Death or Dishonor: The War for the Soul of Hearts of Iron IV17 May 2017 1
It's 2017, and the war rages on – this is not a grand struggle of nations, but a struggle to decide the fate of one game. Out of all the grand-strategy tiles created by Paradox Development Studios, Hearts of Iron IV is probably the most uncomfortable. It's also got the hardest job out of all them – trying to straddle a community that wants both a re-enactment of World War II and to experience the historical freedom made popular by Europa Universalis IV.
This policy of appeasement must be taking its toll on the development team, but Game Director Dan Lind remains stoic. “It is a difficult game to do,” he told us at the recent Paradox Convention in Stockholm. “It's got grand strategy freedom, in a ten-year span, where people also expect the AI to act a certain way.”
“It has a lot of problems the other games don't have to deal with – automatic balancing, for example. In EUVI you have coalitions; you can't have that in HoI4. It'd be like the US going 'Oh, the Soviet Union is getting beaten, I have to help them.' It wouldn't make sense. Or 'Germany is probably going to do something, we should smite them now!'”
The recently announced expansion, Death or Dishonor, is on show and playable at the event. It's being called a 'Country Pack', which is a term that formalises the sub $15/20 expansions that still count as adding content. Stellaris: Leviathans started the trend with the “Story Packs”, and now EUIV has 'Immersion Packs', although both EUIV and CK2 have been releasing smaller updates along with bigger ones for years. This new pack, much like Together for Victory before it, focuses on a specific group of nations bound by a common theme – in this case, the Balkan and Eastern European nations caught between the major powers of WWII.
It's not going to bring the grand-sweeping changes that much of the community probably want, but at the very least it's a step in the right direction:
“I felt people like what we presented them but people also just want another $20 expansion with more features. I listened to the community after the last one and took away that people wanted a new air system, and lots of AI updates.
“We can't sell people a new AI system, because it's core stuff, so we have to think about what else can we do to focus our coding resources. And you want to release something every couple of months otherwise things get stale, right?”
Death or Dishonor is a mix between mechanics and content that apply mainly to the nations it focuses on, but also new features that any country can enjoy. Licenses and Equipment Conversions being the headlines there. A lot of the actual coding resources though are going into the free patch that will accompany the game.
The 1.4 Oak update will probably be the most impactful of the two releases, revamping the Air Warfare interface, clearing up boarders (with impassable zones) and generally fixing what they can fix with the time they have -- which I'm told includes frontline shuffling with regards to Battleplans.
“Sometimes it feels a bit like “damned if you do, damned if you don't” - if we'd said we were doing a big expansion and doing a lot of bug fixes, we would have gotten people going “oh I want more flavour”. We will have to go bigger for the next one though I think, but I feel we've solved a lot of the base problems that will let us build on it now.”
I've always felt Hearts of Iron's core problems were just as much ideological as they were technical. There are two kinds of players – ones that just want to recreate World War II by and large how it occurred in history (so essentially, Hearts of Iron 3 V2), and then those who want to enjoy the freedom and sandbox nature of Europa Universalis IV in a WWII context.
It's pretty much split down the middle as well – Lind told me that he had telemetry data that showed a near 50/50 split between those that play with Historical Focus choices on (ensuring a more than likely chance things progresses as they should), and those who play with the feature turned off which can theoretically allow anything to happen. Lind and his team have been trying to straddle the middle ground, appeasing both sides as best they can in an effort to keep all of the player's happy. It's not an easy road.
“I think it's possible to straddle the middle, but it's way more work than picking a side. I think the path we've chosen is striking that middle ground. But you have things like the historical focus setting. Sometimes that needs to just switch off for things to make sense. You can get players that have it on but then do a Democratic Germany, so is historicity really what you want at that point?”
The focus trees are fast-becoming the most crucial feature of HoIIV. Lind and his team have gotten a lot better at designing them and crafting a narrative through them, but they remain an odd prospect. Lind maintains they are a way to take shortcuts or to achieve specific things in a game that wouldn't actually be possible 'manually', but regardless of how you look at it, they are a curious way of replacing the need to interact with certain game systems. They can also prove slightly disruptive as well, in terms of the choices you make pre-war:
“We realised early on we wanted to offer more paths in the trees but we weren't sure what the player-base would think. Why would we give Germany the option to be democratic if none of the historical guys would want to take Germany that way? But people really loved them.”
There's not a lot we can say about the new expansion that you won't already know, even with a brief hands on session. The Balkan nations are now more interesting to play and the new mechanics are slowly making the game better, although arguably a lot of this will come from the free patch. I feel as though Death or Dishonor's place (and perhaps also TfV in retrospect) in the pantheon of expansions is a little more secure, and depending on the impact of Licenses and Equipment Conversions it'll probably end up being one of those updates you can take or leave. If you want to play as these nations, get it. If not, no need to worry.
Hearts of Iron IV's war rages on, and it certainly won't be over by Christmas. Lind wants to try and keep both halves of the community happy and strive that middle path but I remain sceptical – World War II itself teaches us that eventually you have to pick a side (unless you're Romania, I guess), and I can't help but feel this unique grand-strategy game would be all the more better for it if they did.
Hearts of Iron IV: Death or Dishonor will be launching sometime in the spring. By the end of the month might be pushing it, but perhaps mid-June.