StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
As one of the three central factions of the StarCraft universe, the monstrous zerg have always been defined by their focus on evolution and growth. Appropriately, Blizzard makes those traits the centerpiece of the zerg-centric first expansion to StarCraft II. A tightly paced campaign of excellent missions delivers plenty of choices in how players guide the Swarm to victory, even if some of those choices don’t seem to matter as much as they could. Meanwhile, an overhaul of the existing multiplayer frontend keeps StarCraft II the game to beat in the real-time strategy world, but casual fans may still have trouble jumping into the deep end.
Sarah Kerrigan has had a rough time of things, what with her forced assimilation into an alien horde and her involvement in subsequent genocide. As Heart of the Swarm opens, things appear to be looking up. More than any previous Blizzard game, Heart of the Swarm keeps the limelight squarely on one conflicted character. Even as things once again take a turn for the worse, this anti-heroine embraces her quest for revenge. That focus steers Heart of the Swarm more toward a role-playing sensibility than the last entry, and grounds the exotic alien story in a familiar presence. The narrative is thoughtfully paced and engaging, broken down into short mini-campaigns on each planet which unfold their own discrete dramas that tie into the whole.
Blizzard had a challenging task in front of them, crafting a cast of relatable characters from a bunch of mandible-sporting monsters. Rather than shy away from the strangeness, the storyline embraces it with memorable alien personalities, like the remorseless Abathur and his twisted experimentations. Kerrigan’s tale is great fun, as told through shipboard conversations and gorgeous cinematics, even if her willingness to return to a darker path seems abrupt.
The missions that take her along this path are varied and engaging. Echoing the structure established in Warcraft III, most missions include Kerrigan as a playable hero; her presence turns the tide of battles, and her devastating powers keep players engaged even with smaller combats. A surprising number of missions branch away from the traditional base-establishing expectations into more dungeon crawl-style adventures, which hasn’t always been Blizzard’s strong suit. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the unique objectives and available units in these side treks. In particular, I love the gradual infestation of a Protoss ship, and a great little MOBA homage while piloting the mighty Hyperion.
Between missions and story, Heart of the Swarm embraces the zerg fixation on evolution. Kerrigan levels up as missions pass, often in response to optional mission objectives. New power tiers unlock on a regular basis, with multiple powers at each tier that can be altered between missions. Each zerg unit also has a flexible upgrade choice, offering options like increased armor or greater range. In addition, those same units each get a dedicated evolution mission, where you choose one of two fixed upgrades that permanently alter the unit’s abilities and name, like giving wings to zerglings so they can leap onto cliffs and enemies. I enjoy the incredible variety of units that results from my choices, but the evolution missions themselves are little more than bland tutorials. I rarely felt that my evolutionary decisions profoundly affected subsequent events in the main story; they never figure into mission objectives, and the innovative strategies they bring to the table don’t seem to matter in the long term.
The new multiplayer is best understood as an evolution as well, rather than a reinvention. Competitive play remains magnificent for those willing to invest the time to excel. The intricate balance between StarCraft II’s units remains unparalleled in the world of online gaming. Several new maps are good additions, as are awesome units that help to change up online strategies, like the zerg swarm host’s impressive siege capabilities. While those unit additions are big news for longtime fans, the new strategic options they represent may be lost on amateurs. However, all players can appreciate the under-the-hood changes in the overall structure and organization of multiplayer – a valiant effort by the developers to draw more players from the campaign into the world-class competitive scene.
The centerpiece of that initiative is a rewarding leveling mechanic. XP is accrued for all sorts of in-game actions, and new levels reward portraits and decals to customize your multiplayer persona. A new training mode helps acquaint novice players to the fundamentals of base and unit prep, though it sadly fails to communicate clearly about how to succeed after those initial steps. Versus AI matches are a fun way to get your feet wet, especially when playing cooperatively with a few buddies. After a few matches, the computer detects your skill level and plays accordingly. Ultimately, all the time in other modes is meant to transition players into true competitive multiplayer, but nothing can prepare you for the cleverness of an actual opponent. Blizzard’s matchmaking (now available ranked or unranked) tries to find appropriate opponents, but most players I encountered were wildly above or below my skill level, especially early on.
Part of me wishes that the official multiplayer offering included some more of the campaign’s innovations, such as the option to bring heroes into battle, or the cool evolved zerg units – though I can understand the desire not to mess with perfection. Luckily, players wanting to see more experimentation can dive into the massive backlog of fan-created mods in the Arcade; everything from dedicated role-playing games to tower defense variations waits inside, and I applaud Blizzard’s support for this robust community of creators.
Heart of the Swarm is billed as an expansion pack, but make no mistake: This entry is as full-featured and rewarding as the base game. While the harder sci-fi edge of the campaign may not be as accessible as the earlier terran storyline, I found myself gradually embracing the darker tones, even when some of the character moments fell flat. Accompanied by the incomparable multiplayer, Heart of the Swarm is a worthy middle act to tide us over until the protoss warp in for the impending conclusion.