Preview: Heart of the Swarm

Preview: Heart of the Swarm

Previews

Posted on Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 at 4:46 PM by

Practice, as they say, makes perfect. And this is something Blizzard have taken to heart when refining their games. Carefully changing small details, patching slight imbalances and nudging the game towards where they want it to be.

Heart of the Swarm changes all of that. The idea of an expansion is anathema to the careful optimisation Blizzard have become so adept at. A full new campaign of 20 missions, replete with branching unit upgrades, new multiplayer units, and a host of new features. Combine this with new maps, and brand new social features rounding out the Battle.net system and that’s a lot of content to get to Blizzards high levels of polish before it all ships.

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Overall, the new multiplayer units look good. They continue to make the races feel very different, and allow for a lot of new options in gameplay. A great example is the Terran Widow Mine, which gives the Factory a purpose if the player is going for a Barracks focused army.

New units aren’t the only change to the multiplayer though, and there are some sleek new physics effects on unit deaths, and very attractive overlays on victory which are both very satisfying to watch.

Veteran players will be happy to learn that thanks to the extensive beta, the game is still finely balanced. And that even if the new units feel very strong, they just require a little learning in order to combat them. You’ll know what I mean the first time you have Hellbats dropped in your mineral line. Ouch.

One new feature which is sure to go down particularly well with the community is the ‘Training Mode’. In Training Mode you play a standard game against the computer, but you receive reminders of when to build workers, buildings and military units. I’ve played a few rounds of this, and you’ll be surprised how effective it is at training your macro. And since macro is regarded as the first essential skill of StarCraft, it’s a great tool for newer players getting up to par.

Another new feature of the multiplayer experience is the addition of an experience bar for each race. As you play matches against either the computer or other players, both building units and structures, as well as destroying the enemy’s units and structures will award you experience points.

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As you gain experience and level up with each race, you are awarded character portraits and unit decals. Regardless of the actual rewards, the levelling up system is good way of combatting the ‘ladder anxiety’ known to affect many lower league StarCraft players. Ladder anxiety is when you don’t want to play competitively, because you don’t want to lose. Maybe you’re on a losing streak, maybe you’re just rusty, or maybe you’re just plain old bad, but this new system helps give players motivation to get back on the competitive ladder.

Whilst StarCraft II is sometimes seen as mainly a multiplayer game, this isn’t necessarily so. In essence, the whole reason for the expansion is the new campaign, the continuation of the story. Heart of the Swarm’s campaign focuses on Sarah Kerrigan, The Queen of Blades, and follows directly from the events of Wings of Liberty.

By the efforts of Jim Raynor, Kerrigan has regained her humanity and wakes alone and cut off from the swarm. The campaign raises more questions than it answers, does Kerrigan still lust for vengeance against Mengsk for leaving her to die on Tarsonis? What are Kerrigan’s goals? We know she aims to reunite the Zerg broods scattered across the galaxy, but for what purpose?

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Kerrigan will take a more active part in Heart of the Swarms campaign missions than previous protagonist Raynor. Little information is available as of yet, but Kerrigan will be able to take on different roles in missions. The roles, known as ‘Battle Focuses’, give Kerrigan unique abilities and are unlocked as you progress through the campaign. This increase in RPG elements is something new to the StarCraft franchise, though will be more familiar to players of Warcraft 3.

Blizzard have put a lot of effort into building the community of StarCraft II, and Heart of the Swarm sees the culmination of their efforts to make the community experience more closely aligned with the game. A particularly interesting addition is the new ability to watch a replay as a group. In Heart of the Swarm, instead of emailing your friend your latest replay asking for advice, or simply bragging, you can both log on and watch it together.

Not only that, but if there are at least as many players watching as there are playing in the replay, you can actually jump into the replay and take over the game from any given moment. For example, if you and some friends watch a pro tournament, and manage to get your hands on some of the replays, you can literally put yourself into the exact same situations, and try and play it out as well as the professionals.

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With so many additions planned to the StarCraft 2 format, it was inevitable that some changes would fall by the wayside. Several of the most exciting new units have been removed, notable examples are the Protoss Replicant, and the new Terran mech the Warhound, which was judged too powerful, and has been removed from the Beta.

Even with so many changes, this is still very recognisably a Blizzard product, bearing their distinct sense of polish and usability. Time will tell whether the community approves of all the changes; but judging by the early community response, it’ll go down a storm. And if it’s not quite where Blizzard want the game to be, well, it’s back to the careful refining and balancing until it is.

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