Platform: PC, Mac
Release Date: 12/03/13
Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Review
As an expansion, Heart of the Swarm doesn’t shake up the Starcraft II formula in any major way. That isn’t to say Blizzard hasn’t taken the chance to polish up a few of the weaker parts of the original formula, while unfortunately overlooking other elements.
Everything you expect from a Blizzard release is here: a spectacular opening full-motion video, a highly refined presentation, great music, top of the class single and multi gameplay, and a story (more on this later).
The single-player follows the same basic formula as Wings of Liberty – the first instalment in the Starcraft II trilogy. You’re given a couple of tutorial missions, a way of traveling about the space that the game takes place in and then largely left to your own devices to move through the campaign as you see fit. There’s not really a ton of options in how you tackle the order of tasks. You have the initial tutorial and then a couple binary sets of planets that let you pick which group of missions you would like to play first. In the missions themselves you gain new units to add to your bench, move the plot along, and more importantly you earn ways to upgrade your units. In Wings of Liberty, most of the upgrades were stat-based, whereas in Heart of the Swarm there are two forms of progression for your units.
The first of these is the mutations; these work almost exactly like the upgrades in Liberty did and act as basic stat boosts. Unlike in Liberty though they can be switched at any time. The second, and much more exciting, path for upgrades come in the form of evolutions. To earn one you must first unlock an evolution mission and then complete said mission. At the end you must choose between two different strains that will permanently change the mechanic of how that unit works. Let’s take the bread and butter Zerg unit, the Zergling, as an example: you can either choose to evolve it into the Swarmling, which spawn three at a time almost instantly or you can choose to evolve it into the Raptor that gains the ability to jump up and down cliffs and pounce on enemies. For the most part, these evolutions are incredibly fun mechanics that really add to the gameplay. This is one area where Heart of the Swarm is superior to it’s predecessor – Wings of Liberty.
Another path to upgrade is how you’re going to advance the main character of the game, Sarah Kerrigan. In the Starcraft story she is built up to be a being of incredible power. As such, she has a much greater impact in the missions themselves than Jimmy Raynor did in Wings of Liberty. Her upgrade tree is as deep as any found in a RPG game, and some of the abilities you can equip her with are powerful, so can greatly change how you play the game.
The mission design itself continues to be some of the best in the RTS genre, with varied and entertaining objectives that range from the standard “defend this position for a while” to “mine meat off a carcass to drop into the awaiting maw of an ancient and giant alien”. Luckily, Blizzard has added a new game plus mode called Master Archives. It allows you to replay the missions with the ability to play with all of the upgraded and evolution units for those that want to try and tackle the game on the hardest difficulty. A note on difficulty though – if you have any experience with Starcraft or RTS games in general I would suggest you bump the difficulty up to hard on your initial play-through. The normal difficulty was a cakewalk.
There’s also a story. Let me preface the rest of what I’m going to say with this: I don’t primarily play games for their narratives. I understand that many people do enjoy games this reason though and as such I feel compelled to talk about it here.
Now that that is out of the way, the story in Heart of the Swarm is clichéd schlock that isn’t any better than the other drivel that the “wordsmiths” at Blizzard have been cramming into their games since Warcraft III. There are so many overused tropes, unoriginal, often awkwardly delivered pieces of dialogue and plot holes it’s hard to get behind the character’s often confused and disorienting motivations. If you’re looking for or expecting any kind of decent story telling, you won’t find it in this expansion; I wouldn’t expect it from the third chapter either. Consider the story as a means of moving the game along from one exposition dump to the next and nothing more. I may seem to be a bit miffed about this, but I didn’t let it detract from the fun I was having, and if you enjoy playing games you shouldn’t let it bother you either.
I already wrote about the changes Heart of the Swarm is making to the multiplayer. Everything I wrote about there is intact in the final release. The multiplayer is a fun environment; right now as people who lapsed from playing come back to the game the new units provide some interesting moments as people adjust to new and whacky tactics and strategies. Overall, the changes I highlighted in the multiplayer are for the better for the game’s ecosystem.
Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm is an easy purchase if you already have the Starcraft bug. The improvements on top of Blizzard’s usual level of polish and gameplay design make for a great game that is a good value for money… that is if you don’t let the story get in the way of your enjoyment.
- Excellent upgrade mechanics
- Improved multiplayer offerings
- Spotty performance at times