Hearts of Iron IV Review

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Hearts of Iron IV is the fourth instalment of Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy game focusing on the Second World War. The game focuses on either the preamble to the war, the political tensions and struggles that were going on at the time, or the opening days of the conflict.

Allowing you to play through the game as one of the many world powers at the time. The range is impressive, with the obvious players like Britain’s Neville Chamberlain, the German Reich’s Adolf Hitler, to Mao Zedong in the PRC and Emperor Shōwa of Imperial Japan.

With each nation having different conflicts, alliances, internal and external tensions, plus national beliefs and focus, they provide an interesting variety to the way the game can play itself out. You are also given the choice as playing as other nations, which while having a more generic series of mechanics (that overlaps between the nations considerably more) they are involved in many different, and often more localised conflicts. They are both easier and more difficult to play out. Without an empire, and the conflicts that either border or ravage those nations, you can focus more precisely on managing everything within your state’s boundaries.

For those coming from similar games from Paradox Interactive – such as earlier editions or Europa Universalis, the gameplay will feel familiar. Industry and development are controlled by factories (designated military or civilian) that produce the required vehicles or munitions for your war effort. Diverting resources to in-demand items is very simple and this screen makes it very clear what is needed and how long it will take to produce them. War is controlled by building armies from divisions of soldiers, and then drawing front lines and directing offensive drives.

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For those coming into this game fresh to the genre, it will all appear utterly overwhelming if you just try and dive straight in. It is possible to do so, but it is likely you will find yourself stuck at points, or operating in an extremely inefficient manner. When you understand what the options and illustrations on the map mean, managing everything is very easy. When you don’t know what they mean you can intuit an incorrect understanding and wander into a fight you are never going to win. This is especially important to consider if you are coming from other strategies games like Civilisation V, for which management of troops and resources is substantially simpler than here.

The game encourages you to follow through national behaviours that occurred in the 1930’s and 40’s, but you can choose to ignore these for either personal or mechanical benefits. If you want to become the leader of the Conservative Party and install a communist front bench, you are free to do so. The focus is still very much based in the history of the time. As the game opens civil wars break out, the German Reich begins its expansionary approach, and you have to respond to them, mostly within the realms of what is expected of your leader. But as the game goes on, and conflicts and events are resolved differently to how the timeline begins to divulge, and you can begin to feel like you are truly in control of the destiny of your country.

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Hearts of Iron IV is a game that seems to gain mechanical depth with each playthrough. Every time you try a new nation, approach, or personal objective you find new opportunities that are built into the mechanics of the game. The game is hard to explain in words because it is so mechanically dense (and the guide that Paradox provided me was only 26 pages long), but for those who enjoy grand strategy games there is a vast world to get sunk into, and if you enjoy the history of WWII as well then this is a game that would be unfortunate to miss. It is not the easiest game, and it can feel very opaque at times, but Hearts of Iron IV is a wonderful entry in the grand strategy genre.

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Alekhine’s Gun Review

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If I learnt nothing else from Alekhine’s Gun, it is that the highly paid and morally dubious world of jet-setting hitmen may not be the career for me. I am sure I could work my way past the ethical quandaries, but attempting an infiltration without the use of Save States may lead to nothing but my untimely demise.

There is a lot to take away from Maximum Game’s first attempt at the helm of the once beloved ‘Death to Spies’ franchise. A chequered developmental past doesn’t prevent this game from offering an experience which is generally positive. A game that will feel very familiar to fans of the Hitman series: you sneak, swagger, and shoot your way through various small sandboxes to eliminate targets, collect intel, and unravel a conspiracy that goes all the way to the very top.

You’re placed in the controls of KGB agent Semyon Strogov, known as Agent Alekhine (after the chess grandmaster Alexander Alekhine), who teams up with CIA operatives in an attempt to prevent a series of acts that will otherwise destabilise the world, and threaten to thaw the Cold War. You’ll have to gather specific intelligence, and kill off the various governmental agents who are attempting a pseudo-coup within the US. The locations vary across the US and Europe as you attempt to locate the necessary targets, taking you from massage parlours of questionable legality, to biker bars in the middle of nowhere, as well as secret military training camps and Nazi strongholds. Each location offers different challenges and opportunities, as well as a new set of rules to learn when engaging enemies.

