As I saunter into the event room – an array of some twenty red computers set up in three sections and fresh coffee and drinks on the refreshment table – I feel remarkably centered and in-the-moment, considering that I had been up thirty-eight hours straight the day(s) before. The sun outside is bright in the fresh, early summer day of Old Windsor just beyond the M25 and the massive sprawl of London, and I’m struck by how not-dreary and not-rainy England is proving to be.
In the room are twenty people I respect, including some of my favorite strategy-game streamers, some of my favorite game developers, some terrific writers and good friends both old and new. If I’m honest, I’m a little intimidated by the whole thing. I realize to some degree that I’m the odd man out, a part-time games journalist and podcaster, and the best explanation I can concoct for why I’ve been given this very cool opportunity to travel the globe and see the next major grand strategy game coming from Paradox is probably because even after almost two years I still can’t stop telling you all how great Europa Universalis IV is.
Hint: It’s one of the best strategy games of all time.
Of my access to an early build of Hearts of Iron IV, the one thing I can say with confidence walking out of this session is that for as similar as HoIIV is to other grand strategy Paradox games, it is also exceedingly different. This is not EUIV in WWII. This is a deep wargame operating on a global theater, and in many ways I am experiencing this series for the first time. You see, I am here not as a long standing fan of Hearts of Iron, but as someone who wants to be and has been scared off time and again.
The good news is that this feels like a new take on a fairly established franchise, one that seems eager to build a new base of players. The game itself uses the familiar Clausewitz engine, but its mechanics feel rebuilt from the ground up to attract a broader audience, one that may have considered approaching a Hearts of Iron game in the past with the same sense of trepidation and doubt that one might have asking a supermodel to their high-school prom.
Don't mistake this as suggesting the game is somehow "dumbed down." In the same way that many have applauded recent Paradox tent-pole game for remaining sophisticated strategy games while streamlining bloated interface complexity and obtuse mechanics to get new people in the door, HoIIV seems eager to follow the same path, though it's still got a ways to go in the run up to release.
As we are instructed on how the next two days of playing the game will proceed, I feel a little twinge of doubt creep up my spine. Is this really a game that can manage to capture the grand-strategy tradition, encapsulate global tumult and strife, and not manage to be as impenetrable as a locked down Pandorica?
… that’s a Doctor Who reference.
It’s hard to know how detailed I should be about what I played over those two days, because this game is still a long way from final release. I can tell you about some of the things I didn’t like, such as the interface for managing your air force, or the all-or-nothing nature of every armed conflict, or the way the game encourages an unnatural level of conflict escalation, such that for every game we played, World War II was essentially fought and concluded before the end of the 1930s.
But what would be the point in dwelling on those things? I’d be quite honestly shocked if the game were to release later this year and you were exposed to those gameplay experiences in anything like their current state. In every discussion I had with the team as we were playing through the three games we ultimately played over roughly 12 hours, they were seeing, experiencing and already brainstorming solutions to exactly the problems that cropped up.
On the other hand, I could tell you that within even this at-times problematic alpha version, I saw a game not only that I could play, but that I could love. For example, one mechanic I'm particularly infatuated with is a system called World Tension – an almost-resource that Axis powers build as they execute plans that make the democracies across the world nervous and that the Allies spend to mobilize for the inevitable war. I could tell you how much more I felt equipped to play the game than I ever had previously with the series, and how I felt surprisingly competent in grasping the interplay between national production, stockpiling of war equipment, securing or trading for valuable resources, and using all those thing to supply a functioning war machine.
As for actually directing that war machine once it's kick-started into life, the underlying idea of Hearts of Iron IV moves away from a micro-management approach to troop deployment, and moves toward a very cool interface that allows you to act at a much higher strategic level. The orders you hand off to troops feel like they are described in terms of big ideas, which manifest in the game less as dragging individual stacks around and more by drawing what you want to happen on the map.
This interface also needs a lot of work to get it running smoothly, but it's a really cool idea that frees and even encourages you to look at a global picture in a much different way than other wargames.
And make no mistake, Hearts of Iron is ultimately very much a wargame, and it is that in a more concrete and deliberate way than its other grand-strategy brethren. Where something like Crusader Kings II is, to my mind, an outstanding and inventive RPG, and Europa Universalis IV is a nation simulator, HoI is very specific about putting the player less in the chair of a president or king and much more in the well polished shoes of a general. You don’t care whether this region has a temple or if this diplomatic relationship is particularly comfy. You care whether you have enough rubber to resupply your tanks, enough guns to equip every person in your army and a new gun ready to go when that last guy gets mown down in the cold forests of Northern Europe.
Which is interesting, because I actually found myself at times missing some of those other duties, particularly earlier in the game when the coming of World War II is still cold and the driving forces behind global politics are questions like “Will France get its political turmoil in order before the Germans grow too strong?” and “Why should the United States care what’s going on across an ocean when it’s trying to dig out of the greatest financial crisis of the 20th century?" In 1938 there probably wasn’t a lot for Patton or MacArthur to do, which is problematic if your job is to be Patton or MacArthur.
So what are my takeaways from two days in a room with Hearts of Iron IV?
Like any game at this stage of development, there's a lot that's just not working right. Presumably, that's why they haven't put a price tag on the thing and kicked it out the door. It seems like a task that isn’t on the verge of being done, and I’m far from holding my breath for a release-date announcement, but the task feels achievable if you bang enough smart heads around a room for long enough.
This is a game that needs and deserves several more months in the oven to bake. It’s always interesting to me to see a game at this stage of its development, and as a writer I compare it to handing over the first draft of a novel: It’s never pretty, and there’s a lot still to solve, but you can usually tell if there’s something there worth pursuing – something that could evolve into a great finished product – and that’s the good news.
There’s a great game inside what I played of Hearts of Iron IV. The answers to how to tease that great game out are not easy ones, but I'm hopeful that the Paradox team can do it, because I really want to play the game I think this alpha can become.