Review: StarCraft II: Heart of The Swarm
The ex-Queen of Blades is back - with a vengeance. She’s after power, revenge, Mengsk and, most of all, your contact with the outside world. So close your curtains, disconnect your phone lines and say goodbye to your partner, family and friends, ‘cause Kerrigan’s in the habit of getting what she wants.
- Worth The Time?Undoubtedly.
- Things LovedIntense story, Kerrigan's character, changes to multiplayer functionality, immense overall quality of the package.
- Things HatedOccasionally tedious singleplayer missions, the amount of sleep I've missed because of this game.
- RecommendationIf you're looking to get into RTS, this is your gateway. If you're a StarCraft fan, get it. If it sounds good to you, get it - it'll only play even better.
- Name: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
- Genre: RTS
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Up to 4
- Platforms: PC
- Developer: Blizzard
- Publisher: Blizzard
- Price: R360
- Reviewed On: PC
Heart of the Swarm is the first expansion to be released for Blizzard’s StarCraft II, unless you’re one of those people who considers Wings of Liberty itself an expansion – then it would technically be the second, but technically you’re a bit weird for looking at it that way, so we’re just going to call it the first. In case you missed the word ‘Swarm’ in the title and metric butt-tonnes of Kerrigan-related marketing Blizzard inflicted upon the world (see: the banners of this very website), the game is very much focused on the Zergy side of things. Protoss players feeling hard done by need not fret, though – the next instalment is going to be all you! Which probably means you’re going to be seeing it around 2020.
When talking about a game like StarCraft II, you can’t go particularly far without making a very important distinction in terms of who you’re actually talking to. That’s because there are two pretty distinct markets which the game appeals to, namely casuals and ladderers. Generally speaking, you’ll know if you’re a ladderer. These are the sorts of people for whom the game is all about the 1-versus-1 multiplayer ladder. Symptoms include (but are not limited to) direct correlation of league classification and self-worth, involuntary spasms when presented with a “Find Match” button, ability to quote Day and/or Idra verbatim upon request, and tendency to become verbally aggressive when rushed. Casuals, by contrast, are people who play the singleplayer campaign, arcade maps, team games, or Terran.
Naturally, these two groups consider very different factors when considering whether or not to purchase the game, so I’m going to structure my review accordingly. Casuals, most of what you’re going to be looking for is to be found in the Singleplayer, and the first half of the Multiplayer sections. Ladderers, you’re going to be looking mainly at the last half of the Multiplayer section.
With that distinction out of the way, I think the first factoid of substance I need to communicate is that I’m really, really freaking excited to be doing this review. After starting my StarCraft career off in 2011 with a run-through of the campaign on normal (wouldn’t want to strain myself, after all), I made the mistake of hitting the “Find Match” button I mentioned earlier. Eight months and a transition from a trashy Bronze-leaguer to a trashy Platinum-leaguer later, life commitments decided to put an end to my laddering career. To this day, though, the only thing more overpowering than my passion for this game is my love for the Zerg race. Suffice to say I’m eager.
One last disclaimer before we get into the meat of this review: as you’ve probably inferred, I’m pretty liable to fanboy the crap out of this game. At the same time, I’ve written pretty extensively on how reviewers can often let their personal preferences get in the way of doing a decent review. As such, while I’m certainly going to be channeling my fanboyism to get across the good aspects of the game as best I can, I’m definitely not going to be skimping over the negatives of the game. After all, what we really want out of this is for you to
buy the game so that Blizzard makes more RTS titles make the best purchase decision possible – not for me to hype you into buying a game you aren’t going to enjoy.
[Public Service Announcement: Wings of Liberty spoilers ahead. Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want your life ruined.]
Some would say that Wings of Liberty ended on a cliffhanger. That’s definitely one way of looking at it. I prefer to say that Bobby Kotick is an asshole. At the end of the campaign, after all, we had just spent twenty-five real-time-ass minutes fighting to defend the Xel-Naga artifact which Jimmy Raynor eventually manages to restore Kerrigan back to humanity with; then it just ends. Suffice to say, after having to wait two years to find out what on earth actually happens once Kerrigan’s all re-humanified, the first thing I did when my five-day download finally finished was jump into the campaign.
