Developer: Blizzard Entertainment / Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment / Played on: PC / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Teen [Blood and Gore, Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence]
For better or worse, Blizzard games try to be every game to every player. Whether you spend your World of Warcraft time stitching pants or fighting Earth-shattering dragons, the choice is yours. That quality didn’t jive so well in StarCraft II. The game’s campaign offered some broad appeal, but for most the wall of difficulty between AI opponents and humans was just too imposing to overcome. With Heart of the Swarm, Blizzard takes another stab at opening up the game to everyone… and succeeds brilliantly.
The campaign’s story is satisfactory for a second act–one villain is dispatched while another, more serious one is introduced. Blizzard-familiar themes like revenge and corruption pop up, though the studio’s story charm is always in the telling rather than the plot. In that regard the story is pretty good. Kerrigan is a great lead and a supporting cast of bugs find just the right amount of depth to warrant their existence. If you follow the StarCraft canon, you’ll find enough here to be satisfied.
I did find a few problems with the production values, which is surprising given Blizzard’s usual production standards. The pre-rendered video cutscenes disappointed me; all of Wings of Liberty’s cutscenes were rendered in-engine, which gave them a crisp look that rendered video just can’t match. That said, Blizzard is still king of cutscenes and Heart of the Swarm’s are some of the best they’ve done. Additionally, there’s a weird checkerboard graphical glitch I experienced on some of the characters in conversation scenes, but that’s not too big of a deal. Of course, this may be local to my machine, but I use common components so it might pop up on others’.
Heart of the Swarm’s level design is far more profound than its story. For starters, you get to control leading lady Kerrigan for most of the campaign. Her abilities and raw stats as a unit make her a damned powerhouse in most of the levels and that gives the combat a different flavor… not to mention making it a lot easier. If you combine her abilities effectively, you can decimate enemies that would’ve otherwise required a lot of build time to create a comparable army. It makes you feel like you’re in control of an unstoppable, unrelenting swarm… which is obviously the point. This is the Swarm in both story and gameplay, which is a cool touch.
In addition to a constant hero unit, you won’t find a single build-base-and-attack template level in the game’s twenty missions. Aside from the more familiar tactical infiltration levels, HotS also mixes in hectic boss battles and MOBA-style stages with nodes that spawn creeps when you control them. Blizzard’s pushing RTS campaign design and it succeeds on almost every front. There is one mission that drops you in control of a single capital ship that wears thin by the mission’s end, but it’s a small blip in an otherwise fantastic experience. And, despite having fewer total missions, HotS’s campaign is just as long as Wings of Liberty’s thanks to the lack of skippable, optional missions.
But StarCraft II hasn’t survived on just its single-player campaign for the past three years, and the multiplayer in HotS has so many improvements it’s a necessity for any player, serious or otherwise. On the most basic level, StarCraft II’s multiplayer doesn’t change in HotS. You build up an army and try to take down your opponent with sneak attacks, large engagements, and better control. However, the units and tweaks introduced in this expansion make the game much faster and more aggressive. For instance, while the Reaper was in Wings of Liberty, Terrans can now build that unit much earlier in the game. It can hop up and down cliffs like it always could, but now it regenerates health outside combat. This gives Terran players a great tool to attack early and attack often.
Every race has some equivalent unit that encourages attacking and the effect on the game is noticeable even in the early days of the expansion. In Wings of Liberty, there were too many points in the match where attacking was too risky to be worth the time. As a result, both players would enter this weird Cold War standoff until they hit max supply and have one huge battle thirty minutes in. Now, small skirmishes happen almost immediately, removing that false sense of security that would pervade the first ten minutes of a Wings of Liberty match. Blizzard clearly wanted to make the game more aggressive and action-packed, and while it will take a few months of patching to get the right balance, I already love the shift in philosophy.
While the unit changes will have far-reaching implications to the metagame of StarCraft II, the interface and Battle.net service improvements are immediately noticeable. HotS not only sets a new standard for competitive services in real-time strategy games, but they’ve bested every other competitive game out there. The great ideas and innovations are too long to list, but here are a few of the high points I loved.
First, HotS provides some amazing new tools for beginning players to learn the game, starting with tiered training matches. Each of the three training missions gives race-specific advice, starting with basic tips like avoiding supply caps and eventually teaching you to use race-specific abilities. Not only is this a great way for beginners to learn the ropes without the pressure and vitriol of the Internet, but returning players can learn new races and experiment with the new units. HotS even offers different AI types if you want to experiment against some of the game’s common play styles. These are the sort of features that games like Street Fighter and League of Legends should have, but for some reason don’t. Aside from assigning you a personal tutor, I can’t imagine what else they can do to teach you how to play.
Blizzard also added an obligatory leveling system to the multiplayer, allowing you to earn new portraits, unit emblems, unit skins, and new dances (yes, really). The pragmatist in me crinkles his nose at such a superficial addition, but I’ll be honest, it feels pretty awesome to have level up windows explode all over my screen.
The more serious players will love the feature additions to Battle.net. Group and Clan functionality has been added, meaning you can group up with your buds in a more meaningful way than creating an oddly named chatroom. Aside from that, the most exciting feature for me is the ability to watch replays in a group–and even drop in and take control at any point. Aside from resurrecting matches that have died due to Internet connectivity problems, this is an incredible learning tool. Say you want to practice defending a particular build; you just have to drop yourself into the replay at that point and play it over and over. You could even swap out with a friend so they can show you how it’s done. This is a feature Blizzard could’ve dismissed as too difficult to implement and I’m glad they didn’t.
Before playing Heart of the Swarm, I’d wondered how difficult it would be to speak to the audience that would be interested in the game. Turns out that’s not a problem, because it’s everyone. With a surprisingly long campaign, infinitely replayable multiplayer, improved spectating and community tools, and access to hundreds of user-made game modes, Heart of the Swarm is an absurd value and a complete necessity for anyone that enjoyed any aspect of StarCraft II. Unless you just hate using your mouse in video games, buy Heart of the Swarm.