World War II Grabbag: Hearts of Iron III & Il-2 Sturmovik

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been indulging in a few of my recent purchases from the Steam and Summer Sales. Among these have been two games set in World War II, namely Hearts of Iron III and Il-2 Sturmovik. While I haven’t played either game enough to fulfil my criteria when it comes to reviewing them (both games have a campaign mode, which I haven’t completed in either case), I’ll give you my first impressions of the games. While the two games are in very different genres – Hearts of Iron III is a “real-time-with-pause” grand strategy game, while Il-2 Sturmovik is a combat flight simulator, the games share at least one element aside from their historical setting: They are both very involving and extremely complex.

To start off, Hearts of Iron III, developed by Paradox Interactive and part of their collection of grand strategy games, including the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series, places you in the role of leader of a country between 1936 and 1948, encompassing the years between Nazi Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland and the start of the Cold War. World War II is an inevitability, but it doesn’t need to turn out as it did in reality and the game allows you to explore possibilities like France never falling to Germany, an expansionist United States joining the Axis – or, if you want to go really bizarre, the Comintern – and using their industrial might to take Central America, or Germany forming its Greater German Reich and holding Europe firmly in its grasp.

The game is based around three factions, the Allies, Axis and Comintern, who fight for victory points, which are based around the world map and correspond to important cities and regions. The Allies naturally attract democratic nations, the Axis naturally attract nations under authoritarian governments such as fascism and national socialism, while the Comintern attract socialist and communist nations. Through a combination of military might and diplomatic influence, the three factions attempt to attract new nations to their cause or to subsume them into their own structure, bolstering their claim upon the world. However, a conquered nation may choose to resist, forming a government-in-exile, awaiting assistance from their allies.

The world map encompasses most of the world’s surface, with the exception of Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, both of which are militarily useless at that point of time. The map is subdivided into regions, some of which are more important than others due to their population, resources, industrial capacity and so on. The most important regions are denoted by the aforementioned victory points, which, when conquered, adds those victory points to the total of the faction of which that nation is a member (if any) and also bring the nation whose region has been captured closer to surrender.

However, you can’t just declare war on whoever you like, as your ability to wage war is limited by the wills of your population, which is represented in three ways: your national unity, which represents how closely the people of the nation identify with the nation as a cause; your neutrality, which represents how willing your population is to go to war and the threat posed by various other nations. If your neutrality is too low compared to the threat posed by another nation or the threat posed by you to the other nation, you will be unable to declare war, while if your national unity is too low, you will be unable to follow political policies aimed towards military mobilisation. However, if your country is already at war, some of these policies can be put into place despite low national unity or high neutrality – and typically, when two factions go to war, all of the constituent nations of those factions will wage war against each other.

To progress in the game, you have to balance multiple different facets of your country’s policies, including the deployment and movement of your country’s military forces, looking after the industrial elements of your country, including balancing military production, reinforcement, production of war supplies and consumer goods, diplomatic engagement with other countries and espionage and counter-espionage. As mentioned above, the game is very involving with all of its various facets to be managed. This is harder for nations who have to fight on more than one front at a time, in particular the United Kingdom, whose territories overseas are at just as much risk of invasion as their domestic territories and the Soviet Union, whose expansive territories are thinly reinforced to begin with and who will have to pick their battles intelligently. I recommend starting off with either a nation who will play a small, but important role as part of a faction, such as Canada or South Africa, or a small, neutral nation who can join a faction at their will, such as Ireland or one of the Central American nations.

While the game is rather abstract in various ways, with entire military divisions being represented by a NATO-style symbol on the map, there is plenty of complexity even at that level of abstraction. Industrial capability is represented by a figure called Industrial Capacity, which affects how many military units can be produced, upgraded or reinforced at any one time, along with how many supplies can be produced to feed and arm your troops. Some of that industrial capacity has to be used to produce consumer goods to keep your citizens happy and productive. Industrial capacity can only be maintained with sufficient levels of various resources, like Energy (representing fuels like coal and peat), Metal (steel, aluminium, etc.) and Rare Materials (such as gold, rubber, phospates, etc.). Often, your country will not produce enough of these resources by itself, necessitating trading with other nations. Trading requires the Money resource, a certain amount of which is produced in the country itself, but which can be attained more quickly by trading your surplus resources to other countries.

