I'm really not sure if my well-documented love for all things Paradox makes me the best possible reviewer for their games, or the worst. Because what I see isn't necessarily what everyone else sees, But Hearts of Iron 4 delivers the player a world of cohesive strategy.
There's a war raging across central Italy, and British tanks are rolling over crumbling old buildings as artillery barrages the fortified Italian defenders. But they have a cunning general and his tactical mastery is making it tough for the Allies to advance, and every hour that passes, their supplies dwindle and, with them, their chances of victory.
My six-year old son is watching the game in a state of stultified bewilderment. "When do you actually start playing the game?" he asks, as page after page of numbers flood past on the screen.
To be honestly fair to Hearts of Iron IV, many of the hugely complex systems that have acted as a block to new players have been simplified or outright removed. The order of battle in particular has been dramatically simplified, and HOI3's clunky espionage system has been removed (and replaced by almost nothing). Industry and government have both been given overhauls that have resulted in interfaces that, to me at least, seemed easier to understand. The tutorial is far better than the travesty that was the HOI3 tutorial, and core concepts are fairly easy to get a hold of.
Thing is, though, this is still a Paradox grand strategy title. Expect supply lines. Meticulous divisional management. Micromanagement (more on this later). Lots and lots, and LOTS of numbers on-screen all at once. It can still get kind of overwhelming.
The idea seems to have been to handle much of the day-to-day grind for the player, and instead focus them on making tough decisions that will alter the course of the war. And, yes, it does that. In addition to choosing technology there are doctrine trees for air, sea and land, and the addition of National Focii - basically a form of narrative tech tree that allows you to pursue historical or a-historical approaches to the war one at a time, from remilitarising the Rhineland to spreading democracy throughout Republican Spain. If you love picking things from tech trees, there's a whole world of joy waiting for you at the core of HOI4.
Some of these choices contravene the rule that if an option's too good to not bee-line, it's poor game design, and it seems that only in some pretty extreme cases would a nation not grab for extra tech slots immediately, or to create single-factory production lines for anything you might need to work through the production cap penalty. But these are minor quibble. While we're on the subject of minor quibbles, the map can get really busy at times, particularly when a number of nations are all fighting one another in a massive brawl. Pockets of national influence can pop up on the map, blending the colours together into a confusing paste, and it can be hard to see whether that single tiny province in the middle of the Himalayas belongs to Czechoslovakia or the Netherlands.
In order to make things slightly easier, there's a new system for waging war. Select a bunch of units, and slap them all together on an icon at the bottom of the screen and they become an army. Choose a historically-accurate leader and they'll perform better in combat. Draw a front line and allocate some of your units and they'll make their way there under their own steam. Draw a further offensive line on the map, and then hitting the play button will send your troops off to do the dirty work until they've captured the objective. They're smart enough to pause occasionally to regroup, but sometimes not smart enough to stay in the right country, instead preferring to travel through forth provinces to assault the other side of the enemy's position. Also, there might be a great chance to sneak a motorised unit into a province to chop the enemy's force into pieces ("Motti tactics", for our Finnish friends) but the AI would rather sit around and replenish his troops. Unsurprisingly, the AI is capable of predictable advances, but sparks of genius still need to come from the player.
Air and naval tactics are simplified as well. Now, selecting an air or naval unit and sending it into a general region (such as the Western Balkans of the South China Sea) and selecting a mission (such as air superiority or convoy raiding) will set that unit off to cover the whole multi-province area and attempt its mission in the whole area. This works really well, and allows you enough control so you're still in command without worrying about having to change missions every two minutes.
Reports for missions can get a little annoying. Naval bombers conducting port strikes in particular can result in a new pop-up every couple of game hours, which is pretty much constant. Also, sending expeditionary forces requires a load of micromanagement - if they're not actually in the territory owned by the nation to which you're giving the troops, they just stand there aimlessly. Even if they're in one of your provinces that borders the enemy. I don't know, perhaps this is how it's supposed to work.
But when all's said and done, Hearts of Iron IV is a game that has completely consumed me for the past week or so. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep, my head is filled with strategies, commanders, divisions, technologies and politics. Hearts Of Iron 4 manages to surpass its only rival in this sector, Hearts of Iron III, delivering the best strategy experience available, from your armchair.
The things that upset me about the game stem from the exact reason I love it - I disagree with Paradox's description of the Centurion-class Battleships, for instance, but only because I'm a huge nerd, and therefore perfect for this game. It's definitely a "your mileage may vary", but I feel comfortable in saying, entrance to the grand strategy rabbit hole has never been easier. But be warned - it's still a deep rabbit hole.