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No Step Back impressions — Red Storm Rising

Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back is the latest expansion for Paradox Interactive’s World War II grand strategy title. In some ways, the expansion, alongside the free Barbarossa update, can be considered as two of the biggest and most substantial content drops for the game.

With a plethora of features and functions, Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back primarily looks at nations on the Eastern Front. The Soviet Union takes center stage here, but Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have also undergone many changes. It’s set to release today, so you’ll have a chance to try it out.


Stalin and the warring factions

My impressions of Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back are based on a playthrough where I chose the Soviet Union for the 1936 start date. Indeed, this is the only start date that allows you to experience new features specific to the Soviet Union in full. These predominantly revolve around Joseph Stalin’s faction, known in the game as “The Center.”

Historically, Stalin’s position as the leader of the Soviet Union was untenable, as many sought to rival his dominance. His paranoia then led to the Great Purges, where many of those who were accused of disloyalty to the state and the party were executed. In Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back, players have a chance to follow ahistorical outcomes thanks to dozens of new National Focuses. These include allying with “The Left Opposition,” led by Leon Trotsky, or “The Right Opposition,” led by Nikolai Bukharin. Both leaders aim to establish a headquarters and gain the support of the military, even personages from other factions, all to strengthen their chances at a looming civil war.

Those two options, as well as Stalin’s historical choices, are part of “The Path of Marxism-Leninism” branch. Meanwhile, a mutually exclusive branch called “Beaten, but not Defeated,” takes an entirely different approach. If you choose this, you can decide on supporting the claims of the remaining members of the Romanov dynasty. Likewise, you can slowly curb the people’s support of Communism by extolling the virtues of Orthodox Christianity and bringing religious leaders into the fold. Because the military is highly politicized, you won’t be attempting to gain new generals as followers. Instead, you’ll take control of territories that will become part of your power base once the civil war begins. It’s even possible to gain expeditionary forces and units from would-be rivals like the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany by giving them concessions.

Naturally, Stalin and the NKVD will catch wind of a brewing plot. While attempting to hold these lands (i.e., akin to “coring” a province or colony in other grand strategy games), the computer-controlled Stalin will try to complete his own National Focuses. He’ll attempt to “core” his own loyalist provinces and turn generals to his side. As Stalin’s Political Paranoia increases, so, too, will the frequency and gravity of Great Purges. In turn, the terror unleashed by the madman will cause the support of the military to slowly erode.

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War and peace… and more war

If Stalin’s political paranoia reaches 90 points, he has a chance of triggering the civil war himself. However, there’s also a particular National Focus where you kickstart the conflict (providing additional bonuses). Ideally, you’ll want to do this when the time is right, such as once you’re holding enough loyal territories while the Stalinist faction only has pockets of resistance. From there, you’ll mop up your opponents, and the dictator himself will disappear, perhaps going into hiding in South America (alluding to a conspiracy theory where Adolf Hitler ran off to Argentina instead of committing suicide).

Once you’ve stabilized the nation, it’s up to you to decide how you’ll move forward. The “Beaten, but not Defeated” playthrough in Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back leads to further branches. For example, a non-aligned Tsarist Russia can join the United Kingdom and France, eventually reforming the Triple Entente from World War I. This can lead to another option to promote Pan-Slavic Nationalism where Poland and the Baltic States happily get integrated. The main goal here is to redraw the empire’s old borders, with Europe becoming the main battleground.

There’s also a mutually exclusive path where the Tsar is reduced to a figurehead and the government is controlled by Fascists. In that scenario, Russia’s expansionism takes you south and east, from the mountains of Turkey and Iran to the shores of Japan and China. Lastly, there’s an option to bolster the influence of religious leaders further, causing Russia to turn into a Theocracy. Known in-game as the Third Rome, you’ll then have casus belli against the controllers of the old holy sites (i.e., Latium in Italy, Istanbul in Turkey, and Palestine held by the United Kingdom).

Given all these options, one of my qualms is related to the political power (PP) that you often spend for pre-war coring and decisions. These cause instances where you simply have to neglect other functions. Coincidentally, the branching paths that offer increased freedom of choice and player agency can also potentially curb any improvements you want for your military and industry.

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Other features in Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back

Players who’ve tried the Soviet Union beforehand will truly feel that Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back provides the most complete experience, and that’s just one big chunk of the expansion. Other new features include new National Focus Trees for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Likewise, any country you pick will have its own Army Officer Corps and Army Spirits. These allow you to select commanders and modifiers, respectively, earning additional passive buffs as you progress.

Another key addition is the Tank Designer. Think of how Man the Guns allowed you to create your own ships. Well, this time, Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back has you researching tank chassis only. Once you have the requisite XP, you can attach new functions and mods, including multiple turrets and various types of armor plating.

Moreover, you’ll get to test the changes to the supply mechanic. To be fair, managing logistics is not my strongest suit in most grand strategy games. As such, I mostly had my fingers crossed hoping that my Tsarist units can defeat their opponents before supplies ran out. But, hey, at least you can now build civilian and armored trains to move supplies from hubs all the way to the front.

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Additionally, I should mention that I noticed a few mishaps while completing my Hearts of Iron IV: No Step Back run. The first is that a Tsarist/White Russia/Theocracy playthrough will decimate the entire military hierarchy, which means you’ll say goodbye to generals like Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev (i.e., they’ll either get purged or they’d disappear once a new government is in power). Naturally, you’ll be left with several low-skill commanders. Second, the ahistorical route can be very chaotic. It appears that Tsarist Russia’s trouncing of the Soviet Union causes such a huge bump in world tension that other nations tend to go to war fairly early (i.e., Germany quickly blitzing the west in mid-1938 and even Lithuania declaring war on Poland).

Moreover, following the Fascist route where you expand eastwards can get curbed before you know it because it requires that you own the entirety of Vladivostok. If you cede this province to Japan in return for aid during the civil war, the relevant National Focuses can’t be selected at all. You’ll have no choice but to conquer those lands through alternative means. Lastly, there was an odd bug where one of my spies was performing counterintelligence in Moscow. When the civil war triggered, I couldn’t control the agent anymore, so I just dismissed it.

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