Four more years? The past, present & future of Hearts of Iron 4

By Timothy Borsilli 10 Nov 2020 0

Last month saw the release of Battle for the Bosporus, the sixth non-cosmetic content pack for Paradox’s stellar World War II simulator Hearts of Iron IV. The middle child of the modern paradox roster – landing after Crusader Kings II and EUIV, but before Stellaris and ImperatorHoI4 has the distinction of being perhaps the most unique of the PDS games in terms of its gameplay, scale, and general approach to warfare. 

At just four years old, it likely has at least a few large expansion packs left in it before the end of its lifecycle. It is, however, old enough that, with a bit of perspective, it’s clear to see the major contours that have taken shape over the past few years.

So, let’s take stock of where Paradox’s WW2 game is now, where it’s been in the past few years, and where it’s going in the future.

Where Are We Now – General State of the Game

Since its release in 2016 HoI4 has remained one of Paradox’s most solid titles. The basics of combat (well, ground and air combat, at least) have remained remarkably stable since launch. For a developer that has long struggled to make warfare engaging in its grand strategy titles, HoI4 is a notable exception. Its combat is competently executed on the tactical front, while at the same time still delivering on the high-level strategic gameplay that devoted fans have long expected from Paradox titles.

hearts of iron 4 major powers

Its relatively contained timeline – only about a decade in total – allows the game to move at a decent clip, while the numerous Focus Trees that have been added since the game’s initial release help to ensure there is enough interesting stuff going on in the world to keep you busy until the shooting starts. Altogether, it is and has been a very capable WWII machine with some very interesting grand strategy choices to make it stand out from the crowd.  

But that 'grand strategy' descriptor has created some lingering issues at the very core of the series. After four years of building, it is clear to see that Hearts of Iron IV has been moving in two fundamentally different directions. In part, this is because, even now, it can’t yet decide if it wants to be a strict WWII simulator or an alternate history sandbox. Instead, it is caught in a tug of war between the desire, on one hand, to make a solid nuts-and-bolts WWII game with a fanbase that demands the addition of gonzo historical shenanigans.

If the mod scene is anything to go by, there is a clear hunger for interesting, well-crafted alternate history content, and the developers likely feel a very reasonable pressure to give the fans what they want. But the game also has its own internal rhythm and tempo built around the gradual march towards WWII.

hearts of iron 4 main screen

Because it is working on a much smaller timescale than any of the other paradox titles – that of years, rather than decades or centuries –  the scope of events is going to be more limited, especially considering that there is really only a 3 or 4-year window for major changes to the geopolitical landscape to happen before the World War sets off. 

Part of the problem of adding in so many alternate history paths is that many of the popular-yet-wacky Focus Trees, like Germany restoring the Kaiser or Japan embracing communism, throw a massive wrench in the game’s carefully crafted tempo. Others are so ludicrous as to require significant suspension of disbelief. 

Ultimately, HoI4 would likely be stronger if it firmly picked a side, rather than hedging its bets. This far into the game’s lifecycle, though, it seems unlikely that one side or the other will totally prevail. Still, this internal contradiction is almost certainly something that will be on the developer's minds as discussions of a sequel start in the next few years, if they have not already.

hearts of iron 4 combat

Where Have We Been? – DLC and Updates

Despite some of these more top-level concerns, HoI4 has been consistent in its release of well-received new content. There have been five major DLC packs, each accompanied with a free major update: 

  • Together for Victory – expanded out the Focus Trees of the Commonwealth nations and added new mechanics for interacting with vassal states and subjects 
  • Death or Dishonor – filled out some Focus trees for nations in Central and Eastern Europe and added some new mechanics for fascist clients (but was really more of an up-jumped country pack)
  • Waking the Tiger – revamped the War in Asia and added new mechanisms for China and added new Focus Trees and some alternative paths for Germany and Japan 
  • Man the Guns – included a massive naval rework and a new ship designer; the U.S.A. and U.K. Focus Trees received a face-lift as well 
  • La Résistance – reworked the Spanish Civil War, updated Focus Trees for some of the Latin nations, and added espionage mechanics

Battle for the Bosporus – the most recent DLC – ended up being more of a small scale 'country pack' (like the free Poland Content pack and Death or Dishonor). The pack added expanded Focus Trees for Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece, though not much in terms of new features.

hoi 4 turkey focus tree

There has also now been a constellation of smaller, cosmetic DLC packs, such as expanded radio and armor packs with some additional models. These add a bit more flavor but don't necessarily represent any massive additions to the game in their own right.

