Hearts of Iron IV: The New Order Mod

So it finally happened. Deep in the night, the first full version of Hearts of Iron IV: The New Order mod was released on Steam. As a sceptical and jaded person, I’m usually immune to the so-called hype, but I’ve been counting months, weeks and days to see this moment. Sadly, as it was to be suspected, the mod is still ridden with game-crippling bugs at this stage and I couldn’t manage to make any progress with my chosen factions. I’ll definitely have more to write when this issue gets solved, so this time I’ll just sum up my experience with playing the two demo versions released earlier this year and following the subreddit community.

Quite a few things are laughable in grim-dark visions of future presented in such works as the Wolfenstein series or The Man in the High Castle. For example, how is it possible that the evil Nazis have enough manpower to occupy half the world and suddenly don’t need all those Italians and Romanians as cannon fodder and police force? (at least in Panzer General II you were able to invade Bronx with your Romanian marines) What’s even less plausible, the final victory is indeed… final. The economy flourishes (or at least there are no signs of a crash incoming), the technological progress sends the first Aryan to the Moon, the machine of terror is omnipresent and works flawlessly, but ordinary German citizens live in peace and prosperity.

Fortunately, the development team behind The New Order: Last Days of Europe, a total conversion mod for Hearts of Iron IV, decided to take a different approach.

At first glance, it looks like another alt-history scenario with Nazis winning the war and ruling forever while a handful of brave resistance fighters tries to bring them down. However, you’ll quickly discover it’s not exactly the case. Sure enough, the Axis powers (not just Germany and Japan) managed to defeat their enemies and enjoyed the spoils of war for a while. Eventually, the walls of their shining fortresses began to crack. Germany quickly learned that you can’t base the economy on pillage, slavery, and spending all the money for humongous public projects. The economic disaster was followed by a massive Russian insurgency which managed to recover large parts of the former Soviet territory. Finally, the dreaded SS rebelled against Hitler’s government and Germany plunged into civil war. Other Axis countries aren’t faring much better, with the Iberian Union being crippled by its dysfunctional political system and Italy struggling to keep hold of it’s huge colonial empire.

When you start the game, it’s year 1962 and the wind of change brings the smell of imminent trouble. Sure, everything plays slowly at first, no matter which country you choose, you’ll probably focus on choosing internal policies, managing your budget and developing new technologies.

The Great Gibraltar Dam, or how to literally drown billions of Reichsmarks and ruin Iberian economy (a loading screen from the demo version)

Then the Man in Berlin dies. The Greater Germany turns into a few lesser Germanies, jumping at each other’s throats. The rest of the world quickly experiences the domino effect, facing internal crisis and new dangers from outside.

This is the main difference between the mod and vanilla HoiIV. Basically speaking, you’re playing an alternative Cold War simulator. Major players have tonnes of nuclear weapons and minor countries can get their own warheads if they’re ambitious and lucky enough. Nuclear annihilation of the entire planet is always dangerously close, so instead of the proverbial ‘map painting’, it’s all about proxy wars, revolutions and civil conflicts. Dealing with internal policies and reforms is very important, too, just as diplomacy and espionage, so it’s hardly surprising that TNO introduces several new mechanics.

The Great Game. Instead of an open conflict, Italy and Germany are trying to make Bulgaria a puppet country through subterfuge and black ops. Each turn, you’ll need to spend different types to resources to win enough points and not overshoot the bar.

In case of some factions, the devs decided to sacrifice all plausibility and make them, uhm, colourful. The first demo version set in Southern Caucasus includes a mad scientist using his NKVD goons to kidnap people for experimentation (apparently, he’s trying to grow test-tube über-soldiers and liberate Russia), but also a mad warlord, Oskar Dirlewanger, leading a rogue SS unit which turned into a wild bunch, raping and plundering in the countryside. Meanwhile, the full release adds such factions as the National Redemption Front, best summed-up as ‘Spanish Catholic ISIS’, or a group of Jewish partisans which plans to genocide all Germans and their collaborators in Eastern Europe (one of their focuses is literally named ‘Six Million Germans’). And then there’s Burgundy…

One shouldn’t forget about Reichskommissar Siegried Müller, the friendliest sociopath in video game history.

