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Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - hard times

Paradox's latest Hearts of Iron 4 DLC, Arms Against Tyranny, heads to the Baltic to turn the Winter War hot - but is it worth buying in 2023?

Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - Paradox artwork showing a coastal gun firing at a sinking ship on fire

Our Verdict

There’s some key flaws holding Arms Against Tyranny back from truly excelling - some originating in the core game; others from lackluster new mechanics. Nonetheless, Paradox is to be commended for this DLC’s portrayal of Scandinavia, and the warring to be had there. For depth and variety of new gameplay, Arms Against Tyranny shines.

It’s been an interesting ride with the latest Hearts of Iron 4 DLC Arms Against Tyranny. For one thing, we finally have Scandinavia! Here, Paradox delivers some of the most interesting gameplay choices yet seen in Hearts of Iron. Tragically, though, undercooked new mechanics and problems in HOI4’s core design prevent Arms Against Tyranny from truly realizing its potential. It’s all covered in this review.

Before anything else, let’s get one thing straight. This DLC is hard. If you’ve spent any time with Hearts of Iron 4 playing through the earlier HOI4 DLC, or dabbled in HOI4 mods, you’ll know the core game is never a cake walk – but, for reasons historical and  mechanical, Arms Against Tyranny turns the dial up to 11. If you’re not a seasoned veteran, familiarising yourself with a few HOI4 console commands might be a worthwhile backup plan.

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Standing on the edge of Europe, with the Soviet Union on one side and Nazi Germany on the other, expect to be fighting desperate battles against overpowering odds.

In many ways, Arms Against Tyranny mirrors the experience of my favourite Hearts of Iron DLC, Death or Dishonor – except this time you have even less margin for error. It’s great.

Even better, the nations you’ll be leading don’t make things any easier. The entire region took one look at World War One and wanted none of it – so gearing up for the sequel is extra-tricky.

While the Balkan states have a fairly straightforward road to rearmament, convincing your population that there will, in fact, be another war is half the fun. This internal political gameplay is where Arms Against Tyranny shines most.

With the knowledge that war is coming, it’s a race against time to prepare your nation for the fighting ahead. You’ll find your plans blocked by strikes, fascist coups, and sheer laziness (I’m not kidding).

What’s more, every nation has its own pleasingly different path and problems to manage –  not least the alarming amount of Norway’s focus tree that’s locked behind being occupied.

For the alt-history crowd, meanwhile, Arms Against Tyranny offers an impressive number of weird and wacky paths to go down. Some of these have a decidedly Viking tinge to them.

For one thing, I was quite alarmed by the option – once you control England, Norway and Denmark – to form the ‘North Sea Empire’. Of course, things don’t have to be quite so drastic. Sweden, for example, has the option to form a proto-European Union style ‘Scandinavian Defence Council’.

There’s a lot of variety here, and I think Arms Against Tyranny finally supplants Death or Dishonor for the title of ‘best DLC for co-op players’. That said, there are some niggles. Hearts of Iron struggles with portraying democracies and the diverse democracies here feel a bit too easily influenced.

A pops system a la Victoria 3 or Stellaris is most of the time unnecessary in Hearts of Iron, but its absence here is keenly felt. For all the hard choices and tense moments, much gameplay still consists of waiting for your political power to go up and your focuses to finish.

With enough practice, I’m worried that these fun and diverse focus trees will be reduced to a linear build order and checklist for whatever path you want to go down. That would be a great shame.

Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - Author screenshot showing the new Denmark Focus Tree

For a game about war like Hearts of Iron 4, it’s perhaps strange to readers that I’ve so far refused to talk about what happens when Scandinavia actually goes to war. Let’s just say it’s complicated. The generally excellent peacetime gameplay all leads to the ultimate test of battle.

It is exhilarating when the balloon finally goes up and all your choices come down to a desperate struggle in which the first days often matter most. It’s here that this DLC is strongest. What’s more: Scandinavia is a fun region to fight over.

Mountain warfare, amphibious warfare, winter warfare, it’s all here in a very small corner of the map. For anyone looking to hone their HOI4 warfare skills, this is a great place to practice.

Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - Author screenshot showing a shifting battlefront of a war in Norway

Unfortunately, war, when it comes, does highlight one of Hearts of Iron 4’s more fundamental problems: its AI. Playing as a minor power against a major power is never going to be easy. You need every advantage you can get – and yet the number of times allies have headed somewhere irrelevant to the fighting, or otherwise did not support me, made war very frustrating indeed.

I can allow one seaborne invasion of Norway, especially with Britain distracted fighting in France. Two more, however, with the United States also in the war by that point? Less so. Even then, with the fate of Norway in the balance, few allied units arrived to relieve pressure on my exhausted and overstretched units. In a tense game, these issues can be crushing.

Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - Author screenshot showing a war front erupting between North Germany, Denmark and Sweden

Bugs, too, have snuck in. When I, as Sweden, completed part of the focus concerning that aforementioned Scandinavian Defence Council, the units of all involved countries magically teleported to Sweden. Unfortunately, this was during the Winter War. The Soviets woke up one morning to find the frontline completely empty of Finns to defend it! Little wonder we lost that war.

A final word on the new Military-Industrial Organisation system (and what a mouthful that is). If you aren’t interested in Scandinavia, it’s the only the part of the DLC you’ll really interact with. For me, frankly, it’s hard to be very excited.

Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - Author screenshot showing a hard fought battlefront between the Soviet Union and Finland in the Winter War

Getting the same bonuses for the same equipment with virtually interchangeable companies rapidly became something I rolled my eyes and got on with, rather than a feature I looked forward to. It’s a far cry from the stories of companies and design bureaus coming up with eclectic designs that sometimes became iconic war-winning weapons and other times were only comically useless.

Likewise, the arms trade system has some good potential. Unfortunately, when, in every game, the only aircraft for sale is the same type of British biplane torpedo bomber, one’s excitement fades rapidly.

Hearts of Iron 4 Arms Against Tyranny DLC review - Author screenshot showing the new International Arms market system, with different models of technology for sale including trains and convoy ships

In the end, Arms Against Tyranny is a mixed bag. The new nations are great. There’s lots of variety with interesting historical and ahistorical paths. The progression from disarmed peacetime nations to fighting for your life in the snow is exhilarating.

Yet fundamental aspects of Hearts of Iron 4’s design let the experience down, and the new mechanics the DLC brings are uninspiring. For those sticking to major powers, Arms Against Tyranny doesn’t offer much. Still, for those looking for a real underdog challenge and a very different region to play in – especially in co-op multiplayer – Arms Against Tyranny is hard to beat.