So Paradox released not one but two strategy games, using their Clausewitz engine, at the same time. Hearts of Iron IV was expected since a long time, Stellaris much less.
Stellaris came out of nowhere. It seemed at first glance like some sort of Star Trek Deep Space Nine in game and reminded me of a game I played in the nineties I cannot remember the name. Maybe it was Master of Orion but I’m not entirely sure.
After 15 hours of gameplay, I found Stellaris interface to be ok, the gameplay to be fine. I clearly benefits from Crusader Kings/Europa Universalis experience. But I got bored. Diplomacy there is a bit dull, that may be part of the problem. I guess it is mainly tied to the fact that the space does not relate to anything we know. With sandbox type of game, you need to need to set your own goals. And there, what could be set, beside from beating another entity that is just a visual blob on screen? It is not like in Europa Universalis making a small minor country conquer half of Europe or like in Crusader Kings rank up from count to emperor. The frontiers are vague, the world is just random – it’s space ! And it seems that since the begin, you are more or less surrounded, so it is not really like exploration game. Unlike in Star Trek world, you do not feel in deep space. You are not boldly going anywhere no one were before, the space looks like busy suburbs of any major european town. The space look crowded as a frontier/front line between South and North Korea.
Same engine, completely different setup: I must say I never really played previous Hearts of Iron games. Unlike Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings, you do not have the opportunity to start with a small country and grow progressively. In this series, you are thrown into World War II and that is all the game is about. There is no rest, no way out this all-out-war, so it is quite dauting. Too much to handle with a big country, nothing to do with a smaller, an interface sometimes confusing, that is I remember of my few attempts to play Hearts of Iron III. I had better times playing D-Day: The Beginning of the End in the nineties (yeah, it looks like this topics bring us back in time). Good news, Hearts of Iron IV interface is ok regarding basic major features (like production lines). I guess that’ll make some veteran of this game unhappy, because when you master something you tend not to see any point to make it simpler, but that’s fine by me. I’ll just comment a few things I found odd :
- Regarding army management, you can either set armies with unlimited number of divison led by field marshal or smaller armies with 24 division max led by a general. You can promote a general to field marshal but then he loose all his specific bonus abilities. Why? No clues. Some people suggests that when you lead unlimited amount of division, you cannot follow them as finely, so you cannot assists them and give to all of them bonuses like this. Some people suggests that abilities share among to many troops would be bad for gameplay. The answer is two fold. From a logical standpoint, if a general cannot lead properly, without suffering the effect of a lobotomy, more than 24 divisions while you still need to make an army bigger, you would, in your sane mind, create an army group, led by a field marshal, topping 24 division armies efficiently led by a general; no brainer. From a gameplay standpoint, there is nothing really specifically fun to promote to field marshal only mediocre and unexperienced generals from day one. So not only it makes no sense but it neither serves any real game purpose.
- Naval invasions UI is a mess. Not only the interface forget to cleverly inform you, for instance that you can only move 10 divisions at once (unless you research technology to move more) for a naval landing, but it fails to give you any proper feedback, especially on failure. Best it does is to put an exclamation mark saying the troops have no orders. But you can select troops and click thousand of times assign order to the landing to no effect, the interface never tells you what is wrong or that something is wrong. And when it is properly set, there is a timer (days of preparation) before you can actually lauch the landing: you cannot set it to start as soon as possible and there is nothing to tell you when it is ready. You just have to check it frequently to manually start it. Every possible user interface design mistakes are there.
- Airplanes are assigned to a zone to carry missions. In some regards, it is a clickfest. Worse, you cannot actually make your planes focus on a specific objective, for instance on where you intend your troops to break through the front line. And the zones are half geographical/half whatever, so while your planes effective range depend on their fuel autonomy, their zone of activity is restricted in the most arbitrary way. So any coverage of some area is not really consistent and would requires tons of clicks to be.
- The interface shows night and day. Ok, pretty for two minutes then it is just visual noise, especially at high speed. But I did not noticed winter/summer effects.
- The world tension system actually sense to focus the game on ending to an all out war. Some people noticed inconsistencies with it but I think important no to consider it as a clone of the bad boy/infamy system from others Clausewitz games. World tension is not necessarily bad. It is the way it goes. Some factions grow, that leads to confrontation with the others. And world tension is needed to achievement some goals or even just to be allowed to start wars.
Aside from these specific aspects, I noticed that in many discussions about Hearts of Irons IV features, the most generic reply is to state that “gameplay > historical accuracy”, even when it has nothing to do with history at all. While I do agree to poetic license –Dominion is a fine read-, while I do agree that if the game is exactly balanced as it should, the playthrough is bound to have often an unhistorical outcome (mainly because we all know that France and UK really started on the wrong foot – and when you know the war is inevitable, your are set to make better choices than they did historically, for instance strike earlier when you are actually stronger), still, any game that is so tied to a historic context cannot afford to explains all the shortcomings in the name of gameplay. Part of the game, part of the interest, is that the world you are in makes sense historically, something that lacks in Stellaris. You can simplify things in the name of gameplay. For instance, all far right regimes are described in the game as fascist. Anyone with decent background in History will tell you that fascism is specific to Italy – at least that using fascism so liberally is questioned. Some other countries harbored similar political entities but, for most of them, qualifying them fascist just blur the picture instead of explaining it – the series Nazis Collaborators already mentioned here is quite insightful about the heterogeneity of said collaborators. Nazis were not fascists per se, Japanese even less. Even if there were sort of fascists in France, Vichy regime does not fit the bill. It is not just a matter of choice words. Fascism designate a very specific mix of politics that does not relate conclusively to many other far right extremes of that period. However, in a broad, non academic definition, you can accept to use the word fascist, because there are probably no ultimate alternative. For the game purpose, which works because it reduces political systems to Democracy/Non Aligned/Communism/Fascism that could fine. They could have thought of something else, like Totalitarism/not, but that would be a different game. So ok, here, gameplay actually makes this historical inaccuracy acceptable. But it does not makes it a general rules. Otherwise, why not even having UK as Axis member, in the name of a funny gameplay?
So, what the conclusion? I doubtful about Stellaris ability to keep my attention captive, despite the game is well done. Hearts of Irons IV have half-baked areas -but that was to be expected considering its scope and size- but that could surely be fixed, with proper support. That is the problem with usual proprietary software development, you cannot expect to be satisfied on day one. He thought about the medic corps, and wondered what they’d find.