Paradox Interactive is becoming known in the innermost of hardcore gaming circles as “the only grand strategy gaming company left on earth,” a level of praise earned by their constant desire to take giant swaths of history and make games out of it. Instead of reading this, you could in fact be playing what we insiders call the “unnecessary gauntlet” of grand strategy gaming: repeating all of human history from 200 BC to 1956, the last moment in history that needs to be covered because Eisenhower’s presidency is the absolute pinnacle of mankind’s achievement. Year by year, hour by hour. No, Paradox Interactive doesn’t cheat like Firaxis, doesn’t do things like assigning one turn of gameplay a five year value in world time. You want to play five years? Then you better be prepared to play them out.
But if you don’t want to play Europa Universalis: Rome, Europa Universalis: Rome: Vae Victa, Crusader Kings, Crusader Kings: Deus Vult, Europa Universalis III, Europa Universalis III: Napolean’s Ambition, Europa Universalis III: In Nomine, Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun, Hearts of Iron II, Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday and Hearts of Iron II: Armageddon back-to-back, importing your saved game files over so that continuity might never be broken, you can always just start with their latest offering: Hearts of Iron III. Or, better yet, don’t.
As a two-time winner of Time’s Person of the Year award*, my opinion and judgment are trusted by all. So trust me when I say “Holy fuck, this game is hard.”
Holy fuck, this game is hard.
In Hearts of Iron II (HoI 2), a game that has eaten more of my life than all others combined, I was impressed with the depth and love packed into the game. Sure, you may know who the defense minister of Tibet was during World War II, but I didn’t. Not until I played HoI 2, that is. HoI II was such a project of love that it had his name and his picture in there, so I found out. Most games would have just left Tibet out, or given it a glossy once-over and bullshitted the details. But not Paradox, oh no. By caring so much for every little thing, they made a work of art. HoI II was, and still is, their Sistine Chapel.
I love World War II. I love grand strategy games. Paradox, however, loves them both SO MUCH they have actually married them. Polygamy with ideas and concepts, that is some hardcore shit right there. I was more than a little excited when I found out that they were developing a sequel to the greatest game ever made by the hands of human beings. How could they, I wondered aloud to my many cats, pack more love and more features into the series that is already the standard when it comes to wargaming on a gigantic world-spanning scale?
The answer to this question is also the great problem that plagues HoI III: They fixed the only historical flaw with HoI II. That flaw, it turns out, was what made an otherwise overwhelmingly difficult endeavor somewhat passable. They fixed the issue of chain of command.
In HoI II, Generals led large groups of divisions, anywhere between lone Irish divisions to 30 divisions all crammed together for the good of mother Russia. This was wrong. In World War II, I have painfully learned in the past few days, no General was an island. Generals had bosses, and those bosses had bosses. Being near the bosses made things fight better, being far away hurt combat efficiency. This horrid flaw has been corrected, and I curse the day it ever was.
I can’t even get through a single year as the United States in this game because of the horrid task of sorting out which General owns which units, and which General owns that other General I just mentioned. And why the top of the U.S. command structure is entitled “New York Command Group” but is located in San Francisco, oh so far from the units it is supposed to be in charge of, is beyond me. But if it is HoI III, it must be accurate. Painfully, horribly accurate.
I didn’t think I was buying “Chain of Command Micromanager Pro 2009”, but it turns out that that is exactly what I bought. I will never play as Russia ever again because the mere idea of trying to sort out who owns whom and where they are all located makes me cry. I can’t even tell you if the game is a good simulator of war at all, because I dare not wage a battle that I cannot meticulously track and manage for fear of losing whole army groups while figuring out where their higher headquarters is. I am paralyzed in-game by the hefty burden of tracking just where all my units are in comparison to each other.
I hear that there are bugs galore, some of which are apparently game-ending. If this is true, shame on Paradox. But I have no idea. No idea. I can’t even get to a point where I might know because I can’t even grasp all of the new “features”. And I have a huge advantage in that I have played HoI II a ton, so many of the other little things one has to manage I can do in my sleep. For total newbs, I cannot imagine the terror and fear that must fill them as they go through each and every screen of numbers, details, management issues, resources, and the like.
The game seems to work just as intended on my machine, which makes my utter defeat in the face of micromanagement just a little more painful. If I ever do somehow get to a point where I can find these apparent flaws, I’ll let you know in the comment box below this article. But I, the man who played and learned and pushed his way through the terrible interface of Dwarf Fortress, cannot conquer the learning curve of this game.
The godawful combination of the new chain of command feature and microtransactions has also severely hurt the graphics of a game that was never really a pixilated portrait of beauty to begin with. In HoI II, units were represented by little soldiers or tanks or airplanes if one wanted, and I liked it. But in HoI III, the need to understand who is at what level of the chain of command has forced everyone to use old school NATO standard symbology.
I can read symbology, giving me a leg up on the more casual wargamer, but I don’t like to. No one does. Ugly little boxes turn war into a battle of numbers, which is really what every wargame is. It still isn’t fun to have that fact shoved into your face. And if one wants little pictures of tanks and soldiers and airplanes and boats, one can pay for them via microtransactions! Hooray! What was once an included feature is now something we can pay for on top of the price we already paid! Yay!
I have spent my entire video game journalism career waiting for this one review, the moment in which I could spread to the uninitiated the good word of fantastic strategic gaming. By making the most realistic and large-scale war simulator ever made even more realistic and large, Paradox has robbed me of my only dream. I recommend this game only to those who really, truly love grand strategy games and are willing to do whatever it takes to experience the biggest and baddest of them all. For everyone else, go play Little King’s Story on the Wii. It has all the genocide and violence, and even some of strategy but with almost no NATO symbology.
I’m so pissed this isn’t just a bunch of glowing praise.
*2003 and 2006. Look it up, it’s true.