World War II. The Great War. Just the utterance of its name brings gamers to their knees as they find themselves surrounded in a plethora of WWII games. When they were good, they were really good. When they were bad, they caused WWIII. The original Hearts of Iron fell somewhere between the two extremes. Many that remember Hearts of Iron remember it as a decent, yet buggy game that lacked polish. Well the folks over at Paradox Interactive decided to go back to the drawing board. Hearts of Iron II offers a revamped game engine, enough depth to make Franklin D. Roosevelt jump around and shout, and tops it off with unprecedented flexibility. It looks like the second time around the HoI series may have struck gold.
The first thing you are going to notice about HoI II without even opening up the box is that it is going to be complex. I know there are some players (myself included) who like to just jump into a game and learn everything they need to know by fooling around with the controls and using trial and error. Well, that is not going to happen in HoI II. I fear that when the average gamer first stares at the interface of the game, he/she is going to want to gauge out their own eyeballs with their thumbs. It will be an understatement to say that you need to read the manual and play the tutorial. Hearts of Iron II has a very unforgiving learning curve. The tutorial only helps a little; the same applies to the manual. They both only slightly soften the transition. It will take a few defeats and total annihilations before you begin to get a feel for this game.
The game has over a hundred countries you can play. The countries range from the super powers, such as the USA and Germany, to countries like Lithuania and Tibet. Whichever country you choose, however, provides a different experience. For instance, the super powers may have to make decisions that can affect the entire globe, or if you’re a smaller country, you may be caught in a war between two more powerful countries and have to work at remaining neutral or side with whatever country holds your best interest. Playing as a small country is actually much easier and more fun; you won’t have many provinces to worry about and can focus more on fighting, which you’ll need to do, because many of the other countries are going to come after you. The game has what is called victory points – gaining these is technically how you win the game. You have a pre-set time limit to finish the game, which is usually until December 30, 1947, and whoever has the most victory points wins. You gain victory points by taking over provinces, making alliances, etc. It’s fairly impossible to get the most victory points if you are playing as a non-superpower – then, you really have to set your own moral victories. This is one thing I do not like, especially when in multiplayer mode. There should have been way more game victory conditions, instead of having to convince myself that even though the Axis has way more victory points and controls most of Europe, I have somehow won because they have not taken over all of my provinces yet. Another problem I noticed was that when playing a smaller country, like Tibet, it’s fairly easy to navigate between provinces and to see what you control, but as one of the super powers, such as the Soviet Union or Germany, it’s very easy to loose track of how many countries and provinces you have taken over. As one of the super powers, you are usually waging war on multiple fronts, on all sides of the world. So, if you are Germany and pay too much attention to all the rebellion that is going on in France and Britain, you will soon forget all about your war in Africa and can suffer heavy loses on that side of the globe.
Although [Heart of Iron II is centered around war, players have to manage other aspects of their country as well. Politics, although from the look of it, may not seem very important in winning the game, is a key factor in how other countries perceive you, and is important when making alliances and negotiating trade. You can hire or fire just about anyone in your government. Each political leader to hold office and decision you make has different attributes – it adds to your armies and country. Your economy is also important. All of your armies and crew and technology require resources. Raw materials, energy, oil, metal, supplies, and of course, money are the foundations of your economy and are needed to do everything in the game. You obtain these resources and money through the provinces you have control over. Different provinces have different abundant resources to take advantage of. Building factories, mobilizing troops, making new weapons and troops, and re-supplying troops all use resources – war is a very expensive endeavor. Another very important aspect of the game that real-time strategy buffs should recognize is the technology factor. In war, it’s almost always the side with the most technology that wins. This is probably the most important aspect of HoI II. Since most of the battle scenarios you encounter span over a long period of time, making sure your troops have the latest and greatest in warfare technology is a must. In order to do that, you have to assign research teams to help create different technologies. Different research teams and scientists possess different specialties. Everything from aeronautics to nuclear research teams is at your disposal. The research works like most strategy games, except on a grander scale. You have a tech tree, you have to research different technologies in order to obtain certain weapons, and your research teams can even stumble across a new technology or weapon by accident.
What is probably the greatest achievement in HoI II is its presentation of all the different aspects of warfare. Every battle scenario is highly detailed no matter how big or small the country you play. Developers have actually managed to supply a name and a mug shot of every person in the game, and believe me; there are a lot of people in this game – over 12,500. Everyone is in this game, from Joseph V. Stalin to Warner von Braun (the guy who helped America win the space race by sending us to the moon). I can not imagine the late nights it took to input all these people from the various countries, and that they found an actual photo of each of them is just mind-boggling. Attention to detail is the thing that separates this game from the pack. HoI II offers a nice dramatic and heroic musical score that we have become accustomed to in WWII games. The only things I would have liked to see are better combat animations and rewards in the form of actual World War II footage from the particular battle scenario the player is in. That would no doubt have gotten this game a near-perfect score.
Hearts of Iron II is by far the best war-themed strategy game on the market, but it isn’t a game for those with short attention spans. If gamers can survive the learning curve, however, and show some patience, they will find one of the most fulfilling gaming experiences out there.