Review: Hearts of Iron III (PC)
by Mohamed Al-Saadoon on August 19, 2009

Hearts of Iron III
Genre: Grand Strategy
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 7/31/2009

I’ve mentioned this before in my preview for this game, but Hearts of Iron II stands as one of my favorite games of all time. I still have it installed on my computer, complete with its expansion packs, and I still play it from time to time. Understandably, I was ecstatic when we received a copy of Hearts of Iron III. It’s been 4 years in the making and the hype surrounding the game was immense (well, as immense as a bunch of strategy nerds could muster) and many began wondering whether it lived up to it.

1. Story/Game Modes:

Hearts of Iron III has three main modes: Single player, Multiplayer and Tutorial. All of these should be pretty much self explanatory. The tutorial does a pretty good job of showing you the basics of the game, and it’s quite hilarious having Adolf Hitler teach you how to play a WWII strategy game. I have two complaints however. First, the tutorial is non-interactive, which makes grasping the slew of information thrown at you a bit more difficult. The tutorial also neglects to cover the deeper aspects of the game (in order to not sound long winded I suppose) which means you’ll be cracking open the manual or hunting around the Paradox forums for help sooner or later.

As for Single player, you have all the starting points from Hearts of Iron II, such as “The Gathering Storm” (1938) and “Gotterdammerung” (1944) but some of the names have been changed (“Awakening the Giant” has been renamed “Day of Infamy”. Can you guess the start date?), but what’s missing is all of the small scale scenarios that focused on combat, such as “The Desert Fox”, which put you in the shoes of Erwin Rommel and restricted you to a small area of the map. These scenarios were fun and since research, diplomacy and production were disabled, it made them great for new players to practice on. Why these would be removed is a mystery to me.

Multiplayer works exactly as it did in Hearts of Iron II. No complaints there.

Story/Game Modes Rating: Decent

2. Graphics:

Grand strategy games aren’t known for having flashy graphics, which is partly due to them being unnecessary, and partly due to the fact that most grand strategy games are being developed by indie studios with a limited budget. Paradox are an indie studio, but they have a budget much larger than most due to their extensive publishing business as well as their own successful line of strategy games, so they decided to put it to good use and make the graphics a little spiffier.
Hearts of Iron III uses the Europa Universalis III 3D graphics engine. This was something I was apprehensive about, as I disliked the simplistic and ugly graphics in EUIII when 2D would have sufficed, but Paradox have done well here. They set out to make the map “feel like a WW2 map, like it could be a map which… a commander in the War would be looking at himself” and with this they’ve largely succeeded. The map has this nice texture when you zoom out that shows the contours of mountains and plains very nicely. When you zoom out all the way, the texture is removed for easier viewing of the map.

The HUD is also very nice looking and laid out well, and the interface is very stylish, which certainly gives the game that “Large Budget” feel.

However, the models for your units are still kinda weird looking and out of place, and you’ll want to switch to NATO style counters fairly quickly, simply because it’s more useful and makes you feel more like a real general.

When you zoom out the map all the way, the textures disappear but the colors are all washed out, making it hard to distinguish border provinces. I guess they did this to capture a “WW2 feel”, but it’s just annoying.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound:

Andreas Waldetoft returns to compose the soundtrack for Hearts of Iron III, which is expected, because he’s the closest thing Paradox have to a resident composer. He’s done several soundtracks for the company, including Hearts of Iron II (his first project), Europa Universalis III and the upcoming Majesty 2. This is a good thing, as the soundtrack for Hearts of Iron II was excellent and Mr.Waldetoft hands out another superb soundtrack for Hearts of Iron III.

To quickly sum up the style of music in the game, think of the soundtrack of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers and you have a general idea of what the music sounds like, with the significant difference being that the music in the game sounds a bit more “grand” or “epic” as it’s covering the rise and fall of nations instead of the struggles of a small group of men.

In Hearts of Iron II, the music ran in a simple loop, and when one track was over it moved to the next in the playlist, and so on. Hearts of Iron III instead uses an innovative system to make the music match the onscreen action. Many tracks in the game are “general”, as in they play randomly when nothing much is going on, but there’s a lot of music that’s “situational”. For example, when you manage to string together a large amount of battle victories, a very glorious music piece starts playing, full of brass instruments and drums. On the other hand, if you’re losing a lot of men and your manpower meter starts dropping, a slow, sad piece starts playing, filled with string and wind instruments.

This is an excellent way of integrating an already well suited soundtrack even further into the game, and GREATLY increases the immersion factor.

There are no voice overs, as they are not really needed, but it would have been hilarious if Hitler was voiced during the tutorial sessions of the game.

The sound effects are okay, but they are mostly recycled from Hearts of Iron II, and I wish they would have recorded some new ones.

The music is still in MP3 format, which means you can easily listen to it outside of the game on any media player. Thanks Paradox!

Sound Rating: Classic

4. Control/Gameplay:

The amounts of changes made to this game, compared to its predecessor, are so great that even veterans of earlier Hearts of Iron games might feel they are newbies at their own game.

