If you are reading this review (and odds are, you are) then you know about HOI3. It is a big game, much bigger than almost any other computer game I can name. The original release strove to recreate just about every important facet of World War 2 (and some unimportant facets to boot). Like so many Paradox games it was big, buggy and hard to play, but brought a lot of strategic depth and a real feel that one was running a big country. “Semper Fi”, the first expansion, was mostly just a giant patch which brought improvements to the AI, interface and stability.
Given the expansive sweep of the original game plus the polish added by “Semper Fi
”, one might ask what is left to be done? The version of the Clausewitz Engine used for HOI3 has been stretched to its limits and beyond just to get the game to the state it is in now. This review will cover the changes brought to the game by “For the Motherland”, but first a brief recap of the base game.
The player takes on the role of a “guiding spirit” of sorts, a veritable Illuminati of your country. You can take actions as diverse as appointing a new cabinet minister to upgrading your aircraft carriers' engines to setting up trade agreements. This is not a simple war game, but an attempt to simulate in a real-time, grand strategic game the economic, geographical, technological and historical factors that surrounded the war. One could imagine learning a lot by watching a replay of the actual war played out in the Clausewitz Engine used in HOI3.
The problem this introduced was that running a war is a complex business. While some obsessive-compulsives would enjoy countless hours poring over minute decisions, most players would be primarily interested in a few areas (perhaps sea battles and logistics) while loathing the time spent on the areas they considered less interesting (maybe land battles and trade relationships).
The solution to this problem was brilliant. Gameplay was divided up into several areas: Diplomacy, Production, Technology, Politics, Intelligence, Theaters and Statistics. The player could set each of these areas (and sometimes sub-areas) to AI control. The AI, in general, had to be able to make these sorts of decisions in order to run its own countries, so why not allow the user to let the AI make those decisions for his?
This solution is both the pride and the downfall of HOI3. The pride because this is obviously the way all future games of this scale will be written. It is both such a good idea and so obvious it's hard to believe no one had thought of this before. It is the downfall because the AI plays like the “after” picture of “Flowers for Algernon”. You know, after the super-smart serum wears off. This poor AI performance was improved in “Semper Fi”, and is slightly better in “For the Motherland”, but it is still pretty bad.
It is hard to overstate the importance of a good AI in HOI3. The game is so complex that attempting to play without AI help is an exercise in micromanagement that only an IRS auditor could love. The combination of important (should I join the Axis, Allies or Comintern) and trivial (upgrade my tanks' engines or my subs' AA guns) decisions simply sucks all the fun out of the game. Playing a large nations such as the U. S. can lead to a tech advance (and consequent decision on what tech to research next) every 5 seconds or so. And that doesn't count troop movements, trade agreements and political maneuvering. Without an AI to handle the boring parts one is left pressing buttons rather than playing a game.
So, rather than devote the entire release to improving the sub-adequate AI, Paradox added a few new features. And did not issue a manual.
The nicest new feature is the concept of “War Aims”. Now, when your nation enters a war, it can declare a “War Aim”. The idea of war aims is to allow limited wars. Once could, for example, declare war and state that your aim was conquest of territory. Once that was accomplished, your nation could declare peace and get a nice bonus in the form of enhanced stability and morale. Wars that do not have stated, limited aims or that conclude without the aims being reached are hard on a nation, often creating widespread instability. It's a nice mechanic, borrowed from other Paradox titles such as Europa Universalis.
Also new is a Partisan system. This allows you to create/equip partisan forces in enemy-occupied countries. This is a neat opportunity for a little underhanded play to give your opponents fits. It is a nice nod to the French and Polish resistance movements. Unfortunately it comes across as just another mechanic in a game overfull of them, and is not likely to have much of an impact on the war in any case.
The Theater interface has been revamped and many statistics were added to the display in order to give the gamer a better view into the situation on various fronts. Although a good idea in the abstract (if you are playing this game and don't want to see more information you are playing the wrong game) in the case it just highlights the ineptitude of the theater-level AI.
HOI3 was built for hard-core grand strategy war gamers. It stands alone at the top of the heap for breadth, depth and detail. “For the Motherland” does not change this. Don't get me wrong – this is still a much deeper game than anything the “Total War” series has come out with – but the flaws in HOI3 are still to look irreparable.