On the battlefield, troops require supplies and fuel to be provided to them in order for them to be able to fight in enemy territory as well as to fight at their optimal capacity. This requires sufficient infrastructure to be built along the supply train so that the supplies can be delivered in a timely fashion, while enemy encirclement can cut you off from supplies apart from those that can be foraged from the region in which your units reside. However, supplies can be airlifted in using transport planes, but transport planes are vulnerable to enemy interception. Battles are waged on land, in the sea and in the air between different units, which are strong in various areas (and in the case of land units, in different terrains), but weak in others. All of this is before the construction of fortifications, radar stations, additional factories, et cetera, or the development of hierarchical military structures from divisions to corps to armies and army groups. Needless to say after the above summation, there are a lot of things to be taken care of, requiring a lot of attention and care.

While you can choose to have various elements of the gameplay controlled by the game’s AI, which does help with the complexity when you’re starting off, the AI can be inclined to make decisions that are at the least slightly boneheaded. This very style of game appeals most to the sorts of people who will find that anathematic in any case and it is that sort of person – the person who would be known as a “grognard” in tabletop wargaming spheres – that this game will appeal to the most.

Il-2 Sturmovik, while in a very different genre, also displays a level of complexity and detail which can be breathtaking in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. Designed by 1C:Maddox, a Russian developer which was a constituent part of 1C Company, one of Russia’s largest independent game developers and publishers, Il-2 Sturmovik focused originally on the Eastern Front of World War II around the eponymous Soviet ground attack aircraft, but over the course of time has amassed several expansion packs which have taken its scope way beyond its original premise, to the Finnish Continuation War of 1941 to 1944, the war in the Pacific Ocean and even to the Western Front in the speculative 1946 expansion pack, which simulates various late-war experimental aircraft that never made it to production.

While, as with Hearts of Iron III, Il-2 Sturmovik can be made easier by adjusting the options to your liking, the ultimate aim of the game is to be an uncompromisingly hardcore combat flight simulator, feeling as close to the real deal as possible with the technology available and it feels a little like cheating to deny the game that chance by turning off the simulation elements. The game is set at a time where, unlike today’s modern combat planes, whose computerised fly-by-wire systems make them relatively easy to fly and the challenge is in figuring out the avionics, even the best planes had vices and few aircraft approximated the legendary performance of a Spitfire or an Fw 190. In this game, a lot of the challenge is in getting the aeroplane to behave itself even in normal flight, let alone when you’re in a tight dogfight with an enemy plane on your tail.

The flight model in Il-2 Sturmovik is very impressive, capturing the little details which make various planes different, including the tendency for early-model Spitfires to cut out under negative G, the poor low-altitude performance of high-flyers like the P-51 Mustang and MiG-3 and the poor manoeuvrability of several of the heavier aircraft. You also have to manage the state of your plane during flight, with engines that can overheat when they’re kept on full power for too long and excessive stresses on the frame leading to handling difficulties. The planes are all modelled accurately inside as well, with cockpit visibility sometimes becoming a concern with some fighters including the Bf 109 and Hurricane variants.

While the general flight model is a treat to behold, it is in combat where the game really excels. The game really depicts the challenge of taking down even the slowest aircraft, like early-war bombers and transport planes, especially when you have a stream of tracer rounds coming at you from multiple angles. Different parts of the plane react differently when hit, with aileron, elevator and rudder controls that can be damaged, fuel tanks that can be set on fire or even made to explode and engines which can end up splattering oil over your windscreen or with their cooling systems damaged. An engine that’s been hit doesn’t just always catastrophically fail either; you can often feel the gradual loss of power and hear the whining of a failing engine as it slowly succumbs to its damage, necessitating a good deal of care if you want to get back to base in one piece. The pilot can also take damage, with injured legs and arms affecting flight performance and the possibility of bleeding to death.

While I’ve been very impressed from what I’ve seen in the game, I do have one particular complaint about Il-2 Sturmovik, in that the number of expansion packs and the dated UI make it difficult to figure out where to begin. There are numerous missions and campaigns available in multiple air forces along with a quick mission creator and a comprehensive mission editor, but the game doesn’t really direct you to any one of them at this point of time – well, aside, maybe with the title and original premise of the game.

Another minor niggle is that while everything else in the game is depicted with astounding accuracy, starting up your plane involves nothing more than a single button press, which to anybody who knows planes, doesn’t hold true for even the simplest general aviation planes, let alone World War II warbirds. I’m a little more inclined to let that slide than the UI problems, though, since given the number of different planes and the differences in starting all of these up, most people would just get exasperated trying the complex procedures to get various planes going. Il-2 Sturmovik isn’t a study sim, after all.

I’ve got about 60 hours played in Hearts of Iron III and just over 10 hours in Il-2 Sturmovik, but I predict that I’ll get plenty more hours out of both games. The complexity in both games means that I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of potential left to exploit.