First off is the enormous number of provinces in the game. Hearts of Iron 2 had about 2400 provinces. This game has somewhere in the vicinity of 15000! This works better for some nations that had only one or two provinces in Hearts of Iron 2 (Albania now has seven provinces for example) and greatly increases the playability of nations located in regions with poor research in the first and second games (I’m looking at you, East Asia). This also makes strategic battles… actually strategic. In past games, because the front was so narrow at many points in the game, victory boiled down to who could shove more units into the meat grinder and win the war of attrition. Now, since the front is so much wider, you’re going to have to think about things like breakthroughs, encirclements and defense in-depth. Combine this with the fact that you have less units around, since you group regiments together into divisions, unlike previous games where you just built whole divisions for the same price of a regiment in HoI3.

Politics also saw a makeover, as you can now see all the different political parties in your nation and their support from the populace. This is important for democracies, mostly, as elections always loom, but dictatorships, not so much (though you really shouldn’t completely ignore the plebes), and each of your ministers belong to a certain party in your nation. Also new are “laws” that can be changed if you meet certain criteria. One notable example is moving from a peace time economy (which deals a huge hit in industrial capacity) to a totally mobilized war economy (which gives bonuses to industry) with several steps in between, which is beneficial. To do so, however, you actually need to be at war first, and for democracies, you need a nation that poses a threat to you to be able to declare war (there’s an in game “threat” meter that rises when a nation declares war or acts militaristic) though fascist and communist dictatorships can declare war whenever they want (lucky bastards). The best addition, though, is how you treat your conquered foes. You can choose things like “Collaboration government” which is the safest option if you don’t want a revolt, but also the one with the least payout. The other end of the scale is “Total Exploitation”, which only totalitarian governments can select. You can probably guess the effects of that one.

Diplomacy has also been retooled to add more options, my favorite of which is to ask for production license. What that means is if you don’t have the technology to build a certain unit, you can pay another nation for the right to build a small number of their unit. Italy can ask Germany for the technology to build FW-190s to fix their own weak air force. This was on my wish list from Hearts of Iron II and I’m glad they implemented it.

The most drastic change to diplomacy, however is the diplomacy triangle chart. All the nations of the game are placed on a triangle chart with the points signifying the Allies, the Axis and the Comintern. You can influence nations to your ideology through diplomacy, and they’ll slowly drift into your camp, gaining you a new ally. This is a good idea, but the chart is hard to look at; so many nations means all the flags just overlap with each other, and since the flags are small icons, that makes them even harder to see!

Research has been completely overhauled, with both good and bad aspects. First off, research shares a meter called the “leadership” meter with diplomacy, intelligence and the officer corp. This represents your nation’s “best and brightest”. If you have 10 leadership points assigned to research, you can research 10 projects at once, while if you assign more to the Office corp your military performs better on the field, and so on. The good thing is that this balances the game and allows you to fine tune your nation’s scientific abilities. The bad thing is that there are no more historical “tech teams”.

This is one of the major flaws in the game: the removal of historical flavor. Hearts of Iron II had many historical “events” such as the Xi’an Incident, which gave Nationalist China the choice to forge the united front with Communist China, continue the war with the communists or stall for time by hedging your bets. In Hearts of Iron III the number of events is drastically reduced in an effort to keep the game from becoming predictable. While this is a good idea in theory, the game becomes too random for its own good, with things like Italy invading Norway, or the United States joining the Axis and invading Mexico, or sometimes WWII never starts at all, because the major powers are so busy with their own regional delusions of grandeur, they don’t bother to fight each other!

The removal of things like events and tech teams also makes the game lose some of its “flavor” and immersion. You feel like you’re playing a game, not leading a nation.

The AI in the game is also quite poor. You can delegate tasks to it, but doing so will mostly just mess up your game as the AI commits blunder after blunder, which is most often seen in the military AI. You can give a command to a high ranking officer and he’ll carry it out with all the units that are underneath him. He also gauges the enemy’s strength and request reinforcements. But more often than not, his requests are completely insane! I have an Italian army in East Africa that dwarfs the Ethiopian Army several times over, but when ordered to attack, the commander keeps asking for tanks, heavy bombers and numerous regiments of infantry!

Enemy AI is just as stupid. Most of the time it feels like picking on a slow kid; you just feel bad afterward, with no satisfaction gained from your enormous victories over your neighboring countries. What’s the point of good gameplay without the satisfaction of a game well played?

Control/Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability:
I don’t have the exact number of nations you can play in the game, but as I recall it was somewhere in the region of 200 nations! This includes not only nations that existed during World War II, but any nation that could possibly exist during World War II! For example, I could be playing as Germany and somehow, I could manage to invade and conquer the United States. You can then either control the area directly (bad idea, it’s too huge) or install a puppet government. You can either give this government the whole of the United States, or you can give back the Southern States and reform the Confederacy!

Also, since the number of technologies has increased, you have much greater freedom to diverge from previous games and try something new.

The new expanded politics and diplomacy also give the player a lot of choice and diversity when it comes to how they wants to play the game.

