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 GOG.com 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.

SimTower – A Retrospective Gaming Review

Back when I started playing video games on my first PCs, my interests leant more towards simulation and strategy games than any other genre. One of the first titles that I really got involved with was SimCity 2000 and many of my earliest games came from broadly similar genres, like Sid Meier’s Civilization II and Command & Conquer. Another game I remember playing at a relatively young age was another title published by Maxis, SimTower. SimTower was not, in fact, designed or developed by the core team at Maxis, but instead by a Japanese developer called Yoot Saito, director of OPenBook Co. Ltd (now known as Vivarium). Nevertheless, SimTower encompassed the same constructive rather than destructive gameplay, where the player would build up from simple roots to create something potentially majestic in scale.

The core gameplay of SimTower is very simple – starting with a plot of land, the player builds up from a ground-floor lobby to build a tower block composed of offices, condominiums, restaurants, hotel rooms and other tenant facilities, ensuring that there are sufficient elevators for everybody to move around the tower. There are a few caveats to consider, though – an elevator can only span a maximum of 30 storeys out of a maximum tower size of 100 above-ground and 10 underground storeys, they can only accommodate a certain amount of traffic and certain types of tenant will require the use of elevators more regularly than others. Much of the game, therefore, becomes an exercise in planning the layout of the building and of the elevators in order to optimise traffic flow. This sounds tedious to begin with, but can actually be rather rewarding.

The player starts out by only being able to build a small range of different facilities, including basic elevators, stairs, offices, condominiums and fast food restaurants, but as the tower expands and the player meets more expansion goals, the range of facilities grows to include hotel rooms, restaurants, cinemas and more sophisticated elevators, among others. There are a number of star ratings contingent on the tower’s permanent population; there are five star ratings to achieve altogether, the later ones also requiring certain features to be added to the tower to satisfy tenant demands. The ultimate goal is to build a tower with 100 above-ground storeys and the requisite population and then place a cathedral on the top where visitors can get married.

A few limitations are present on tower design, including the ability to place lobbies (which serve as hubs for elevator travel) every 15 floors and the practical limitations of placing busy fast food restaurants or shops directly beside condos, offices or hotel rooms. None of these limitations are too challenging to work around, though and most of a player’s concern will revolve around keeping the tenants and residents of their tower satisfied.

Satisfaction levels rise and fall based on the conditions in the tower; mostly, satisfaction will be contingent on how well the transportation system is laid out. As mentioned above, standard elevators can only span a maximum of 30 storeys and it is not always sensible to even go this far with them; express elevators can carry many more people than standard elevators and have no height restrictions, but only stop at lobbies and underground floors, thus necessitating standard elevators to get to their destination floor. Satisfaction levels for shops and restaurants are contingent on how many customers visit them per day; fast food restaurants thrive during the day, especially with a large number of office workers, while more sophisticated restaurants depend on condominium residents and outside visitors. Shops also depend on outside visitors, but more of these can be attracted with the presence of cinemas.

Another factor that plays into the construction of the tower is the player’s ability to maintain a steady cash flow. Tenant buildings bring income, while various other elements, such as elevators, stairs and a variety of necessities later on in the development of your tower, like security offices, cost money to maintain. Different tenant facilities have various trade-offs against one another; offices pay a rent once a week – a week in-game consisting of two weekdays and a weekend – and hold a large population proportionate to their size, but make heavy use of elevators and are difficult to keep satisfied, while the tenants of condominiums are easy to keep satisfied, but only pay a one-time payment to purchase the condo as opposed to the weekly rent of offices and the condo itself holds a considerably smaller population for its size than offices. Hotel rooms do not keep a permanent population at all, but offer the potential for payment every day, which can be useful to ensure that maintenance costs don’t run you into the red. Restaurants and shops have their own criteria determining their profitability and are largely contingent on other tenant facilities. Therefore, to ensure the smooth running of a tower, it is important to plan ahead.

A few special events happen during the game as well to keep the player a little bit more on their toes. Occasionally, when your tower is big enough, you will receive messages saying that a bomb has been planted in your tower by a terrorist group; you then receive a choice to pay a considerable amount of money as a ransom or to try to find the bomb before it explodes. To be able to find the bomb, you require an adequate number of security personnel who will then travel through the building via the emergency stairs on either side of your tower. A security office can hold six personnel who can cover a floor each and with a sufficiently narrow tower, a single security office can reasonably cover fifteen floors, but an office every six floors may be sensible in a wider tower. Similarly, fires can break out in your tower that can only be put out by security personnel.

