StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Do you suck up every tiny crumb of StarCraft news like the last drops of water in a burning desert? Then this article, with play-by-play accounting of the two missions Blizzard made available at a recent StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm event, is for you.
Kerrigan lands on Char with two goals: Bring a wayward brood back into the fold, and hunt down Arcturus Mengsk. Her vengeance on the brutal dictator who left her to die when the Zerg overran her position years ago will have to wait, though, as the one mission I had access to has Kerrigan competing with a rival broodmother for a huge stash of Zerg eggs that were left there in the last war.
The structure of this mission is extremely similar to the Stratholme mission in Warcraft III, where Arthas races to kill infected townsfolk before Mal'ganis can convert them into undead minions of the Scourge. Here, the enemy broodmother wanders the map trying to collect the eggs before Kerrigan can. Like Mal'ganis (and Kerrigan for that matter), she respawns a few minutes after being defeated in battle.
Feral Zerg guard many of the egg caches, so you need plenty of troops to help Kerrigan out on expeditions. A natural expansion is quite close to your starting base, so it's simple to get a second Hatchery and more income rolling quite early in the mission. You have an easily defensible ramp, which a few spine crawlers handily held against the weak groups the AI sent at my base.
The secondary objective here is to collect six special eggs that are guarded by significantly more feral Zerg. On the plus side, they immediately hatch into a handful of Banelings. I had one amusing battle where I was losing in the field to the other hero and ran away -- into a special egg, which hatched into a half-dozen friendly Banelings, which quite happily demolished the bulk of the enemy group. Each special egg you collect gives Kerrigan a permanent stat boost, and completing the objective unlocks new abilities in her Battle Focus tree.
Collecting 100 eggs to complete the first phase of the mission was amusing enough, but the really great part comes once you get your hundredth egg. All of the eggs then hatch into Banelings back at your base, and you get to use them to obliterate the enemy base. There's no way the rival can stand against the Baneling horde itself, much less with Kerrigan and her army coming on their heels. Watching the green tide roll over and blow everything up is a great reward.
I played the missions in both orders, so I had just Zerglings and Banelings in one playthrough and Roaches as well in another. The mission was entirely doable with the 'lings alone, as the enemy hero is nowhere near as powerful as Kerrigan on her own and ventures forth with just a handful of troops. Any tiny amount of macro skill will allow you to dramatically out-produce the enemy, even more so if you take the natural expansion. Adding Roaches, especially with their move-while-burrowed mutation, made the mission entirely trivial. It should be said that only Normal difficulty was available, so it's not like I was performing blind rocket surgery or anything, but the difficulty was surprisingly low regardless.
In addition to any bonuses you picked up for the secondary objective, you get Banelings permanently unlocked afterward.
Next up: The frozen moon of Kaldir
Kerrigan is tracking down another rival broodmother on this icy planetoid, but the mission plays out rather differently. Your advisers tell you that the flash freeze storms that plague this world will halt even Zerg biology, so you need to make sure to avoid being caught in a battle with the acclimated native creatures when it happens.
Not for long, though. Your evolution master uses the DNA of defeated indigenous animals to render the Swarm permanently immune to the flash freeze effect. Shortly thereafter (you're following a linear path through some mountains, and the whole first part of the mission is heavily scripted) you find the remnants of the brood you came here to assimilate.
The broodmother is dead, though her hive cluster remains. Kerrigan naturally takes control of the frozen base, adapting its biology with the newfound cold resistance. Then things get interesting: A Protoss expedition stumbles across Kerrigan and immediately opens fire.
Why are the Protoss on this ball of ice? Kerrigan doesn't know, but she does know that she has to stop them from communing with the Khala and revealing her reincarnation. The Protoss have to charge up psionic booster antennas to contact their home on Shakuras from this remote location, though, so there's time for Kerrigan to get murderous before that happens.
At this point, a hard 20-minute timer starts. If the clock reaches zero, the Protoss get a message to their brethren and it's game over. You've got plenty of time to take over a natural expansion, though, and get your economy rolling. Roaches are the unit unlocked in this mission, and they serve admirably for demolishing the small forces of Stalkers, Zealots, and Sentries that the Protoss engage with.
Combat gets a little dicier when you have to push past fortified choke-points with multiple Photon Cannons, but the Zerg flash freeze immunity more than makes up for the entrenched defenses. Protoss units and buildings can survive the near absolute zero temperatures, but they have to channel all their power into their shields to do so. Thus immobilized, the Protoss are easy prey for Kerrigan's swarm. If you time your attacks right – the flash freezes are announced a few seconds before they come – you should have little trouble with the Protoss.
The real enemy here is the clock, especially if you're gunning for the secondary objective. Your evolution master wants to study the natives' unusual DNA, and he tasks you with killing three of their matriarchs to gather sufficient genetic material. The psionic spires for your primary objective are marked on your minimap, but the matriarch's aren't. You have to make decent time to get all of your murdering done before the clock runs out.
Still, only normal mode was available in the demo, so I had no trouble pumping out massive amounts of troops and obliterating everything in sight. Remember, you've got Kerrigan on the field as a powerful hero unit here, as in every mission. If the units on either side of a battle are anywhere close to even, she's more than capable of tipping the balance in your favor. With the kind of overwhelming armies you can quickly assemble with good macro control and regular Queen barfing, the slaughter is merciless.
Having blown up the final Protoss base – which is rather an extensive process, and I highly recommend using flash freeze to your advantage because man that is a lot of Photon Cannons – the expedition retreats to try to make it to their ships and report to the Khala in person. Kerrigan vows to stop them, and there the demo ends.
Both missions felt exactly like you'd expect a Zerg version of Wings of Liberty to play out. The structure, with side objectives and unusual battle conditions and all that, is identical. I do like the touch of adding Kerrigan as a hero who leads from the front, which gives Heart of the Swarm a little more of a Warcraft III feeling (an emphatically positive thing in my book). The quality bar set by Wings is quite high indeed, but these two missions from the sequel definitely clear it. I would have liked a stiffer challenge, but I'm confident that will be addressed in the final version – and it's not like I don't walk all over Wings' campaign on normal either.
Need more StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm? Of course you do. The initial preview with the teaser trailer is here, the giant screenshot dump is here, and we'll be coming back with a spotlight on Kerrigan and more plot speculation shortly.