Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Multiplayer Preview
It’s seemed like an eternity since Blizzard released the first part of the Starcraft II saga in 2010. Now in 2013, we’re getting the next chapter in the form of Heart of the Swarm. I have no doubt that the single player portion of HoTS will be nothing short of spectacular, as the Wings of Liberty campaign was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a RTS. Multiplayer is ultimately where the longevity of any great game is and Blizzard is aiming to make the transition from single player to multiplayer smoother and more enjoyable.
The WoL experience tried to do this with challenges – specific scenarios designed to introduce the uninitiated to some of the more difficult concepts that sink or swim players in the world of competitive Starcraft II. But, these challenges were too advanced for people that were dipping their toes into the deep pool of multiplayer. HoTS is looking to replace the challenge mode with an escalating series of new modes that start with the basics.
The first of these modes is simply called training, and is probably the first stop you should make if you have never played a multiplayer match of Starcraft II. There are three stages of training mode; the first restricts the types of units you can make and has simple goals: build a base, a healthy economy, and defeat a highly scripted AI opponent. You’re not just dumped into a match though and left guessing as to what you should be doing; at the top left of the screen is a dynamically updating list of goals. From my own knowledge of Starcraft II multiplayer, these goals are basically attempting to instil a build order into you before you may even know what a build order is. For example, I did the training missions as Zerg and the stage 1 training has you doing a simple 9-pool build. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then it looks like the training mode is for you. The second and third stages of training introduce more complex, but very important, mechanics such as unit upgrades, special abilities, and how to control flying units.
This training mode is a huge step-up from the challenges in WoL – mostly in the way that it emulates a typical multiplayer match from the get go instead of the convoluted scenarios that the challenges were. It’s also really good about telling you what you need to do and when.
The next step in your Starcraft II multiplayer journey will be playing some matches against the AI. Just like in the training mode, the versus AI mode is attempting to emulate the overall multiplayer experience by making you play placement matches against the AI just like you would by playing on the ranked ladder. Once you’ve completed your three placement matches against the AI you can see what difficulty level you will be matched up against and can begin to work your way up. Again, this is an elegant way to introduce new players to the general gist of how multiplayer works.
So let’s say you’ve finally gotten bored of playing against the AI all the time and you’re ready to jump into multiplayer headfirst. You can either play ranked or unranked matchmaking. The ranked matchmaking works exactly how it has always worked. You play five placement matches and get assigned to a league varying from bronze, all the way up to grandmasters. From there you earn ladder points to go up or down in your ranking and get a finalized ladder ranking at the end of the season. Personally, I’m more interested in the unranked matchmaking. I’ll admit that I have what is termed “ladder anxiety”. I’ve tried to overcome it before but I just can’t and it made me not want to play multiplayer Starcraft II despite loving it. Unranked is providing myself and other players like me an outlet to still get to play against players in a more relaxed environment. Hopefully this will help HoTS to retain some players who otherwise would of gave up on the multiplayer part of the game.
Of course, there are the new units. Each of the three races are getting a couple new units. I’m not a balance or meta-game guru but I’ve found them to be just fine. There’s been a lot of complaining about the hellbat unit being overpowered, but Blizzard got WoL into a good place from a balance perspective and I have no doubt that HoTS will be in the same place.
There are a lot of other little features that are making the multiplayer in HoTS even better. There’s a brand new experience system. Everything you do in a match gives you experience points and your profile levels up. Every level you are rewarded with a display picture, emblem, or even unit skins and dances. There’s no larger meta-game in Starcraft II but this superficial form of account progression is nice to have anyways.
Groups and clans are also going to round out the social features of HoTS. Groups are collectives of players that are more socially focused, while clans are more competition focused. When you create a group or clan it is given its own private channel for members to gather in and organize games or just to talk. Clans get to choose a tag that will be displayed in game. There are additional clan features planned for a future date.
The overall multiplayer package Blizzard is presenting in HoTS has me excited to play Starcraft II with other people again. There are just so many little improvements that add up to a great experience. The smoother transition from single to multiplayer will hopefully pay off for the community at large and help it to thrive.