Hearts of Iron 4 is better than ever, but its remaining flaws are becoming more obvious07 Mar 2019 0
Hearts of Iron 4 is now several major expansions down the road from where it was at launch. These expansions have brought a great amount of detail and complexity to what was initially a very light grand wargame. However, with each of these expansions, we have also received free patches that form the foundation for the largely excellent expansions.
Last week, Man the Guns released alongside its associated patch, Ironclad. Man the Guns was an excellent addition to HOI4’s expanding library of content, but is the game worth playing without the premium content? Moreover, is the game better now than it was at launch?
The first thing to note about the current state of HOI4 is that the AI, while not quite at the level of being a master strategist, is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was at launch. Obvious blunders such as punching a single hole in the enemy’s line and funneling all their forces into it to only be cut off and annihilated are largely a thing of the past now, with an AI that sometimes manages to (seemingly) plan out and execute a decent encirclement of the enemy. This is thrilling for armchair strategists who prefer flying solo, as the AI can stand up for itself now. I’ve even seen a fair amount of naval landings from the AI that specifically targeted undefended ports, which literally left me in an open-mouthed gasp.
That being said, the AI is still just a rock that was taught to think. While the recent patches have made the AI something to be reckoned with, it will still commit those blunders mentioned above, just not as frequently as it used to. And the reason the AI was so easily able to target those ports for naval landings is because the AI on the defending end of those invasions had, maddeningly, left them open to invasion for no reason whatsoever! The hardest part of playing a minor state in HOI4 as of the current patch is not dealing with the enemy, but rather dealing with your AI allies, who can be expected to make the wrong move at the worst possible time.
A CONVOY, A CONVOY! MY KINGDOM FOR A CONVOY!
The naval and logistical arms of HOI4 received a major rework with Man the Guns, and the free features that came with it are quite substantial. Fleets are now broken up into smaller task forces, much like armies under an army group. These task forces will perform various jobs throughout target regions, such as patrolling for enemy fleets, or harassing or defending convoys. The bulk of a state’s naval forces will likely be carrying out the strike forces mission, which sees them staying in port until an enemy fleet is spotted. This is important in Ironclad, as all vehicles now consume fuel, a new resource that will be expended with use. When the ships are in port, they don’t consume any fuel, which is very important for fuel-starved states such as Japan. The introduction of fuel forces the player to think more strategically about their logistics, a previously underwhelming portion of the game, or end up with a fleet of immobile vehicles.
Players can now also direct the flow of their convoy traffic by restricting access to certain sea zones, which can be helpful in avoiding enemy fleets. This is very important for states with significant trade needs, as attacks on convoys now has a negative effect on the war support for the defender. This new tool is also key to maximizing the strength of a fleet, as the new naval terrains have an effect on various ship types, so a capital ship-heavy fleet can be directed to route around dangerous areas with fjords that negate many of the strengths of the larger ships. The last major addition to naval combat is the rework of the Admiral leveling system. Now instead of having basic levels that increase all stats, they now have 4 different skills, much like generals do. These will grow as the admiral gains experience, and affect the damage, defense, positioning, and coordination of the ships under the admiral’s command. The naval side of Ironclad, while not as refined as the premium additions, brings a lot of enjoyable content to the table for those who enjoy playing states with navies.
A LACK OF FOCUS
Problems still persist, unfortunately. The recurring feature in each expansion is that new states get focus trees, and some states with unique focus trees get theirs’ tweaked to give more play options. This has been Paradox’s strategy so far in making HOI4 a deeper game with more choices for the player. There have, sadly, been no releases or tweaks to focus trees outside of the expansions. Playing as minor states now can quickly become a stale chore rather than a fun new experience with all of them sharing the same generic tree and not having any unique decisions to take.
The frustrating thing is that even with the expansions, there are still some unique focus trees that are badly in need of a rework, particularly France, Italy, and the USSR. The trees for these very important states remain fairly sparse; a stark reflection of where the game was at release. There are also some important minor states that feel like they could easily be fitted with a unique tree, such as Greece, Finland, Norway, or Denmark. The increasingly dense and interconnected newer focus trees seem to step on each other’s toes frequently, with a decision one state is taking completely blocking of the whole political tree for another state. The new trees do offer much in the way of replay-ability and flavor by adding in alternate history options for each new tree, so even through the difficulties of adding in new trees, they are still a net positive.
Although, this is not to mention the increasingly apparent problem regarding how the Focus Tree mechanic renders large sections of the game rather pointless, or at the very least, lead to some very sub-optimal decisions. Why bother actively engaging in diplomacy when you have a series of Focus choices that takes care of it for you? But then if you’re spending several 70-day stints doing diplomacy stuff, you’re not then getting the Focus that gives you bonuses to industry, or research. Do you then just ignore those bits until you can circle back to the relevant focus (No)? Or do you plough on, then missing out on the bonus and essentially wasting the time it takes to do that Focus (which you still need to do to get to the next bit). As the Focus trees get increasingly more complex, there is a feeling that there’s an ‘optimal’ path one could follow, but what that is hard decipher.
Hopefully the next expansion and patches will start to address the final nations lacking more involved trees. Perhaps a refresh of the generic tree is called for to act as a new placeholder for minor nations? It's such a shame that, so far, major reworks have only been left to expansions. As Hearts of Iron 4 gets better, the bits that have yet to be improved get more obvious in terms of what they lack. If we have to wait a year or more for the final set of reworks, it's going to be long wait indeed.
Hearts of Iron 4 is, without a doubt, in a much stronger position now than it was at release. Paradox has poured a lot of time and love into the game, and you can really feel it in the small adjustments to how the game functions, as well as the larger features that have been recently added.
If you haven’t picked up HOI4 before and are interested, now is a great time, because the base game has never been better and looks to keep getting better. However, in order to really get the full experience, the expansion packs are necessary to really bring out the strengths of the new systems that have been introduced.