Thereâ€™s always something nice about opening up StarCraft II. That mechanical whizz its menus make as they creak into position, just before the first few chords of its iconic theme strike, always sends a shiver of anticipation down my spine. It must do for Blizzard as well, as it's one of the motifs theyâ€™ve carried over from the original to the second instalment in its epic sequel / expansion: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm.
Following on from 2010â€™s incredible StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm continues the gameâ€™s powerful story. My preview uncovered little about what narrative twists and turns are in store, but what the closed beta did give me a chance see was how Heart of the Swarmâ€™s much anticipated multiplayer was shaping up.
Before StarCraft 2 dropped in mid 2010, RTS fans were nervous about the battlegrounds their matches would be duelled on. Thankfully, Blizzard stuck with the tried and true tiered landscape that fans are familiar with. Heart of the Swarm sticks to the same formula, but with an interesting twist. For the first time, there will be areas of the map the players can destroy to create barricades, instead of removing them.
This has obvious strategic advantages for whomever gets there first, and is bound to make top-level matches even more exciting. Players will now be able to build their own choke points, and use the map itself as a weapon against the enemy. It remains to be seen exactly how these create-a-walls will play out, but I know that if I was a hardcore zerg player, Iâ€™d be worried. Zerglingâ€™s hate enclosed spaces. Zealots donâ€™t.
Heart of the Swarm brings a new lease of life to the Terran, which will create some interesting new gameplay styles when the final product ultimately drops. In Wings of Liberty, playing against Terran was challenging; if you didnâ€™t get to their mineral line quickly, out would pop the indomitable bioball, and it would be game over. To balance this, Heart of the Swarm changes gear. Three new Terran units, the Widow Mine, Battle Hellion, and Warhound inject a diesel fuelled punch to the Terran front lines.
The Battle Hellion is an armoured-up mech version of the raiding hellion we know and love. Built from the factory, it clunks out, - Transformers style - packing a powerful flame cannon mounted on its head. Backing it up is the Warhound, a cross between the Thor and siege tank. This mid-game mech unit balances fire-power with maneuverability, and looks it might be shaping up to be a possible answer to the Protoss Immortal.
But it's the Widow Mine I see the most potential in. This nifty little spider mine lets Terran players lockdown entire portions of the map. When enemy units approach, it erupts and deals massive area of effect damage. That alone isn't particularly amazing. But what is amazing is that it can leap high enough to latch onto ships. Oh, and I did mention it is cloaked when burrowed?
These three units together are going to bring a whole new strategic angle to Terran play. As the polluting, grungy, petrol heads of the Blizzard universe, it's great to see the Terran finally getting some big bad, metal toys to play with.
Playing as Zerg has always been about speed, speed, speed. That is still at the core of the Heart of the Swarm zerg experience, but the addition of the Swarm Host, Viper, and an upgraded Ultralisk have added extra oomph to the Zergâ€™s power-units - and have provided extra options to the Zergâ€™s late game. Additional upgrades, like one which increases the Hydralisk speed off creep, are also welcome tweaks to the Zerg experience.
The Swarm Host is clearly the most interesting new addition. Intended as a counter to the Terran Siege Tank or the Protoss Colossus, the Swarm Host gives Zerg players the chance to bed opponents down. When activated it burrows into the ground and begins to spew out tiny locust-like creatures that race off to frustrate opponents. Itâ€™s like a slightly more annoying siege tank, but without the neat one-liners.
The Viper is a little more circumspect. A flying unit, it can sneak up behind mineral lines and suck up drones with its long tongue. It can also shoot off â€śBlinding Cloudâ€ť, which reduces the attack range of biological units. Personally, I donâ€™t really see much value in it - but as a Protoss player I would say that, wouldn't I.
The most brutal Zerg upgrade is saved for the Ultralisk. It now has a the â€śBurrow Chargeâ€ť ability which lets it jump into the ground, charge underneath the topsoil, and then erupt in the middle of a platoon of frightened Terran. Its reminds me of Tremors, but with less annoying Kevin Bacon and more awesome bone-blades. Protoss beware, not even your sentries can defend you now.
Sure, the Terran can boast some twisted metal, and the Zerg have finally found a siege unit, but it's the Protoss who look like theyâ€™ve won the upgrade lottery. Well, at least when it comes to gear that looks damn cool.
Protoss have been kitted out with three new units: the Tempest, the Oracle, and the Mothership Core. All of them are airborne, and in the right hands, all of them are awesome.
The most disappointing of the three is the Tempest. The rumour is that it is intended as a replacement for the Carrier; it balances speed and firepower, but its strategic advantage comes from its range. When fully upgraded, this thing can fire from ages away, making it a very useful airborne sniping unit for the mid-game. However, when the rubber hits the road, the Tempest does go down quick, and its shots donâ€™t really pack that much of a punch. Mass building an armada is not recommended.
What is recommended is figuring out how best to use the Oracle. The most enigmatic unit introduced in the Heart of the Swarm, the Oracle is likely to increase the raiding-sortie style that Protoss players have honed to a point. A large floating orb, it can sneak up behind mineral lines and block off an entire field from drones or SCVs, or it can cast an area of effect cloak to hide many units at once. When paired with the Protossâ€™ existing loadout, it can be used to devastating effect. For example, in one game I trundled it downmap along with a warp prism, snuck it up to a Terranâ€™s back door, and then fired eight cloaked zealots straight into the enemyâ€™s mineral line. It was super effective; â€śGood Gameâ€ť in seconds.
The Mothership Core rounds out the spread for the Protoss and pulls the full mothership, which was horrendously underused, back into the main Protoss play. The Mothership Core is a very slow moving unit, that can be used in the early-game to harass or defend. By itself itâ€™s not particularly powerful. Without some skillful microing, it can lose to 4 or 5 marines. However, its attacking ability does pack a punch. As does its ability to replenish energy, which is always handy when your thirsty High Templars are laying the smackdown on gooey bio units with psi storm, after psi storm, after bone-crushing psi storm.
Plus, once you've got a mothership core, why stop there? Go and get a Mothership, even if its just for the laughs. Itâ€™s always hilarious watching how other players react when you bring one of those badboys to the table.
Like all things Blizzard, good things take time. A complete StarCraft experience is a little way off yet, but the new units and environments that Blizzard have introduced do hint at an exciting evolution in the StarCraft 2 multiplayer experience.
The mix of heavy mech for Terran, more oomph in the mid to late game for Zerg, and greater raiding ability for Protoss is sure to result in a whole new generation of Starcraft 2 strategies and tactics. Not everything is fixed yet, and there is still lots of balancing to be done - but thatâ€™s what beta tests are for.
Like a turtling Terran, Blizzard have only ever pushed out when they were ready - and for good reason. No one wants a botched job. With this closed beta soon to be under its belt, Heart of the Swarm is shaping up to give StarCraft fans exactly what they want, and also some new challenges they might not be expecting.
The Good: Greater range of options in the mid-game
The Bad: More balancing needs to be done, to make the new units fit
The Ugly: Burrowing ultralisks, now that's just unfair.