Another thing making this mod stand out is the quality and quantity of writing. Since it focuses on telling stories, there’s really lots and lots to read. What is really important, the perspective often switches from men and women on the top — politicians and generals — to those standing at the bottom of the ladder, be they German soldiers, Congolese slaves, Belgian mercenaries, or Russian bandits. Quite often you will see the consequences of your decisions through their eyes and I’m sure it will make you look at those numbers and unit icons on the screen a bit differently.

Now, I know I sound enthusiastic, but there are some serious issues with the current state of the mod. First, the UI is another example of a great idea gone… not so great. In theory, it was supposed to invoke Cold War aesthetics with its neon colours and vector images reminding of early computers. Sadly, the end effect is a strain to the eyes, even if it got somewhat improved in the full release. Let’s hope a new patch will add an option of returning to the vanilla design.

I praised the quality of writing just a paragraph above, and sure, it’s creative and enjoying enough, but after a while it becomes clear that the devs really need a qualified editor. Sure, it’s a matter of your preferences, but typos, flawed grammar errors, and poor choices of wording really spoiled the fun for me. But again, very just one week after the release and things may eventually get better. Hell, maybe I’ll do something crazy for once and sign up as an editor too, but I promise to post more about this wonderful mod. Meanwhile, I’m clicking the play button and getting back to live in the last days of Europe.

Back to Skyrim

What is winter for? Many things, and one of them is playing Skyrim. Last year in January, I installed Skyrim Special Edition for the first time but quickly gave it up after repeatedly failing to configuring my favourite mods – besides I was busy playing Metro 2033 anyway. Come year 2019. At last, I managed to get the game running with the mods without crashing every second minute. Now, everything I needed was a proper winter weather outside to play with full immersion. Too bad it didn’t happen. Did I mention that I hate the climate change? Oh well.

Not that I’ll let it stop me. If I can’t play with a winter strom blasting outside my windows, I’ll do it with sunshine and birds singing. Spring or not, on this Labour Day of 2019 I’m starting a new playthrough. The main goal is to finally finish the main questline after the two failed attempts in the past. The secondary goal is to explore as much as possible, check out interesting mods, and just enjoy myself.

Meet Giovanni Renzi, my Imperial Dragonborn. To be honest, I didn’t think much about his background and the reason why he decided to cross the border and enter Skyrim. Maybe he was a farmer whose farm got destroyed by the war with the Aldmeri Dominion? A rank-and-file veteran of that war? A commoner without land or trade looking for a better life? Whatever his past was, I imagine him to be a generally decent if pragmatical person, as well as a loyal citizen of the Empire. This means that he will hate the Thalmor, won’t join Ulric, and will absolutely refuse to serve the Daedra or work for the Dark Brotherhood. Of course, there’s always the possibility that at one moment he will snap, say “I’ve seen enough” and join the dark side, just like my Courier Six did in New Vegas. We will see.

Mods, Blood Mods

Every Skyrim fan knows that playing the vanilla version is a very dull experience, so it’s obvious that I’ll have my favourite mods installed.

  • Frostfall – who cares about dragons and daedra when you can die in a sudden snowstorm, just because you forgot to chop some wood and your fingers are too numb to do it now. For me, I think this is an essential mod when playing Skyrim, and I was glad to find out that it’s grown bigger and more complex since my previous playthroughs.
  • Interesting NPCs – Wait, you’re saying I can meet NPCs who actually have something to say and don’t look like extras in a cheap theatre play? Again, I can’t imagine playing without this mod. It’s an impressive project with dozens of well-written, convincing characters, several companions and potential spouses, new locations and professional voice acting. Moreover, the people behind it didn’t have to bother abot ESPB ratings, so it finally introduces some risky themes, like various aspects of human (and inhuman) sexuality, making Skyrim a bit more of a Low Fantasy game and less a Sunday morning cartoon.
  • Cooking in Skyrim – finding new recipes for food and collecting rare ingredients has been my favourite in-game past time since Fallout 3. There are a few different mods for wannabe master chefs out there, but I’m picking up this one for starters, just because it adds some challenge: you can unlock recipes only when reaching a certain character level.
  • Darker Nights – playing Fallout 3 with pitch-black nights was surprisingly fun, so I want to do it again. And those chiaroscuro screenshots look great, too.
  • Friendlier Taverns – a small mod which improves the general look of inns, adds baking ovens and baths, and generally makes them feel really cozy.
  • Immersive Armors – another favourite modification I found during my previous attempts to beat Skyrim. Just as the name says, it adds an impressive selection of new armours to the game and manages to do it in a lore-friendly way.
  • SkyUI and Unofficial Patch – of course. I’m not a masochist.