From the moment you open it up, the singleplayer story hits you like a tonne of bricks. I’m not going to speak too much about what the plot is actually about, because the game literally starts engaging you that quickly, but what it essentially comes down to is Kerrigan’s quest to murder the crap out of Mengsk. If you’re a StarCraft fan, if you finished Wings of Liberty and/or if you don’t hate small, furry animals, this is without a doubt a story you’ll want to play. As ever, the CGI cutscenes take brilliance to a whole new level of mind-numbing, pants-wetting prettiness – they really became what I looked forward to in the game.
Most of your play is going to take place through the perspective of Kerrigan as she works to try and bring more and more of the zerg broods which fragmented when Raynor humanified her back under her control. The campaign is structured in a similar way to how Wings of Liberty’s was, in that you are given a choice as to which planet you go to first, out of a choice of two (with new choices between two every time you finish playing through all the missions on the previous pair). Completing missions on a planet will earn you numerous different types of rewards.
New units are usually introduced mid-mission as part of the main objective, and are available to you thereafter. Kerrigan is a controllable unit during the missions themselves, and you can earn her levels to increase her powers – these are either gained by completing the main objectives, or through doing secondary objectives (such as collecting research data or genomes which can be assimilated into the zerg DNA structures to make them even more awesome). You also receive unit upgrades. These are acquired when you complete evolution missions; short missions not related to the main storyline where you have the opportunity to choose between two different unit adaptations for a particular unit after having an opportunity to get a bit of play-time with each. This means that you get to make an informed choice on which you want to pick, which is really good seeing as this choice is non-reversible, though try not to let that reduce you to a snivelling heap of human being surrounded by a fortress of discarded pros/cons lists, still unable to decide after hours of struggle whether you’d rather have three zerglings per egg, or zerglings with a leap attack. It isn’t as fun as it sounds – trust me.
Between missions the game offers dialogue opportunities between Kerrigan and her
slaves companions. I highly suggest you make sure to get into every new conversation available to you. Not only are there in-game benefits to this – achievements for finding out certain pieces of information, for example – but this is also a huge way in which the writers develop and establish the character of Kerrigan.
In fact, let me take a second here: Kerrigan’s character is one of the best I’ve seen in gaming in a long, long time. The writers really put effort into establishing a character who is clearly conflicted over the clash between her newfound humanity and desire to get revenge on Mengsk through the zerg, and then making your heart bleed as they not only develop the crap out of her character, but put her in some really, really intense situations. You will laugh, cheer, cry tears of both joy and sadness and want to rip your heart out in frustration by the time you’re done with this campaign, and the rollercoaster you’re taken on with Kerrigan can be likened to very few others in gaming. Her humanity is brought through so powerfully that you can’t help but identify with her. Which is quite ironic, seeing as she’s only partially human.
Alright, I’ve sung this game’s praises enough to make Ed Sheeran jealous. What am I hiding from you? Where’s the dirt?
Apart from the occasional awkward dialogue (which doesn’t even come close to messing up the story), the only real criticism I can lay against the singleplayer is one inherent to most RTS singleplayers. The gameplay of the missions themselves can quite often straddle the borderline of tediousness.
This isn’t a product of repetitiveness in the levels or objectives at all: the development team really did a great job of making sure that no two missions could ever be called similar. There are constantly different objectives to achieve and hindrances to face, which have been made as varied as they can possibly be. The game spices things up even more by letting you control different hero-characters in the course of the campaign to break the monotony of constantly playing a macro-styled zerg game. My favourite level of the whole game was probably one where you spend most of the time controlling only Kerrigan, and have to take on three vastly different bosses using her particular skills and powers (along with some very limited reinforcements which are supplied to you). It goes without saying that this sort of thing would deviate hugely from the bread-and-butter building blocks of the singleplayer, and for the most part the variety which the development team has added in this way manages to make the missions themselves about as interesting and engaging as they can possible be.
At the end of the day, though, I found very much that I was trying to get through the missions as fast as possible to advance the story. This was entirely worth it, given how amazing the storyline was, but if you’re thinking of getting this game (which you probably should be) then be prepared to have to haul a bit to find out what happens next. Which, as soon as you get into the storyline, I’m sure you’ll have no issue with doing.
