Paradox’s Europa Universalis engine is fired up once again for the WWII strategy game, Hearts of Iron 2. HoI2 still boasts all the crunchy bits that made the original a wargaming paradise to some, an overwhelming chore to others. And while there are a few noticeable changes throughout the game, such as a slightly better AI and some improved interfaces, die-hard Hearts of Iron fans will be able to jump right in. Unfortunately, much like its predecessor, HoI2 is still unfriendly to the newbie or casual wargamer.
Hearts of Iron 2 allows players to take the helm of just about any country in the world, and guide them through the tumultuous years leading up to and through the second World War. While many players will opt to choose the Big Players, such as Germany, Japan, and Great Britain, it’s just as possible to attempt to hold one’s own (or even have an influence) with one of the smaller or more out-of-the-way countries. Regardless of the country chosen, the game begins at one of several points from 1936 though the War, and ends in 1947. Victory, such as it is, seems to be more a personal sense of accomplishment than anything else. Sure, the Axis, Allies, or Comintern can “win” by controlling the most victory-point provinces, but when playing a smaller country it is often a victory to simply retain sovereign control. As in the original, I find the lack of short-term goals or victory conditions to be a bit of a put off, but many will enjoy the open-endedness.
Hearts of Iron 2 is a real-time strategy game, but just barely. I found that if I actually allowed the game to progress without frequent pauses to issue orders, plan technological research, devise production schedules, and attend to the flood of pop-up event windows, I was quickly wiped out. In fact, I spent much more time in “paused” mode than I ever did with the clock running. Why Paradox didn’t just make this some sort of turn-based game is a bit of mystery. Whether or not the clock is running, there’s a tremendous amount to do to keep the country afloat.
Resource gathering is very similar to the original. Each province of a given country produces the resources and manpower necessary to fund the war effort. There are a handful of common resources that most provinces can easily make, and some rarer commodities that must be traded. The production screen itself is a bit cleaner this time around, and building the appropriate troop, aircraft, or naval unit is a breeze. Knowing which unit to build is quite another matter, however. There are a dizzying amount of units available, and the choices constantly change as technology improves through the war years. In addition to producing units, each province is also able to invest its resources to infrastructure improvement, implementing everything from roads and rail to AA guns to factory improvements.
The technology tree is also a bit improved. No longer are energies simply dumped toward a given technology—now, research teams are hired to pursue breakthroughs in particular areas. While the end result is still the same, there is just a better feel to commissioning the Ford Motor Company to lend a hand with infrastructure improvement, while giving Dr. Oppenheimer a try at developing some more…interesting ordinance.
Diplomacy is handled through a rather complex system as well. Each country in the world has some, however small, influence on every other country. From a thankfully easy-to-navigate diplomacy screen, countries can carry out all sort of diplomatic actions. Every thing from offering tribute and smoothing over relations to demanding surrender and declaring all out war is done with a simple click. Alliances seem fairly difficult to break, however. Don’t expect to see Germany having a change of heart and joining the Allies any time soon.
The success of diplomatic actions, like most everything in the game, relies in part on the abilities of officials in charge. No one can run a country alone, so each country is given a cabinet to fill with talented individuals. Each country has a large pool of cabinet members to choose from, and each member gives certain bonuses (and sometimes penalties) to their appointed field. Of course, there are trade-offs for each cabinet member, so those who are particularly good at increasing the moral of the troops may not have a very good head for logistics.
The biggest change I noticed in HoI2 is the combat engine. Land troops no longer move in to a province before attacking, they initiate attacks from the borders. This means fewer headaches while coordinating units to all arrive at the same province at the same time. In addition, troops may now lend assistance to attacks or defense of neighboring provinces, without becoming directly involved in combat. I found that I liked this new combat style a bit more than the original, but I also found it difficult to quickly determine where battles were being fought. The “in combat” graphics for the ground units are a bit difficult to differentiate from the “at rest” graphics. In addition, I couldn’t tell exactly which neighboring province was attacking or being attacked. A quick click on the unit gives this information, but I was hoping for something a little more obvious. When there are 20 or so provinces on the battle line, clicking on each individual unit to see exactly what it’s up to is just annoying. Especially if the clock is running.
Air and naval combat has also been improved. These units now can be ordered to carry out specific missions, such as strategic bombing of infrastructure, ground attacks, or air superiority. In addition, orders can be given for extended periods of time. For instance, an attack wing can be ordered to maintain air superiority for a week, retreating if sustaining a 30% loss. Air units can also be given delay orders, so their missions can be better coordinated with the slower-moving ground troops. Convoys are a bit easier to handle this time around as well, but I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of these. I tend to stick to less seafaring countries.
Graphics and sound are relatively unchanged from HoI. Expect clean, simple 2D graphics and a very sparing use of sound. With a huge selection of units, there aren’t enough graphics to cover them all, which can be a little annoying when trying to find a particular troop. The music is good, but the game could easily be played muted with a favorite CD playing in the background. Once again, Paradox concentrates on gameplay rather than on flashy presentation.
For those who are having a difficult time diving right into the game, there is a quick tutorial that lays down the basics. A handful of scenarios are also available as a stepping-stone into the game. These scenarios much more focused, with a relatively small number of provinces. In addition, there is no technological research or production to worry about, so players can focus on becoming familiar with the combat side of things. Even with these aids, however, Hearts of Iron 2 is an incredibly difficult and complex game to get into. There’s a huge learning curve, which will turn off many casual gamers. In fact, this is a bit too much game for me. I know there are vast levels of play out in HoI2 , and I’m barely scratching the surface, but I just don’t have the time or patience to dedicate to really get everything out of this title. That’s really a shame, because there is a great game here for those with the inclination to dive in.
And that’s really how it all boils down. For fans of the previous Paradox titles, or for those who just love the oodles of history and detail that literally ooze from Hearts of Iron 2, this will be a wonderful game. Countless hours will vanish without a trace. But for me, this title demanded a bit too much time and energy to even get to a point where I was enjoying myself. It’s a good game, just not for me.
A solid, well polished WWII strategy title using the venerable Europa Universalis engine. Itâ€™s deep, itâ€™s complex, and just a bit overwhelming.