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Hearts Of Iron IV Review

Hearts Of Iron IV, a grand strategy game set during World War II, was released by Paradox in 2016. I've spent a lot of time playing this game over the previous five years, through updates and expansions, and I believe it's just as vital, if not more so, in 2021 than it was when it first came out.

Older readers may recall that I've done some huge strategy game re-reviews in the past, examining how years of additions and tweaks have impacted our experiences with the game, as well as the genre it belongs to. I'm doing one for HoIIV for the same reason: it's a massive strategic game that's grown, evolved, and become something far bigger and more ambitious than it was in 2016, and it's worth revisiting.
Before we get into it, and as an introduction to the series if you've never heard of it, I'll repeat what I stated when I first reviewed it: it's a strategy game unlike any other. Set in a world where war is the only thing you can do, HoIIV demands players to oversee the whole war effort, which means you're in charge of not only the actual fighting, but also everything that happens before and after it. This means you're in charge of troop recruiting, factory construction, rare resource trade, infrastructure improvements, diplomacy, and the production of particular weapons and vehicles.
That was exhausting to type, let alone play through, and I understand that HoIIV, like many other Paradox games, looks and sounds completely intimidating. The difference is that, while I frequently encourage people that they can persevere and receive help mastering games like Crusader Kings, I'm not going to do it here. This is a deep game that isn't for everyone, particularly if you're looking for sophisticated diplomacy or finer control over your forces in your strategy games.
But if the notion of commanding a whole war effort appeals to you, regardless of the psychological and mental toll of learning how to do so, then sure, stick with it. Start with a smaller country, read/watch instructions, and learn, since if the premise and subject matter appeal to you in any way, it will be well worth your time. Because, despite all of my admiration for Crusader Kings on this site over the years, I've played a lot more of HoIIV.
There's simply a lot to it. So much to get lost in and return to time and again. 
Hearts of Iron IV engulfs you in a sea of buttons and systems, scaring newcomers but allowing veteran players to fine-tune practically every facet of their war effort. Consider how a division is constructed: How much artillery assistance do you require? Is a truck required for everyone, or can some individuals get by without one? And which specific guns do you require for each ship?
Its campaigns, which can last for dozens of hours at a time (depending on how hands-on you want to be), are never short on things that require your attention, and it even lets you choose whether to start your game in 1939 (with everything ready for war) or 1936 (giving you a few years to set things up yourself), allowing you to extend an already-lengthy game even further and leave a much greater mark.
Everything you modify, slide, and click serves a purpose and will be mirrored on the battlefield, so all that depth and length isn't just for show. In tiny ways, perhaps, and in major ways, the conflict can be shaped.
And what a conflict it can turn out to be. At the outset of each game, you may turn off HoIIV's 'historical AI,' resulting in one of video gaming's greatest alternate history sandboxes, providing players almost unlimited ways to launch a war and then even more ways to fight it.
Turning it off—which is a must since who wants to play through the actual war when we already know how it ends and we're telling stories here—gives you a whole new universe, and hence a completely different world war, every time. In my last game as Germany, I deposed Hitler, won a brief but terrible civil war to create a democratic government, attacked and conquered Italy (after they had the audacity to attack me first), and then became allies with Britain while fighting a megalomaniacal...France.
This happens in every game! One crazy turn after another, as Italy joins forces with China or Poland invades the Baltic before annihilating the Soviet Union. Who knows what my future game as Germany will entail; perhaps I'll resurrect Kaiser Wilhelm II, attempt and fail to attack Mexico, and then become embroiled in a bush war in Southeast Asia.
If you like historical fanfiction—or, really, just strategic story-telling in general (which I'll go into more detail about later)—Hearts of Iron IV is right up there with the greatest of them.
But pretty much everything I've just said was already a part of what made the game so excellent when it first came out in 2016. So, what's new since then? What makes a second evaluation so important, considering how different the game is in 2021? A lot, as is typical of Paradox's grand strategy games. Hearts of Iron IV has grown significantly in size as a result of regular upgrades and additions, to its favor at times and to its harm at other times.
The game's additions have tended to fall into three categories. The first is the simplest and most seamless way to jump right into the action, and it's just more gear to use in your battles. More 3D tank models to display on the battlefield, more accurate representations of American planes, and so on. This is the part where we'd speak about skins if we were talking about a fighting game.
The second has been to improve and broaden the ways in which players can build their own story. You may customize the way your country develops by implementing national policies in HoIIV, which works a little like a choose-your-own-adventure and a little like a tech tree (though the game also has actual tech trees, which are handled separately). You could, for example, turn a democratic and isolationist United States in 1936 into a fascist state hell-bent on allying with local warlords and conquering China. If that's your thing, at least.
Alternatively, you could allow women to serve, prioritize infrastructure over naval development, prioritize atomic weapons research, or select from a variety of different narrative options built specifically for the dozens of playable nations available at the start of the game. These options were relatively restricted and basic in 2016, but as time has passed, larger factions have seen their options increased, while minor nations like Australia, which were previously bundled into a monotonous, conventional template, have been given their own stories.
These are without a doubt my favorite additions to the game, because the more there are and the deeper they go, the more you'll be able to take it to strange and crazy places. My most recent Germany game, the one I mentioned earlier, was replete with odd but useful decisions like 'simply acknowledge Britain rules the oceans and we'll get on with our lives' and'maybe we should invade Switzerland instead of Belgium to get over the Maginot Line because no one will expect it'.
The more branching opportunities there are in HoIIV, the more interesting and varied your own storylines become. However, as you play—and the AI begins randomly wandering down each of these paths for every other nation in the game—the more unpredictable and unique the world itself becomes each game.
That is, in my opinion, what these large strategy games frequently become. The minute-to-minute chores accessible to you, or the difficulties required in breaching an opposing position, aren't actually what Civilization, Total War, and these Paradox titles are about. What I like best about them is the narrative they tell through their broader strategic brushstrokes, with each new game offering the chance to see a new conflict unfold, with new drama, new heroes and villains, and the world altered in a fascinating and unique way.
You can play as the United States ten times in a row and go through ten different conflicts. Maybe you'll be the liberator of Europe, maybe you'll invade Brazil, maybe Mexico will surprise you with an invasion. If you play as the USSR, you'll be able to control everything from Nazi beaters to a Japanese colony. If you play as Britain, you can either embrace the start of the modern world or go back 300 years.
I've been playing for five years and have never fought the same war twice.

