Hearts of Iron IV is a game that asks ‘what if?’ It’s a historical wargame featuring myriad ways for history to fork off into theoretical directions. What if France had declared war in response to Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland? What if Poland had become part of the Axis? What if Einstein had gone back in time to—no, wait, that was Red Alert
Then there’s the biggest ‘what if’ of all. What if Paradox took its World War II grand strategy series and tidied it up with a clean, easy to understand interface? My own attempts to play Hearts of Iron III have always ended in failure, thanks largely to the nested menus, mess of icons and dry, text-heavy tutorial. There’s an interesting strategy game there, but it’s always felt out of reach.
Hearts of Iron IV is far simpler to understand. The primary interface is the main map and even compared to Paradox’s recent, more accessible grand strategies that interface has been further refined. For instance, players won’t be required to switch between multiple different map overlays. Instead, 90% of the action takes place on a single, scaling map screen that contains everything from political divisions to weather and terrain.
The map shifts as you zoom in and out. At its widest level, you can see a political overview, letting you know who’s in control of each region. As you zoom back in, the abstracted elements fade away and the specifics of the map emerge. It’s a slick-looking system and a nice way to transition between high-level strategy and tactical options.
There are more tactical elements to consider, and returning ones such as the time of day and weather conditions have been improved. But Paradox is keen to avoid excessive micromanagement. There are more provinces, but they’re bundled into larger states, and construction is performed and managed at the state level, curtailing the busywork of production.
Every returning element has been similarly re-evaluated for size and scope—increasing the detail in some places, while reducing it in others. Air superiority is a telling example: more planes are being simulated, but they’re fighting over much larger zones to invoke a feeling of heroes in the skies turning the tide of battle. That wasn’t possible when each skirmish was being fought in a more granular airspace.
Troop orders are also given from the map. Zoomed out, you see your units stacked together based on the states they’ve occupied. Zoomed in, they separate out into each of their provinces. Unlike Paradox’s other grand strategies, victory in Hearts of Iron IV isn’t a matter of moving a huge stack of soldiers. Unit positioning is key and performed by ‘painting’ battle plans. These let you evenly space troops across a single front. From there, you can create arrows into enemy territory that your divisions will follow. You can also alter movement on the fly, giving you the chance to encircle the enemy’s territory.
By simplifying the interface, Paradox has shifted the action to what makes grand strategy games exciting: the big ‘what if’ questions. HoI IV will also let the player tailor the AI’s preference for historical accuracy. Historical mode ensures a computer-controlled France won’t suddenly develop a fondness for fascism.
It gives you the chance to shape the war according to your own historical tweaks. Alternatively you can turn it off—plunging the world into a more chaotic conflict with a less predictable outcome. Hearts of Iron IV may only simulate about ten years of history, but Paradox wants to fill that timespan with an enormous amount of breadth and replayability.