The juggernaut of mouse-clicking that is StarCraft II just received a huge shot of adrenalin in the form of the first expansion for the game, the Zerg-focused Heart of the Swarm. Paired with the initial release of the game with the Wings of Liberty and its Terran storyline, we now have two-thirds of the complete package, with the Protoss-based Legacy of the Void coming at a later date to round things out. Together, they will represent the complete StarCraft II experience, although the game is an odd beast, with the single-player and multiplayer facets offering such disparate gameplay.
What remains is a game that feels strangely welded together, although neither half disappoints. The single-player campaign in Heart of the Swarm picks up immediately where Wings of Liberty left off, seamlessly transitioning you into Kerrigan’s world and immersing you in the insectizoid realm of the Zerg, while the multiplayer has been tweaked and updated with new units, maps, modes, and more. But there is much room for improvement here to get neophytes up to speed, because newcomers will face frustration in combat with others.
Playing with the Queen of Blades
While Wings of Liberty offered an enjoyable single-player campaign experience, Jim Raynor remains a stoic and gruff leading man who isn’t that dynamic. He’s either alternatively shooting things, growling at others, or pining away for Kerrigan. It is a much easier concept to get behind Kerrigan as a character, with her relentless quest for revenge against Arcturus Mengsk and the love/hate relationship she has with her Queen of Blades alter ego.
If you haven’t completed the Wings of Liberty campaign, but still intend to, beware minor spoiler below.
At the conclusion of Wings of Liberty, the Terrans landed a massive blow against the Zerg, destroying many of them and scattering the rest. Kerrigan has been restored to a mostly-human (looking) form, and despite a last-minute assassination attempt put into play by Mengsk via Raynor’s sometimes enemy/sometimes ally Tychus Findlay, he carries her off into what passes for a sunset on a destroyed world.
When Heart of the Swarm opens, Kerrigan is undergoing tests that are pushing her psionic abilities. As it turns out, she can also still hear the call of the Swarm, and is able to control units and issue orders. Under the eye of Valerian Mengsk, Arcturus’ loyal to the cause son, Kerrigan begins training by running Zerglings through some simple commands.
What follows sets the stage for much of the single-player campaign. Each mission will present to you a new type of unit or a new challenge, and the game holds your hand through these. They are more about learning the controls or making evolutionary choices than any skill, as you will be told exactly what to do on each mission. In some cases the paths and locations that you should put your units on will be revealed to you.
You will have the chance to get familiar with Kerrigan and her Zerg surroundings aboard her Leviathan, and in certain missions you will control other Zerg major units and learn about their functions, while constantly evolving and upgrading Kerrigan and her base units via the Zerg geneticist Abathur. Here you will have to make decisions like evolving Zerglings that split into two and breed faster, or Zerglings with wings that can scale cliffs and leap attack. Some choices are minor and can be changed at will, while others are permanent evolutions.
But your choices only affect the way you play the game, as the campaign will play out the same way no matter what. On one hand, it’s a very comprehensive and easy way to introduce you to the new units and abilities, but on the other hand there is no challenge. Even the climactic battle at the end of the campaign isn’t something that will make you sweat, and while we thoroughly enjoyed the storyline and gameplay, there would be nothing wrong with making us work for it a little bit.
A million (multiplayer) voices crying out in terror
The multiplayer experience in StarCraft II can be extremely divisive, and chances are that you either suck at it completely, or have enough skill to win more than half of your matches easily. There are a few superstar players who manage to rise about the chaff, but to get there you have to play a lot of StarCraft II matches. A whole lot. Thankfully, growing your skill is a bit easier with Heart of the Swarm, although not by much.
Last month, Blizzard rolled out a massive 2.0.4 patch to Wings of Liberty in order to pave the runway for the incoming Heart of the Swarm. It brought with it multiple changes, including tweaks to nearly every system in the game, from the user interface on down, and it also introduced several new ways to play the game. Versus AI mode has replaced the Co-op Versus AI mode, giving players the ability to play against AI that can scale in difficulty. An Unranked Play option was also added, so you can play without worrying about hurting your ladder score.
A new Training Mode was also introduced, which is meant to teach StarCraft II players the basics – but unfortunately, that’s all it does. If you’ve played the single-player campaign, chances are that you already know everything in here. What the game really needs is a tutorial that can teach you advanced skills, and how to defend against them. With the amount of people playing StarCraft IIall over the world, this game should offer up some comprehensive guides to the basics, like learning how to scout, defending against or launching a rush, and different tactics. Like chess, StarCraft II has a million variables and opening moves to consider, so why not bring newbies into the loop?
While part of the experience is in learning these new moves on your own, the learning is so steep for people just stepping into the multiplayer that it feels like a brick wall. Just be prepared to slam into it many, many times before breaking through to the other side. Trust me, as this comes from someone who was shamefully decimated by a massive herd of SCVs. But can you really fault a game for not giving you an immediate path to knowledge and understanding? It should make you want to play the game more to get better at it, but at times it can be nearly a coin toss between that and sheer ragequit annoyance.