The addition of substantial new systems, most notably accompanying large, paid expansions, is the third and last way Hearts of Iron IV has changed. Despite the effort and scope of the changes to the base experience, I believe this has been the least successful. Making the game bigger—in terms of giving you more to do and watch over when it was already borderline overwhelming—has frequently backfired.
The huge addition Man the Guns, which was supposed to improve the game's weak naval system, only made it worse. La Resistance, a more recent expansion that added a whole new layer of intelligence and espionage action by allowing players to recruit spies, has a personal size that feels oddly at odds with the game's god-like vantage point.
Indeed, expansions like Together for Victory, which concentrated on Commonwealth and Imperial armies, and Waking the Tiger, which expanded out the war in China, have been the most successful, with the majority of the focus being on expanding the breadth and depth of those faction's story-telling possibilities.
Fortunately, everyone buying up the game today has the option to turn off specific gameplay components and additions, so if you, like me, aren't feeling some of the game's deeper and more complex newest parts, you can simply turn them off before starting a new war.
The actual strength of this game—and of most huge strategy games—is in its story-telling, as I've already stated a few times, and what the game ships with at retail is fantastic. But what you can add to it after five years of mod creation is incredible.
We don't generally discuss mods in game reviews because they aren't technically part of the game, but five years later, it's tough not to discuss them here, and how they've been able to offer even more depth and flexibility to the experience than was before available.
For example, the game's peace treaty system has never worked as well as I'd hoped, so I merely use a mod to take complete control of the situation. Even the most inconspicuous naval bomber and truck have received wonderful custom unit artwork from fans. There have been a slew of other quality-of-life enhancements introduced to the game as a result of suggestions from fans, and the game has been able to handle them with ease thanks to Steam Workshop and Paradox's own custom launcher.
Nothing, however, has been as stunning or transformational as the game's large-scale mods. The ones that take Hearts of Iron IV and turn it into something completely different, with new stories, factions, and even maps transporting players to wonderful, fictitious settings ranging from Fallout to Star Wars.
Kaiserreich, a long-running series of mods that has become so large (and incredibly popular) that it now covers three games and has developed its own fictional universe, complete with products, is the best example of this.
Set in a different 20th century, one in which the Central Powers won World War I and worker's uprisings occurred in the West, playing Kaiserreich is like playing a whole new game, much like Creative Assembly's Total War wheels spin between major updates.
I've already written a lot about the mod, but I can't express how much it—and other significant mods like Millennium Dawn, which is set in the twenty-first century—have improved the Hearts of Iron IV experience. Of course, the creators of the mods deserve the majority of the credit for their years of planning, writing, and testing, but their success is a testament to how strong Hearts of Iron IV's underlying systems are, and how easily mods have been able to expand on the core experience and help it become so much more.
Which gets us to the question: what makes Hearts of Iron IV so special, and such an upgrade over how it looked in 2016 after five years of modifications, patches, and mods?
It's not just that the game has gotten bigger or deeper; those are quantitative facts that signify almost nothing without context. Many strategy games contain a plethora of buttons and menus, and some of Hearts of Iron IV's most complex mechanisms are also its most tedious and ineffective.
What makes Hearts of Iron IV stand out is how well those systems and environments work together (for the most part) to generate a strong sense of responsibility. Who else is to blame when things go wrong when you're in control of a whole military effort? Or do you give thanks when everything goes according to plan?
It's just the two of you. Every division, every General in charge of an army, every gun in a soldier's hands, and the amount of gasoline and ammo they have at their disposal has been up to you. What kind of tanks are assisting them, how much air cover is up there, and how advanced any of that technology is all factors to consider. Every single one of you.
When everything goes to hell, there's nowhere to hide, but when everything comes together and you win a battle, well. The sense of pride is palpable. I led our country through the stormy 1930s, preparing its industries for war, enlisting its best and brightest, and then shepherding everyone and everything through the world's largest war.
It's all worth it when the game's tale has run its course, its villains defeated, and its heroes triumphant, as deep as the game has gone and as difficult as it is to both learn and then drag through a battle. After the dust has settled, you may jump right back in and tell a new story with a new country, as well as meet a whole new cast of allies and adversaries.
That was all true in 2016, but it has only grown stronger in the last five years. The more control we've been given over the stories in Hearts of Iron IV, and the more ways we've been given to tell them with new systems and expanded national possibilities, the better the game has become, because those were already its greatest strengths, and they've been endlessly built on since, by both Paradox and fans.

Hearts of Iron IV isn't a game in which you're handed a gun and told to fight a war. It assigns you to a conflict and challenges you to win it.
GO News Team
News, Games Reviews, Technology, Indie, Hardware, Video Games

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