This is a guest review by Ludovic
First, let it be known that this review is not written in the scope of someone familiar with the Hearts of Iron series, but rather someone who is quite new to it despite having often heard of it from friends and acquaintances who are themselves familiar with the series. I guess that such people already know what to expect from Hearts of Iron 3 and already have been salivating for it's release.
Instead, I write this for the people who, like me, had never had the chance to lay my fingers on a game of this series before and for whom considering to buy this game would be the first experience they have with the series beyond having simply heard of it. Hearts of Iron 3 might not be for everybody, but that is certainly not to say that there isn't a certain level of brilliance involved with what it does.
So let's begin with the beginning:
What is Hearts of Iron 3
Obviously, it is the third opus of the Hearts of Iron series... but that doesn't have much meaning except for someone who actually played the previous titles or had heard of them prior. So let's make this simple.
To sum it rather quickly, Hearts of Iron 3 is a grand strategy game set during WW2. But note that word: Grand. This isn't a game that sees you controlling individual soldiers, squads or even companies. This is a game that see you directing brigades and division on a world map (literally spanning all populated continents) quite reminiscent of the strategic maps used by WW2 commanders.
Summing Hearts of Iron 3 to just this however would still be doing it a disgrace. So here's a more in-depth evaluation of the game:
Gameplay in Hearts of Iron 3 is played in the very grandscale. Your playground, quite literally, is the world as that is pretty much what you "play" over, starting from your country of choice(which choice of starting countries pretty much number in the hundred... though some are recommended more than others for obvious reasons of being easier to involve in the war) and the date at which you wishes to begin.
So, what happens once you've chosen your country? Well, a few things, but it's mostly up to you, really... though the period of start might influence the type of decisions you'll take. See, Hearts of Iron 3 far from content itself with managing armies on a very large scale. In fact, due to the nature of the game, managing armies is only a very tiny fraction of everything you can do. See, Hearts of Iron 3 put you in charge of everything. Warfare, but also diplomacy, production, technology, intelligence, politic. As such, the game is less of a "WW2 grandscale game" than it is literally a "WW2 Simulation" game in that you basically get to simulate WW2 itself rather than just minor aspects of it.
So, let's cover each aspects. To start easy, We'll begin with combat.
As mentioned, combat in Hearts of Iron is managed in the division scale. As such, you never see the individual soldiers or squads that make an units, since the battlefield is done from a world map point of view. Your battle field isn't a town or an hilly region, but quite literally a whole country that you invade or have defend yourself against (in which case said battlefield is yours or an ally's country). So, as mentioned, you'll never see the individual soldiers under your orders, instead managing the divisions they are part of from province to provinces.
This is much more about positioning your armed divisions throughout the various provinces of the current field of battle to encircle this enemy or spearhead through that other defensive line with armored divisions before maneuvering said units to cut another enemy unit's supply line so you can take it between the hammer and the anvil with another division. It is a "game" that is as much about knowing about what units to field but also how to field them(sending an armored division in a forest province won't do it any good) and how to manage your logistic as well(such as knowing where your supply lines runs, to make sure these don't get cut by enemy maneuvering). Thus sometimes making knowing how to maneuver more critical to victory than fielding the strongest units you can get.
The game works with a bit of a mix of real time and turn-based as everything is based on 1 hour turns. However, such turns are basically timed, and at the faster game speed it makes the game basically a pausable real time strategy (at least in single-player). Therefore, knowing when to wait for the night for a night raid is a good skill, but so are quick reflex and the ability to recognize an enemy advance. And when fighting on multiple front is when the game shows some of it's strong point in permitting players less used with it to literally automate a front of another by putting an AI officer in charge of varied troops in your army's hierarchy, being able to assign them to general objectives they will tasks themselves with completing duly to the best of their ability, be it taking the offensive, setting a defensive line (something they are very decent at) or preparing for an attack.
But even then, direct warfare like this is only a small part of the iceberg that is Hearts of Iron 3. In fact, often the game focus less on the direct act of war than all that surround it like in real-life, adding to the simulation value of the game. As such, you not only
manage your toops, but also policies, espionage, diplomacy(and trade), technological research and production(which is far from being restricted to just units and go as far as covering supplies, consumer good and reinforcement of troops).
