Hearts of Iron IV has been out for a while now, and has had several expansions over the years, ranging from complete reworks of mechanics to small packs that just expand upon a couple of nations. By Blood Alone (BBA) falls into the former category and expands the nations of Italy, Ethiopia, and Switzerland, bringing flavour to a nation that desperately needed it, and a couple of others that add some really fun content to the game. By Blood Alone [Steam Link] will also come along with a free update alongside (1.12 Avalanche update), but for the purposes of this review I will only mention the updated features from the DLC. Without further ado, lets chuck ourselves straight in…
The Second Italo-Ethiopian War
First up are the focus trees added to the game, and we’ll start with Italy. Mired in a war in Ethiopia, dealing with economic problems, with potential for unrest on the home front, and struggling with a military somewhat behind the times compared to the other major powers; Italy needs to juggle various problems to try and come out on top, and improve on their historical… performance in WW2. A savvy player will be able to balance dealing with these problems in the build up to another upcoming war, and work with the opportunities given with the successful conclusion of the foray into Ethiopia. They get quite a few good opportunities to improve their military capabilities, but similar to previous Italian strategies in earlier versions of the game, you’re best focusing on one or two aspects of the military instead of spreading yourself out too much. The focus tree is large and offers options to improve the ground, air, and naval forces of the nation, bringing them in line with the rest of Europe, and possibly even putting them ahead in some areas. If you stay the course and choose to go down the historical path, then missions will be given to you to achieve tasks such as raise the standing army to a particular amount or to build an increase in the number of civilian factories available. If you fail these, you’ll receive penalties, but if you succeed in them then you’ll receive various benefits for your nation, such as addition experience for your armed forces or more war support from your population.
Alternatively, instead of focusing on winning, you could instead work to derail the effort in Ethiopia, in order to springboard your nation down a different path and bring a change in government; maybe the monarchy should be back in charge? Maybe a democratic or communist government should instead be your focus? Some of these options will result in civil wars, but large changes to the status quo sometimes require upheaval, and they offer the option to change the course of history completely. Should Italy re-join their WW1 allies to deal with the resurgent threat of Germany? Should they foster closer ties with the Soviets and deal with both the aforementioned Germans and a hostile western power block? Maybe they should even go it alone and build a new faction from the ground up themselves, bringing the Mediterranean under their auspices?
A Desperate Defence
Ethiopia, on the other hand, has no such grand plans, at least to begin with. Embroiled in a war for the very existence of their nation, they need to hold on for dear life to try and secure their positions and not be relegated to the pages of history. Ethiopia is in an even worse place militarily than Italy and must deal with new changes in warfare such as tanks and planes that their invaders employ. Seeking to emulate their victory in the first Italo-Ethiopian war, they need to focus on establishing defensive lines to hold the initial Italian offensive to begin with, whilst simultaneously desperately trying to secure diplomatic support from the League of Nations or international brigades to shore up their position. All of this requires time, however – a new mechanic, War Escalation is a good measure of this, and affects both nations. To begin with, Italy will have no problems prosecuting the war and Ethiopia won’t have any help, but the longer the war drags on, the more this will change. Italy will start to have issues with a drop of war support from the populace, then its troops start to have morale problems; if the war goes on long enough it will lead to desertions, and then eventually a full-scale revolt of its colonies which want independence from their rule. On the flip side, Ethiopian troops will take heart and fight with all the more ferocity, war support will increase, and options to request international support such as arms or volunteers will appear.
If the war does take a turn for the worse, you can instead choose to play as a government in exile, and work against the occupying forces from afar. This is one of the weak points of the By Blood Alone DLC I feel, however. There are some unique focuses that give you the ability to recruit more troops for your cause to reclaim your lands, but they run out quick and you can spend years with nothing to do. If you want to go down the historical approach, there isn’t much to it until much later on in the campaign. More focus on slowly build up your forces to be able to go into action, or to deal with the political atmosphere of your host in exile nation would have been a good addition here.
Later on in the By Blood Alone DLC, Ethiopia can instead think externally, and focus instead on expanding its own borders outward. Do they reach an accord with the Italians? Should they instead start to bring Africa under their control? Do they reach out to the Soviets and go down an avenue of liberating colonies in Africa? All are fun options to play out.
Were You Just Born With A Heart Full Of Neutrality?
