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Ambitious 'Hearts of Iron IV' Mod Transforms WWII into the Fallout Universe

If you've ever wanted to participate in a larger geopolitical drama within the post-apocalypse, Old World Blues is for you.

by Patrick Klepek
Feb 26 2018, 5:00pm

Image courtesy of Bethesda

One day, Bethesda will make another Fallout game, and chances are it’ll be another open world RPG. Experiments like Fallout Shelter occasionally drag the series into new directions, but Fallout’s rich post-apocalyptic mythology could work in all manner of genres, if Bethesda only allowed it. That void is filled by mods like Old World Blues, a comically ambitious mod for Hearts of Iron IV that, even in its alpha state, has been ravenously praised by fans for delivering on a promise to deliver strategic Fallout.

Hearts of Iron falls into the category of “grand” strategy games, where the player is less concerned with the fate of individual units than a whole theater of war. As big as the landscapes are in games like Fallout 3, it’s tiny compared to the whole of America—or the world. Your actions feel important, but likely pale in comparison to what’s playing out writ large. Old World Blues tries to give a broader sense of what’s happening.

You can watch YouTube creator Rimmy play through a round to get a sense of the mod:

Mods that promise to import a popular franchise into a wholly different game are a dime a dozen. Most disappear into the ether, or radically under deliver. It’s not shocking, given the reality of mods: amateur developers biting off more than they can chew. It’s why anyone would have been right to be skeptical about Old World Blues.

And yet...

Developed for little more than a year by a team of four, Old World Blues features a map spanning North and Central America with 9,077 provinces, 735 states, and 94 nations. That’s just the alpha version. There’s work to do, as they expand geography, squash bugs, and wrap their heads around what people find interesting about the mod.

I recently had a chance to shoot the mods developers some questions. We touched on the game’s “development hell," what makes Old World Blues different from a normal round of Hearts of Iron IV, and if non-strategy Fallout fans should give this a look.

Waypoint: Why did Fallout—and specifically New Vegas —make sense for Hearts of Iron IV?

Briar Bowie, lead narrative designer: Hearts of Iron appealed to us through its ability to offer a new unique perspective on the Fallout universe, one that we felt hadn’t been explored very well. It allows players to enjoy the dynamic of the series on a grand scale, taming the wasteland and telling compelling stories all the while. Fallout” New Vegas is a good starting point because it enables that type of storytelling, with a variety of factions interacting in a myriad of exciting ways.

The Fallout games have, both past and present, been about player expression. What kind of experience did you want to impart during each round of Old World Blues?

Mechano, lead programmer: When you load up a game of Old World Blues, our focus is on creating immersion so that players are encouraged to engage themselves in the world and it’s evolving narrative. From the beginning, the player determines some of the background of their nation. For example, was the nation born out of former vault dwellers, or did they survive in the wasteland? These choices provide context for a playthrough and contribute to the potential for roleplaying.

The player isn’t the only one that shapes the world, however. Smaller nations declare war and create conflicts, forming larger empires out of their conquests, while larger nations also focus on conquering their neighbours and rivals, consequently creating unique challenges as the player expands and comes into conflict with others. It’s these interactions between the player and the world around them that consequently define the experience of an Old World Blues playthrough.

There are certain kinds of people who will look at this screen shot and go "oh my god, yes." You are the target market for Old World Blues. I look at this and get anxiety.

To that end, can you point to a specific “oh shit” moment you’ve had while playing?

AntoniusMagnus, lead content designer: One of the things we focused on, particularly on the narrative side, was “emergent factions.” Basically, some of the more interesting Fallout factions are almost hidden in the game mechanics themselves, so you can unlock them through taking different focuses or doing certain things, like some sort of puzzle box. The clues are there if you’re observant, but they can also be a cool surprise.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but in one game I had during our closed alpha testing, pretty much all of these emergent factions fired. What had started as a pretty regular game became this almost doomsday scenario, where these hulking beasts of emergent factions just absorbed the areas around me—as power-armoured Romans, I had to take on the remnants of the US Government and a giant resurgence of the Super Mutant Master’s Army.