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The new rules generally boil down to what costume to wear to gain access to various areas, and who will and won’t be suspicious of the very Russian, very burly looking man now masquerading as a lowly construction worker (or other equivalent outfits). This is where a problem with the AI, and the game’s fundamentals, starts to rear its ugly head. After a few hours of playing the game, you begin to get a feel for what is required. Find a costume that allows you entry, discover the restricted areas and ascertain how you need to dress to enter and go find that costume. Rinse and repeat, it all begins to feel like a very violent Moscow Fashion Week by the closing chapters. But how exactly the costumes work in terms of access and suspicion is sometimes unclear.

In one mission you need to find a specific costume to enter restricted huts, however, when wearing this costume outside of the huts the soldiers grew highly suspicious of Seymon, eventually opening fire on him. In another level, an outfit that gives you free access to every other area of the level will lead to you being denied access by some support crew, meaning you have to dress as a much lower rank to pass unnoticed. This happens quite a lot throughout the game, and can become frustrating.

Luckily, the game employs a ‘Save Anywhere’ approach, meaning you can (and probably should) save multiple times throughout a level. This is a saviour, because with mechanics that are cloaked in a shade of uncertainty, knowing exactly what will happen when you do something is unlikely. You want to know whether a switch kills someone or not? Save beforehand. Want to know whether you can kill someone without alerting everyone? Save beforehand. Want to just avoid having to redo the 15 minutes of preparation of this assassination goes south? Just save beforehand. Without this freedom, this game would go from having moments of annoyance, to being a frustratingly unplayable cascade of punishment.

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Outside of frequent costume changes, you have a few weapons and tricks to help you along the way. You are armed with a pistol, which you can replace with a silenced variant or a tranquiliser gun as you advance in the game, as well as a cheese wire (for a casual garotting), some chloroform, and a small amount of poison. You can pick up other implements throughout the levels (mostly poisons and ways to hide deadly weaponry), as well as purchasing some more unique weaponry during the mission briefing (ranging from undetectable pistols to high powered sniper rifles). Seymon is also a dab hand at lock picking and safe breaking and is a remarkably adept electrical engineer. These extra skills allow you access to new areas, hiding areas (useful for storing the now naked corpses of your past victims), and unique kills.

Despite problems with the logic of the game, and inconsistent AI behaviour, the gameplay is mostly solid. The controls are generally responsive, with a few issues with the correct action not activating due to yourself and your target being slightly out of line, The gun control is the weakest part of the main gameplay sections, but you can complete every mission without using your gun, so it makes this problem ignorable if you choose to play without guns. There is nothing groundbreaking to be found here, but there is a solid experience instead.

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Your silent, murderous rampage is tied loosely together by a story which takes a very long time to transition from bland to adequate. The story is mostly told through comic book style sequences between missions, where you learn about Seymon’s past, how he has become involved in the operation that occupies most of the game, and some sort of relationship between Seymon and Vera that mostly goes nowhere. The overarching problem with the story comes from the delivery, specifically the voice work.

The audio is delivered in a style which is astonishingly jarring during the opening chapters. It is meant to mimic the style and tone of secret recordings, with a background hiss and volume rising and falling as the characters walk around the room. But it doesn’t feel like you are listening to a secret recording, it feels like you are listening to a college film where no one has bothered to learn sound mixing. Add to this the overexcited foley adding footsteps and papers being ruffled constantly, and it seems very comical. The accents deployed by the supposed Russians are also incredibly inconsistent. This means that the big relationship, which drives the final chapters misses the mark entirely (much like me when trying to shoot in this game).

This final two levels scrap this and stick to simple monologues and dialogues, which are much cleaner, and have a streamlined approach to delivering the narrative. When the game is acknowledging real world conspiracies and politics it is enjoyable, when it is trying to do character development it falls flat on its face.