Rules, Damn Rules

It’s a role-playing game, remember? Setting self-imposed challenges and keeping to them has always worked well for me as a way of suspending the disbelief and making the in-game world more believable. So, here’s a couple of them:

Religious – maybe he’s a Dragonborn, but he still follows the Path of the Gods. As a devout worshipper of the Imperial pantheon, Renzi will make regular offerings at the shrines (the type of offering depending on the deity), venerate the dead (which means absolute disdain for necromancers, and also taking care of human remains), hate the Daedra and their worshippers, and secretly worship Talos, which involves hating the Thalmor not-so-secretly.

Limited Saves – this means saving only when entering a new location or resting for a night. Now fights get more exciting, just because you don’t want to waste that hour of crawling through a Draugr necropolis for nothing, and you can train your self-restraint and patience (rage-quitting).

Hospitality Laws – when entering someone’s property, try to be respectable. If you’re picking their crops or just using their home as a shelter from the storm, be sure to leave a gift on the table. Another measure to make the Skyrim experience more immersive.

Real Time Activities – whether crafting, cooking, or putting up a tent, make sure to hit that Wait button.

And last but not least, I’ll focus on working on the two most important stats:

Deadline? No such thing this time, it’s never worked to me. There’s truth in the old saying that God laughs when you make plans. Still, I want to finish the game in a reasonable time so I can get back to New Vegas. Wish me luck.

Beginning of Darkness: Mad Max

A man who lost his beloved family now loses his beloved car. He wins a dog and a friend and a friend — or rather a worshipper — so there’s still hope in this grimdark wasteland. More importantly, there is a chance that a prophet will make him a hero, not a broken degenerate seeking escape from the reality.

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Id vs Superego

After spending many years as a quasi-Luddite, mostly playing classic games and indies on my battered laptop, I finally managed to buy a decent rig. Of all the possibilities, I chose to try out a game every review warns me of. It’s dull and flat, they say, mediocre at best, a wasted chance for the game of the decade. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t really matter. Breathtaking desert landscapes, a postapocalyptic, crumbling society, cars and savages, and most importantly, the titular character — for all that, I’m ready to forgive every flaw the game may have.

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As usual, I think about adding self-appointed challenges, but after two hours of play it’s hard to figure it out. The only thing that comes to my mind for now:

Cockpit View Only – because immersion is important, and because this is how I played Interstate’76.

And now let’s find out if those critics were right.

Shards of Glim: Red Flag Rising

‘Another dashing explorer devoured by the Neath!’ – headline in 20 October 1899 edition of the Imperial Courier.

Before leaving the capital of the fallen Empire, The Tenth Captain was a moderately succesful poet of the Sensualist school, driven by an insatiable lust for new experiences. This flaw of character didn’t leave im on the Unterzee and made him take enormous risks in order to reach further and further during his journeys. Alas, it eventually lead to his demise when his crew succumbed to madness after a succesful expedition into the heart of Frostfound.

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The Eleventh Captain has inherited the toxic self-hatred of one of his forefathers and also intends to take revenge on Fallen London. This incarnation, however, is less selfish that previously. As an Anarchist fully dedicated to the Cause, he will attempt to bring the Liberation of Night into completion and put a red banner on the top of the Shuttered Palace. Then, possibly, he will seek refuge far beyond the know waters, knowing too well that the Revolution, like the Greek god, is a harsh parent.

(which means that I’m trying to steal the monkey ship again, this time without ruining it by a missclick.)

New Vegas: Meet the Courier

A truism: Fallout is a Computer Role-Playing Game. My favourite part of playing cRPGs is the possibility to invent a personality of my player character which goes beyond the stats, the so-called alignment or karma. Now, let’s try to answer the question…

Who exactly is the Courier?