Finally, while I find the removal of the historical events to be a bad thing, it really does create a sense of randomness that you can’t control. You can literally play the same nation over and over and never have anything unfold the same way twice.

Replayability Rating: Unparalleled

6. Balance:

I’ve already gone over how the research system was set up earlier in the review, and while I do believe it removes a lot of the historical flavor of the game, it does end up being a good “gamey” addition to the game. In Hearts of Iron II, to research technology, you assigned a “tech team” to a technology and they got on with it. These teams were different for each country and are actual real life companies that researched the tech in WWII. For example, you could set Mitsubishi to design new interceptors, Siemens to design new radar or MIT to research computing machines. The problem was that small nations had crappy tech teams and they couldn’t do anything about it. But with the new system they have some chance of growing a good scientific establishment.

The increased numbers of provinces also helps small nations avoid being rolled over by big ones. They at least have a buffer zone of a few provinces to play around with.

However, the 1940s are still a bad time to be a small nation; it’s very difficult to hold your own against the big boys even with the new additions, but you won’t feel as helpless as in earlier games.

Balance Rating: Above Average

7. Originality:

The grand strategy genre as a whole hasn’t received much innovation or change for years because it really doesn’t need it. You control a nation, you go to war. End of story.

Hearts of Iron III, while introducing several new gameplay and interface features, doesn’t deviate far from the premise and ideas of earlier titles in the series.

I’ll give Paradox credit, though, for attempting so many bold gameplay changes in a single sequel instead of spreading them over several expansion packs or even more sequels.

Originality Rating: Below Average

8. Addictiveness:

Grand strategy games are always addicting. Who doesn’t want to rule the world with an iron fist or have the opportunity to change history? In this vein, the genre is similar to titles such as Civilization with its “one more turn syndrome” (though Hearts of Iron is turn-less).

There’s literally so much screaming for your attention in the game, between the politics, diplomacy, needy generals and annoying partisans, not to mention the fact that you can run a deficit in energy, metal, money or Vespe… errr, Oil.

But the same overload of tasks can actually make the game less addicting at times!

You say to yourself “Let’s fire up Hearts of Iron III“, but then you remember all the these responsibilities, and you just feel like it’s work rather than play. Isn’t that what you do after a hard day’s work? Play? Not more work, certainly!

Once you fit into the HoI groove, it will hold you tight, but it’s a hard groove to get into.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor:

Unless you’re a huge history nerd, you won’t even look at Hearts of Iron III for more than 2 seconds before moving on. It’s just not that appealing to the general public, most of whom don’t know anything about WWII past Omaha, Iwo Jima and the A-bombs.

Add to that the staggering learning curve of the game and the thick manual, and you have a game that’s simply designed for its fanbase.

That fanbase, though, is quite substantial. It’s the reason Paradox has managed to move from being A indie publisher to THE indie publisher. While mostly popular in Europe, they have a solid fanbase in North America and around the world as well (what with me being in Saudi Arabia and all), and judging from its ranking on Steam and Direct2Drive, it’s quite a sizable fanbase all in all.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous:

When Hearts of Iron III first came out, the Paradox forums were flooded with numerous reports of bugs, crashes and generally slow gameplay for anyone without a powerful gaming rig. This is ridiculous, considering one of the reasons for the move to 3D was to offload more tasks to the GPU and free up more room on the CPU to avoid slowdown! Yet many people have complained that the game runs at a snail’s pace!

Combine that with the “Consumer Goods bug”. This causes AI nations in the game to put 90% of their IC into consumer goods in order to keep down dissent, neglecting every other part of their war industry and making for an easy rout.

The 1.1 patch did little to solve things, and actually increased the problems in the game! Playing the Soviet Union in 1943 is impossible due to the fact that the supply needs of your troops far exceed the amount of industrial capacity of your entire nation. So in essence, the red army will starve to death and you’ll lose. Not to mention that several locations on the map are incorrect; most notably, Stalingrad of all places is placed incorrectly! Stalingrad! It’s not enough that the game was rushed out in such a poor state, but the patch is just as rushed out as the game!

And what about the map goofs? Well, they’re not fixing them “at this time” because it will take too much work and Paradox has blatantly said in their forums “use a fan made mod”. Now that’s just messed up.

The icing on the cake is that you have to register your game to receive access to the tech support forums and updates. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, except that you can only register the game ONCE. If you sell or give away your copy of the game, that person would not be able to get tech support or patches! What’s worse is that Paradox readily admits that this was done to combat used game sales on their forums (as well as combating piracy and all that).

The only good thing I can think of about all this is that Paradox gives you a free strategy guide when you register, and considering what these things cost for other games, it’s a nice offer.

Miscellaneous Rating: Very Bad

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: Decent
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Classic
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Very Bad

FINAL SCORE: Above Average game!

Short Attention Span Summary:

Hearts of Iron III would be an amazing game, had it not been rushed so quickly out the door; as it stands now, it is too buggy and the AI is too dumb. However, Paradox games are like a fine wine and only get better with age… and several doses of patching. Once it’s fully patched, it will most certainly live up to its unfulfilled potential.

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Mohamed Al-Saadoon

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