Review: Darkest Hour: A Hearts of Iron Game (PC)

Darkest Hour: A Hearts of Iron Game
Genre: Grand Strategy
Developer: Darkest Hour Team
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 04/05/2011

Hearts of Iron II came out before I joined the staff here at Diehard GameFAN and therefore I never had the chance to review it although I often referred to it as one of my all time favourite games. Hours would seemingly go by like minutes as I planned my economy, organized my forces and researched new snorkels for my submarines. Not even the mighty Sid Meier’s Civilization could hold me in its thrall like Hearts of Iron II.

I did review Hearts of Iron III back in the day and while I generally liked it, I decided to hold off on playing it past that untill the game was patched. Sadly, due to the ever increasing frequency of great games coming out meant I didn’t have the chance to ever return to Hearts of Iron III or the HoI series in general until we got a review copy of Darkest Hour. Darkest Hour is a fan made expansion for Hearts of Iron II in the same vein as Arsenal of Democracy and Iron Cross.

I was interested because I never really tried the other fan made titles. I was also interested in diving back into the Hearts of Iron II fandom and seeing what they’ve cooked up.

1. Story/Modes

Similar to the original Hearts of Iron II, you have the choice of nearly 200 nations to fight as during the tumultuous years of World War II. Unlike Hearts of Iron II, you can now also choose to fight in the tumultuous years of World War I as well! The World War II scenario is obvious but the World War I scenario gives you a new perspective on playing the game. The mechanics are still the same but you have new geopolitical realities and not as many toys like tanks or airplanes to make a difference on the battlefield. This forces you to rely on good old infantry and artillery to win battles.

Multiplayer also makes a return and is unchanged from how it worked in Hearts of Iron II, which is good because it worked pretty well the first time around. However, due to me receiving an advance copy of the game, I was not able to test the game online.

The World War II scenario can go all the way up to the beginning of the Cold War similar to the Armageddon expansion pack, but you can’t go from 1914 and work your way through to 1964 which is kind of a shame really.

The other thing that’s missing is individual scenarios: The original Hearts of Iron II had several scenarios either starting at 1936, 1938, 1942 or 1944 as well smaller scenarios like a giant map of Guadalcanal you could fight over. Darkest Hour only has two scenarios: 1914 and 1936 and no smaller conflicts.

It would have been great to see things like a Korean War scenario, the First Indochina war or the Algerian and Hungarian revolutions. All of these are in the timeframe of the game (all took place before 1964) and would have made awesome gameplay moments.

Story/Modes Rating: Good

2. Graphics

Not many of Paradox’s games are known for visual fidelity, preferring to keep the graphics simple to focus on deep gameplay and for easy modability. Darkest Hour uses a brand new map compared to Hearts of Iron II but it is rendered in pretty much the same style which is functional, but not impressive. The only differences I can make out are that you can see mountains as well as contours when you zoom out enough. Small islands such as Malta have a “zoomed out” feature to make them easier to click.

Another change is that they removed unit icons and replaced them with pictures. In vanilla Hearts of Iron II, unit cards had a grey icon of what the unit was (infantry, heavy tank, light tank, cavalry. etc…) as well as a number to indicate its tech level (Infantry 1936 or Heavy Armor Tier V). This was good because you could tell at a glance what that unit was. In Darkest Hour, you have full colour pictures that indicate what a unit’s type is. This makes it look prettier but it gets in the way of identification. For example, Infantry 1918 and 1922 have different pictures but 1922 is shared with 1926 and 1931. 1936 also shares the same picture meaning you have to individually check the dates stuffed in the corner of the image. Sometimes, as in the case of large ships like heavy cruisers, the picture actually obscures part of the model number!

It’s not too bad a problem but it is somewhat annoying.

Graphics Rating: Poor

3. Sound

Darkest Hour uses the exact same music and sounds from Hearts of Iron II. That’s not a bad thing because I have repeatedly praised Andreas Waldetoft’s score in pretty much every game he composes (Hearts of Iron III and Majesty 2 in particular). His score for Hearts of Iron II is the first I heard so it’s somewhat nostalgic for me.

The problem is that, while I haven’t played Hearts of Iron II in a long time, the game’s soundtrack is basically DRM free MP3s. I have the entire soundtrack in my media player and have been listening to it for years! In fact…I’m playing the music right now as I write this review! (R.A.F Heroes of the Sky, if you want the specific track) so I am kind of burned out on this OST now. I’ve been listening to it constantly for nearly six years!

Sound Rating: Decent

4. Control/Gameplay

At its core, Darkest Hour is a sort of expansion pack for Hearts of Iron II and therefore is extremely similar to that game in every aspect. What Darkest Hour does is add many small changes that are more than the sum of their parts and it would take forever to list of them so I’ll focus on the main additions.

The most immediate change is that the map has been redrawn with far more provinces than before so that chokepoints are rarer. You have to spread out your troops more and use them wisely. Also, more nations are included for historical accuracy. For example, Britain doesn’t directly control such huge swathes of land anymore, instead it controls puppets such as the Kingdom of Egypt and the British Raj and France’s Far East colonies are now a puppet known as the “Indochinese Union.”

This ties into the second main difference you see in the game: Battles take much longer than before and are far more deadly to the losing side. This makes both sweeping advances and tenacious defences quite possible. What you won’t see is tit for tat exchange of land like in older versions of HoI II. This also gives units and generals more time to rack up experience points. Units that have participated in two or three campaigns will hit “silver star” status if you’ve been careful with them while generals gain traits and levels much more easily than before.