The final focus tree adds a sprawling web of options for Switzerland. Historically *mostly* neutral to the war (other than dealing with a few air raids here and there…. Check out the Swiss air force during WW2, they were great), they seem an odd choice to a game predicated around the nations surrounding them and their disagreements. Going down the historical route is predicated on shoring up your defences and preparing for an invasion, just in case their neighbours turn their hungry eyes toward you. Armed neutrality is an option, but you can also veer your course instead to joining the Allies, or the Axis. There are various benefits affiliated with both these options, but some of the main things you’ll be dealing with whilst doing a Swiss campaign is the Swiss militia: the Swiss military is predicated around forming militia to push back any invaders, and various focuses work upon this to improve their performance and bring them more in line with more modern military equipment and tactics.
Finally, the government of Switzerland must deal with the ramifications of a struggle for control between the various Swiss cantons and the Federal government. The cantons begin ascendant, in control of all the auspices of the government, but the Federal Government must begin consolidating its own control if they want to be able to deal with a war on a better footing. Italy and Ethiopia both have similar mechanics added, albeit with different buffs and penalties and a couple changes here and there, and it’s a nice addition to the game overall. Unfortunately, this is just present in the By Blood Alone DLC factions, and in future it would be nice if this mechanic was transplanted to other nations.
Mechanics? Do You Need Your Tank Fixed?
There are other mechanics added by the By Blood Alone DLC as well – an aircraft designer is added to the game, which allows you to choose how you would like your aircraft to be equipped: machine guns or cannons? Drop tanks? Self-sealing fuel tanks? Radar? This new feature is similar to the tank or naval designed added in previous DLC’s but does feel like it needs a bit more work. There aren’t tonnes of options added compared to the tank designer and just feels like a copy of a pre-existing mechanic for the most part, and it doesn’t iterate upon or bring in anything unique to designing planes.
Next up is unit citations – now you can also reward particularly important units with decorations and medals for their performance in combat, and they confer small buffs to the unit they’ve been granted to. This adds some nice flavour to the game, and it’s great to follow along a unit you’ve got attached to and award them for their victories. There are various choices of medals to award – some improve a units breakthrough, others division organisation, but all are a nice addition and I appreciate being able to reward my most valorous units.
One of the main criticisms of Hearts of Iron in the past is the peace conference mechanic, and By Blood Alone has updating it to try and deal with this. The new functions add the possibility of creating demilitarised zones or claim the resources of the defeated nation for your own, or even to bid on claiming the naval forces and not have to build one yourself or to replenish your losses. Some of these options will be great for roleplaying, and once it’s got used to, I think it’s an upgrade over the previous system. However, the AI does like to contest your claims too much at times, and I think this needs to be toned down slightly.
Finally, in terms of mechanics at least, a new embargo system has been added, which I suspect will be more useful in multiplayer games but is still a good addition for those who just want to play single player. Hostile nations, who you’re at peace with (for example the United States and Germany in 1940), can be embargoed so they can no longer use your own resources to fuel their war machine. I feel this is an excellent addition and a small but useful mechanic to limit any hostile powers to some degree.
The very last addition to the game is some new models, especially for planes, and new music as well. I’m glad they’ve rolled these into this DLC instead of spinning them off into their own things, as with previous DLC’s. They’re a welcome addition to bring more variety to the graphics and the atmosphere of the game.
Time for Peace
So, Hearts of Iron 4: By Blood Alone is a solid addition to the series. There are some high points to the DLC, and if you want to play any of the new nation trees, I heartily recommend it. Italy, Ethiopia and Switzerland all add fun new experiences to the game and are a fun run to do. However, while the small changes which affect all nations are very welcome, its price a large expense for those who just want to play nations other than Italy, Ethiopia, and Switzerland, and a couple of the mechanics need refinement and improvement (such as the aircraft designer and the peace conference mechanics).
Overall, Hearts of Iron 4: By Blood Alone is a solid addition to the game. The new mission trees are the high point of the DLC but whist the small changes which affect all nations are very welcome, its price is a large expense for those who just want to play nations other than those with the new trees, and a couple of the new mechanics need refinement. For HOI fans, there is plenty of content here that will add dozens more hours to your playtime, and for that it gets a thumbs up from me.
Hearts of Iron IV: By Blood Alone is available from 27/09/2022 on PC via Steam.
Developer: Paradox Development Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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