Many would criticise the game for its length seeing as at twenty normal missions and seven evolution missions, it comes up at roughly two-thirds the length of its predecessor. Personally I think the shorter campaign was an excellent decision: they definitely don’t sacrifice the story for it (although it can feel a tad rushed at times), and as I’ve stressed, you’ll be playing this one for the story – not the singeplayer gameplay.
One of the main challenges new players face when trying their hand at StarCraft’s multiplayer mode is overcoming the enormous learning curve involved in ceasing to be utterly useless at the game. While Blizzard hasn’t done anything to change the intensity of the curve itself (for the better, I think we’ll all agree), they have done quite a bit of work in making the barriers to entry for newer players lower, and taking the focus off the 1-versus-1 ladder somewhat.
The arcade mode returns for players wishing to avoid the competitive aspect of StarCraft’s multiplayer entirely. I didn’t spend an enormous amount of time in this section of the game, but most of what I gleaned was that there is very little functional difference between this arcade mode and the one found in Wings of Liberty. For those not in the know, the Arcade mode is a section where custom-made maps with alternative objectives and plots can be accessed, downloaded, played and voted on. The old classics are all still there, with maps like Marine Arena, Poker TD and the like all making strong returns and continuing to occupy their Top 10 spots on the Most Played list. Those looking to play Peepmode or King of the Hill game modes may run into some trouble, as there don’t seem to be any which have been produced for Heart of the Swarm at the time of writing (though with any luck the community will rectify this speedily). The same holds true for the Unit Test map from Wings of Liberty.
The main change present in Arcade is a user-interface one: after a bit of getting used to I suppose its alright, but I do prefer the simpler one from Wings of Liberty. The most frustrating aspect for me was the search function – there were numerous instances where the friends I was playing with and I would turn up different results with the same search phrase. For all intents and purposes, though, the mode still functions more or less as one would need.
For those who are interested in playing the vanilla Heart of the Swarm multiplayer, the options of 1-versus-1 and team games are still very much open to you. Not much has changed in terms of either (though I will go into unit changes and additions a bit later), but Blizzard has put hard work into making these styles of play a lot more accessible and less stressful.
In terms of accessibility, they’ve scrapped the Practice League (thank goodness), opting to replace it with a Training Mode. Believe it or not, this thing is actually pretty decent. If you’re a new player looking to understand how to play a particular race in a 1v1 or team game setting, I would strongly recommend it to you. It’s split into three stages, where the AI gradually takes you from learning a basic understanding of production, economy and army-management through to more advanced unit production and control, with more complex offensive and defensive strategies.
The first thing you’ll notice once you’ve completed a training mission is that you’ll be awarded experience points. A bit weird, I know, but it actually sort of works – you level up with each race individually, to a level cap of 30 with a particular race. Thus, your total level (and e-peen size) is 90. Experience is awarded for spending resources and destroying enemy structures, with bonuses awarded for factors like game length, whether or not you played with friends and so on. Each level you gain earns you a different reward, ranging from decals which you can choose to display on your units, additional display pictures for your profile, alternative skins for your units and even unlockable dance animations for select creatures. As a reviewer and devout StarCraft gamer, I really feel as if this is a clear message from Blizzard that issues like the lack of dancing overlords in the original are not ones which they intend to tackle sitting down. Bravo, indeed!
Right. You’re trained up, and ready to dive into some true-to-goodness multiplayer action. “Crap!” you yell to no one in particular, “real people are too scary!”
“Worry not, gamer,” replies a disconcerting and rather obligatory disembodied voice, “you can always take on the AI! If you’re too much of a pussy to do that on your own, you can get some friends to do it with you!”
Once you’re past a random dialogue interlude like the one above and have completed a few matches against the AI, you might just feel ready to start taking on some real human beings. A big turn-off for many players in the last game was a ladder anxiety – the feeling of there being way, way too much pressure on the games you played because the league you’re in and your ladder standing within that league could and would be affected by a loss. In order to combat this, and give players looking to play some more stress-free matches a way out, Blizzard is now giving players the option to compete in either unranked or ranked matches, with the difference essentially being that ranked matches will affect your league and ladder standing, while unranked matches will not.
Many players find this a really useful addition, as the fact that your performance in unranked games has no effect on your standing on the ranked ladder means that unranked games can be used as opportunities to warm up before a session of laddering, a chance to take games less seriously than you would were they for those sweet, sweet points and – as many players will no doubt enjoy – a place where you can practice with a race other than your primary race of choice without having to worry about getting demoted as a result of how rubbish your Protoss or Zerg is. Terrans will not need to worry about this issue.
