Strategy games have become entrenched as a core genre for PC gamers in recent years, which has caused the genre to adapt to the expanding audience. For some this has allowed entry to the massive world of RTS games for the first time, but veterans of the genre sometimes feel that their hardcore grognard needs are being ignored. Don’t worry, guys, Paradox has your back – Hearts of Iron III is a game with a steep learning curve that will reward the investment of tons of hours learning the intricacies of its systems. But is it any good? Read on and find out!
Hearts of Iron III is an epic strategy game that allows you to play as pretty much any nation that existed between 1936 and 1948, with more than 150 total choices! There are more than 10,000 land areas in the game, making this five times more detailed than Hearts of Iron II, according to the developer, and easily the most detailed and comprehensive depiction of World War II ever brought to life in a video game.
Let me first talk about what this game is NOT: it is not Company of Heroes. It never tries to be – sure it is a strategy game, and the action happens in real-time, and it is set in World War II, but other than those details there is no resemblance. Nor is it anything like any other World War II franchise such as Brothers in Arms or Call of Duty. Nor is it like a computerized version of the wonderful tabletop game Axis & Allies. What is IS, is a comprehensive strategy simulation that lets you take leadership of nearly any country and attempt to recreate or rewrite the history of the second world war.
Next, let me be clear on something else: this game has a brutal learning curve. Before buying this game you need to be prepared for the confusion that will precede actually making progress and getting into battles. But let me also say that it is worth the confusion, complexity and struggle to get to that point, because what you will uncover is an incredibly deep and detailed game unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
If you are still reading this, let me give you a couple more reasons to run screaming from this game: even once you have learned how to make progress, the game is very difficult. This is not a game where you are just generating resources to make units to attack enemies and so on in a preset scenario, it is a comprehensive game in which you are completely in charge of the conduct of the country you control. You are in charge of the military, certainly, but also intelligence, technology development, production and manufacturing, politics and diplomacy.
Also, things like graphics and production values were clearly not the focus of the developers, as the game has a decidedly low-tech look and feel. Based on the small amount of experience I have had playing the earlier games in the franchise, I can say that the graphics have been considerably updated – the developer says it is using an entirely new engine that allows them to graphically represent all units on the screen rather than using text. Given the nearly overwhelming scope of the game, I found the graphics improvements quite impressive – but I feel it is fair to warn those accustomed to the seeming arms-race of graphics improvements that many strategy titles are involved in.
The controls and user interface definitely help you along the way. There are plenty of keyboard shortcuts to learn, and the interface will help you. There are also sliders and buttons to decide how much manual and automatic control is applied to each area of your country. In fact, it is possible to automate nearly everything in your country so that you are pretty much watching the game play itself … but I have no idea why that would be much fun! The interface is logically laid out, with icon names and descriptions that make sense, and tutorial areas that explain many of the things you need to know to be effective. Actually, to call them tutorials is misleading, as they are more like online manuals with loads of reading and no actual ‘doing’ involved. But while you might feel compelled to skip them at first as I did, you will soon be back reading and learning.
So we have a hardcore ‘Grand Strategy’ game with a steep learning curve, brutal challenge, staggering scope and amount of content, and graphics and production values with an ‘old school’ feel. As you might be able to tell, this is not what would easily be described as a mainstream release – and I see that as a good thing.
For me, the biggest letdown initially was that the game shipped with loads of bugs and felt like it had a memory leak on my system that would bring it to a crawl after a relatively short amount of play time. Fortunately since then the game has had a couple of patches, and the last one along had literally hundreds of fixes to issues from AI to bugs to balancing and so on. After the 1.2 patch I never had a single issue with apparent bugs or performance degradation.
Let me put this bluntly – if you are reading this review there is a strong chance this game isn’t aimed at you. That is not a shot at the readers of this site at all, it is just the reality that a true grognard appreciation game like this has a very limited audience. That audience has seen the number of games that scratch that particular itch dwindle in recent years, so it is an absolute joy for me that (especially with the 1.2 patch) I can unequivocally recommend this game for those who count themselves amongst the numbers of hardcore strategy gamers.
+ Incredible scope
+ Near complete control of all aspects of your country
+ Ability to partition what is AI controlled and what you control
+ Tons of content and detail
– Very challenging and steep learning curve
– Graphics might be off-putting for those expecting Company of Heroes
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 8/11/09
Genre(s): Real-Time Strategy
ESRB Rating: E10+
Source: Review code provided by publisher