The Queen of Blades returns in Blizzard's latest addition to the king-RTS.
StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty was about saving someone from themselves. StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is about killing someone for being themselves – it's a revenge flick for vidoegames. Compared to it's predecessor, Heart of the Swarm's single-player campaign represents a step back in ambition but an improvement in execution. However, as with all things StarCraft this is only half the story, and the alterations to multi-player campaign are perhaps the most important.
While Wings of Liberty presented simplistic characters, often stereotypes, its story handled more subtle and nuanced topics: can you feel sympathy for an “evil” monster, the Zerg Queen Kerrigan, can you want to save that creature? The latter seems to scale back these themes to being just a simple idea: the dictator Mengsk is bad, he deserves to die.
I suppose the difference is supposed to be that Kerrigan was under the influence of the evil space monsters, whereas Mengsk has freely chosen his path in life. I'm not sure if that would hold under much scrutiny but either way it does seem somewhat silly that he is being held up as a focus of pure hate that must be destroyed whereas Kerrigan is chiefly forgiven for her genocidal ambitions. Tying the two together is the ever-present love/guilt story between Kerrigan and human-protagonist Jim Rayner however this game seemed very much like sweeping the chessboard of the old pieces to set up the new antagonist, the fallen space-god Amon.
This seems to represent a problem games have with unambiguous evil, the longer characters keep going the less evil they can make them seem, reflected in the shifting of who the bad guy is from one character to another newer one. In the first game: Hey look the Zerg, a Xel Naga experiment gone rouge, they're pure consuming evil. Oh no wait they're not, now look there's a bad Xel Naga, a pure consuming evil that created the Zerg. Furthermore, one cannot help but feel the characterisation of the Zerg as “not entirely evil” and the creation of an enemy to unify the three factions in an entente cordiale is an effort to pave the way towards a StarCraft MMO, with striking similarities to how the Scourge and Horde were treated in WarCraft 3 ahead of World of Warcraft.
While the story ambitions are scaled back the characters are better, what it does focus on is richer. Kerrigan is a strong lead character that evokes sympathy and support, and while her quest is a simplistic one is its relateable and you want to see her succeed. Her support characters are also generally stronger than those found in Wings of Liberty, but again it does seem like there's less of them and in less rooms to interact with; less ambitious but better.
The theme of less-is-more carries over into the gameplay, with missions surprisingly bereft of base-building tasks and instead featuring various challenges that sometimes only barely introduce unit control and base management. As a long-term StarCraft player this was refreshing, the multi-player side of the game provided all the base-building I wanted with far more competent opponents than A.I. and cutting this out of the single-player campaign allowed for shorter, punchier missions.
Heart of the Swarm's campaign missions are best exemplified by two formats that come to mind, the first being the Enemy Within, in which you invade a Protoss ship as a Alien-style chest buster, consume the craft's local petting zoo and spawn more monsters. After sneaking around air-ducts and sabotaging key instruments you eventually end up with control of the ship. The second being missions that blend the traditional RTS base-building gameplay with DOTA – taking over key locations that spawn wave after wave of cannon fodder to throw against enemy defences. Both are fun and unique takes on the StarCraft format that work to advance the story and also lend to the sense that the Zerg are an unstoppable swarm and Kerrigan is a powerful figure.
Finally, where the single-player campaign most departs from the multi-player battles is in the form of upgradeable units. In Wings of Liberty this was done as a form of R&D with often irreversible choices presented throughout the game. Heart of the Swarm is a little bit looser, with most units having a choice of three upgrades that can be changed at any time. The new campaign retains some irreversible choices in its fun evolution missions that present two potential upgrade choices for key units, which once chosen are what you're stuck with. Finally, Kerrigan herself is upgradable with a various tiers of abilities that are changeable between missions.
This game's focus seems to have been equally settled on multi-player – a section of the game I have a familiarity with but one can spend a large chunk of their life mastering.
Coincidentally, as I was writing this review one of the game's first major tests was under-way in the form of Major League Gaming's Dallas Tournament. MLG, for those who aren't already initiated, is an organiser and online broadcaster of e-sports. One of its flagship games is StarCraft 2, with players from around the world, but mostly Korea, competing for large cash prises and kudos. During this competition Heart of the Swarm was being demonstrated by some of the best players in the world, people for whom this is a day job.
Out of all the new unit inclusions and rebalances in the multi-player aspects the overriding theme seemed to be that the new expansion's impact on the game is too new to be labelled a good or a bad thing but is generally being viewed as positive. The Terrans seemed to have been shaken up the most, with early reapers suddenly forging the new spearhead of every match. While burrowing and blasting widow mines proved a popular tool, often to the chagrin of the numerous but fragile Zerg. Furthermore, a topic of much discussion was the inclusion of a boost ability for the medivac, a support unit that can transport and heal units, which made surprise attacks harder to repel and faster to execute.
Zerg's seemed to be the next most impacted race, with the demotion of the burrow ability from being a Lair-level upgrade to tech available with any old Hatchery certainly played a role. Mutalisk's greater speed also made opponents wince, especially given an improved health regeneration ability. It was perhaps the new Viper unit that provided the most visible difference. This dragon-fly like creature can rope enemies towards it and serves an adequate anti-air unit, but most importantly can cast a cloud that blinds opponents, stopping them from attacking. This was used more than once to turn the tide of a front-line battle as tanks stopped firing and zerg munched through steel plate and disorganised marines.
Protoss also altered their approaches, with the mighty Mothership being replaced by the mothership core that can serve as a scout but also provide a temporary bonus to a Nexus, enabling it to launch its own attacks on incoming enemies. The faction was further bolstered by beefed up Void Rays and two new flying units, the first being the Tempest, a versatile unit that proved devastating to ground units when used properly. The second new flying unit was the Oracle, a support vessel that sometimes serves the vital role of harassment that can severely hamper an enemy's economy. Additionally, it's slo-mo time warp ability can lock down large groups of troops as other units lay down splash damage attacks.
What new strategies these new units lend themselves towards has yet to be seen as the pro's have only just taken to the game, but it is worth nothing that new tournaments are always popping up such as the ESET UK Masters. Starting today and taking place over the weekend, the UK tournament will see players from around the world duke it out for a £10,000 prize. You'll be able to watch it all here.
Overall, StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm represents a huge success. It confidently moves forward from Wings of Liberty, improving upon the vital multi-player component whilst simultaneously providing a non-repetitive and entertaining single-player campaign. Most importantly, Blizzard managed to make a game that will satisfy hardcore purists and more casual fans.