Hearts of Iron III Preview

by on 27th Aug 2009

Editor's note: This preview is based on the same code shown at E3 this year, so many of the issues encountered may be resolved by the time the game is finally released. We'll be following up with a full review in which we'll be sure to let you know for sure!

Hearts of Iron 3 is a grand strategy game, played out across the entire globe, potentially involving every country that existed, from 1936 to 1948. The player takes control of one country, and uses technology, diplomacy, industry, espionage, and the army, navy and air force to combat their enemies.

Please bear in mind that this is a preview, and you cannot judge a game by a preview. The strategic and naval AI isn't present in this version, and there is balancing and finessing and manipulating of widgets still to happen.

The first thing about HOI3 is the map, and it's very impressive. You can zoom in and out using the scroll wheel, abandoning the few zoom levels of HOI2. It's a very pretty map indeed, and with 13 different viewing modes (12 of them useful) it's not a case of style over substance. The map adds detail gradually as you zoom in, subdividing into areas and then into provinces, of which there are more than 10,000. You'd think the added detail would make the map more difficult to understand, but it's the clearest part of an information-rich environment many gamers will struggle with at first. Province names fade in smoothly at the higher zoom levels, so even when you can only see the local area, the names and the minimap keep you orientated. The new find-a-province function is very welcome, and prevents you searching around wondering just where in Hell Astana is.

Clicking on a province brings up a box displaying all the information you could want: terrain, weather, resources, facilities and how much intelligence you have in place. Of course, if you don't have any spies in place, info is going to be rather lacking. Military facilities like anti-aircraft guns and fortifications are represented by small black stylised icons that stand out well from the realistic tone of the rest of the map features.

Units on the map are represented by standard NATO symbols, which take a little while to learn but are simple and unambiguous. When zoomed in, units can be represented by sprites or counters, player's choice. Sprites will be fully implemented in the final version, and there will also be extra sprite packs available as DLC (downloadable content), apparently. Counters actually appear to be the better choice currently. Although there's only room for one counter to be displayed in each province, they stack with their edges showing so you can determine how many there are, unlike when you have several infantry sprites all stood in the same province, creating the sort of horror more usually seen in booze-fuelled nightmares after a WWII film marathon.

Fleets are made up of capital and escort ships, air units of squadrons of various aircraft, but the army organisation has changed. Starting at the bottom, each division is made up of 1-5 brigades. So an infantry division made up of four brigades is more than a match for an infantry division consisting of one brigade. Multiple divisions make up an army, multiple armies make an army group, multiple army groups a theatre. Each division and headquarters is a unit on the map. Clicking on a counter brings up a box that not only details the unit, but also lists the hierarchy above it in a neat vertical stack. When you click on a HQ, not only does it list the divisions under that HQ's command, those divisions and that HQ are highlighted with a slim glowing border, exactly what is needed to pick them out from the other units without being garish or insultingly obvious.

Now here is where the much-vaunted AI comes into play. Any HQ unit can be given a stance (Prepare, Defend, Attack, Blitz) and issued provinces as objectives. So you can hand over entire theatres of operation to the AI if you wish, e.g. give Home Command sole responsibility for defending the UK while you control matters abroad, or just tell Western Command and its two divisions to defend Wales (if you think it's really worth it, that is) while you handle everything else. It's also possible to have the AI controlling the theatre, and then detach various units from the chain o' command for you to boss about as you please. Handing over control to the AI may seem a little bit pointless in a war game, but it allows you to focus on the task at hand. Playing as Germany, you don't really want to be worrying about the West when you're about to invade the Soviet Union, do you?

The AI seems competent, there's a strength estimate provided (based on available intelligence, so it may be erroneous) and it does list units if it needs them. While I can't see myself using it to control major offensives, it comes in very handy taking a bit of the weight off my mind when assigned to take a minor objective or defend my back while I'm hip-deep in Russians or Poles. It'll also be useful if you arse up an offensive or two, you can just admit that Rommel isn't watching over you today, take off the monocle and Nazi regalia and direct another theatre, while leaving the AI to sort out the mess.

The division designer is a welcome new feature, and one I think will be much used and abused. There are preset templates available, so you don't have to use it if it scares you, but the versatility offered is something most will find hard to turn down. Feel your infantry divisions are lacking in firepower? Add a brigade of tanks. Need to stop those annoying Polish partisans building camps in the woods and nicking your antibiotics? Knock out a lot of single-brigade military police divisions. Of course, the more brigades you add, the more Industrial Capacity that division takes to build, and the more supplies it will consume.

It's not all about quantity, though. Paradox have introduced the concept of width to combat, in an effort to stop unit stacking. Only a certain number of units in a province can participate when attacking or defending, occupying the front line. Other units left over are held in reserve, and have a chance to move up to the front when a fighting unit is exhausted. This makes fighting a little less predictable, but if you're Poland and the Wehrmacht is massing on your border, you know it's not going to be fisticuffs at dawn and sorted in time for tiffin.

