Summary: Paradox Entertainment has been making real-time strategy games that are based around true strategy, rather than mere tactics or zergling hordes. Different, unique, often misunderstood and without exception buggy, they've found a niche market. Hearts of Iron 2 is not in that niche. It is different and unique, but it's the best World War II strategy game ever, and it certainly isn't buggy (though not perfect). It melds strategic and tactical depth with history and the realistic limitations of the nations involved - as they starve for resources, rush desperately along varying paths in the technology tables and desperately try to avoid losing armies to encirclements as they watch their manpower drop day by day.
Hearts of Iron 2, like its predecessor, covers World War II as well as the years leading up to it, and tacks on two more just in case you need extra time to finish your global conquest. The longest campaign begins on January 1, 1936 and ends December 30, 1947. This gives the player considerable time to change the events leading up to the war. The campaign can be started at critical junctures in the struggle, such as 1939, 1941 and 1944.
Paradox has also included shorter, tighter scenarios that give the player a fixed goal and time limit. Some of these aim to simply improve on the historical outcome - like war in the western Sahara as/against the Afrika Korps, or resisting combined German-Soviet aggression as Poland for as long as possible. Others are hypothetical situations, such as Fall Grün, the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia that was to occur if the Czechs hadn't given up the Sudetenland.
So far, it all sounds like the original game. The real changes between Hearts of Iron and its sequel lie much deeper and in more meaningful areas, such as the interface, combat system and research tree. These have been streamlined and made easier to use, though it'd be a mistake to call it simplified. The only area of the game that is clearly less complex than it was before is the research tree, though R&D in general is more involved.
The graphics have been improved though it'd be a stretch to say it's a major overhaul. They look clearly better than Hearts of Iron, but they're still the same old 2D sprites. Fortunately, the map and units, as well as the interface, are done more in the elegant Victoria style than the rather stark colors and contrasts of the Europa Universalis games. Sound effects are simple and not impressive but do provide clear audible feedback as you click off menus and orders. More impressive is the sweet musical score, the best ever in a Paradox game.
Trade is streamlined as well. There's no longer a guaranteed-loss world market where at best you could hope to exchange 2 of your item X for one item Y, meaning that even that with a near-monopoly on oil you were guaranteed to lose out in a deal for steel. Now, countries trade directly with each other. This makes alliances tighter, and gives a fair value for your products. Energy isn't worth much, but rare minerals and cash are. The game includes a handy list in the diplomacy menu that shows who has surpluses of what good. If you appear in that list with everything and your industries are going full steam, you're gravy.
There are far fewer divisions - especially air divisions - and you're not as reliant on special hardware like mountaineers or paratroopers as in the first game. Armor is more limited too, because of fuel considerations. Motorized infantry scarcely seem worth the fuel, unless you're the United States. In a nice touch, the player adds brigades manually to his divisions, since they're built separately. You can queue up any number of brigades, divisions, air squadrons or naval squadrons, and the interface will let you know if your current production levels can support that. There's a bewildering variety of brigades, like armoured cars, heavy tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns.
Resupplying and reinforcements are handled automatically as well, through the economy sliders. Be careful though, there seems to be a (bug?) where, in winter weather, your economy sliders will suggest the need for massive reinforcements when in fact your troops are taking little in the way of attrition. This can and will quickly deplete your pools of manpower. Manpower, more than oil, rare minerals and supplies, limits your nation's ability to fight in the long run. It replenishes very slowly - 1.35 manpower per day was the best I got from my German campaign. Considering that two dozen infantry divisions, and a dozen armored divisions, plus brigades, will spend roughly a year's worth of manpower, it's vital to be careful - and makes the loss of entire armies due to encirclements (like what happened to Germany's 6th Army in Stalingrad) absolutely devastating.
Remarkably, all this fits together in a smooth presentation of the most massive, complex war ever fought. Though the game falls short in individual areas, it comes together as a whole - unlike its predecessor. It's easy to plan offensives while paused - set day, night or 24-hour air strikes (of various kinds) against your targets for any number of days or weeks. Plan air superiority over the area and then set a time of attack for your armies. Always aim to cut off retreat, so you can wipe your foe out completely and not have to fight him again when he regroups.
While the battle ensues, you may have to establish protective fighter patrols over your industrial areas, and decide your next research project. Do you get the better tanks, aim for a new land doctrine, or try developing technology that may lead to unlocking one of the secret weapons? Once you decide that, it's time to select a research team - pick the most appropriate for the job. Finally, you have to make sure your researchers are getting the funding they need, so your economy has to produce consumer goods and you can't blow that cash on diplomatic bungling.
Best of all, while Hearts of Iron 2 isn't a simple or easy game by any stretch, it's not difficult to wrap your head around the concepts or navigate the various menus and map modes. Despite the added depth, it's easier to learn than the original.
First and foremost of our issues is a persistent crash-to-desktop bug. It's rarely encountered early on in a campaign and almost never in the scenarios, but as a campaign progresses and wars get bigger and more complicated, with the entire world involved, the crashes come more often - sometimes so badly that the monthly autosave can't quite keep up. Typically, once the Soviets and Americans are involved, you'll find yourself saving manually before and after important events, since their entry marks marked increases in crashes.
Speaking of the Soviets and Americans, even when there is little reason for them to engage in war with Germany, they do so anyway. Well, the Soviet Union is understandable in a historical context, though it is weird to see a country with ideal relations declare war on your poor Third Reich. However, isolationist America with the alternate, isolationist President, already pre-occupied with a non-Axis Japan, and with the UK left only as its colonies, declaring war on Germany seems far-fetched.
Incidentally, don't expect the game to be 'balanced'. The United States is clearly the premier power in the world. It is completely self-sufficient and has powerful industries as well as great research teams. Germany has excellent industry but can quickly run out of fuel for it due to rare minerals shortages. The Soviets have amazing resources but their industries are quite lacking, and this becomes even more acute during the initial German blitzes of the relatively industrialized western Russias.
The AI is quite competent on land and somewhat in the air, but it makes poor use of its naval power. A German invasion of Britain even with minimal naval support was easy, and the Britons spent dozens of divisions on futile and useless naval invasions against the German coastline.
A more intrusive shortcoming of the AI is in diplomacy. The UK refuses even a white peace (a return to the pre-war state) with all of the British Isles occupied, the Soviets out of the war and Japan keeping America busy. It seems only scripted diplomacy events, like the Soviet "bitter peace" or Vichy France are likely to happen unless you conquer seemingly every last bit of enemy territory. Also, certain pre-scripted events, like the alliance offer to Poland by Britain, can ruin the player's attempts at new conditions before the war - such as letting Poland exist to maintain a buffer between the hostile Soviets and Germany. Of course, it's difficult for Paradox to predict all the actions a player is going to take, and they are bound by historical conditions. So as interesting as a Soviet-German alliance might be, the fact of the matter is that both Hitler and Stalin considered their non-aggression pact to be a temporary state of affairs.
My only criticisms are a single, though annoying bug, and the lack of diplomatic freedom that comes part and parcel with the setting employed by the developers, so it's not completely their fault. Paradox has made an excellent compromise between historic needs and a player's desires for alternate outcomes. There are many smaller improvements that could be made, like the ability to tack on brigades en masse rather than one-by-one. The only caveat I'd have before outright recommending this game is to make sure the player enjoys the genre and setting. Every time I go back to take screenshots or to confirm details mentioned in this review, I look at the clock and see that two hours have gone by. The crash bug is possibly the only reason I have had enough sleep this past week.
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