Graphically, SimTower was never especially impressive, but its simplicity suits the gameplay. The player views the tower from a side-on two-dimensional view with simple sprites making up the various elements of the tower, including the facilities, the elevators, the stairs and so on. Tenants and residents are represented by sprites taking the form of silhouettes. These silhouettes are most regularly seen waiting for elevators and change colour from black to pink and then to red based on how long they have been waiting and how stressed out they are. The graphics are simple, but effective enough and while they were designed for the likes of 640×480 displays on computers running Windows 3.1 or 95 or Macintosh System 7, they are at least not ugly on bigger displays.

The sound is very simple as well, with no music, but instead a constant sequence of background noises, like the movement of elevators, office chatter and so on. I think your mileage may vary as to whether you find these effective in a minimalistic way or just annoying; I tend towards the former. There isn’t really any time where these sounds become critical to playing the game, so if they do annoy you, it’s not a big deal to turn them off, but they do enough of a job of giving you some feedback as to the state of your tower that they aren’t obstructive to gameplay.

Thinking about the game as a whole, I don’t think there’s anything that I’d say really stands out in SimTower as a game. The tower management aspect is novel, but similar titles such as the SimCity series offer similar management aspects using a different presentation. The aesthetic elements of the game are not and never were spectacular, but they do the job. However, there isn’t anything bad about SimTower that stands out either. The game is well designed and does what it sets out to do appropriately. The difficulty of progressing past the third star on towards a complete tower may make the game unsuitable as an entry point into construction and management simulations, but the game has a novel perspective to offer people who already enjoy simulators.

Bottom Line: SimTower is an unspectacular but decent simulation game that offers a novel perspective to construction and management simulation.

Recommendation: SimTower will offer the most fun to already experienced simulation gamers. To others, the genre is not action-packed and rewards planning; if that sounds like your thing, SimTower may offer you a fair bit of fun.

SimCity 2000 – A Retrospective Review

While EA scrambles to try to sort out the controversial debacle surrounding the latest entry in the SimCity series, my mind has been cast back to the one previous entry in the series that I’ve played. SimCity 2000 came at a time when Maxis were an independent company, free of influence from EA, and followed a series of relatively unsuccessful titles also bearing the Sim branding. First released in 1994 on DOS, Mac OS and the Commodore Amiga, it spread eventually to a number of other computer and console platforms, including Windows 95, the SNES and the PlayStation.

The premise of the SimCity games has always been simple – keeping within your budget, attempt to build a successful city with a satisfied population, maintaining services and entertainment while trying to avoid disasters such as fires, riots or hurricanes. That is, unless you possess a certain sadistic streak, in which case you can build up a city just to watch it burn to the ground.

In order to build up the city, you must appropriately place zones of residential, industrial and commercial land in line with population demand. Low-population cities will desire industrial property, while higher populations desire more commercial property. There are two grades of each zone, light and dense: Light zones grow more quickly, but cannot hold as much population per tile; dense zones grow less quickly and tend to have a greater amount of crime and pollution per tile, but can support a greater population per tile.

Producing electrical power for the city is another imperative. Electrical demands start at a low level, capable of being satisfied by a single coal or oil power plant, but grow as the city grows and as time progresses further on. The options for power plants start with pollution-producing coal and oil power plants, along with expensive hydroelectric plants with a limited ability for placement, but expand with time to encompass natural gas stations, nuclear power plants and wind turbines, among others. Population zones are connected to power plants using power lines, and while it might be tempting to place a pollution-spewing coal plant far out of the way of your burgeoning city, every additional tile of power lines reduces the output at the business end of the power grid in an attempt to simulate power loss through thermal radiation through the power lines.

All of the population zones must then be connected with an appropriate transport system. Your options begin with basic roads and railways, but later expand to include subways and highways. Zone placement plays a large part in whether a transport system will be considered successful; the closer that a target zone is to the source zone of a denizen of the city, also known as a Sim, the less time and more satisfactory the journey will be for the Sim. However, roads can soon become clogged with too much traffic, making for logjams which make for dissatisfaction and an ultimate decrease in population.

As your city grows beyond a certain population, your Sims will begin to demand other facilities. Some of these are intended to lower the instances of potentially ravaging disasters, such as the police and fire stations, while others are designed to increase various components of your Sims’ satisfaction, including the health-improving hospital, the education-improving schools, colleges, museums and libraries and the recreational parks, zoos and stadiums.