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Unlike most other protagonists in the Fallout series (with the notable exception of Fallout: Tactics), the Courier is not a newcomer entering the Postapocalyptia from a sheltered location like a vault or a remote tribal village. Of course, typically for a Bethesda game, he is mostly a blank-slate character, but this time we at least know his profession.

Since travelling alone through the war-torn Mojave Desert implies a certain approach towards life, I decided to give the Courier an amoral, survivalist or even Social Darwinist mindset. Maybe the word ‘amoral’ isn’t correct here and I should call it ‘an alternative morality’ instead, summed up by the motto The Strong Survive. The Courier should be equally able to perform acts of necessary cruelty or to take a more benevolent approach to other people, all the time avoiding the extremes: being a bloodthirsty psychopath on the one hand and a selfless altruist on the other.

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After all, when you survive your own execution and wake up in a grave, you’re not prone to be sentimental and trusting anymore.

Still, the Courier shouldn’t be entirely selfish and close-minded, but rather think about the bigger picture. After all, if the Mojave Desert becomes a well-governed and stable place, his chances of surviving and making a profit will increase. This should bring him close to the philosophy of the Caesar’s Legion, possibly even to join its ranks and help the tyrant overcome his foes — unless another faction convinces our antihero otherwise.

Making Life Harder

Just like when I was playing Skyrim and F3, I’ll set myself a few restrictions for the immersion’s sake:

Three Meals a Day – maybe it’s not necessary to eat so often even when playing in the Survival mode, but having regular meals creates a somewhat realistic rhythm of the day;

No Heavy Weapons – the Courier is allowed to lift a big gun dropped by the enemy and to use it within a very limited range only;

No Save-scumming – with the exception of companion’s death;

Autosaves Only – and suddenly those boring abandoned shacks in the middle of the desert become very important (I’ll make manual saves occasionally just in case of game-killing bugs).

Of course, I might add more restrictions later.

Beginning Of Darkness: Gunpoint

Promises are to be kept, but the promises a man swore to himself are easily broken.

My Windows desktop has a whole column of shortcuts to previously installed games. Each of them is like a granite rock hanging on my heart and for that reason a few months ago I’ve made a decision to stop trying new titles until I’m finished with that painful burden. Predictably, all I managed to accomplish was to make God laugh again — the proverb about telling Him about one’s plans is a bitter truth about human hybris. First, it was the sudden appearence of Sunless Sea in my life, which has consumed most of my playing time since two months, and then I fell again and purchased Gupoint at a Steam sale.

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Jumping into the muddy waters of corporate crime

How could I resist the temptation? Platform games are generally one of my favourite genres, but the idea of a stealth logical platformer is especially appealing to me. Although it seems to be an invention of the modern retro-gaming movement, I can still recall its possible predecessors in titles like Alcatraz or Black Thorne. The former had innovative mechanics, forcing the player to avoid searchlights by finding hiding spots in a two-dimensional environment, while in the latter hugging the walls was crucial in surviving the fight with mean proto-Orks wearing oversized shotguns.

Another major reason to play Gunpoint was the film noir theme. While I do realise that many of its elements have become a cliché long time ago — cynical protagonists clad in trench coats, poisonous femmes fatales, constant gloom and rain, whisky and cigarettes — I still cannot resists its charm, which is fitting for a man who used to devour cheap Polish editions of Chandler’s novels. Especially when the general theme is accompanied by a soundtrack which matches it perfectly.

When I’m writing these words, my hacker-detective in sour armour has already begun his dubious carreer in the shady P.I. business. After completing a few simple jobs, and even finishing one mission with a perfect score and a very nice golden achievement badge (thanks, Steam!), I feel sure that I can handle the game well, but this time I’m not going to set myself too ambitious goals. I’ll leave that for a second playthrough.

Customer Friendly: Finish all missions with A+ rating

…which will mean that I’ll be riding the moral scale back and forth, because my clientele is a really colourful bunch, some of them wishing to minimise the violence, others demanding a permament removal of all witnesses. Philip Marlowe would be proud of me.