How do you even talk about Starcraft? It’s a bombastic space opera, a real-time strategy game whose gears and spokes have been refined over nearly 15 years, a pop culture megaton bomb in Asia, and a legitimately professional sport played and watched by thousands if not millions of people around the world.
Anyone walking in cold to the release of Heart of the Swarm is about as prepared for the dumping of lore and complex multiplayer tactics as they would be for a cannon full of grapeshot to the throat. To series veterans, all I have to say is “jumping Banelings.”
So, the back-of-the-box details first, I suppose. Heart of the Swarm is the first expansion to 2010’s real-time strategy game Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. Whereas WoL included a campaign that centred on the human Terrans, HotS features the chitinous totally-not-Tyranids alien race known as the Zerg.
At the end of WoL, our whiskey drinkin’, authority smashin’ and bronco bustin’ hero Jim Raynor has saved his sort-of lost love Kerrigan – who spent most of the series as the Zerg-infested Queen of Blades. After an entirely predictable series of event separates the two, you take on Kerrigan as she slowly re-joins the numberless host of creepy crawlies to either find Raynor or exact revenge on Arcturus Mengsk, the human big-baddie and head of the Terran Dominion (Think the Galactic Empire with more red armour).
Wings of Liberty shone as an RTS campaign because it taught players the basic functions of units and building an army in wildly varied missions that broke away from the meticulously refined PvP system. Heart of the Swarm mostly follows suit.
You’ll often control Kerrigan as she wreaks havoc throughout the storyline with the added fun of chasing rogue Swarm Queens or harassing isolated Protoss encampments in the middle of a blizzard. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in truly unique situations, not the least of which are a handful of boss fights with patterns lifted straight from ARPG brethren Diablo III.
Swarm fails to meet the highs and breadth of the Terran campaign, though. Several missions are simply re-treads with the gubbins replaced (Retrieve the
Terrazine canisters Primal Zerg corpses and return them to the Terran Base First Zerg Guardian!). You’ll find around half as many inventive levels as there were in Wings. The final stretch, in particular, can be manhandled by a basic macro of building bases and crushing the enemy with a gigantic army.
Kerrigan is joined by a largely forgettable supporting cast that provide background and duties like those seen in Wings. This being the Zerg, most of their motivations can be summed up as “yes, my Queen.” Abathur, the genetic Dr. Frankenstein responsible for creating new DNA Strains and subsequently mutating your army with several upgrades, is easily the best of a mediocre bunch, mixing the clinical outlook of Mass Effect’s Mordin with the macabre of Bioshock’s Dr. Steinman.
Even if the campaign fails to dazzle in the ways Wings of Liberty did, the mission list still hits most of the notes needed and remains entertaining throughout. That can’t be said about the awful, incomprehensible script.
Dialogue rarely escapes a malignant growth of ham-fisted one-liners that sounds more like a Twitter fight between Joss Whedon fans than any meaningful character interaction. Major plot points are left unresolved, and series stalwarts will probably be miffed about retcons regarding the origins of the Zerg and the nature of Raynor and Kerrigan’s relationship. The end result is an out-of-focus Kerrigan who pines for her lost love Jim while simultaneously killing billions of people.
I’m not even going to attempt to evaluate the changes to Starcraft 2’s multiplayer mode as a fledgling Bronze League player. Each race has a few new units and minor tweaks to their existing units. The latter changes are mostly boring and have been implemented for ease of use – your workers at the start of a match automatically move to gather minerals, eliminating at least one superfluous swipe of the mouse. The new units fill holes in each army’s offensive or defensive rubric. Starcraft is a painfully exact experience, with each unit playing one or two specific roles very well. Throwing new units, maps and skills into the mix, then, will shake up players’ habits and build orders for a while to come. All I can say at the moment is that it makes the PvP fresh and unpredictable, which is something you can’t really say about Starcraft more than once every year or so.
More important for most players is the game’s interface redesign, which has shuffled matchmaking and profile menus into a more logical deck of cards to deal with. Basic tutorials teach absolute newcomers the basics of base-building and unit mechanics – a welcome addition considering how intimidating multiplayer proper can be. Experience points earned simply by playing several matches give you largely decorative bonuses such as profile avatars and even skins for specific units (for example letting you dress your Terran units in rough’n’tough mercenary suits) that manage to dole out gifts to players simply for investing some time rather than demanding 1,000 1-v-1 victories.
Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, then, brings something for just about everyone. For $40 it literally doubles the amount of single-player content and brings you up to speed in the multiplayer arena. For veterans it’s a no-brainer. For newcomers it’s the best possible starting point.