Review: Hearts of Iron: War Stories06 Aug 2016 4
Review: Hearts of Iron: War Stories
Released 17 May 2016
As a Brit, and a Londoner at that, I’ve heard to story of the Battle of Britain so many times that it’s practically burnt into my mind at this point. England good, Nazis bad. Nazis come, Spitfires go Pew!Pew!Pew! and 109s are tumbling down, tumbling down, tumbling down. But Hearts of Iron: War Stories is proof that execution is just as important, if not more, than the concept itself.
You start off as a young farm lad with a love for flying who lives in peaceful, rural England in 1940. A leisurely flight lesson in your Gypsy Moth soon goes awry when the bloody Bosch arrive to ruin your day in the form of a BF-109 on recon. Provided you survive the encounter (Spoiler alert- you can die) you are then catapulted into a 22 chapter interactive, text-based dog fighting adventure worthy of every World War 2 movie you've ever seen. Saving Private Who?
While I’m in no way an expert on these game-book style of titles, I’d say War Stories is a damned good first attempt by Paradox at providing a bite-sized, companion experience to their main properties. Like the event cards in their PC releases the writing in here is wonderfully done and flows very well, although their usual tongue and cheek humour is less prevalent here. They've done their research as well, as the dialogue text reads very authentic, with characters using some phrases and slang I hadn’t even heard of before.
After your mid-air kerfuffle with the Luftwaffe scout you head home to your nice little village for dinner, but run into Emma on the way - she dazzles you with her ability to smile and order apples, and is soon on her way. She is one of many characters you meet during the story, and forming lasting bonds or friendships with them will affect the choices you're allowed to make and can provide crucial bonuses (or not) at key moments. After some decisions you will see a small portrait of the character you are talking or interacting with and a small sentence explaining their thoughts and feelings towards you at that moment in time.
Along with effecting the story, decisions also improve and decrease your skills in various things: Manoeuvrability, Gunnery, Discipline, Mechanics... there's a handful of different traits you can increase (or decrease) through-out War Stories. Much like RPG's, if you're good enough in a skill certain choices will unlock for you,though that doesn’t always mean those new decisions are always good ones so be wary.
I won’t go into any-more detail on the story to avoid ruining it for anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet, but suffice to say you eventually end up in the RAF just as the Battle of Britain begins in earnest. After a short interview and meeting with your squad commander a scramble order is put out and you take to the skies behind the joystick of a Hurricane. Each plane of yours has a screen giving a description of it along with a diagram highlighting any damage you’ve taken. While it is a nice touch I didn’t find that much use for it – If you do end up dying in the skies so far it has seemed largely unconnected with how much damage your aircraft has taken, but with so many branching options here that would need further testing to clarify. Eventually you will be given a Spitfire that becomes your main plane for the rest of the story, though I was also pleasantly surprised when I was handed a Mosquito for a random bomber escort mission that broke up the pace quite nicely.
War Stories is a fun little romp over the skies of England, and it's the writing that holds the whole thing together very well. Due to the Allies winning WW2 games have a tendency to take hindsight for granted and sometimes make it seem like an Allied victory was always matter of 'when' as opposed to 'if'. You genuinely get the sense of dread and fatigue that shrouded England in 1940. If I had to find a fault with anything it would be that they're not always able to account for the choices of the player, which lead to some odd instances of characters' changing moods, or reacting the same way to events regardless of how severe a result you ended up getting.
The UI very obviously takes some cues from Hearts of Iron IV and as such is both very functional and subtle enough to not be distracting. The only issue I ever had with it was that to access things like settings, stats and going back to the chapter screen you have to scroll down the page and every once in awhile then it wouldn’t show up, so there are still some usability issues to iron out. You have a screen that displays your skills and another that let’s you know how friendly you are with the characters you’ve met. Unfortunately like the plane status screen I mentioned before hand they are nice to have but I personally didn’t get much use out of them.
In true Paradox fashion War Stories has a wonderful and very fitting soundtrack that actually changes depending on the page and the section of the page you are on. Along with gun and plane sound effects when you’re reading battle segments. Sadly, the game does fizzle out a bit near the end however. While I am aware that the Battle of Britain ended rather abruptly the penultimate chapter did leave me a bit unfulfilled. The epilogue has a multitude of different endings you can choose from though some will be locked depending on your choices. All the ones that I saw were rather brief being no longer than a page or two.
Hearts of Iron: War Stories clocks in at around 2-4 hours depending on how fast you read and if you're unbelievably indecisive like I was. The short length and branching options do mean that more than a few characters can get sidelined, although some are less important than others so you don't always notice. Considering War Stories costs less than most meals at McDonalds though, I had no qualms with the length and feel like I got my money’s worth. It's also worth noting that, if you're still not sure about trying it out you can play the first five chapters for free – you're then asked to pay an IAP to unlock the rest of the game. If you happened to pre-order Hearts of Iron IV, you can also unlock the rest of the game for free anyway as a bonus, by linking both titles to your Paradox Account. I would honestly would love to see more outside of these games, like the recently released Crusader Kings: Chronicles. How about Hearts of Iron: Bob Semple Tank Commander Stories? Anyone? No? Just me then.