[This review is based on version 3.05 with the Semper Fi and For the Motherland DLC included.]
Paradox Interactive has had something of a monopoly on the grand strategy market. Some would even argue that they invented the genre. I believe that the Total War and Civilization series fall into that category as well. One thing that sets Paradox Interactive apart from its competitors is its focus on its fan base, which is practically a requirement because Paradox Interactive is a fairly unknown company to the general gaming public.
Hearts of Iron 3 was a troubled game when it first came out. It was riddled with bugs and generally considered unplayable even after its fourth update (and Paradox makes it a habit of patching it’s games regularly). After its first DLC, which is just Paradox’s name for a superpatch, Semper Fi, the game started to become playable and enjoyable. By version 2.04, the game’s AI was decent. It wasn’t crashing to desktop all the time, and it played like a grand strategy game should.
The second DLC, For the Motherland, improved the game even more with dramatic speed improvements – a Europa Universalis-styled Casus Beli system, and a new Theatre tab to help the player know what fronts need troops, and other bug fixes.
The first thing a player will notice about the game is its sheer complexity. You can control just about everything about your country, from what you’re trading with whom, to where each division, brigade, and HQ unit is deployed to. I have seen more than one new player turned away from the entire genre when they try out the game for the first time. If the player has played Paradox’s attempt at a humorous tutorial, which is funny at times and downright annoying at others, then they will know enough about the game to start to play it without being overwhelmed by the interface.
The interface is laid out logically according to what part of your country you want to take control of. One of the selling points of Hearts of Iron 3 is the ability for the AI to manage everything about your control. If any part of the micromanagement gets annoying – and some of it will get annoying – the player can just tell the AI to manage it. Of course, the AI is very inflexible with the ways it spends your Industrial Capacity. Allowing the AI to control your military at the Theatre level can be disastrous due to its complexity, but this can be minimized by the player setting the AI to manage the military at a smaller scale. This is possible due to the realistic High Command system present in the game.
The map is beautifully displayed, with seamless zooming and camera movement. The correct names for provinces, cities, and countries are displayed. The map has several display modes it can be set to, such as the weather map mode to help plan an invasion that would be hampered by bad weather , or the economic map mode to figure out what provinces should be strategically bombed. Paradox has spent lots of time revamping the map and interface to give to player all the information he/she needs to maximize the effectiveness of their military.
The production and technology tabs allow the player to customize what units are produced, what technologies and researched, and how to allocate each country’s Industrial Capacity (for production), and Leadership (for research, espionage, officer ratio, and diplomatic ability.) The amount of time to produce a unit is extremely realistic, usually taking 6 months or more per unit, and requires careful planning to keep your technologies and military up to date.
Other tabs, like the Diplomacy, Politics, and Intelligence allow the player to fine tune their country, such as being able to make trade deals with other nations for resources they might not have, being able to have some control over how harshly they occupy invaded territory, and trying to send spies into other nations to give you a leg up against them in a war.
Added game elements like Supply Limits and transportation modifiers prevent the AI or the player from making the infamous “Doom Stacks” (tons of units in one tile) from being used to overwhelm you. This makes sure that the combat is spread out on a front, and making it look pretty realistic.
The game is extremely moddable, and there are many experienced modders who have created semi-official DLC for the game (such as Dies Irae: Götterdämmerung) that include many more options for some countries. Dies Irae: Götterdämmerung, for example, mainly focuses on Germany, and gives the nation many more options in the way its military is developed.
There is the possibility to play multiplayer online, with players either picking multiple countries, or multiple players controlling the same country; the players themselves have to agree on who controls what. This can create many a historical game such as the USA joining the Axis or even joining the Communist spear of influence.
However, the game has a few flaws.
There are some limitations on how radically you can change the world. Due to the short time span (1936-1948) that the game allows you to continue into, you do not get to see the fruits of your labor. Countries will realistically join alliances the way they did in World War II; for example, there will be no Nazi-aligned United States. Most games will turn out very similarly. Almost 100% of the time, Germany will lose WW2 to all of the Allies in nearly the same way as it happened in real life. In fact, it is nearly impossible to win WW2 as Germany unless you can prevent the Soviet Union from declaring war on you as you try to invade the United Kingdom. Some would claim that this is realism, but this realism element can turn off many potential players.
A second problem is that for the purposes of allowing the game to be sold in Germany, the German flag is being incorrectly depicted as flag of the German Empire, rather than the flag of Nazi-Germany. There are no references to the Holocaust or any uses of the Swastika, and while I do understand that this can be a difficult subject to be presented in a video game, it makes the game feel less immersive and realistic. Paradox Interactive refuses to allow mods that include the correct Nazi flag or including the Holocaust to be placed on their website, and it is very difficult to find mods of the game that are not hosted on the Paradox Interactive forums. Most players do not care about these slight historical inaccuracies, but on some video game boards, there is complaining about Paradox’s almost draconian rules for the modding community.
By far the most complained about problem with the game is the way the DLC works. The DLC, while it does add features, are also massive patches that you cannot get in the base game, which is considered almost unplayable due to the huge amount of bugs and problems with the AI. While I find it admirable that Paradox refuses to use DRM on their products, creating a buggy game and fixing it with DLC that you have to buy should not be supported.
In short, for fans of the Grand Strategy genre, Hearts of Iron 3 is definitely a buy. It is very complex, extremely fun to play and created by a developer which does not include DRM on its games. However, in order to get the optimal experience, it is best to buy the two DLC (Semper Fi and For the Motherland).