A couple of other building zones exist beyond the residential, industrial and commercial zones, which become more available as your population grows. The seaport and airport both act to improve your city’s fortunes, creating new potential for industry and commerce when they are built. However, seaports can only be placed on bodies of water defined as rivers or coasts, while airport placement requires a certain amount of space devoid of dense buildings in order to prevent crashes which can cause devastating fires. However, the limitations don’t really get too much in the way of what are largely beneficial additions to your city.

The growth in population of your city comes with its own satisfaction, but a number of incentives become available once you reach various population milestones. The first of these, the Mayor’s House, becomes available at a population of 2,000, while other buildings become available at populations of 10,000, 30,000 and so on. One of these incentives, which comes at a population of 60,000, is optional. The military base available at this point can further increase your city’s population and gives you a small number of military units that can be used during disasters to both conquer fires and population uprisings, but leads to an increase in crime around the area that the military base is placed.

One of the major difficulties in building a large city is the limitation which is provided by your budget. You get a certain amount of money to begin with, at most $20,000, and if you pick the hard budgetary option, you end up with a $10,000 bond which accrues interest every year. With this money, you must produce a city that is self-sustainable enough to generate money so that city improvements can continue in the years going by. A property tax takes money from your populated zones, while various services including the police and fire forces, along with education, hospitals and transit cost money. It can be a difficult balance between maintaining satisfaction among your population and keeping within budgetary lines, and that’s before you get to various city ordinances, most of which have minor effects on how the city develops, but which generally cost extra money. If you get stuck, a small bond can be issued to give you a small period of solvency, but at the cost of interest.

A few evolutionary changes distinctively marked SimCity 2000 from its predecessor, including the isometric perspective replacing the top-down graphics of SimCity, and a greater granularity in terms of zone placement which allowed a single tile to be filled with a residential, commercial or industrial zone. Other changes added extra features, such as the inclusion of new transit and power plant options.

SimCity 2000 might seem like a somewhat arcane game with all of the options available to the player, but the beauty of the game is that the game is still easy to pick up while also maintaining its long-term potential. Indeed, SimCity 2000 was one of the first games that I played which I really felt compelled to continue playing. OK, there were some uninspired design decisions on the Windows 95 version that I first played; it took me a couple of weeks when I was playing the demo to realise that you had to hold down the toolbar buttons to get extra options, while the lack of ability to use the mouse wheel to scroll or zoom makes the game feel a little more clunky today than I’d like it to. That doesn’t spoil the core of the game, though – it still feels fun and challenging.

The graphics, as mentioned above, are isometric, so the game is going to look inherently dated compared to modern graphics. That said, there’s a difference between dated graphics and bad graphics and the sprites in SimCity 2000 are still reasonable today. All in all, the graphics suffice for their purpose, although they’re not exactly dazzling.

Similarly, the sound effects in the game serve their purpose, but aren’t going to blow your mind. The “electro-zap” effect of power plant and line placement does get somewhat repetitive, though. The music, on the other hand, is a funky collection of jazz-inspired MIDI tracks. Probably the best thing that can be said about the tracks is that they’re definitely distinctive and, to me at least, memorable; even sixteen years after I first played the game, a few bars of any of the tunes in the game evokes memories of the hours I’ve spent playing the game.

Despite the age of SimCity 2000, there’s very little that I can fault with it, at least on the platforms that could handle it with ease – specifically, the personal computer platforms such as Windows 95 and Mac OS Classic. The interface may feel a bit clunky at times on the DOS and Windows 95 platforms which I have played the most hours on, but this is a small price to pay for a game with such depth. There is, however, a more serious technical issue with the Windows version that betrays the game’s age: The game binary is 16-bit, completely preventing it from being played on a 64-bit version of Windows. Unless you have an older computer lying around with Windows XP or an earlier version, or unless you have a virtual machine on your computer with an earlier version of Windows, you’ll have to resort to using DOSBox in order to run the game, which isn’t as friendly an option.

Bottom Line: SimCity 2000‘s gameplay is still solid, even a couple of decades after its first release. Personal computer versions are preferable – the SNES version, in particular, feels distinctly limited – but beware the 16-bit binary on Windows versions.

Recommendation: It’s going to be difficult to find a working copy of SimCity 2000 for the personal computer platforms; even in 1997, when I bought it, it was in the bargain bin. I’d expect greater difficulty getting it today, especially considering that its sequel, SimCity 3000, has very much displaced it in the bargain bin section. If you can track it down, though, it’s well worth a bash.