Round 2, fight! Blizzard has finally given us the second chapter in StarCraft 2’s soap opera and it arguably has the best of the factions take the star role because, well, everyone likes being the ‘bad guy’ right? Well that might just be me, but the Zerg hold a very special place among RTS fans.
At its core this is exactly the same game as Wings of Liberty – nothing has changed – except all the fancy trimmings have been mutated and respliced together to tell the tale of one former Queen of Blades. Whereas the debut for StarCraft 2 focused on the Terrans, giving us something easy to identify with, Heart of the Swarm now continues the guilty treat of Blizzard’s B-movie extravaganza. The lines can be cheesy, the plot bonkers, villains given plenty of moustache twirling – but it’s what makes you march your units to victory.
|You wouldn’t know a guy by the name Belial, would you Zavran?
Story is such an integral force in the StarCraft universe and Blizzard hits the ground running in Heart of the Swarm’s opening campaign missions. We control and assume the role of Kerrigan, former Zerg royalty, but all is not well in the kingdom of throbbing biomass, claws and teeth. It works out well as we’re given an introduction into how the Zerg are so much different in their approach at every level, from base management and expansion to incubating troops. The opening moments are actually reliant on hero characters and their special abilities giving us time to digest some more of the story and to start gearing ourselves up for a faction far more suited to offense in big throwaway numbers.
It’s here in this introductory prologue that Blizzard also starts to show off some of their new tricks like making it look as if we’re crossing a tram at high speeds, having to defend it from the invading forces of Mingsk, that pesky megalomaniacal emperor of the Dominion. We also get thrust into a boss fight which requires some good footwork – or click work – to stop our forces getting the full brunt off attacks. This is a common occurrence throughout Heart of the Swarm and, if you squinted hard enough, you might think you had accidentally fired up Diablo III or something. This is by no means a bad thing – they actually turn out pretty neat, and help build up how powerful these heroes are you’re playing.
Once the initial few missions are done we can start to select what worlds we want to tackle from our Zerg version of a starship – the Leviathan, which is much like Jim Raynor’s Hyperion. Again this serves as a hub of sorts where we can extract a little more information from various other characters we come across, as well as choose what ‘evolutions’ we want for our Zerg troops and adjust Kerrigan’s special abilities through a skill tree that unlocks more as we level her up. It’s not quite as chatty and bustling as Jim and the Hyperion was but there are enough little distractions to offer some interesting banter and some more back story if you’re so inclined.
We get to pick between a few evolutions/mutations for each different kind of Zerg, like increasing a units range and attack or their rate of healing when burrowed. However as a bonus we also have special evolution missions awarded to us when we reach certain points in the campaign granting us options between two very specific variations and these are permanent; not to be taken lightly. We get more than just a quick clip of footage to base our decision on as each takes us down to a location so we can try out these starkly different evolutionary paths for our self. They’re quick and informative. It’s another way you can customise the game to suit your play style.
Some can have wide-ranging impacts on strategy when you’ve got your base all set up and spreading creep all over the place. In the beginning you’ll find yourself more directly on the offensive but eventually after some new units have been introduced through the campaign you can start focusing more on some decent defence if you prefer to take your time, although that’s not always going to be much of an option. Blizzard doesn’t cookie cutter these missions as each is unique in their setup through the narrative, much like in Wings of Liberty; remember that delightful ‘train robbery’?
I was really impressed in the first game where we had to be very careful as entire areas of the map would get flooded with lava. These types of manipulations with the environment aren’t absent in Heart of the Swarm with an early trip to a frozen ball of a planet causing everyone to have their stuff frozen and be extremely susceptible to attack. Later, another mission has us infect Terran buildings to endlessly churn out infected that wander off like lemmings to attack enemy fortifications, only to have deadly gas vents periodically wiping them all out leaving us to attack on our own and fend off counter offensives. This can really inject some welcomed mayhem.
|Zerg are formidable but lacklustre defence will see a hive crumble fast
Another more specialised mission gives you nothing but a small insignificant larvae that stows aboard a Protoss starship. Our goal is to still stay hidden as we look for biomass to consume and ultimately mutate into a Queen so that she can essentially turn herself into a mobile base of sorts that spawns zerglings. The goal is to ensure no Protoss aboard this ship survives to warn the Golden Armada of Kerrigan’s return to the Zerg throne. Each mission also comes with achievements, just like the first game, and these can provide some real challenges at times. They also draw you back to certain missions later once the campaign is complete to try and earn those you’ve missed.
