Sunday, January 23, 2005

Hearts of Iron 2 – First Impressions

After two years Paradox Entertainment has issued one of the most anticipated PC game sequels – Hearts of Iron 2. Naturally, by the time I got my copy, Paradox has issued its first patch – 1.1. This didn't bode well, but I tried to see whether the sequel is better than original.

I didn't want to be overwhelmed and I wanted my first test game to be short. Unlike HOI 1, this game together with four campaigns (Road To War, Blitzkrieg, Awakening the Giant from HOI plus Gottämnederung from HOI Platinum) has couple of individual scenarios that allow players to recreate individual battles instead of the whole war.

However, while individual scenarios might offer some glimpse into game mechanics, the only true measurement of difference between HOI 2 and HOI 1 is the grand campaign. I picked Road To War (1936-1948) and played as Peru.

Peru, apart from having border dispute with Ecuador, was relatively safe from unpleasantness that had struck Europe and Asia. I was free to experiment with various domestic and foreign policies and see in what way trade, diplomacy and research differed from HOI 1. Only late in the game I chose to join Allies, only in order to see combat mechanics and how alliances affect economics and research.

In many areas HOI 2 represent an improvement over the original. There are more nations to play, and there are also more provinces. Graphics look more impressive and there are more leaders with more personality traits.

Trade and economics mechanisms are also significantly improved. Resources are divided into more abstract categories like Energy, Metals, Raw Materials and Oil. With Raw Materials replacing Rubber from HOI 1, some tropical nations like Brazil and Siam aren't that likely to become industrial super-giants while some nations that didn't have rubber historically are in much more competitive position. Individual trade deals can be negotiated between individual countries for the specific amounts which allows for more flexibility and easier handling of economy.

I'm less enthusiastic about technological research. Compared with HO1 1, it is more simplified, less detailed and, therefore, allows less space for experimentation or fine-tuning of each countries' and each militaries' specific needs. This is a far cry from HOI 1 where the player had to choose what kind of calibre he wanted for the its light tank main guns. In HOI 2 player gets only generic light tank, which has the same specification regardless of whether it is Japanese or German. The good news about research is ability to trade technologies without diplomatic cost, although it is, compared with HOI 1, done indirectly via blueprints that has to be researched, although with major bonuses.

More problems can be found in AI, although only in later stages of the game. Since played as Peru, I haven't much capacity to make an impact on world's events. I satisfied myself with monitoring. I didn't notice much divergence from real history (and HOI 1 patterns) – in 1936 Italy gobbles up Ethiopia, Spanish Civil War starts only to end in 1939 with Nationalist victory, in 1937 Japan invades China, in 1938 Hitler gets Austria and Sudetenland, in 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is followed by disappearance of Poland and Baltic States and the actual war between Germany and Western Allies.

The only major divergence in 1939 was Stalin's decision not to go to war with Finland. This later had significant impact on the course of the war, although at first it looked very familiar – in 1940 Germany conquered Norway, Benelux and France went Vichy after the fall of Paris. That was followed by Italy joining Axis and British having to fight bitterly over control of North Africa and Suez (with Cairo and Alexandria changing hands several times).

In 1941 historical pattern was again followed and Hitler invades Soviet Union. However, with Finland out of Axis and with Petsamo serving as a buffer zone between Murmansk and German-controled Norway, Soviets were able to make things very different from Barbarossa. Instead of blitzkrieg, war in the East turned into slugging match with Germans not being able to advance further than Latvia and westernmost parts of Ukraine. It took only four months for the tide to turn in Soviet favour – Romania was annexed in October, in January Soviets gobbled up Slovakia and in September same thing happened to Bulgaria, which, inexplicably, chose to join Axis after Romania's fall. In August 1942 Hungary switched sides and became Soviet puppet.

The most important divergence was Japanese decision not to attack USA or Western Allies. Japan, with Soviets and Ameircans being busy elsewhere, had free hands in China – by the end of 1948 (and game) Japan conqured all except for Sinkinag, Mao's Communist stronghold, two warlord states in the west and single Nationalist province.

American entry to war, however, didn't reflect much on Europe, at least not at first. The major impact was presence of US Navy which helped Royal Navy sink Kriegsmarine and Regia Marina by the end of 1942. In 1943 British finally closed the chapter on Italian North Africa.

Then AI began to act funny. Vichy France remained neutral and Western Allies, unlike the real history, chose to respect that neutrality. That included even De Gaulle and Free French territories. Due to logistic and other problems stemming from this neutrality, Americans were conspicuously inactive while Soviets continued to steamroll over Poland and Germany. Americans landed in Italy in late 1943 and stalled after conquering Rome. In France 1945 they landed only three divisions, waiting for exhausted German divisions to be smashed by Soviets in the eastern parts of France.

Italy finally surrendered after last American offensive in 1946. In the meantime, Americans landed in Norway and Netherlands (and later liberated Belgium). When the game ended – map of Western Europe looked very strange – USSR included Poland, Germany, Czehoslovakia, Denmark plus large chunks of northeastern France. Vichy France remained intact. The rest of France was under US occupation.

The strangest thing to happen was Soviet decision to spare Berlin. So, at the very end, Axis still existed with its sole member - Nazi Germany – being reduced to Berlin, completely surrounded by Soviet troops. I'm convinced that this must be some bug that will, thankfully, be handled in 1.2 patch.

I also noticed some annoying aspects of diplomacy. As Peru, I sent two mountain divisions to help Allied effort but they didn't do much, apart from having their noses bloody in mountains of Italian-controlled Albania. When British took care of Albania, I sent those divisions to occupy Italian holdings in Dodecanesos and Rhodes. When Italy surrendered, those became Peru territories. However, Greece had territorial claims on them. I tried to give up those territories voluntarily through diplomatic deals, but I failed. It seems that territories can be given only to allies, and Greece was neutral.

I must say that I'm not too enthusiastic about the game, but I'm not too disappointed. AI problems and some diplomacy issues can be solved in subsequent patch. I'm not so sure about technological research – this is a leap that requires Hearts of Iron 3 rather than regular patch.

My impressions about the game, however, can change if I choose to play major power and thus become familiar with some aspects of naval, air combat and long-term-strategy.

In the end, I should also praise Paradox for choosing to have original game soundtrack instead of classical music. Andreas Waldetoft is a very talented composer and some of his themes contribute a lot to the atmosphere of the game.


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