Review: Hearts of Iron III: Their Finest Hour

Paradox Interactive has been on a roll these past few years: Europa Universalis III, Hearts of Iron III, Victoria II, and Crusader Kings II have all been far more popular than their predecessors, and the grand strategy genre has really taken off with Paradox making all sorts of spin-offs like EU: Rome and Sengoku to feed the masses.

Hearts of Iron III itself came out back in 2009 with two expansions, Semper Fi and For the Motherland, coming out in 2010 and 2011 respectively. The latest expansion, Their Finest Hour, seems to be the final expansion to this three-year-old game. While Paradox are being coy about the possibility of future expansions, the fact that Europa Universalis IV is in development most likely means we’ll be seeing Hearts of Iron IV soon after. If I was a betting man, I would put my money on the fact that Their Finest Hour is HoI3’s last hurrah.

Is it going to be Paradox’s finest hour?

Hearts of Iron III: Their Finest Hour
Systems: PC
System Specs: AMD Athlon II X4 640, 4GB DDR3 RAM, ATI Radeon HD5770, Windows 7 64-Bit
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Development Studio
Release Date: September 26, 2012
MSRP: $19.95 USD

For the uninitiated, a brief introduction to Hearts of Iron III is in order: HoI3 is a pausable real-time grand strategy game that spans the turbulent years of 1936 to 1948 as any one of the 200 nations that existed during this time. Pausable real-time means the game plays in real time but you can pause the action at any time and give orders, build units, engage in diplomacy, and so on, and therefore the game takes a sort of turn-based feel as well. In Hearts of Iron III, the game’s real time “interval” is one hour. That means the game’s clock in the top left not only has the day, month, and year but also the time in hours. You are literally living out World War II hour by hour; you are reliving history. That is the appeal of grand strategy games.

So what does Their Finest Hour add to this epic formula? The main addition is what Paradox are calling The Custom Game Mode (CGM). In previous titles, the earliest you could start the game was 1936 and the latest was 1941. The problem was that, in 1936, there are several years between you and the the action of World War II; and starting in 1941 means you are in the action but don’t have the ability to shape your nation’s army and technology like you could if you had started in 1936. CGM lets you start at any checkpoint past 1936 and then lets you spend the research, diplomacy, and production you would’ve accumulated in those years and put them wherever you want before you start the game, allowing you to skip all the early year work without having to play with a style you don’t like. Now, this does have a few limitations: even in 1937, you can declare war and annex countries, which increases your Industrial capacity, leadership, and other factors. If you play from 1936, you’ll have a better army and production by the simple fact that, as a player, you can min-max your country much better than Mussolini or Hitler.

Still, CGM is useful if you want to avoid all that hassle or you want to try something really weird. For example, I used CGM on Canada in 1941 and removed all research from non-important areas, then put them into carrier technology with the intention of joining the Americans to fight Japan in the Pacific. The problem is that, in order to make my grand carrier force, I had to disband the entire Canadian Army to get the Industrial Capacity to build my carriers. Needless to say, that was not feasible. As I lost carriers, I couldn’t replace them to be of any real use for the rest of the game. I don’t blame the game for that; it’s a demonstration of all the weirdness you can get up to with this CGM. It’s definitely the most important addition for veteran HoI players as it lets us get through multiple games faster.

Also, lend lease is finally implemented into the game. You can offer part of your industrial capacity to other nations if you want to help them in their wars without sending your country’s young men to die on foreign lands. As Italy, I never join the Axis because I know that getting on Britain’s bad side means losing my East African colonies and having a rough fight in Libya, so having the ability to join the fight against the communist menace without actually, you know, fighting is great for me!

Unfortunately, the rest of the additions in TFH are very minor in comparison. One of the additions is the new options in amphibious warfare: landing ships, and assault ships that are more expensive but increase the efficiency of amphibious landings (previously, you could only use regular transports to initiate sea-borne invasions). There’s nothing wrong with that and great for maritime countries, but it’s nothing that really gets you excited.

Unique national units have been added to the game; for example, Germany gets the Waffen SS, Italy gets the Alpini Corp, Great Britain gets Ghurkas, and so on. These units don’t cost anything more than regular units, but you can only have a small number of them. If you attempt to build more, your production will only churn out a regular version of that unit. For example, as Italy, my mountain infantry troops were replaced with Alpini. Once I started cranking out more Alpini, they only became regular bog standard mountain troops. As for balance, these elite units are only slightly stronger than their regular versions, and since you really should be playing with NATO counters rather than 3D models, you will not be able to see the unique models for these units that Paradox has cooked up.