Intelligence now functions automatically. You no longer have to manually send spies into other nations but rather you increase or decrease intelligence funding. The game then calculates how many spies you have in every country in the world. After that, you can choose to launch missions at your leisure provided you have the cash to do so. Needless to say, more money into intelligence increases your chances of successful missions.

The tech tree has been completely overhauled stretching from 1880s technology all the way into 1960s technology. You’ll be hard pressed to research them all unless you’re a major power. In fact, at the beginning of World War II you might find that some of your infantry are still at a pre WWI level!

All these changes do just enough to differentiate the game from Hearts of Iron II while still sharing the basic gameplay.

While all these new additions are nice, faults from Hearts of Iron II still appear. Automatic convoy management is still problematic and using sliders to adjust very fine Industrial Capacity points is annoying as hell. Also, immediately turn off automatic spying because the AI will rapidly drain your money reserves launching intelligence attacks on pretty much everybody.

The interface is basically unchanged, for better or for worse.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Very Good

5. Replayability

I first played Hearts of Iron II back in 2005 as Canada and managed to conquer the entire United States of America because their army before Pearl Harbour was pitifully small. Also, for some reason they decided to join the Axis. Since then I’ve played several campaigns as Italy, Argentina, Japan, and Nationalist China because of their unique positions. I always start a new game ( Like HoI III) or expansion pack (like Armageddon) as Italy because….well, I’m not really sure why, I just always do and I always play the same strategy (don’t get involved with the Germany/Russia fiasco and just focus on building a mini empire in southeast Europe). As you can see from the screenshots in this review, I basically did the exact same thing as my old campaigns….and I”Ëœm STILL addicted to the game! I’m not playing new nations or using new strategies and I still play the game again and enjoy it! Just imagine the possibilities if I played Spain or France, but I can’t because I’m having so much fun playing just one nation!

Darkest Hour now even gives you World War I as a playground to play on with vastly different strategies and opportunities. You’ll have plenty of reasons to replay the game even with just a single nation to play as, let alone over 200.

Replayability Rating: Amazing

6. Balance

The longer and more deadly combat in Darkest Hour is great if you’re a large nation facing another large nation in that battles are more decisive. However, that also means you can easily grind down smaller nations through strength of numbers. You can afford the losses and reinforce your units but they can’t, which technically is historically accurate, The World Wars were both won by industrial strength rather than battlefield heroics, but just to put this in perspective: I easily steamrolled Greece as Italy while in the real history, Mussolini had to call Hitler to bail him out of an embarrassing campaign. Crete was a death trap for the Germans but in my game I easily conquered it within a few in game hours (that would translate to mere seconds of me clicking the attack command).

Most of the nations have additional tech teams to give them more of an edge and the aforementioned map changes give smaller nations more room to play with but really, if you’re not one of the major powers or allied with one of them, you’re going to have a difficult time unless you’re some out of the way location like South America where Brazil and Argentina are the two elephants in the room.

So if you’re going to try to play something like Luxembourg or Belgium, prepare your anus.

Balance Rating: Poor

7. Originality

This is a fan made mod for a game that came out nearly six years ago, a game that also has a sequel that was released nearly two years ago. This is also a game which has had two OTHER fan made retail mods released before it as well as two official expansion packs.

They’ve pretty much squeezed the last bit of life from this game.

Originality Rating: Dreadful

8. Addictiveness

Here’s an example of me playing the game: I decided to refresh my memory by playing this game before writing the review. An hour or two so should have done it. Six hours later, I was still playing the game and hadn’t even opened a word processor, much less typed anything.

I already mentioned in the intro that the original Hearts of Iron II is the most addicting game I’ve ever played even surpassing the legendary Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Darkest Hour is basically the same game except that it has a vastly bigger tech tree, more provinces to conquer and longer battles. Comparing Darkest Hour to vanilla Hearts of Iron II is like comparing crack cocaine to regular cocaine, feeding my OCD habit tenfold with much more things to do.

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

9. Appeal Factor

Hearts of Iron II has gone through several mods, expansions packs and retail fan made conversions like Darkest Hour and the engine is getting a bit old now. The only people who would be interested in this game are diehard fans that still haven’t transferred to Hearts of Iron III yet. (like me!)

On the plus side, Darkest Hour is intended to be fully compatible with the old mods for the Armageddon expansion so many people can easily transition to this game from vanilla HoI II.

Appeal Factor Rating: Bad

10. Miscellaneous

In an age where more and more invasive forms of DRM are being forced on gamers, it’s nice to see that the indie developers are still going DRM free on their titles. There’s no point inconveniencing their customers when dedicated pirates can trump any DRM measure by the large companies.

On the other hand, ten dollars does seem to be quite a steep price for what is really just a glorified mod. Sure it adds in lots of new features but these days where total conversions of many games are offered for free, it feels a little difficult paying ten dollars for an expansion pack of a six year old game.

Miscellaneous Rating: Decent

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: Good
Graphics: Poor
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Amazing
Balance: Poor
Originality: Dreadful
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Decent
FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary:
For anyone other than a diehard Hearts of Iron II fan, Darkest Hour is not the game for you. This is game made by diehard Hearts of Iron II fans for other diehard Hearts of Iron II fans. The Darkest Hour team has basically managed to squeeze the last bit of fun from this aging title and I don’t see any more improvements coming in the future.



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