I have no problem admitting that StarCraft is, to me, Blizzard Entertainment’s best franchise. StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is the second installment in the three-part sequel. The game focuses on Sarah Kerrigan and the Zerg forces she controls. The end of Wings of Liberty left us with Kerrigan returned (mostly) to her human form, and the Swarm scattered across the galaxy. Jim Raynor and Prince Valerian have taken Kerrigan to a remote facility to perform tests on her while hiding from Emperor Mengsk and the Dominion fleet. Valerian’s experiments expose Kerrigan’s remaining, yet diminished power over the Zerg, but are interrupted when the Dominion attacks the outpost and separates Kerrigan from Raynor.
The strongest points in StarCraft are the story and tight gameplay. The score for the series is always stellar. The brooding guitar riffs bring me to a familiar and welcoming place that fit the science fiction genre perfectly. The “futuristic space marine fights an impossible alien enemy” pops up all across the gaming spectrum, but isn’t overdone here. Blizzard brings together the best of previously used sci-fi themes and makes it their own.
The studio is showing a nice trend with their last two major releases of varying up how they deliver key points of the story. Large transitions are bridged with high quality, adrenaline pumping cinematics. Those used to be the only places you could get important plot points and character development. Now you have shorter conversations with a progressively expanding cast between missions and pauses during checkpoints in each mission. For me this helps the pacing a great deal, and gives you a greater sense of purpose as you play.
I was a little surprised by the gameplay changes in Heart of the Swarm. I’m used to resource management being one of the larger focal points in RTS games. As a relative newbie to playing the Zerg, I was so focused on making sure I was collecting the proper amounts of minerals and vespene gas to fuel my army. But Heart of the Swarm is really about taking Kerrigan and turning her into the biggest badass possible. She’s tough. I mean she’s extremely tough. I managed to get her killed once, and I was being really obnoxious. In Heart of the Swarm you actually level up Kerrigan by completing missions and bonus objectives. This in turn leads to unlocking new abilities and choosing between a series of options in a talent tree. I appreciate what this means for the game. The tactics you use tie in perfectly with how you map out Kerrigan’s abilities. This is expanded on even further when we talk about unit upgrades in the Evolution Chamber.
That being said, I struggled to get used to how Kerrigan played, and what it meant for my experience in the game. I play a decent amount of DotA/MOBA style games, so controlling her wasn’t hard. It just didn’t fit into what I was expecting. Some missions can be completed almost entirely with Kerrigan and a small handful of units if you use her abilities well. This contrasts my initial instincts to fill the screen with a massive horde of Zerg, and go terrorizing across the map. What I just mentioned is a problem for me.
As I said before, I'm not the most experienced when playing the Zerg race. When missions encouraged me to build up a massive army, all the way up the unit cap, then dropped in even more Zerg for me to command, it was amazing. I was controlling chaos. Where I clicked, an unbeatable, numberless swarm followed. That’s the good stuff. So why fight it?
The campaign mode offers you two different ways to augment your forces. After each mission where you unlocks a new unit, you can visit Abathur - a beautiful combination of the Third Stage Guild Navigator from Dune and something out of Starship Troopers - in the Evolution Chamber and choose one of three upgrades that varies from increased damage with normal attacks, increased health or armor, health regeneration, increased movement speed, and the like.
You can also unlock Evolution Missions, which introduce you to two different strains of the same unit with unique abilities. Once you’ve completed a small map with each strain, you get to choose between the two as a permanent upgrade. My only problem with Evolution Missions is that a few hours more into the campaign, I would get this great idea for a new strategy that revolves completely around the choice I didn’t take.
One of the new gameplay elements that I haven’t settled on yet are boss fights. These occur often and are surprisingly reminiscent of action-RPG games. On the one hand, they offered a nice break from the normal missions focused on building up your base and your army. On the other hand, they didn’t serve to teach you anything about the units you were using or ones you might have to fight against. For now it’s a wash, but something to look out for.
The last element I took issue with, and it might not be that big of a deal to some, is the backstory to the Zerg race. I always had this sense of the Zerg being a mix of terrifying space bugs meets predatory dinosaurs. I thought until now, that they fit into that category pretty well. In Heart of the Swarm, however, you are introduced to the birthplace of the Zerg and the Primal Zerg that inhabit it.
These creatures aren’t like what you’re used to. They are self-serving and powerful. They are also more like amphibians meets predatory dinosaur without much of the bug aspect, and they live on a lush jungle planet with all sorts of exotic life forms. I have to say that threw me a little. Where was the crunchy exoskeleton, neon green acid blood, and trademark creep that infests the landscape as it spreads?
All in all, Heart of the Swarm is an incredibly successful RTS. The gameplay is varied, yet offers you everything you want from a strategy game. Even if you don’t take full advantage of every unit, they’re at your disposal if your strategy changes on the fly. The final mission from Wings of Liberty stuck with me for a long time. This time around things are not quite as epic, but I’m happier with the overall experience.
Small frustrations pale in comparison to the complete package Blizzard is giving us with this series. StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is a must have for anyone who appreciates great storytelling and RTS games alike. My only wish is for the momentum to continue on with part three.
We received a copy of StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm from Blizzard Entertainment. We played the campaign to completion on a mix of normal and hard settings, and also tried out a few maps of multiplayer, totalling over 23 hours played.