I have a confession to make. Despite being Dealspwn's Grand Strategy Guy, the reviewer who always dives headfirst into the likes of Crusader Kings II, March Of The Eagles, Sengoku and loving every single beardy minute of them, I've never been able to get into Hearts Of Iron. There's just too much tedious micromanagement for me to handle in Paradox' World War-themed series, and I'm not alone.
Paradox Development Studio freely admit it, and they're trying to make the experience more engaging for us filthy fence sitters without killing the depth; cutting out the fiddly fluff to focus on the big bloody picture. While also addressing some of the fan feedback from Hearts Of Iron III. From what I saw at Gamescom 2014, as the lead designer showed me around the latest production build, it looks like they're on the right track... by turning boring micromanagement into awesome accessible historically-flavoured micromanagement.
Once again we'll find ourselves choosing a country to lead through 1936-1948, whether one of the big (or small) participants in the European theatre or fiercely engaging over the Pacific. It's all about re-enacting the conflict or making alternate history; perhaps seeing if you can emulate Churchill's victories, create a German-led future or even push Algeria into becoming a mighty global superpower (good luck with that one). We'll build armies, prepare defences, choose policy doctrines and... look, it's a Grand Strategy game. I'm not going to try and sell you on the genre itself, rather, let's focus on what's new and exciting about Hearts Of Iron IV.
First off: I must be a magpie, because I'm clearly attracted to shiny things. In this case, the map. Hearts Of Iron IV's map is gorgeous even at this early stage in development; a full 3D affair with day/night time zones that swoop across the terrain, throwing countries into sharp relief or gloomy moonlight and allowing yourself to count the days at a glance. The lighting is already impressive, as is the dynamic weather, which naturally changes depending on the season. As snow falls, so too does your chance of conducting a successful offensive if you're not sufficiently well-equipped; all instantly at-a-glance rather than via a menu or tooltip. Graphics informing gameplay. Lovely, but that's just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
The new map resembles an actual campaign map, or perhaps the intro sequence to Dad's Army, as we can now construct and execute intricate Battle Plans simply by drawing arrows on the screen. After positioning our troops and tanks, we can assign them a commander and group them together, then just drag a big friendly arrow in the direction we want them to assault. Smaller 'phases' can be subdivided off this main attack by just branching off more arrows, allowing specific units to break away at key points in order to outflank the enemy or somesuch. Each of these sweeping manoeuvres is easy to set up and understand, but can be triggered at any time and micromanaged on the fly.
It's the perfect example of depth -- real depth -- being put at our fingertips.
Air Superiority is another area in which Hearts Of Iron IV looks at the big picture instead of obsessing over the little details. Fighters and bombers can simply be assigned to gain air superiority in a specific region or province, at which point they'll engage the enemy and attempt to secure the skies. Doing so carries significant bonuses to any future bombing runs or ground assaults, since whichever side claims superiority can attack and defend much more effectively. Again, it's easy to understand, but facilitates major tactical decisions.
Forget all that war stuff, though, because I hear you clamouring for more details about unit production and economy. Of course you are. Production is awesome. Interestingly, Hearts Of Iron IV is taking a more nuanced and historically accurate approach to the construction of ground units, ships and aircraft by allowing you to set up Assembly Lines. You can allocate your factories to intensively manufacture a particular model of tank, for example, which takes several years to get up to speed. However, once there, you'll be churning them out like nobody's business with huge bonuses to efficiency. The downside being that you're now the proud owner of a huge number of obsolete tanks, whereas many of your foes (Germany, for example, seeing as the demo build was played from their perspective) wield much smaller numbers of cutting-edge hardware. The choice is yours.
Speaking of which, there's also much more choice in terms of how we research and develop our units now. After researching a base chassis or warship hull, we can now spend national experience (earned through combat and victory) on unique variants with different statistics and a unique name. For even more historical authenticity, each side can also employ a contemporary 'Tech Team' to assist production.The Germans, for example, can rely on the likes of Messerschmidt AG or Porche to beef up their war machine. And, I suppose, their war machines.
Politics will also play a major role in your victory. National Goals can be chosen and worked towards, acting like unique mini-missions for each specific leader with a recognisable historical objective that's chronologically accurate as well as some dynamic random options. Using Germany as our example again, Hitler can remilitarise the Rhineland zone, which echoes real events, before moving onto Poland, Czechoslovakia and the like. Doing so rewards you with a new resource, Political Power, which can be used to sway your ministers or bring real World War II policy-makers on-side.
Will you side with Karl Dönitz and focus your warfare on insidious U-Boat scare tactics? Conversely, you could make Walther Wever your right hand man, who was a proponent of massive bombings before he died in a plane crash. Without his influence, Germany eventually found themselves without the super-heavy bombers developed by the United States, and at an aerial disadvantage. You, however, could potentially heed his advice and see whether it might have tipped the tide in the Fuhrer's favour.
There's more besides, and despite still being relatively early in development ahead of a 2015 release, Hearts Of Iron IV might finally be the game that finally wins me over to the series. Depth without fuss. Strategy without frustration. I'm so ready.
We'll keep you posted with the latest from the front.