StarCraft II – Heart of the Swarm

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[WARNING] THIS REVIEW DOES NOT SPOIL EXPLICIT PLOT POINTS, BUT DOES TALK ABOUT SOME ELEMENTS OF THE CAMPAIGN GAMEPLAY AND MECHANICS [/WARNING]

 

 

The main home screen for Heart of the Swarm.

The main home screen for Heart of the Swarm.

Heart of the Swarm (HotS), the first expansion to Blizzard’s wildly popular real-time strategy StarCraft II was released on March 12 to much fanfare at Blizzards global launch events involving professional players, casters, and members of the design team.

This may seem like a big deal for an expansion, but it’s not without justification. The StarCraft community are one of the most vocal, judgemental, and occasionally irrational communities around. Combining an eSports fanbase, players and series veterans, Heart of the Swarm had a lot of different people to please.

HotS follows the story of Kerrigan, beginning immediately after the end of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has been cleansed of Zerg influence and returned to her human form through the power of the Xel’naga artifact and the efforts of Jim Raynor and Valerian Mengsk, son of Arcturus Mengsk, series antagonist.

I won’t spoil specific plot points, but obviously I’ll be discussing gameplay elements and general plot direction. You have been warned. Heart of the Swarm is the story of Kerrigans return to her humanity, and her quest for revenge, and what she is willing to lose to achieve it.

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There is great interaction between Kerrigan and Raynor, particularly in the early game cinematics. With the series bringing a more heartfelt tone than previously, which resonates well with the characters.

As would be expected of an expansion, a lot of the campaign mechanics are similar to Wings of Liberty. Instead of the Hyperion being your base of operations, where you upgrade your units, choose which missions to attempt, and listen to exposition provided by auxiliary characters, it’s a giant Zerg creature called the Leviathan, which serves an almost identical function.

Similar to Raynor’s supporting cast of Matt Horner, Tychus Findlay and Gabriel Tosh, Kerrigan has Zerg advisors in the form of Izsha, Zagara (a broodmother) and Abathur, a creation of the Overmind responsible for the evolution of new strains of Zerg.

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Kerrigan’s advisor, Izsha.

This seems somewhat at odds with what we’ve come to know and love about the Zerg; an emotionless group of aliens, controlled by the overriding will of a being with incredible power. This introduction of more ‘human’ zerg feels a little uncomfortable, although it’s clear that it’s an attempt by Blizzard to offer the player exposition and guide you through the story.

Other than that, the campaign flows well, and you’re never lost for something to do. The missions are well designed and feature a combination of mechanics we’re used to from Wings of Liberty, like lava effects, and new features.

The new features which you’ll encounter in the campaign include new environmental effects in the levels like flash freezes and gas. For the most part these work well to shake up the formula of standard RTS games, you’ll never be bored while playing through the campaign, and there’s always some fresh consideration to keep your mind occupied in the level.

Despite certain mechanical similarities to Wings of Liberty, which are of course to be expected, this is only an expansion, the style of play in the campaign has changed. Kerrigan plays a much more active role in the missions than Jim Raynor did in WoL. Kerrigan can be used aggressively during missions, using her powerful abilities to attack enemies alongside your army.

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In Heart of the Swarm, rather than upgrading your buildings by completing bonus objectives, you level up Kerrigan, which unlocks extra abilities for her in combat, as well as passive bonuses.

It’s not just Kerrigan that you can upgrade however, as in Wings of Liberty, where you could purchase upgrades for your units, in HotS you unlock new unit evolutions. Unlike Wings of Liberty, you get the chance to test out the new unit types in a special ‘Evolution Mission’ before you choose which to upgrade to.

This is a nice touch, and allows you to get a feel for the upgrades before choosing one to take forever, and one to discard.

Heart of the Swarm isn’t all about the campaign though. The Battle.Net interface through which all StarCraft players interact with the game has seen a huge update, bringing the social side of StarCraft much more to the fore than previously.

Clan and Group functionality have been added and improved respectively, which is a huge improvement. Clans, rather than just being a structure for competitive gamers, can be a tool for keeping in touch with friends from other games, which maybe you don’t play so much anymore.

The multiplayer experience is at the core of Heart of the Swarm, and a long closed beta, and development in close consultation with professional gamers has benefitted it greatly.

Aside from the obvious changes to this multiplayer, which I discussed in my Heart of the Swarm Preview, like new units and the incorporation of physics effects to unit deaths there are other significant updates.

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One of the most important is the new levelling system. Players will earn experience for building units and structures, and destroying those of their enemies. As you level up, you unlock new portraits for your profile, as well as unit decals and skins for units in multiplayer.

But more than that, the levelling up system is a great way of encouraging people to keep playing the competitive ladder, regardless of their skill (or lack of it).

In summary, Heart of the Swarm is a great example of an expansion pack, it takes the established mechanics of the main game and expands upon them. It doesn’t stay completely true to the established formula, adding enough new content, mechanics and gameplay purely in the single player campaign to be worth your time. It’s not entirely perfect, there are some choices which not everyone will agree with, but on the whole, it’s everything people want from a StarCraft II expansion. And I personally can’t wait for the conclusion of the story in Legacy of the Void.

Pros:

  • Balanced Multiplayer
  • New gameplay elements
  • Continuation of the StarCraft II story

Expanded social functions

Cons:

  • Zerg appear more ‘human’
  • Middle child of a trilogy, no explicit beginning or end

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