Flattening the learning curve is as much the focus of Hearts of Iron III as the Second World War, which the game depicts. Paradox Entertainment's third grand strategy go-round with Winston, Franklin, Adolf, and Joseph is a thorough reenvisioning of its predecessors, maintaining all of the game's complexities while distilling the hardcore micromanagement through a mostly superb interface. Although you still spend a great deal of time sifting through reams of data, it's now much easier to cut to the chase. So instead of getting bogged down by the minutiae of war economics, such as oil production in the Caucasus, you can head right for the much more satisfying aspects of WWII. Even with some technical glitches, this deeply engaging game is the most approachable and user-friendly that Paradox has ever released out of the box.
From up here, the Eastern Front doesn't seem nearly as bad as Klink and Schultz made it out to be.
With all that said, Hearts of Iron III remains a serious real-time strategy game that is as intricate as the design of a Persian rug. Like its cousins Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron III isn't a game that you will figure out, let alone master, in a couple of hours. The basic structure of the game is stock standard when it comes to Paradox's grand strategy lineup. The design blends the first two releases in the Hearts of Iron series with the 3D map and revamped interface of 2007's Europa Universalis III. So even though you get to look at a newfangled world map with 3D soldiers, tanks, ships, and planes moving about, the core of the game is still centered on taking control of a nation during the WWII era. Matches can be played solo or multiplayer over a LAN or the Net if you've got a lot of patience for the time it can take to finish such an undertaking. There are seven default starting dates that stretch from the nervous peace of 1936 to the beginning of the end in 1944. This lets you run through the whole 12-plus years of global insanity or pick your spot and replay history from such key moments as the German invasion of Poland or the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Success is achieved by outlasting foes and accumulating the most victory points by the time the clock runs out and the war era comes to a close.
As is typical of Paradox productions, the depth is mind-blowing. Just about everything you could imagine is modeled here. Democracy, fascism, and communism go toe-to-toe on the world stage, both diplomatically and on the battlefield, courtesy of the machinations of the Allies, Axis, and Comintern powers. Nations are fully stocked with leaders, including cabinet ministers and generals, all with their own skills and personalities. Laws are passed and national priorities are set that can mirror history or send things off on wild tangents. Some 15,000 provinces are ready for you to micromanage, with their traits being modeled right down to such natural resources as food and oil, as well as economic builders, such as factories, that contribute to industrial capacity. Armies, navies, and air forces are built from the ground up, then sent into battle at your command. Technology is researched to build better military hardware and improve economic production at home. Spies steal information from rivals and indulge in sabotage. Even weather fronts now roll across the continents, affecting military moves and economic production.
OK, all that may not sound like a tremendous amount of fun to wrangle with--especially if you remember the micromanagement hell of the first Hearts of Iron. But Paradox has made huge strides here. Much like Europa Universalis III, in Hearts of Iron III, you can choose how involved you want to be running the ship of state. Just about everything can be automated. Resources? Check. Diplomacy? Check. Spying? Check. Army building? Check. Fighting? Check. Yet this doesn't mean that the game runs on autopilot. Even if you cede nitty-gritty control to the CPU, you still direct things from on high, setting the priorities that your computer minions then carry out in a very intelligent fashion. Going into battle has been streamlined the most. Military matters are now sensibly structured via layers of headquarters. This enables you to take control of field-level HQs and direct battles manually or move up steps and give orders for specific battle theaters that direct all troops under this command to do your bidding. For example, in the early stages of the war in 1939 and early 1940, you can order Rommel's HQ to take Paris. This essentially mobilizes the entire Western front into action because all of the units under his command will then start pushing forward. No muss, no fuss.