The IC system hasn't changed much, it's still divided up between producing new units, satisfying the plebs with consumer goods, producing supplies, and reinforcing and upgrading your existing forces. The sliders are much better behaved, they don't insist upon jumping around when you're trying to fix them in place, which eases the majority of the stress I usually feel on the production screen. No longer is fixing a slider in place more difficult than punching a particularly agile child!

The resources system has also seen a few small changes. The popups when you hover over each resource are clear and detailed, providing info on how much and where from, oil is now refined into petrol, oil and lubricants, and the bottomless well of manpower has been done away with. The Transport Capacity system has been taken out back, given the choice of bullet flavour (normal or custard) and shot, replaced by a much better system influenced by supply line length and port size (where convoys are concerned) with a dedicated map mode that displays lines of supply and supply convoys, which is a lovely thing indeed. Infrastructure now not only affects movement speed through a province, but how many supplies can be moved through per day.

The technology system has been given an overhaul, and those tech teams we know and love are gone. Leadership, a quality generated by your country and its educational system, now produces points which can be spread between research, diplomacy, intelligence, and military officers. When researching, practical and theoretical knowledge can be gained, which decays over time. Practical knowledge can be gained by fighting, and the good news is that even if you lose in combat, you still gain knowledge. Different countries have advantages in different areas, and while a country can 'change course' technologically and specialise in a different area, it takes a lot of work.

Diplomacy has changed considerably. Each country has a threat level and a neutrality level, and there's now a triangular diagram, with a major faction at each point (Axis, Allies, Comintern), which indicates a nation's inclinations. Diplomatic actions such as declaring war no longer cost money, instead they are paid for in diplomatic influence, gained by investing leadership in diplomacy. The diplomatic actions are much the same as HOI2s, with a few new ones, such as acquiring licenses to produce another country's technology.

Politics is something I didn't have much to do with, but looks like it could be very useful. Each country has various internal factions, which will only grow stronger as unpopular decisions are made. On this screen you also decide on laws, what type of government to have in place in occupied countries, and keep track of your national unity, which can be modified by enemy attacks and your actions. The need to watch over the home front and keep the populace happy was fairly simple in HOI2, all you had to do was drown them in consumer goods, but this time it's not so easy. If ze Germans are busy sinking British convoys, then the UK could be looking at not only a lack of supplies, but civil unrest.

Intelligence is still a murky world of unknowns, with you investing leadership to produce spies and sending them off to various countries, or keeping them in your own and then assigning them a mission type to focus on. Instead of simply carrying out one mission at a time, the spies focus on one mission type, but don't abandon their efforts elsewhere. There still isn't much you can do to gauge progress, and the system still seems remarkably opaque, but then I suppose if any area of the game should be, it's this one.

You can hand over control of any area you can't be arsed with to the AI, so instead of running your country into the ground trying to corner the market in rare materials, or researching a navy when you're playing Afghanistan, you can just sit back and let the computer do the thinking. In fact, I suppose technically you could hand over control of everything and watch the game play itself, but that would be perverse.

Warfare, the main focus of the game, feels different to HOI2. It seems to be a much more intricate, complex process. Battles last longer and the profusion of arrows, numbers and coloured icons is bound to bewilder even HOI2 veterans at first. The increased number of provinces means there's a lot more room to maneouvre, something that I used to my advantage on the offensive, but found confounded my defensive plans as the AI used it as well. It really does look like a map in a war room, when you're looking at a country and there are lines of counters layered against each other, with movement and attacking indicators present, and this enhances the whole strategic feel of the game. It also depersonalises your units a little, and it really is worrying how affectionate one can become towards a sprite ("Ah, the Flaming Arseholes! I remember you chaps at Kohima, carry on!"). The battles feel bigger, even though the amount of men is numbered and only presented in an abstract form. Perhaps it's the number of brigades, divisions and armies, and the detail they are presented in, that makes the battles feel more realistic as well?

There have been some changes to the way air units can be used. You can now target a particular province or area, or you can assign the aircraft a cone of territory to operate in, or simply specify a radius and let them hit everything within it. Additionally, you can also specify stance, priority, mission duration, and whether to fly by day night or both.

One of the things that isn't clear when it comes to the battles are the notifications, as planes perform ground attacks, units are detached from the chain of command, and so on. Because there's no room to display this info on the counters (petite as they are), you get a simple line of bright yellow text floating up from the counter, as if the commanding officer just shot a sentence for insubordination and its soul is off to the pearly gates. While this works fine if there's just one notification and you're zoomed in to see it, if there's more than one they're jumbled together and unreadable, and if you're zoomed out the text never grows large enough to read.

