StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm Review
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is all about subtle evolution and little choices having a bigger impact than you expect. It’s an overriding theme touching just about every aspect of Blizzard Entertainment’s long-awaited follow up to StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
It not only drives its space opera narrative, which focuses on the physical and character evolution of the Queen of Blades Sarah Kerrigan and her Zerg Swarm, but is reflected in how Blizzard has tried to bring more variety to its campaign and very demanding multiplayer, evolving them both in small ways that make a big difference to their successful formulas.
Heart Of The Swarm’s Queen Of Blades
Heart of the Swarm’s campaign starts exactly where Wings of Liberty ended with Kerrigan, now human again through the efforts of her lover and series hero Jim Raynor, and wracked with guilt over the millions she slaughtered as the Queen of Blades.
But with the pair leading the rebellion against Dominion tyrant Arcturus Mengsk, it isn’t long before they’re violently separated, with Raynor presumed dead.
A grief-stricken Kerrigan vows revenge, embarking on a dark quest to reclaim her mantle as Queen of Blades and scattered Swarm no matter the cost to her humanity.
Sure, Heart of the Swarm is melodramatic, even vaguely clichéd space opera at times, but for those invested in its characters, there’s more than enough heart in the telling, and a compulsive desire to see what comes next.
Activision Blizzard’s Polished Clipscenes
Once again Blizzard tells its story between RTS missions using a mixture of impressive cutscenes and a point-and-click style hub aboard Kerrigan’s living ship ‘The Leviathan’ where you interact with her very alien entourage just as you did with the human crew in Wings of Liberty.
It manages to make these alien creatures fairly relatable, with your Evolution Master, the creepy Nazi scientist like Abathur being a particular stand out, but ironically, with only two areas, this ‘living ship’ doesn’t feel quite as alive as more varied The Hyperion did.
But Blizzard really brings the Zerg story to life with interesting additions to StarCraft II gameplay.
It was accused of polishing the traditional base-building formula to a gleaming finish while ignoring modern changes the genre in ‘Wings’, and Heart of the Swarm draws upon the WarCraft III’s hero units and a tiny echo of Dawn of War II to thrust Kerrigan into battle as a key unit in response.
Heart Of The Swarm’s Missions
While Wings of Liberty’s missions were elevated by a clever focus upon Terran strengths, namely their mobility, Heart of the Swarm focuses on the Zergs’ overwhelming aggression in the course of its 27 odd missions.
Kerrigan embodies that, able to take on enemies’ armies, smashing large units, instantly evolving her minions or summoning giant Zerg horrors to battle.
Kerrigan allows you to be constantly aggressive in a new way and her increasingly powerful special abilities, which can be changed between missions, are developed through a tiered RPG system.
But Kerrigan isn’t the only creature you develop as you re-gather your Swarm. There are a host of familiar and new Zerg on offer and in a refinement of Wings upgrade system you’re given a choice of three upgrades for each class, usually based on speed, damage or defence which can be swapped out at any time in your Evolution Chamber.
As you progress you encounter Evolution Missions that offer different ‘Strains’ of Zerg. These are binary choices, once you evolve, say, Spawn Hosts that fire clutches of flying Locusts over a type that can instantly burrow to any creep covered location, the other choice is locked out.
It’s an interesting system supporting individual play-styles, it’s just a shame Evolution Missions are only limited tutorials. Naturally many campaign specific units aren’t present in the highly balanced multiplayer suite, nor are most evolutionary upgrades, but they showcase Blizzard’s imagination and make you feel powerful in its frantic set pieces.
Your evolved Swarm tackles a variety of missions that start simply but soon have you juggling multiple objectives simultaneously, like defending a hive while securing points on a map under time pressure.
Heart Of The Swarm: Kerrigan & Physics
Blizzard has also thrown in boss battles that pit Kerrigan and her brood against powerful, giant enemies and while not particularly difficult they’re action packed and add a fresh flavour, as do worlds featuring environmental hazards like flash freeze snow storms or rising lava.
Heart of the Swarm’s new physics engine really showcases these ideas, we just wish there were more.