Let’s say you haven’t played Hearts of Iron and don’t understand what’s involved in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Break down what happens in Old World Blues.

AntoniusMagnus: In the short term, that may be something like “Should I focus on building up my military base, or my industrial base?” or “Should I research heavy robots or focus on hard-hitting energy weapons?” It could also be something more substantial, like “Which faction do I want to ally with?” or “Do I want to war with them instead?” The main goal, especially through H eart of Iron IV's focus tree system, is to outline what the long-term impacts one choice might have. These long-term effects could be from as minor as one faction not liking the player's faction because they chose to build their internal industry instead, to the player's faction changing entirely.

We want every choice the player makes to have far reaching consequences, and for these consequences to be broadcast or foreshadowed to them. We actually had a lot of reports in the first few days of a path that many players believed didn't have the consequences foreshadowed enough, and we took steps to rectify that in a later patch.

Old World Blues is sprawling, but you could have easily gone bigger (or smaller). How did you manage scope? That seems to be the death of most mods: feature creep.

Edward Cannon, lead map designer: When I joined in December 2016, our team decided to set the bar high, and the scope reasonably wide because we wanted to deliver the best Fallout experience possible. For us, that didn’t mean the entire world, it entailed a hyper realistic map of North America featuring Fallout’s best characters and our own tailor-made nations to fit the theme.

The West Coast was an obvious choice for where to begin; it’s an iconic part of Fallout, with fan-favourite games based within it. However, our ambition didn’t come without a cost. We’ve basically been in development hell for the last year, not due to a bad working environment, but just how small our team was and how large our goal became. Feature creep isn’t the right term, nor were we overly ambitious, we just simply didn’t have the manpower required for a “perfect” alpha 1.0.

With that in mind sometimes, you just have to learn to let go, and for us that meant cutting numerous focus trees, new doctrines, a government overhaul, etc—all in service of releasing the mod on time. We might not have launched with everything we planned to when we first started, but 30,000 subs [on the Steam Workshop] over three days and being called “the most feature complete alpha ever” really speaks for itself.

It’s not about abandoning your ideas, it’s about managing your expectations. After all, the benefit of modding is that it’s on your own time, we can always go back and add those features—and we fully intend to.

How did the team come together? I’m guessing you didn’t know each other before the mod, which means you probably ran into some unexpected conflicts. A year is a long time to work with brand-new people, and you probably learn a lot during that period.

AntoniusMagnus, lead content designer: The current team has been around for about a year. Before that, I'd made a pretty small prototype over the course of about a week, and it got a lot of attention. Before I knew it, I was working with these two Russian guys, an American, a Canadian, and another Brit—who were all far better at this than I was. We’ve always been this kind of rag-tag bunch of pretty diverse backgrounds—we now have more Brits and Canadians, a Swede, Ukrainian and two Polish artists—who are united by this incredible passion for Fallout and this mod especially.

We actually came pretty close to not being able to make the mod; we ran into a major issue with the custom map, and since it was uncharted territory in the modding scene, it took a major god-end to get us over that hurdle—in the form of [lead programmer] Mechano.

Still, through that, the team persevered with unwavering optimism. I think that’s really the core of our success, the team are all so devoted and incredibly skilled at what they do, so where other mods have almost let themselves fall into non-development, everybody on Old World Blues carried on, until, a whole year later we had a version (though in early alpha) that we are incredibly happy with.

I suspect some folks might be interested in this mod, but haven't touched Hearts of Iron. How approachable is the mod, if your background is the other Fallout games?

Briar Bowie, lead narrative designer: Hearts of Iron isn’t an experience overly akin to anything you’ve experienced in other Fallout games, but what it does offer is a unique perspective on a beloved franchise. If the idea of being able to look down on the wasteland and dictate the ins and outs of your favorite faction appeals to you, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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