It is satisfying to fight a war, and not just because it's a lengthier process than HOI2's. The event system is gone, so no longer will your game always be channelled down certain routes. This allows more freedom, but of course if you choose you can stick to historical events and make sure certain things happen on certain dates. The ahistorical aspect has always been a bigger draw for me than simply refighting the battles of WWII.

The interface is simple and clear, and navigation through the various screens is a single click, but this is still a game that deluges you with information, and you need to play just to get accustomed to it, before thinking about doing anything so ambitious as winning a war. Each aspect of the game provides a wealth of information, and the tutorials give you a few pointers (as well as mercilessly ripping the piss out of Hitler) and shove you out the door, and you're on your own. You do get a few icons on the map screen highlighting options you might not have thought of, but that's it.

There's no handholding. The manual is not your friend. In fact, the manual probably hates you and wants you to die. But then, what you accomplish is entirely to your credit. You spent the hours learning the gubbins, you thought up the strategy, you designed the units, you put in the effort and you deserve the reward, that feeling of satisfaction when you stand atop the mountain of victories and yell "Take that, Switzerland!"

Hearts of Iron 3 needs a good polish, certainly. The English, especially in the tutorials, is understandable but wonky, there are message popups with dark backgrounds and darker lettering, making them hard to read, some of the sound effects are incredibly annoying, the music is dire, some of the icons don't make sense (a teddy bear for Softness I can understand, but a camera representing spies?) and the constant stream of countries looking for resource deals is irritating, but overall, I'm optimistic.

 

Add Comment Comments

mike9o\
11 Sep 2009 - 2:25am
mike9o
I played it and was very disappointed.  I like the research tree better, but it is not at all realistic.  Italy invaded France and ate up half the country before the French reacted (all the French troops were easliy holding back the Nazis in the north).  After the Gremans finally cracked the French line and took Paris, the Italians left all of their occupied terrritory and Vichy France was born.  I like the game but will wait 3-4 months (and a patch or two) before I play it again.
FullAuto\
12 Aug 2009 - 8:31am
FullAuto
Bit bugged ATM, some countries are playable, some are not.  Looking at another patch in 1-2 weeks, apparently.  Give it six months before the game's 100%.
Pete\
12 Aug 2009 - 6:41am
Pete
Yup - been available since the 7th. Unfortunately there's a pretty big bug in the current version (1.1) which they're looking to patch in the next week or so as well as balancing some other elements based on user feedback.

The system specs should be available on the official site I linked to if I remember correctly.
Zombie\
12 Aug 2009 - 2:14am
Zombie
Looks like HOI3 is finally released to the general public for purchase now. Anybody get it yet? I'm also wondering what the system specs are. My laptop will probably be able to handle it, but I'd like to know for sure. ;)

- Zombie
Zombie\
11 Aug 2009 - 12:42am
Zombie
Whoopsie, copied the wrong URL, hehe. Sorry about that folks. ;)

- Zombie
Pete\
9 Aug 2009 - 11:47am
Pete
I didn't even check the link in Zombie's post - yeah, that's a fan site.

This is the recently-launched official site, though oddly we're still no listed on their previews list.
FullAuto\
9 Aug 2009 - 10:37am
FullAuto

Zombie, on 9th August 2009, 4:51am, said:

Hmmm, HOI3's links page shows 7 previews but no link to StrategyCore yet. Too busy to update your website, Paradox? ;)

- Zombie

Think that's a fansite?
Pete\
9 Aug 2009 - 8:20am
Pete
Yeah, we've nudged them about it several times. Are all the other previews 100% positive I wonder as the thread listing the previews on their forums was longer than that but ours still wasn't on it when I checked a few days ago.

We've emailed them twice as far as I'm aware :)

Still, 1,000 unique visits to that article can't be bad ;)
Zombie\
9 Aug 2009 - 3:51am
Zombie
Hmmm, HOI3's links page shows 7 previews but no link to StrategyCore yet. Too busy to update your website, Paradox? ;)

- Zombie
Thorondor\
3 Aug 2009 - 8:20pm
Thorondor
One can always count on you to jump off the deep-end, FA. But you've beaten everyone to the punch and jumped off the bomb compartment for this one! :)

::

Moriture te salutant! ;)
FullAuto\
2 Aug 2009 - 7:49pm
FullAuto
Good to see you JFG!  ;)
JellyfishGreen\
2 Aug 2009 - 7:29pm
JellyfishGreen
Bravo, and I picked a good time to re-visit - I like the re-launch!
Pete\
2 Aug 2009 - 3:59pm
Pete
Well, much-anticipated since I mentioned it in the news last week I'm sure ;)
FullAuto\
2 Aug 2009 - 3:46pm
FullAuto

Pete, on 2nd August 2009, 3:26pm, said:

FullAuto's much-anticipated

As the Virgin Mary said to God, are you taking the piss?  ;)

 

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Game Card

Hearts of Iron III Box
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released:07/08/2009

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