With the enormous world of eSports being fueled by StarCraft II players, this most likely won’t change anytime soon. It’s even created a secondary market where YouTube game guides and various video sites offer a chance to improve your gameplay and vie for the next level.
Meet your new troops
While the single-player storyline contains evolutionary upgrades that are stripped out of the multiplayer to keep things balanced, there are new units across the board in Heart of the Swarm.
- Viper: This new flying unit has multiple abilities like Blinding Cloud, which will stop a unit’s ranged attack ability, Abduct, which can pull an enemy closer, and Consume, which can siphon health from an enemy structure while damaging it.
- Spawn Host: A new medium-sized unit with no basic attack; when you burrow it into the ground it will launch locusts against your enemy.
- Hellbat: The Hellion can now transform into this walking, fire-spewing ground unit after researching the upgrade at a Tech Lab attached to a Factory.
- Widow Mine: These walking mines are a step up from spider mines, and can burrow into the ground to launch themselves against unsuspecting ground units. Can attack air units as well.
- Mothership Core: This component of a Mothership has many powerful abilities: Mass Recall, which teleports the core and nearby units to a targeted Nexus, Envision, which can reveal enemy units, and Photon Overcharge, which turns the Core into a long-range weapon for 60 seconds. It can also evolve into a Mothership.
- Tempest: A slow-moving, long-range ship that can bombard ground units or attack flying enemies as well. Expanding Minds, and Wallets
The game is gorgeous, just keep buckets of water nearby
StarCraft II looks fantastic… if you crank your settings to the max. Gameplay won’t change for you one way or the other, and most players tend to play zoomed back from the action. But if you dial things up to ultra, zoom in and marvel at the amount of graphic detail present in the units, structures, and the maps themselves. Also, take time to explore the campaign for Easter Eggs – including a lone, futuristic sportscar sitting by itself. One you demolish it, a tiny Terran ran up shouting, “That’s my car, man! I just paid it off!” Sorry, but that’s what happens when you park in a no parking zone.
Playing the game on a top-tier Origin gaming PC, in the heat of battle – and we mean heat – the system would overheat and shut down. Granted, we were maxing things out to see how it would look, but these were the optimum settings, according to an NVIDIA GeForce Experience tool. Pushing everything to the max should probably only be reserved for powerhouse gaming PCs, although the game still looks and plays just fine at pretty much any setting.
As with Wings of Liberty, the cutscenes are fantastic throughout Heart of the Swarm, and while it’s grating to hear Raynor refer to Kerrigan as “Darlin’” multiple times, it once again fuels the desire to see Blizzard package all of these into a full-fledged animated film. Maybe once the final chapter with the Protoss is released, someone (even if it isn’t Blizzard) will cut them together with any important story moments from the gameplay.
Pay the cost to be the boss
You might be wondering what this game will set you back, especially since it requires you to have the base StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty game. Most retailers, including Blizzard, have dropped the cost of Wings of Liberty to $39.99 for both the boxed and digital download versions, which is the same price for the boxed Heart of the Swarm expansion.
If you haven’t already picked up Wings of Liberty, do so before playing Heart of the Swarm. The storyline is extremely cohesive between the two, so you’re looking at a nearly $80 price point for both. Blizzard is currently offering a package deal for both games for $59.99. This may be a limited time offer though.
Purists and Blizzard fanatics can also pick up a Collector’s Edition for $79.99, which adds an art book, soundtrack, behind-the-scenes DVD, along with other goodies.
While not a completely perfect experience, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid followup to Wings of Liberty, although it does feel a bit overpriced. A $29.99 download-only option would feel more on-target, given that you’ll have to have Wings of Liberty. You’re essentially paying for a new campaign experience here, along with a couple multiplayer units per race and maps, which make what’s new feel a bit lopsided. If, like may StarCraft II gamers, you are more interested in the multiplayer than the campaign, the new units are going to feel very costly for what you get – and they’ll be necessary if you want to compete online.
Despite the gorgeous and Machiavellian storyline, which is a passive experience, it would have been nice to see more diverse and challenging missions from this expansion. At this point, Blizzard knows you have an entire first installment of this game to play, so it doesn’t need to unnecessarily hold your hand to get your through. With a more challenging campaign that could serve as a jumping off point to the difficult odds you’ll face in multiplayer, that aspect of the game could go from “might play” to “must play.” Regardless, as it currently stands most will still be gluttons for punishment in the multiplayer until they crack the code.
The campaign ends, of course, with a setup that will lead directly into the final expansion pack, Legacy of the Void, which will tie things up. Or will it? Chances are that Blizzard could push out expansions for this game for quite awhile. Anyone up for another Brood War?
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PC, using a copy provided by the publisher.)