StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Review
Swarms the heart.
Almost three years after the acclaimed sequel StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Blizzard have graced the world of competitive real time strategy games with the second of three instalments, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. For the first time since 1998’s StarCraft: Brood War, those slimy Zerg take centre stage, raining destruction upon the hostile Terran and Protoss races.
SPOILER ALERT BELOW!
Sarah Kerrigan, the beautifully horrific self-proclaimed Queen of Blades, has had her humanity restored by the actions of Terran champion Jim Raynor, whom also saved her life in the closing minutes of Wings of Liberty (WOL). A very human Kerrigan (with immaculate dreadlocks) awakes in a research facility commanded by Valerian Mengsk, the renegade heir to Arcturus Mengsk, the dictatorial emperor of the Terran Dominion forces. Valerian is performing extensive testing on Kerrigan to measure any residual levels of Zerg infestation and to validate her humanity. Dominion forces soon discover the location of the secret lab and launch an assault, Valerian and Kerrigan manage an escape but Raynor is left behind during the skirmish. It is only through the slanted Dominion media that Kerrigan hears about Raynor’s capture.
Love. Death. Vengeance. No further words are needed to describe the compelling story of Kerrigan’s fate. With her hatred for Arcturus Mengsk boiling into explosive rage, she sets out to regain her power over the Swarm by defeating insubordinate Zerg broodmothers and regaining their loyalty. Korhal, the Dominion’s home planet and stronghold, will fall.
Kerrigan leads the Swarm armies with devastating psionic attacks and is levelled up according to how many objectives are achieved during the mission.
With the unrivalled presentation that Blizzard is famous for, the opening cinematic sets the stage for an epic campaign. The prologue mission set in the research facility on Umoja is a slow start, but makes sure that new StarCraft inductees get familiarised with the basic Zerg units and strategies. Kerrigan leads the Swarm armies with devastating psionic attacks and is levelled up according to how many objectives are achieved during the mission. This Diablo-esque development of a hero – with strength gained at every level and new abilities unlocked at each milestone – makes the skirmishes much more exciting than just micro-managing groups of units. Kerrigan’s psionic blast may seem to deal almost excessive damage, and although she can be killed and resurrected at the hive, she cannot win the war on her own. For that, she’ll need every assimilated creature of the Swarm at her disposal.
Your Zerg command centre is aboard the Leviathan, a space faring organism the size of a small moon that houses your armies and evolves your creatures to the next level. While the guts of this immense floating creature didn’t quite have the homely feel of the Hyperion in WOL, there are still plenty of conversations with NPCs that are worth clicking. The dialogue is not critical to the gameplay or even the story, but much can be learned about the creatures and worlds that you visit, if you so desire.
The “evolution” of your units is perhaps a bit overstated; you’re able to choose from one of three upgrades for each unit revolving around armour, attack speed and/or ferocity or a special ability that usually involves splash damage. But limiting the options is not a bad thing as you spend more time playing the missions and less time deliberating over which advancement will give you the edge on the battlefield.
The mission designs have their share of derivatives, some even feeling like carbon copies of Raynor’s adventures in WOL. But at the very least those missions are carried out on new and colourful worlds fighting new and colourful creatures. There is plenty of fresh spin on other missions, infesting an escaping Protoss ship with a Zerg larva and feeding on alien farm animal specimens before brooding more eviscerating creatures is an impressive ode to Ridley Scott’s Alien. There are also missions with creeps: structures that spawn periodic waves of AI friendlies that act as the Swarm’s disposable vanguard. Syncing resources, unit production and a timely attack with these waves gave a combat experience worth replaying. I just wish the same could be said about the boss battles, as unfortunately these encounters were lacklustre and looked like they had been copied and pasted from Diablo III. The bosses give you ample warning of their attacks with bright red shading, allowing you more than enough time to walk Kerrigan and most of her squad to safety. Wait for the break then send in the tank.
The wriggling, slithering sounds of Zerg creatures may give some the heebie-jeebies (myself included) but you can’t fault its authenticity. Everything from the pop-squish of structures erupting goo as they become operational, to the acidic burn of exploding banelings as they rush towards their target sounds believable. The growling noises exuded from some of your lieutenants can occasionally get tiresome, but the dialogues rarely go on long enough to encourage skipping. Impeccable voice acting by the Battlestar Gallactica bombshell Tricia Helfer made Kerrigan’s character even more attractive and alluring, important when you have to hear her voice after almost every click of the mouse. The soundtrack featured lots of heavy guitar riffs in true StarCraft style, the sound scape living up to its potential.
Many StarCraft veterans will be buying this expansion exclusively for the improved multiplayer experience and as usual Battle.net has all level of players covered. A matching system will test your skill against AI before throwing you to the wolves of the competitive online community. New units are available for all three races and some have been removed or modified to maintain balance. I won’t claim to have the expertise that can comment on the effectiveness of those modifications, other than they are a lot of fun. The forums of competition websites will no doubt have all types of topics open for discussion. The new Arcade mode lets community members build their own games in the StarCraft universe, everything from fun card games to homemade RPGs that actually look pretty good. Making such tools available for dedicated players is yet another feather in Blizzard’s cap.
A review code of Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm was provided courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.
A Hearty Expansion
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm doesn't break any of the fundamental formula for the RTS games, no amount of fancy units or clever missions design will change that. But StarCraft didn't need a re-invention. A perfectly balanced game was given a much needed modern overhaul with Wings of Liberty, and so far, Blizzard has shown that releasing a game as a trilogy over several years can work.