Two new scenarios have been added:  the Spanish Civil War and the Winter War (for reference, scenarios are smaller maps with linear goals compared to the open grand campaign). Now, maybe it’s because I’ve been playing so much Hearts of Iron II, but I thought these scenarios were default ones that came with the game! These are classic scenarios and I’m glad they’re finally in, but I’m too busy fiddling with CGM to give them much of a chance.

The rest of the additions are almost too minor to list and feel more like tweaks rather features. Generals can now gain skills and aren’t stuck with the ones they are born with. Combined Arms bonuses now make a little more sense (based on using a blend of units rather than the more arbitrary “softness” stat), the armour thickness/piercing mechanic has been reworked, and combat tactics now replaces the old battle event system, which means you can order a general to be more or less aggressive with a sliding meter on his unit. If it’s not engaged, he’ll look at the meter of the unit above him in the chain of command. Finally, the intelligence section has some redundant items removed and introduces the new “covert ops” option, which is basically an abstraction of commando raids and such.

Looking at that list of additions, it just seems like most of the new features are more like small tweaks. Not counted are the kinds of stuff that most developers would put out in a free patch or something rather than a full fledged $20 expansion pack, but—oh, wait. That’s not the only thing that Paradox has added to the game.

Paradox Interactive is a lot like Bethesda in a I have a three-patch policy way for me. Whenever a new title comes out from one of these two developers, I wait until three patches come out before buying them because they’re usually, to put it nicely, very buggy at launch. I don’t blame either of these two companies because their games are generally very huge and massive in scale. I know looking at the screenshots doesn’t make Hearts of Iron look epic like Skyrim, but you have to realize that there are over 150 different AI opponents that your CPU has to handle, not to mention the hundreds of individual units and battles happening at any one moment. I’m surprised my processor hasn’t burst into flames, to be honest!

But I do have to call out Paradox on the bugs in this game. Their Finest Hour is not a new game. It’s a small expansion to a three-year-old game that has no business being even buggier than the original release. The most obvious one is the long load times. If you can start playing the game in less than five minutes after booting up the program, you’re a lucky man. I know to expect long load times with Paradox titles, but this is just insane (Paradox has confirmed it’s a bug rather than anything on my end and that itt’s being patched in the next update). Oftentimes, the backgrounds to all the menus would disappear and become transparent, and I took that to be a sign that I needed to save my game quick because it was about crash. The AI is still somewhat stupid, offering me deals that I accept and then canceling them just a second later.

Finally, the game crashed for the last time and refused to launch again. Trawling the tech support forums at Paradox Plaza revealed to me that I had to delete everything in the /documents/paradox interactive/Hearts of Iron III folder. Unfortunately, this contains all my saved games, so that was the end of that.

An additional point that I’d like to make but has no impact on the review is that, despite the expansion being called Their Finest Hour and draped in new Battle of Britain art, there is no specific additions to the aerial combat at all. Not that aerial combat needed to be overhauled, but it seems that just by looking at the box art and name, you’d think there’d be something related to the Battle of Britain.

In conclusion, Custom Game Mode is the real draw of this expansion pack. Everything else is nice but very minor and not worth calling a feature. At nearly $20, I can’t really recommend the title at this price point. It’s not standalone, eitheir. You need the original Hearts of Iron III and both of the previous expansions, Semper Fi and For the Motherland. This means that, if you’re a newcomer, you’ll need to grab the Hearts of Iron III Collection, which retails for a nice low $30 (though it doesn’t come with optional DLC) to be able to shell out another $20 for this. Frankly, the price is absurd for the amount of content put in. Crusader Kings II had the expansion packs Sword of Islam and Legacy of Rome for $10 and $5, respectively, and they had far more content than Their Finest Hour. If it was priced similarly to those two DLCs, it would be an easy recommendation, but alas, it is not.

Custom Game Mode aside, this is not Paradox’s finest hour.

PROS

* Custom Game Mode is a real boon to veteran Hearts of Iron players
* Lend Lease is implemented well and easy to understand
* More control over your general’s actions and skills
* Additional naval invasion options

CONS

* Price tag is too high
* Game is incredibly buggy
* Most additions are very minor
* Requires every previous expansion pack

FINAL SCORE: C-

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by Paradox Interactive via Gamersgate. The reviewer played two campaigns: a normal campaign with Italy starting in 1936 and ending in 1944, and a CGM campaign starting in 1941 with Canada that lasted only two in-game years.

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Mohamed Al Saadoon

About Mohamed Al Saadoon