A title that says nothing about what the game is about
I never looked closely at Hearts of Iron or Hearts of Iron II. I saw them on the merchandise rack, read the title, and jumped to the conclusion "It must be about WWII tank combat." The title sort of evoked images of Tiger tanks slugging it out with Shermans and T-34s, which isn't exactly my cup of tea.
Right war, wrong game scale. The series is actually about the strategic overview of WWII. Playwise, it is very similar to Making History: The Calm Before The Storm. That is, you have a choice of being the Commander-In-Chief of any of the eight major nations (China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA, or the USSR.) involved in WWII. Further, you also have the choice of starting as early as 1936, which allows you to build up your forces prior to the opening of hostilities. This is about as close to a campaign game as there is – or any of several scenarios that allow you to jump directly into a shooting war, with the option to scale the conflict to just one theater instead of the full war, which spanned the globe.
Now, I'm something of a fan of Making History, but I have to admit that Hearts of Iron III is sort of like Making History on steroids. Such as, while Making History's game map is divided into hundreds of provinces, Hearts of Iron III's map has about 15 thousands. There are more unit types involved for Hearts of Iron III and the number grows rapidly as your national tech develops. And the tech development is much more involved. In fact, pretty much most of Hearts of Iron III is simply Making History+. Discovering what the Hearts of Iron series is actually about has me kicking myself for having overlooked such a fine WWII strategy game series for so long.
Combat is just the tip of the iceberg
As anyone that has seriously studied the art of waging war can tell you, winning combat is more about the logistics behind the armies than the armies themselves. Hearts of Iron III takes a painstakingly detailed look at everything that goes into a nation's ability to wage war. Politics – both internal and external - Technology, Intelligence gathering, Diplomacy, and Production: each is a major factor in how well your nation performs.
In each, the player has to confront the "Guns versus Butter" conundrum. Do you cater to The People, or do you suppress their desires in favor of the needs of the State? Either path creates consequences which may impact on the nation's productivity for feeding the war machine. Do you Research better weapons for the future, or do you focus on short term developments? Do you focus your espionage efforts on disrupting enemy nations (or maybe even your allies), or do you concentrate on thwarting the espionage efforts of other nations within your borders? Do you make nice with the neighbors, or do you bully them into cooperating? Do you concentrate on cranking out more and better weapons, or do you boost the Economy and placate your citizens with LOTS of Consumer Goods? The things that need to be addressed and decided in each major department requires many, many decisions -- each of which has to be revisited frequently as conditions change in a rapidly changing world. But don't despair about info overload. Each of the departments can be entrusted to the AI, or you may choose to do everything personally. (Thank God for the Pause button!)
Oddly enough, for such a strategic level RTS game, the basic "turn" unit is the hour instead of the day or week. It sort of boggles the mind how the AI is tracking the development of events as umpteen kazillion units and processes are each making their contribution to Change. Yet, that is what it is doing, and for the most part, it's doing it quite well. You may choose to have Time advance as slow as one hour of gametime per @15 seconds of real time, or have Time blur by as fast as one day in about one minute of real time. If you're a control freak like me, you'll be using the Pause button a lot: Make the rounds of those things that need to be scrutinized closely and then Resume at about the middle speed setting, then Pause again when an Event (combat results, political event, tech advance, etc.) pops up and do another inspection round before Resuming again. Repeat often.
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