Alekhine’s Gun is named after a famous chess move, designed for taking down lots of targets at once, which is similar to what the developers were going for here. They tried to take on a lot of mechanics and ideas, but, unfortunately, didn’t deliver on all of them. Alekhine’s Gun is by no means a bad game, but it is a game that could have done with more aggressive direction to differentiate itself from similar games on the market right now.

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Review: The Deadly Tower of Monsters

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The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a new twin-stick style shooter from Atlus that has you climbing a deadly tower, in which you fight monsters. As one would suspect from the name.

Heavily stylised as an homage to the B-Movie horror flicks that so typified 1950’s and 60’s science fiction, you will encounter shoddy ape suits, plastic trees, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, and very obvious strings holding up the flying creatures. It is an aesthetic that manages to maintain its charm long enough without ever becoming overused or cheap. There is a care and dedication to maintaining the feel of these movies, with the stop-motion dinosaurs have missed frames in their movement, or the ape costumes very clearly having no eyes in their costumes. The visual stylisation is best seen when diving from the top of the tower. It is a crisp clean style that knows exactly what it is aiming for, and the hefty draw distance gives fantastic views from the top of the tower.

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It’s great and made better by the dialogue and ’director’s commentary’ that act as both the game’s story and hint system. The game is framed as the DVD special edition of the movie The Deadly Tower of Monster, over which the director gives commentary on why certain choices were made or behind the scenes stories from shooting. This adds to the humour on display, and offers hints when you are apparently stuck, ’She didn’t realise she was meant to be shooting the power cores’. It lays on the references to this time in cinema throughout the commentary. It is continuously amusing, and a few times genuinely funny. There are continuous callbacks to the budget problems that build upon one another throughout the game.

Not just a charming game to experience, it is also very fun to play. The controls are generally solid and responsive. I found that using the controller (supported on Steam) lead to a better experience1 . The combat is split into two major sections – mêlée and ranged, with both featuring a diverse range of weapons. You have your standard sci-fi ray guns and laser guns, as well as rocket launchers and Tesla guns for ranged,  batons, whips, and lightsabers for mêlée. Each of the weapons can be upgraded to increase its effectiveness, via the use of collectible cogs found throughout the tower.

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The guns have enough impact to feel like they all have their use and place, and being able to carry two at any time means you can equip yourself for most situations. The same is true of the mêlée weapons, but you are most likely to just pick up the one that you think looks the coolest, I went with the giant tentacle and the lightsaber. The enemies are balanced nicely so you never feel under or overpowered as you progress up the tower. The game is never difficult but neither is it a complete walk in the park. The combat is consistently enjoyable throughout the entire climb, and the boss fights have a satisfying logic to them.

The game is quite short, with around 3 hours to complete the initial campaign, and another 2 or 3 hours to explore all the additional areas and collectibles. This time feels about right because it means that game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. The games continually hangs the lampshade when it comes to its Universe, so by being over and out in just a few hours, as well as providing a great ending, it does itself a favour. If the game went on further the problems of those fixed camera angles may have exposed themselves more. The camera is locked at an angle 1 overhead (that you can adjust slightly) which can make the platforming chunks frustrating due to not being able to tell what you are above until it is too late.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a fun little game that will bring smiles to anyone fond of B-Movies, and should provide a few chuckles to anyone not. It provides a solid experience with only a few moments of annoyance or confusion.

Score: 8/10
Pros: Solid and tight combat controls
Fantastic and charming B-Movie aesthetic
Creative and unique weapons add tonnes of character
Cons: Platforming sections are unnecessarily finickity

1. With mouse and keyboard, I had better movement and control but I had inconsistencies with getting the mêlée to make contact. With the controller, I just had to aim in the right direction for both ranged and mêlée.

Life is Strange: What ‘Bae over Bay’ Says About Us

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The following contains very significant spoilers for Episode 5 of Life is Strange. If you wish to avoid having the ending of this games spoiled then don’t read any further.

It is a tragedy of human nature, that our ability for empathy is limited to only those within the bubble of our everyday experience. We can care more about protecting a friend or family member, than the lives of small villages. When the suffering and pain is not directly placed in front of us, or plastered on the front page of every newspaper in our country, we can do a remarkable job of distancing ourselves from the pain that is not our problem.