These changes under the hood bring StarCraft II’s intense RTS combat life more than ever as bodies explode in gouts of viscera and cartwheel through the air in explosions or writhe in incandescent and gruesome agony when killed by fire and acid, while mechanical units blow apart in showers of sparks and metal – you really feel hip deep in massive intergalactic combat.
It isn’t all just sound and fury, with improved AI path finding evident as you direct your gore slathering Zerg who are also easier to control thanks to an improved interface also brought to multiplayer.
While this campaign isn’t as deep as Wings’ and old hands will benefit from cranking up the difficulty, it is great fun. You feel vaguely dirty but its hard not to revel in playing the merciless Zerg driven by Kerrigan’s rage.
By Heart of the Swarms’ end you’ll have seen her and the Swarm evolve narratively into something new, and will be chomping at the bit for StarCraft II Legacy of the Void.
Heart Of The Swarm: Multiplayer
While the epic narrative and interesting changes to the campaign are welcome, for most StarCraft II fans it’s the blisteringly competitive multiplayer that drives their obsession.
They won’t be disappointed with changes to Heart Of The Swarm’s multiplayer, including seven new units (two Terran, three Protoss and two Zerg) that give players more flexibility in match ups against all three races.
The Terrans get a flame thrower wielding mech trooper in the Hellbat which frankly does horrific splash damage to light units and upgraded transforms into a Hellion.
With it’s high DPS on light, it’s great for bio crowd control and ground based protection to Siege Tanks. Their second new boon is the Widow Mine, which burrows and launches a missile for massive damage to light ground and air units.
They can only be revealed and destroyed with a detector, so despite long cool-downs they can bloodily wipe out swathes of light units or workers, defend vulnerable spots and luring foes into minefields can turn the tide of battle.
We found both new Terran units particularly augmented by one of numerous little changes to existing units, specifically the Medivac’s new Ignite Afterburner ability.
With good micro lightening quick troop drops and escapes are possible with Hellbat or Widow Mines drops into a vulnerable Natural or Mineral line particularly devastating on an opponents economy.
The Protoss additions start with the versatile Mothership core. Able to be produced quite early, its Mass Recall ability allows for scouting or early Protoss aggression without going all-in, as troops can be teleported back to the Nexus.
Combined with the enemy-slowing Time Warp and its defensive Photon Overcharge, which places a powerful cannon on your Nexus, the Mothership gives Protoss players more options compared to Wings of Liberty.
The Tempest Unit
Finally, with the Oracle they gain another support vessel that makes early StarGate builds more viable.
While lacking in health its Pulsar Beam, Time Warp and Revelation abilities are a gift to players looking to harass opponents early.
But Blizzard hasn’t neglected the Zerg, giving them two highly effective new nasties.
The first is the Swarm Host, which burrows and casts swarms of tough acid spitting locust at foes.
Being a cast unit, the locusts only last 15 seconds but they can be constantly punishing, finally giving the Zerg a good ground based siege unit perfect for putting pressure on opponents, or defending in the mid-game rather than having to wait for Brood Lords.
The new Zerg flying unit, the Viper, has a dirty range hampering blinding cloud ability, and it can syphon energy off friendly units.
Heart Of The Swarm: Abduct ability
We’ve seen its Abduct ability used in clever ways to isolate powerful units like Colossi, and even whip armies across gaps into undefended bases and Mineral lines. Underestimate it at your peril.
Online StarCraft players are quickly coming to grips with these units and the new maps.
Just which race has benefited most from this expansion is still hotly debated by the community, but it’s already clear that Blizzard has managed to give players more ways to raise their game no matter their skill level.
Heart of the Swarm’s multiplayer seems more versatile and action-packed than Wings Of Liberty’s, thanks to faster units and greater potential for harassment.
It helps that StarCraft II hasn’t just grown as a game, and that Blizzard has evolved Battle.net’s social platform, bringing Unranked Matchmaking, full Clan support, a raft of new tutorials and new features to its replay system.
The best addition is Take Command, which allows you to jump in and take control at any point in a replay, allowing you to train and refine tactics or even take over during famous games between professional players and see how you do.
There’s more than enough here to fully engage StarCraft II fans while we wait for the series’ final chapter. Hopefully the wait won’t be quite as long.