinion in their government. It’s just missing the equivalent of a rallying cry to say “guys, look, Japan are the only ones left, can we all manage to attempt a proper naval invasion at the same time please?”

Ultimately, I could only take Japan down by (very slowly) inciting a Communist coup and civil war, opening up a couple of friendly ports to land at without suffering horrific, supply-starved attrition. Making Japan (and other well-armed island nations) hard to assault is great, but it seemed a bit ridiculous that they were able to hold out for about five years when every single other Fascist power had fallen by 1943. Mostly due to my AI allies seeming disinterested in ending the war.

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How not to invade Japan.

Don’t take these specific incidents of failure as indictments of the entire AI, though. Up until the Japanese debacle, my AI comrades had done a smart and believable (within the confines of my alt-history run) job executing their own wars and battling the Axis. Likewise, Italy had proved pretty relentless in its efforts to cross the Alps, and had devoured large chunks of Africa that I’d abandoned to bolster the French defenses. As mentioned, Germany came dangerously close to whisking Paris from under my nose too, but ultimately couldn’t handle pressure from Soviet advances and incursions on the former Dutch coast from a resurgent Republican Spain.

Hearts of Iron IV has plenty of other clever design devices going for it too. Democratic governments are prevented from rushing into war, or even performing certain actions, until the slowly ticking World Tension meter climbs high enough (reflecting a general unwillingness of the great powers to tumble into another World War). Meanwhile, Fascist and Communists can go around gobbling up all the nearby states they wish, as long as they’re careful not to nudge the Tension too far before they’re ready for global conflict. Though perhaps a little stifling for Democratic countries in the early game period, it’s a pretty neat balancing act that ensures a World War is always coming, but shouldn’t trigger too early on an unlikely premise.

As well as an intellect capable of juggling military factory production, diplomacy, troop deployment, and battle strategy, it’ll help to have as powerful a CPU as possible. As tends to be the case with the Paradox Clausewitz Engine, frame-rates start to tank when you ramp up the speed at which time passes (which you’ll need to do fairly often during quieter periods). My i5-6600 is no slouch, but it flops down to about 15fps at the top speed as the game (presumably) tries to calculate the paths of hundreds of unique player and AI divisions in the later years of the war. Turning down the limited graphical prettiness (3D units and similar) doesn’t have much impact either way. Loading times are quite snappy, at least.

I’ve also got some issues about how weirdly this game deals with nuclear weapons. They’re purely a method of reducing a nation’s will to fight, which makes sense in itself, but it’s very odd that they have pretty much no other consequences. Nuclear attacks are one of the rare mechanics that doesn’t appear to have been fully thought through, and seems to exist in bizarre isolation to much of the rest of the game. There’s no apparent effect on a country’s manpower, it does some fairly meaningless infrastructure damage, and the world at large doesn’t seem to care. Tossing multiple nukes around should make you history’s all-time greatest monster, but no-one gives a shit.

On a note of rather less import, the game could really do with more leader portraits for South America. Unless every nation really is ruled by the same Latin American guy in a slightly different suit.

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The world of 1948 is a strange place indeed.

Having the AI nations use the same National Focus rules as the player is Hearts of Iron IV’s elegant method of keeping a lid on their activities, or allowing them off the leash, as required. When they do go off the rails (sometimes to a slightly silly, but far from dull, extent), it’s likely because the player desires a non-standard campaign. Further, while the AI control over armies, navies and planes can be inconsistent, it is rarely absurd. And, if you’re feeling charitable, the occasional military blunders can be attributed to “well, that’s WW2 commanders for you”. Though I obviously can’t account for every possible eventuality in a game with such density, it appears to be releasing in better condition Stellaris. That’s a game I greatly enjoyed as well; but in retrospect it could have done with a tactful delay. Something, in fact, which Hearts of Iron IV did receive.

This game is going to make demands of those who’ve rarely (or never) played a Paradox title, and will even be a bit daunting for people like myself who are familiar with contemporary games like Europa Universalis IV. Some of the series hardcore might take the view (and I’ve seen complaints to those ends) that Hearts of Iron IV is too streamlined in comparison with its predecessors; but there’s going to be plenty of complexity here for the majority of players.

Crucially, that complexity isn’t arbitrary or impenetrable. With a bit of time and thought it does become clear how the game’s various systems work. Confusion will morph into confidence, and then a little admiration for the interconnected mechanics. At that point, Hearts of Iron IV blossoms into an engaging and rather fascinating alt-history way of fighting the defining conflicts of 1936-1950. Just be aware that it can be a tough, embattled road to get there.

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