For an example, in politics you'll have to not only manage the formation of the ruling party(choosing one or another politician for one role or another might yield different bonuses or malus to the running of your country), but also the politics regarding press censorship, industry focus, draft laws and so on. You'll also have to determine how you'll manage occupied countries(Will you "liberate" them? Install a "puppet governments"? Exploit them?), and be in charge of deciding when to mobilize your army to turn your reserve divisions into fully manned army divisions in preparation to a coming war.
In diplomacy, you'll be dealing mainly with the frequent trade agreement for ressources, but also brokering the likes of non-agression treaties, alligning oneself to one of the major 3 factions(Allies, Axis, Comintern... assuming you aren't a part of any when starting) or, when you are part of one of them, trying to influence another country into joining your faction. It is also where you can buy foreign production licenses for vehicles and units based on those of more advanced countries than you, however if the other nation will accept the deal is linked to your standing with said nation. Other major factors of note are threat and neutrality. The former represent how threatening a nation is to your region which can affect diplomacy with them, the later represent your neutrality in regard to the many conflicts around the world which can prevents you to tie yourself to some of these conflicts or declare war on other nations until it is lowered. But that'll be seen later.
Technology see the distribution of your various research project, but also of intelligence in general. Also, research speed can be sped up by accumulated knowledge both practical(accumulated from experience in the use and production of units linked to these technologies) or theorical(accumulated from past researches linked to that technology type). But you can also focus your nation's inteligence on researches, or on diplomacy? Or maybe will you prefer to focus on the production of spies, that you can send to other countries or yours for various missions?
Which brings me to said espionnage panel: Spies produced by your country are distributed on a priority basis. You can send them home where they can perform such missions as counter-espionnage(killing enemy spies in your country), raising your national unit(to make your nation more hardened to war and other such attempts to cause it to surrender) or lowering your neutrality to permit you to enact more engaging laws and permit your nation to involves itself more in the surrounding conflicts. Neutrality is heavily dependant on your country of choice, many being more neutral than others while a lot of the key players have very little neutrality from the start.
In the production panel you will manage your nation's production and how distributed it is between supplies(used by your troops during war), reinforcement(to replace losses to an unit), upgrades(to re-equip units to the current standards of your technology), consumer goods(to help lower dissent in your nation by keeping your population angry) and production itself which is how much of your industry is focused on working on whatever is in your current production line, be it units, infrastructure, ships or forts and so on. Anything you can produce, be it millitary units, infrastructures(roads and so on), forts, naval units or even trade convoy will go there.
Sounds complicated? Yes, it can be to an uninitiated player(like yours truly). However, this is also another place where Hearts of Iron 3 is great because if a player is less proficient in an area, he can always decide to automate it. Yes, you heard me: Hearts of Iron 3 is such that all aspects of it can be automated at your leasure, thus providing you with the possibility to ease yourself in the game by automating all of the aspects you feels less familiar with until such familiarity is attained. It's a great way of making the game much more accessible to new players.
Graphics and sounds
Due to the game's focus, Hearts of Iron 3's graphics are nothing really too complicated, actually taking more on a minimalist touch since the gamescreen you'll most often be looking at is that of the map of the world. Still, what is there is nicely done. The many panels such as technology and millitary units will often be accompanied by historical-looking black and white photos, the maps of the world itself is well detailed with many features to give an idea of the terrain type of a province and so on.
Music, on it's side, tends to be decently atmospheric regarding the current mood of the moment(calm, war, defense) and tend to be of decent quality. Of note, too, is the charge of the valkyries that plays when loading the game.
All in all, though not "spectacular, graphics and sound in the game are still nonetheless quite good and fulfill the job they are meant to.
There is one thing to note with Hearts of Iron 3. There can be time when it can be a rather great resources hog. This is in part due to all the AI it has to manage especially when you consider it has to simulate a whole world all at once, ontop of loading it prior to being able to play it at all. As such, expect the game to require an hefty computer to be able to manage all of this.
Hearts of Iron 3 is an excellent game and almost unique in it's genre and level of details and offers a great presentation of many of the more global aspects of World War 2 that are often forgotten about in smaller scale games which should please people who likes to research that perior. However, it is a game that requires much patience to play and, though excellent, some less patient players might be turned off by it's pace or all there is to manage. However, for those who can gather the patience needed to play this game it is a gem waiting only to be discovered and enjoyed.