Preview: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm
When we last left Jim Raynor, life seemed to be going pretty well for him. The alien horde was defeated, he’d just popped a game straight into the face of Tychus Findlay (that slimy bastard) and he’d even managed to get the girl. Not long after that heroic walk into the sunset, though, the honeymoon period ends and Kerrigan decides that instead of thanking Jimmy-R profusely for rescuing her like the ridiculous badass he is, he’ll have to find someone else to walk into the sunset with. In a classic show of female gratitude she breaks out of the Hyperion, nullifying pretty much everything Raynor did in Wings of Liberty in the process, and leaves him to twiddle his thumbs while she heads off to murder Arcturus Mengsk. These events set the stage upon which the main events of the Heart of the Swarm campaign take place.
Bitches be crazy.
Name: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developers: Blizzard Entertainment
Publishers: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: 12 March 2013
Price: $40 (R300-R350)
Heart of the Swarm is the first expansion (not counting Wings of Liberty, because that’d be weird) released for Blizzard’s sequel to the roaring success which was Starcraft: Brood War. On those grounds, I’m going to write this preview under the assumption that you’ve played the first game and have the vaguest idea of what on earth (or, in Korpulu, as the case may be) is going on in the series. If you haven’t got any idea what’s going, and aren’t sure if you should buy StarCraft II to get one, let me make it simple for you: do it.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about how this preview is going to go down. I’ll speak briefly about the singleplayer to start off with, but the majority of my attention is going to be on the multiplayer, seeing as that’s where the majority of the game’s focus is going to be. I’ll also touch briefly on the community reception to the changes in Heart of the Swarm, as well as the reactions from the professional community.
For those not quite in the know, Starcraft II is going to consist of three installments: Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void. Wings of Liberty was, as we all know, the first one released, which featured a Terran-focused campaign. Legacy of the Void is going to be spotlighting the Protoss when it gets released, and in the interim Heart of the Swarm is (you guessed it) giving the Zerg a time to shine. As a committed member of the Swarm to the point where I have taken the initiative of making myself the self-appointed King of the Roaches, it goes without saying that I’m more than a little excited for this one. Let’s get to it, then.
It seems as if Kerrigan is going to be the focus of the HotS campaign, as Raynor was for its predecessor. When Jimmy de-infested Kerrigan at the end of the first campaign, the zerg swarm fractured into numerous smaller factions, each ruled by a different Queen. Step one of your mission as Kerrigan will be to reunite the fragmented zerg swarm under your leadership as the Queen of Blades. Presumably, step two will be something along the lines of ‘use your stupidly large alien army to try and murder the crap out of Arcturus Mengsk’. It isn’t clear quite yet to what extent Kerrigan lost her powers when she reverted back to what appears to be humanity, but hopefully Blizzard will bless us with some shiny special abilities to make use of when we do get to take control of her.
Those who played the singleplayer for Wings of Liberty will remember that to keep things interesting (and perhaps make sure that the newbies didn’t get too overloaded at the start of the game), players were able to unlock new units and upgrades for their army. In a similar fashion, players will be able to unlock ‘evolutions’, which serve essentially the same purpose in that they allow you to upgrade the existing units you have (for example, one can evolve their zerglings into the infamous ‘grasshopperlings’) and get access to new units entirely (presumably the zerg units higher up their tech chain).
In terms of length, Blizzard has announced that Heart of the Swarm will consist of just twenty missions, which makes it about one-third shorter than WIngs of Liberty, which had twenty-nine. Some might look at this as a reduction in value-for-money, and while I didn’t think the first game’s campaign was particularly long, I don’t think a shorter campaign would detract from the overall quality of the game altogether that much. Starcraft isn’t the sort of game which would suffer from a shorter story (not all the missions from Wings of Liberty were essential to the main story – many were fluff), and may actually benefit from one. Real-Time Strategy games are, after all, not quite the same as other genres in that their singleplayer campaigns can become extremely monotonous as a result of the RTS mechanics which can slow the game down. The development team refers to the cutting of the story as “condensing the cool”, and I’m inclined to think this may be one of the rare occurrences where it could turn out for the best.
Even if that wasn’t the case, though, I still don’t think you should let it dissuade you from taking a serious look at Heart of the Swarm, for the simple reason that this isn’t a game which you buy for the singleplayer. Nay, the reason the majority of Starcraft players buy the game (myself included) is for the multiplayer. So, let’s cut the nonsense, and get on to talking about that.
In terms of functionality changes, Heart of the Swarm will now feature a levelling system (?). In terms of changes we actually care about, players will now have the ability to resume a game from a replay file – if you want to play out a specific part of a game differently with a friend, or the connection drops in the middle of a game which you want to finish, this feature ought to come in mightily handy. The game is also trying to make itself more appealing to socially and casually-orientated players, through the use of both clan and groups features, making interaction and communication easier, as well as unranked matches, which pit you against players of the same skill level as you without giving you a ladder ranking, removing a significant amount of the ‘ladder stress’ which discourages many new players from keeping at the game.