There have been a number of improvements in terms of gameplay and functionality. I’m a pretty big fan of them, because even though the game would still be totally playable without them, it represents a pretty high level of polish and attention to detail from Blizzard. I respect that. We’re talking about stuff like how bases (hatcheries, command centres and nexuses [or is it nexi?]) will now display a worker count over them, showing how many workers are needed for optimum efficiency, and how many are currently working at that base (there are separate ones for mineral and gas miners).
The post-match Score Screen has had some nice additions: a ‘Performance’ tab has been added which gives you information pertinent to your mechanical performance in the game – the time you spent supply blocked, your APM for the game, things like that. In addition, it also tracks your ranked and unranked averages for these statistics, and tells you when you did better or worse than that average.
One of the biggest changes to the multiplayer, eagerly anticipated by ranked and unranked players alike, were the unit changes and additions promised in Heart of the Swarm. Instead of going into what each of those changes and additions were (they’re all available in the preview if you’re interested), I’m going to be looking at what the relevant ones are – what changes to the metagame have been created so far, and what sort of stuff you’re actually going to be expecting to run into on the 1v1 ladder.
[Mad disclaimer: Remember, I am a scrub, writing this mainly for the benefit of other scrubs. This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide to the game; rather, I’m trying to give the mid-tier player a realistic insight into what they can expect to have changed from Wings of Liberty at this point in the metagame.]
From the Protoss there’s a definite tendency towards having a more air-based army, what with the addition of the Mothership Core, Oracle and Tempest (though the Tempest isn’t seen particularly often, on account of it being a late game unit akin to the Carrier). This is a shift in focus which has been coming for a while, so it’s good to see Blizzard recognising that and giving Protoss players more options in that regard. What you will probably be seeing a lot more of is the Mothership Core in the early game – a lot of Protoss harassment and push-buffing takes place with it, and it is probably the new ‘Toss unit you’re going to be seeing the most of for the early metagame development.
The Terran early game has had a pretty significant buff with the changes made to Reapers – a Barracks no longer needs to have a Tech Lab attached to produce them, and they now regenerate health, making them a viable and powerful early-game mineral line harassment unit. Hellions can now transform into
firebats walkers, which have slower movement speed but a conical area-of-effect attack which deals more damage than the Hellion’s attack in its car-form (source: my mountains of dead zerglings). To the bane of drop-victims everywhere, Medivacs now have a temporary speed-boost ability, which they often use to get away from static defence and slow flyers after a drop targeting your mineral lines or tech. Lastly, Widow Mines are also a thing now – these guys are sort of like robotic banelings. They are activated by enemies being in proximity to them, but can only attack when they’re burrowed into the ground. Once activated, they launch themselves at a clump of ground or air units, dealing blast damage upon collision (about as annoying as it sounds).
The additions made to Zerg have had very little effect on their overall metagame – in two weeks of multiplayer games, I have yet to see a Zerg player make use of a Viper, mainly due to how situational its usefulness is. What you will see every now and then is a Swarm Host – a unit which burrows into the ground and then spawns weak broodling-esque creatures with timed life and a small ranged attack. Every now and then you’ll find one burrowed just outside an expansion or at the bottom of a ramp to annoy you, but they’re overlooked by most Zerg for now. Mutalisks have had their health regeneration rate increased, meaning that for the time being Zerg-versus-Zerg matches have swung even more towards being enormous Mutalisk races, as Infestors are even less effective against them now, even when they do manage to catch up to a clump to fungal them.
Naturally the metagame is still in its very early stages, and we should see more and more new units being incorporated into ladder builds as strategies and build orders start filtering down from the professional scene. One thing that can be said even at this early stage is that Blizzard have definitely managed to get their unit modifications right – this is definitely a big step closer to perfecting the unique ‘feel’ they’re trying to achieve for each of the races.
You’ll probably notice that I haven’t managed to find that much bad to say about the game – that’s because there isn’t. This is through and through one of the best offerings we’ve seen from Blizzard, one which definitely manages to do justice to its prequel and the original StarCraft itself. A purchase you’d struggle to make as a mistake.