In the world of gaming, where modern games tend to become ever more colourful, faster and action-packed, and even complex strategy titles like the Total War or Civilization series offer more and more eye candy, this grand strategy game is the ugly duckling. It's not one of the cheerleaders but the geek you choose to learn math with. It's like an encyclopedia among hollywood movies. Instead of stunning effects and pretty graphics it has statistics and maps.
It presents itself with minimalistic visuals and sounds. But this is not what this game is about so I leave it at that.
HoI3 lets you take control over almost any nation that existed from 1936 to 1948 and lays its destiny during this difficult time in history in your hands. This is your chance to rewrite history, depending on your actions historical events like Japans attack on Pearl Harbor can occur earlier or later (or never) than they did in reality. Let's say you start a game in '36 with the U.S. You will have some time before Japan decides to attack. Will you prepare for war in the Pacific or build strong trade relations with Japan to make a war with you undesirable? And when all hell breaks loose in Europe, will you join the allies against the German Reich or do you have other goals? Or maybe you long for a real challenge, want to stay away from the major powers and try your luck with one of the smaller nations? How about playing as Brazil, joining the axis, trying to conquer South America and hold your ground against the U.S.A. The possibilities are unlimited.
You are given an enourmous amount of freedom when organizing your military. You can even put together your own divisions with three to five brigades to combine different types of units to tailor them to your particular needs. Set up chains of commands to influence supply lines and and combat strength or let the A.I. play individual commanders (and with them all units under their command) for you.
Not only do you command your troops but you are also responsible for reconnaissance, diplomacy, espionage, domestic politics, technological research, industrial production and infrastructure. All these elements are important and influence each other. For example: If you use your entire industrial capacity to produce troops you will not be able to produce enough consumer goods to maintain the approval among your civilian population and you will have to deal with uprisings (in totalitarian nations) or a power shift towards opposition parties (in democratic nations). The same goes for your A.I. controlled opponents: Use spies to influence their domestic political climate to your advantage and weaken their war efforts. Every one of these tasks can be delegated to the A.I. but its highly recommended to do at least the most important jobs yourself. The A.I. is not totally incompetent, in fact it does a pretty decent job, but a reasonably experienced player will still make the better decisions. And besides, why would you want to spend your time watching a game play itself?
Only new players might want to concentrate on one gameplay element at a time to get used to it before taking over complete control.
The size of the world map is immense, it is divided into 15000 (!) areas and maintaining the overview can become a difficult task, especially when you're playing as one of the big nations, with a huge army, war on several fronts and try to handle as much as possible without the help of the A.I.
HoI3 is played in real-time but lets you adjust the speed to your liking or pause any time during the game.
If you like a game to take you by the hand and tell you what to do, Hearts of Iron is not for you. It is difficult to learn and difficult to master, the six short tutorials are not overly helpful. It doesn't even lay down objectives for you. You won't miss them because there's always a lot to do and take care of. But if a strategy game with an impressive depth that puts all other representatives of the genre to shame in terms of complexity is what you want and if you have the patience and time to get over the initial steep learning curve, you can have fun for years to come with this title.
A few words about the DLCs (HoI3 has a lot of them): Semper Fi, For The Motherland and Their Finest Hour are the must get expansions, all the sprite packs... not so much. You will most likely not want to use the option to replace the nato symbols with new fancy sprites, as they provide more information about the units at a quick glance. The three aforementioned larger expansions on the other hand come with a great many features that really enhace the gameplay a lot. These include but are not limited to: New types of units for many nations, A.I. improvements, an extended espionage system, enhanced economic diplomacy, a strategic warfare screen that visually displays important combat information, improved, more in-depth naval warfare and more realistic amphibious assaults, enhanced character development of your commanders, additional combat tactics, balancing adjustments of unit attributes and many more.