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    Hearts of Iron 4: Doing the Führer’s dirty work, grand-strategy style.

    What would Hitler do ?” I murmur to myself after re-militarising the Rhineland. I could go right into Poland and menace Lithuania, but Austria is such a juicy target, and my improved artillery is rolling off production lines near Berlin with nothing to point at.

    Hearts of Iron IV requires cold thinking, and an ability to divorce yourself from the intentions of the regime you’re controlling. Wade past that huge issue and there are plenty of interesting logistical decisions to be made controlling the Nazi war machine.Should I tell a significant portion of my research staff to invent night-vision goggles years ahead of the date they historically arrived? I mean, yes, obviously, but I could just as easily develop bigger tanks or advanced planes or faster factories if I wanted to.

    Actually, for all the technological options at hand, I feel oddly straitjacketed. Hearts of Iron IV takes after Paradox’s real-time-with-a-pause-button strategy games, such as Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV . As in those games, you need a good reason to start a war, and in Hearts of Iron IV that’s limited by a trim list of national missions. In Crusader Kings, you can get creative with your casus belli, whereas here I’m limited to just a few targets that Germany had its sights on in 1939.
    I could go right into Poland and menace Lithuania, but Austria is such a juicy target
    Devoted fans of the Hearts of Iron series might be glad of the restriction. It’s always been a series about recreating history rather than reinventing it, but I want to leave the Rhineland alone, manufacture some arbitrary grievance with the Soviets and carry the war in an entirely different direction. Never mind if this is a game about creative execution of World War II’s story beats, the challenge is to eke some fun out of Hearts of Iron IV’s complicated grey production menus.

    Austria seems vulnerable, so I start lining up forces on its borders. You tailor the makeup of each division by filling a grid of slots with troops of your choice. You can buy new slots with combat experience, which eventually lets me add artillery and tank support to my infantry divisions. All this needs to be backed up with production lines, which means creating jobs and assigning factories.

    This is snoreworthy stuff, even for someone who gets a quiet thrill from knowing that he’s producing 1.5 extra Tiger tanks a week thanks to reforming production infrastructure near Berlin. The problem is Paradox’s chronic tendency to build interfaces that overcomplicate simple concepts. To start a war, I give Germany a mission to stir up trouble in Austria on one screen, then click on Austria and locate the diplomacy screen, where I can eventually formally declare war. The action happens away from the gorgeous brushed-metal strategy map, where toy-soldier figures cluster on the Austrian border.

    War is a little better. You can arrange divisions into armies under the command of a general, and then give the commander loose orders to enact. You draw an offensive line in the middle of the enemy’s territory where you’d like your new national borders to be. The general then tries his best to make that happen.

    In Austria, he draws a swarm of attack arrows across enemy territory. It looks like someone’s dumped a dead octopus on the map. I speed up time and watch my mini-fascists dart from province to province, dispatching enemy troops with a spray of flashing casualty numbers. Austrian soldiers try to encircle and cut off German troops who charge too far ahead of their support, so I deploy a fresh swarm of infantry at the border. With no way to add them to my general’s command, I micromanage, moving them individually from province to province, deleting all resistance. You can micromanage the entire war effort if you prefer, and, based on the AI’s relatively slow performance, you should.

    Before long, I’m pushing into Poland. The rest of Europe doesn't seem to care at all. Hopefully, diplomacy will have a bigger role in the final release, though it’s possible the dice rolls determining other nations’ behaviour created an unusually docile setting for my demo. Other journalists attempting similar conquests found themselves blindsided by a large French force in the middle of their campaigns.

    With no such worry, my armies press on, meeting a little more resistance than the Austrians offered, but not enough to cause concern. I simply drop more troops into the border and push them in to assist again. At this stage, conquest is trivial.

    What would Hitler do next ? Just keep on killing, I suppose. There’s an undeniable pleasure in swallowing up new territory, even using HoI4’s clunky, unfinished systems. But when I stand up after my two-hour session, it’s hard to feel especially good about my achievements. I look forward to having another go with a tuned-up version, ideally with a less troubling faction.

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