First of all, let me tell you what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to review Hearts of Iron III. If you’re here, I’m going to assume that you’re enough of a fan of the sprawling, complicated, what-the-heck-were-they-thinking marvel that is Hearts of Iron III to be considering purchasing some DLC. And if that is you, then welcome. I, like you, want my games to take themselves seriously and not to pull their punches.
If, however, you’ve never played HOI3, I’d have a long think about it. Because if it’s not for you, it’ll really not be for you. But if it is? Oh, God!
Right. In the proud tradition of HOI3 DLC, the title of Their Finest Hour gives very little indication of what to expect. Because you’d expect it to focus on the Battle of Britain, the air war over southern England. But no! None of that. In fact, literally no new features or improvements that have anything to do with it.
What it does have, however, is a new experience system for leaders that allows them to gain various traits, although these generally focus around fighting in different kinds of terrain (my personal favourite being the evocatively-named ‘swamp fox’). It would perhaps have been nice if leaders developed traits for other things, perhaps that reflected personality, such as a tendency to one type of tactic over another, or maybe even more out-of-combat traits, like a bonus to counterespionage. However, it feels sort of bizarre to suggest that Hearts of Iron III needs more detail.
Did I mention tactics? Yes, that’s another tweak to land combat. Generals now select tactics which play out against each other in a paper-scissors-stone kind of way. This system replaces the older combat event process, but make no mistake – the generals are choosing the tactics, not you. Sure, you can influence them to a certain degree by researching doctrines and using the new ‘aggression-ometer’ to tell your general to go all-out or play it safe. But the tactics are still not yours to choose, which tends to distance you from the action a little. Again, more micromanagement might not be what Hearts of Iron III really needs though.
Two other areas of the game get major overhauls as well – naval landings and espionage. Whereas in the olden days amphibious invasions were simply a matter of plopping a bunch of goons on a transport fleet and right-clicking on a province and selecting ‘invade’ (Obviously, taking into account number of marine divisions, time of day, weather, temperature, wind, morale, and all of the lovely complexities that make HOI3 so wonderful), nowadays things are much more involved. There are new research options for designing and buffing landing craft, which have a little armour to protect your brave soldiers when they storm the beaches of Yorkshire, and it’s now even possible to land armour units without it all ending in a horrific tragedy of twisted steel, massive explosions and liquidised soldiers.
Espionage has always been decidedly straightforward, something of an aberration in a wargame where you can study pressure fronts in order to predict rainfall while trying to balance the political makeup of your political cabinet. But have no fear! It’s a little more complicated now. But not too much – let’s face it, if you’ve got the hang of vanilla Hearts of Iron III, you can probably handle a little more complexity. Rather than setting your spies to just one mission, you can now prioritise various missions in the same way as you prioritise to which nations your spies are allocated. The spoils of espionage are more tangible as well – covert operation points can be hoarded, and later spent on blowing up bridges and moving signposts around Dick Dastardly-style in order to slow the enemy down, or – finally – tech espionage can be used for stealing enemy research. Although I’m yet to see it actually net me any new techs. If it’s anything like Paradox’s Supreme Ruler: Cold War, tech theft is next to impossible, but still, the option’s there.
Starting the game in 1939 always seemed a little too hectic straight off the bat, and while starting in 1936 allows you to craft your side of the war just as you like it by the time the howitzer shells start flying, it can take hours to actually get there. TFH includes a feature whereby you can fast forward the first couple of years and handcraft the tech, diplomacy and military composition of your nation the way you like it. This is a great idea, and smells warmly of a community suggestion taken on board. Another factor that gives the game a little bit of fresh zip is the inclusion of special unique units for each of the major powers. I only saw the British Gurkhas, and to be honest I was a little underwhelmed with their extra power. That said, even the tiniest change can make a big difference situationally.
There are a few new scenarios, one of which is – to my delight – the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40. A fascinating footnote to the war, this David vs. Goliath skirmish is prime, unused videogame fodder and frankly it’s about time we got to defend the Mannerheim Line in a game. However, the scenario was less than stellar – despite the vastly reduced world map, the Chillaxe’s frame rate dropped to around 5 fps when the view was centred over battlefields – odd, when the standard game runs smoothly all the time. The savage guerrilla actions of the Finnish ski patrols and the woes of the endless Soviet human and armoured waves doesn’t really translate well here, the Soviets choosing to sit on the border and defend rather than push into Finnish territory, and the Finns didn’t have arctic equipment. Since all of the technology, espionage, diplomatic and production screens are disabled in scenarios, there was none of the tension that should have existed as the Finns plead with the Allies for men and materiel. The new covert operations system would have modelled the Finns’ tactics fairly well, but no. In my playthrough, the Soviets sat on the border all winter while the Finns stormed through northern Russia, capturing Murmansk and severing the Soviet supply lines – before the game concluded with a Finnish defeat because I didn’t capture and hold Leningrad.
Hearts of Iron III came out three years ago. Reviewing it feels futile – fans will certainly buy it, newcomers need to see if the vanilla game is for them. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an HOI3 fan and will love the sometimes microscopic tweaks that TFH will bring to refresh your interest in this rich and engrossing game.