What people are really looking forward to, however, are the new units and unit changes featured in Heart of the Swarm. With the Beta now out and new changes flowing in at a constant rate (and Blizzard’s ability to provide actually useful information being as stalwart as ever), it is quite difficult to find up-to-date, collated information on the upcoming unit changes. The best resource was (of course), the Wikipedia page, which combined information from a number of different Blizzard press releases, developer’s diaries and Dustin Browder blog posts. So, to save both of us the headache, I’m going to quote directly from the page:
The Terran race was originally expected to feature two new units: the Shredder, and the Warhound. Internal testing revealed the Shredder was too flexible and powerful, and it was therefore replaced by widow mines, mobile spider mines that fire missiles at the target, causing splash damage. The Warhound had an autocast ability which launches missiles that target mechanical units. During the closed beta, Blizzard agreed with pro gamers that it does not work in its current state, and the Warhound was removed from the game. The Hellion will have a new battle mode added, which allows it to transform into a heavier and more powerful unit. In battle mode the Hellion will do increased damage but in an arc in front of it instead of in a line. The Ghost will have its “Cloak” ability changed to be a one-time cost for a time-based duration rather than a constant energy cost over time. Reactivating “Cloak” while calling down a nuke will not interrupt the nuke strike. The Battlecruiser gained a “Redline Reactor” upgrade which acted as a cooldown-based speed boost, instead, it will get an increase from 8 to 10 damage against ground. Lastly, the Reaper has its special building attack replaced by a passive health regeneration ability when out of combat, and also gains high-ground vision.
The Protoss Replicant has been cut due to its tendency to stifle unit diversity, but the Oracle and Tempest remain. The Oracle provides several abilities that are useful for harassment such as slowing time in a circle preventing units from escaping, granting vision of enemy buildings and stopping buildings from researching or producing. The Tempest’s role has changed since Blizzcon. While originally designed to provide large amounts of air splash damage, it is now an extreme long-range siege unit capable of hitting both the ground and air. A new caster called the Mothership Core has been added. The Mothership Core is a slow moving, flying unit that has three abilities. Purify allows a targeted Nexus to gain a single target, long range energy attack, similar to the Photon Cannon. Mass Recall targets a group of Protoss units anywhere on the map and teleports them to any one of your Nexi. Envision grants the mothership core detection. Once the Fleet Beacon has been constructed, the Mothership Core can transform into the Mothership.
Since Blizzcon, the Overseer has been re-added; the Viper and the Swarm Host also remain. The flying Viper has several abilities: “Blinding Cloud” which reduces all units’ range to 1, “Abduct” pulls a unit to the Viper’s location, and the “Consume” ability allows the Viper to regain energy by siphoning health from a friendly structure. The Swarm Host periodically spawns slow-moving units called Locusts when burrowed. Locusts have a ranged attack, and only hit ground. Ultralisks gain a “Burrow Charge” ability on a cooldown allowing them to quickly reach battle sites and the Hydralisk will have a researchable speed boost when traveling off-creep, once the Lair is built.
One piece of information not mentioned under the ‘Protoss’ section there which many gamers will be happy to hear is that the Carrier will be staying a part of the Protoss arsenal, despite Blizzard’s earlier plans to scrap it.
This clarification is indicative of the problem one encounters when commenting on the new units for Heart of the Swarm: very little (if anything) is set in stone. There have been innumerable balance changes during the Beta, and many, many deviations from the original unit announcements, to the point where it is clear that Blizzard mean what they say when they tell the community that the proposed changes aren’t final.
As such, it is difficult for anyone to make some sort of commentary which they consider valuable with confidence, because one word from Dustin Browder can make their entire expertly-argued case completely irrelevant. That said, the general consensus throughout the reveals and the Beta has been that (as EG.Machine explained in an interview regarding Heart of the Swarm a while ago) Terran is not being given diverse and viable enough options if the changes continue to go in the direction they appear to be. Strategies employed by Wings of Liberty Terrans (like Medivac drops), are still the better options over strategies which make use of the new Widow Mines, while the Hellbat is basically a glorified Hellion.
In terms of community response to Heart of the Swarm, it is difficult to say whether or not it will catch on in the long-term over Wings of Liberty, but we can certainly expect a surge of popularity in it in the short-term, and whether that surge becomes a sustained support-base will depend significantly on the quality and balance of the final release itself.
In terms of the professional circuit, one must remember that pro’s are motivated by opportunity as well as interest. It is impossible to say for the moment whether Heart of the Swarm will win the definitive popularity contest over Wings of Liberty when it comes to tournament play, but we do know that if the fans demand HotS tournaments and the sponsorship exists (it has already begun, with Blizzard partnering with MLG to run Heart of the Swarm competitions) then the pro’s will go where the support and money is.
Regardless of what happens in the community and professional scene, this is a game you definitely don’t want to miss out on if you’re a Strategy fan, and will most probably not regret playing even if you aren’t. The Beta for the game (read: multiplayer) is currently live, and you can obtain a key if you pre-order the game. If you aren’t sure whether or not it might be your thing, check out some of the live streams over at TeamLiquid and some of numerous YouTube videos out there showcasing the game.
Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm will release on March 12 of this year, for PC only (you need a copy of Wings of Liberty to play it) and will be priced at around $40 (~R300-350). It is currently available for pre-order, and if you order you will receive a key for the Beta, redeemable immediately.