You simply don’t know what the heck the game is going to throw at you next in terms of gameplay. Are we going to be building a base and churning out the zerglings for an attack, or are we racing against time or some natural element? Maybe we’ll be managing a small force with Kerrigan leading the charge against some huge primal zerg? Not many real-time strategies could get away with throwing you into a fight with a massive foe in the style of an action-RPG, but this is Sparta
StarCraft. Each type of mission is carefully spread far enough apart from one another so they don’t get stale and induce a sigh. I found myself welcoming a break from base building so I could feel Kerrigan be a Zerg Queen badass and tear the place up.
Thanks to some tuning up of the StarCraft 2 game engine, being that said badass and smacking terran, protoss and even other zerg around couldn’t be more visually rewarding. The extra physics given to ragdoll troops and the more fiery explosions with bits flying all over the place can really hit that smug sweet spot if you’ve got the PC muscle to flex these upgrades.
Heart of the Swarm also shakes up the multiplayer arena for StarCraft 2 by introducing some new units and tweaking others. While matchmaking changes are applied to both Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, ladder rankings and faction balances are separate. The addition of seven new units drastically upset the applecart of what tactics were known to guarantee victory almost every time. Now it’s back to the drawing board to throw these new toys at each other for a while and work out what sticks better. There are some pretty game changing additions.
The fact that the Protoss can nip their armies back to base through the Mass Recall ability of the Mothership Core isn’t to be understated. Whole units can be salvaged if something suddenly goes horribly wrong, saving a player time and precious resources. The Zerg gain the Viper which is perhaps not only a strategic win but a ‘WTF’ laugh riot too as it can lasso units right up off the floor and bring them closer to get pummelled. It can also disable units temporarily with a gas cloud. Terrans get an interesting rocket mine called Widow Mines, and stocky Hellbats for flame grilling. On their own they might not sound much, but given how delicate the balance of power in multiplayer is, too much advantage can ruin the entire ecosystem.
Yes it’ll be a little while before the top ranked online players get settled with these new found gizmos and the rules that go with them. Frankly, most players don’t tend to wander too far into multiplayer because of its reputation of being so ruthless. Blizzard has at least tried to lessen this sense of dread by offering some tutorials that try to explain some multiplayer specific tactics. We can now also ‘Take Command’ via the replay system, which lets you take over the match from a point you specify and try out something different. It’s brilliant for those who like to analyse their games or those of the pro-gaming circuit.
|The good ship Leviathan, full of funny zany characters busting rhymes
It wouldn’t be exactly fair to call Hearts of the Swarm ‘just’ an expansion because frankly it’s quite capable of standing on its own multitude of legs. Of course strictly speaking, as it requires the original Wings of Liberty to be installed, it is in fact an add-on. However the galactic adventure with Kerrigan at the helm is an enthralling one as we see her transform, yet again, becoming a ruthless force with legions of Zerg at her fingertips, but it’s not a dehumanised journey – quite the opposite. While from a multiplayer perspective there’s arguably little gained for the sizeable asking price, it’s the continuation of StarCraft lore that’s the real gem here and shouldn’t be missed. I have to admit, while technically not utilising the game’s core experience, fighting the primal Zerg with the freshly re-crowned Queen of Blades was a marvellous set piece of StarCraft theatre. That and the general squishiness of the Zerg is always cool.
STARCRAFT 2: HEART OF THE SWARM VERDICT
StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm embodies an evolved RTS that shows Blizzard has taken on even more superior genes from other gaming greats, even when those greats coincidentally happen to be of their own creation. If this is what happened since Wings of Liberty, then we should be in for a real treat when Legacy of the Void drops out of hyperspace.
TOP GAME MOMENT
I have to admit, while technically not utilising the game’s core experience, fighting the primal Zerg with the freshly re-crowned Queen of Blades was a marvellous set piece of StarCraft theatre. That and the general squishiness of the Zerg is always cool.