Even with all of these, there are still some outstanding reworks that will likely drop in the coming months and years. A quick scan over the current DLC list will show that most of the major players of the war have received some form of rework, with one huge, looming, red exception.

Where Are We Going? – Outstanding Reworks

By far, the most likely target for the next massive rework is the Soviet Union, which has somehow slipped by as one of the very few major players to not receive a new coat of paint since launch. Given the relatively small size of the Battle for the Bosporus pack that was just released, it seems likely that Paradox has been allocating its resources for the inevitable launch of a massive update to coincide with any Soviet rework.

hearts of iron 4 soviet union rework

After that, Italy is another likely contender for a tune-up, as it has also passed by almost unaltered since release. There are strong odds that it will be the target for a rework as well before the end of the game’s lifecycle. This seems especially likely as the developers skipped over Italy while working on the other Latin powers in La Résistance and the Aegean/Black Sea states in Battle for the Bosporus, both of which would have seemed like reasonable places to squeeze them in unless they are working on something much more ambitious down the line.

Another strong candidate for a facelift is air combat, likely along the same lines that Man the Guns did for naval warfare. Air forces have always felt a little underdeveloped, especially compared to naval and ground warfare, and have remained pretty much untouched since release. A total overhaul of dogfighting, an aircraft designer, and a more engaging portrayal of strategic bombing would be a welcome improvement.

hearts of iron 4 air combat

While it likely wouldn’t warrant its own separate DLC, Peace Conferences are also long overdue for a rework. It’s frankly shocking this was not a higher priority considering just how viscerally the community hates the current systems propensity for encouraging ahistorical land grabs and some truly nasty border-gore. 

The Hearts of Iron 4 Mod Scene 

Far and away the best part about HoI4 right now is the vibrant mod scene that has sprouted up around the community. There is a solution in the workshop to just about any conceivable problem or pet peeve you might have. Disagree with the division of states in Yugoslavia? There’s a mod for that. Wish the map looked more like Victoria II? There’s a mod for that. Think the implementation of combat width is all screwed up? There’s a mod for that, too. Tired of having the World War drag on indefinitely while you conquer fortress-Japan? You guessed it: there’s a mod.

hoi 4 mods End of A New Beginning

Of course, all the major heavy hitters of the past few years are still floating around and receiving pretty consistent updates, especially the big four:

  • Kaiserreich – an alternate history scenario that asks: what if Germany won the First World War? 
  • Millennium Dawn – a modern-day mod that moves the start date to the year 2000 
  • Old World Blues – a total conversion mod set in the universe of the Fallout franchise 
  • Road to ’56 – an immersion mod that adds a plethora of alternate history scenarios and increases the timeline to 1956

In the past year or so Kaiserreich, arguably the heaviest of the heavy hitters, has not only continued to receive updates, but has also spawned a ton of creative and original alternate history content – including original music, fan art, animated shorts, and even a soon-to-be release live-action short film set in the universe.

Some impressive newcomers have also come to the fore in the past few months, including the massively ambitious End of a New Beginning, the very promising Calm Before the Storm Beta, and the intriguing Cold War simulator Iron Curtain: A World Divided.

hoi 4 Mods The New Order

By far the most popular mod to land on the scene in the last few months is The New Order: The Last Days of Europe, which officially released a few months back and has quickly risen to the top of the workshop charts due to its incredible polished aesthetic, well-written narrative, and grimdark alternate history setting. It has also spawned a cottage industry of sub-mods and music mods to go alongside it and is well worth trying if you have not yet given it a go. 

Hearts of Iron V when?

It’s a good thing that the mod scene is so lively, because, based on its age, it does not seem likely that Hearts of Iron V will be forthcoming in the immediate future. The game likely has an absolute minimum of 2 to 3 years left before a sequel would likely even be announced, at least if the older Paradox siblings are anything to go by. Crusader Kings took nearly 10 years for a sequel; Europa Universalis IV is already 6-years old without any announced sequel on the docket.

So buckle up and enjoy the mods (as well as the inevitable DLC). When the time does come for a sequel, it will be interesting to see if it will follow HoI4’s lead and hedge its bets, or firmly decide to embrace itself as a strict World War II simulator, or if it will lean on the more grand strategy side of its heritage. 

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