It’s known in anthropological circles as Dunbar’s Number, and colloquially referred to as our Monkey Sphere, and is the maximum number of people who you can actually care about. It is based on the size of primate brains, and when extrapolated to humans we arrive at a maximum number of between 100 and 200. That is a hundred people we can take an emotional investment in. An emotional investment in their lives, their aspirations, their fears, and their well-being.

This limit on our empathy has ramifications in how we interact within our society. It is among the reasons why small villages are considered friendly and welcoming, and big cities are considered cold and distant. In a single metro ride to work in the morning, I can pass more people on my journey than live in some people’s hometown. It becomes impossible to really treat everyone around you as an individual, so instead you stick to yourself and worry almost solely about your own issues (this is why we get annoyed at people taking their time at the ticket barriers).

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With all that, it was an interesting and pleasant discovery to find that a weird story game from a small Paris-based developer blew up the consequences of this relic of evolution. Life is Strange has taken us on a long ride through the life of Max, a teenager who discovers she has the ability to rewind time, a power that is brought out by the need to save a friend’s life. From that point we navigated a murder investigation, had to talk down a friend from the edge, reminisced about past lives, hopped through alternate realities, and well and truly screwed up time as we know it. And when it was all done, we were given an ultimatum: save our best friend, or save the entire town. One person who meant everything to us, or hundreds of people.

When proposed in a vacuum, without the experiences gathered through the game, the choice is obvious: save the town. From a cold cost-benefit calculus, it is extremely difficult to place the value of a single individual above hundreds of others… but a lot of us did just that. When given the choice, half of all players chose to sacrifice the entire town to save their friend. Why? Why would we let all friends we worked so hard to help, the families we helped put back together, and all the random people we assisted face the wrath of an unnatural tornado? Because we were more invested in our friend.

Throughout the game, we had literally ripped space and time apart to drag our friend back from death over and over again. We prevented the repeated murder of our friend, we undid the crimes we committed, and we even tried to make her life better even though it ended in us having to pull the plug on her. We nearly killed ourselves through exhaustion just to keep her alive, and then we are asked to let her die, to save everyone else. Your investment is so singly directed at her life, that when asked to trade it in, some of us just can’t.

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The nature of the decision also changes the moral calculations we have to do. In carrying out this decision, we have to choose between an active decision to let her die, or a passive decision to make no further alterations. A common thought experiment about moral calculations involves choosing whether to redirect a train or not, with the paths having different groups of people on either side. A young girl or four grown men, an old man or an old woman, and so on, but a different version doesn’t ask you to flip a switch to redirect the train, but to push someone in front of the train to stop it. When phrased this way many more people freeze up and reject the experiment. For many reasons, the nature of how we achieve the outcome, even when the exact same actors are present, changes our willingness to do it: we don’t want to be actively responsible for a death even if it that makes us passively responsible for many more.

To actively go back in time, and watch the friend you have spent many, many hours getting to know, and bonding with die can be harder than just watching a town be destroyed. The fan reactions to the two endings show that the above considerations have been reflected in reality. People who chose to save our friend had to then drive through the town that we allowed to be destroyed. You drive through the devastation and death, and you know that you could have prevented it all, but people in general were satisfied that Chloe lived. Hundreds dead, livelihoods destroyed, and we move on with stoic acceptance.

If you chose to sacrifice your friend, you have to watch and endure the funeral and memorial services for her. You see her mother (who died in the other reality) cry and collapse, her friends in shock, and the knowledge that all of your experiences with her never happened for her. All the happiness and hope you brought her never existed for her, and she died angry and scared. This ending is an emotional steamroller, and brutal to experience. The death of a single person was more devastating for the vast majority of players than the death of an entire town.

Finding a game that forces such deep introspection about what we value, what choices we are willing to make, and what we are really willing to sacrifice is rare and finding one that does it in such a beautiful and immersive story is even rarer. Dontnod Entertainment produced a staggeringly poignant game with their first go at a story-based game, and the influence of this game and the indecision it forced upon us could radiate out into the wider gaming industry as we try to produce more mature and considered worlds and characters.