Iâ€™m not sure I like Kerrigan. She's a little disturbed. It seems there is no pleasing some people, lest of all the Queen of Blades. But maybe the fact that I donâ€™t like her is an example of good characterisation, which is the mark of a good game, which means that... I like her. Curses! Damn you Blizzard!
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a revenge flick in space-drag. The second installment in the StarCraft sequel series, its angst-filled emo death romp is sandwiched right between the testicular fortitude of 2010â€™s stunning Wings of Liberty, and the presumed grace of Legacy of the Void.
Heart of the Swarm expands from where Wings of Liberty left off. The ever reasonable Jim Raynor has rescued his heartthrob Kerrigan from the clutches of the Zerg. After the messy events of Wings of Liberty, heâ€™s still stuck hanging out with that golden haired douche Crown Prince Valerian Mengsk. Together they are trying to figure out if Kerrigan still has any of that dangerous Zerg hive mind stuff still left over from her previous live as the Queen of all things fast, violent, and swarmy.
She does. And she has no worries using it. As expected, Emperor Mengsk is not really OK with that, so pretty soon Dominion forces are rampaging through corridors, shooting Raynorâ€™s raiders, and trying to put a bullet through Kerriganâ€™s (now Zerg free) head. Kerrigan escapes, but Raynor doesnâ€™t.
And this is where the revenge bit comes in.
You see, for reasons only fanfiction writers can conjure (I think Kerrigan was starting to like her return-to-human form), as soon as she loses sight of her beloved Raynor she goes totally ape sh*t. Like a relapsing alcoholic, one little slip up and sheâ€™s right back where she started, hating on humans, leading zerg rushes against Terran marines, and infecting Protoss colonists. It's ugly, and it's vindictive. It's also engaging to watch and play through. Hell certainly hath no fury like a part-alien scorned â€” and dealing out that fury is sadistically fun.
It's this narrative set up that drives most of the new material that we are presented with in Heart of the Swarm. Itâ€™s not the most sophisticated of tales, but it provides a solid backdrop to Kerriganâ€™s quest to reunite the swarm and once again take the fight back to Mengsk. Fans of the series will be pleased by the way Blizzard have brought in new characters, fleshed out old ones, and pushed forward the lore around the Zerg, Kerrigan, and her relationship with Raynor.
Kerriganâ€™s characterisation is very good, and the dialogue between her, her minions, and other key characters is typical of Blizzardâ€™s quality. Following on from Wings of Liberty, those around Kerrigan also play an important role in pushing the story forward. Like Tychus Findlay in Wings of Liberty, Kerriganâ€™s zerg underlings can be interacted with. Their conversations are interesting, engaging, and useful to fleshing out the motivations behind Kerrigan and the Zerg story.
But it's the cinematics that really push forward the Heart of the Swarm narrative. Blizzard and intense cinematics go together like gas and supply, and Heart of the Swarm is no exception. Iâ€™m glad that Blizzard have kept this hallmark feature of their games alive. Sure, cinematics are a throwback to an earlier age of gaming, where all footage needed to be played from a CD, but they bring a real sense of gravitas, and thatâ€™s something that in-game cutscenes can never really pull off. Thankfully, Blizzard still knows how to pump your retinas full of awesome.
But what they havenâ€™t quite managed to pull off is the campaign's pacing. The way you progress through Kerriganâ€™s missions feels slow and muddled. There are two reasons for this, the first is that this expansion pack is introducing players to a new alien race â€” and with it, a new gameplay experience. For someone who's used to the factory-style of Terran play, evolving to Zerg can be difficult.
The second is that Heart of the Swarm introduces a range of new units to the singleplayer campaign. Some, like the Aberration, take a little getting used to, and the ability to make tactical choices about how to upgrade your standard zerg units (such as giving your zerglings the chance to leap up levels versus a chance to increase their speed) means that there can be a confusing mix of stratagems going at any one time.
What this results in is an early-game that feels like handholding, and then an end-game that lacks creativity, challenge, and depth of play. Stretched out over 20 missions, for experienced StarCraft players this is frustrating. However, this criticism canâ€™t be taken too far. At its core, Heart of the Swarm is the same strategy experience that gamers fell in love with nearly 15 years ago.
Sure, there are additional â€śunit choicesâ€ť thrown in, and Blizzard have injected a strange levelling up system (which feels tacked on) to improve Kerriganâ€™s hero abilities (which you can instantly forget about), but the classic experience is the same: Mine minerals. Expand to more hatcheries. Mine more minerals. Kill everything with zerglings. Mine more minerals.
As a gamer from the nineties, thereâ€™s something really comforting about that. Nothing was all that broken, so Blizzard didnâ€™t really try to fix it. But to keep up with the joneses, Blizzard felt compelled to garnish Heart of the Swarm with sexy ribbons and trinkets on top. Like animated banners on a decent website, if you can push past the fluff, and see Heart of the Swarmâ€™s campaign for what it is, then you won't be disappointed.
But what hardcore fans wonâ€™t be disappointed with is the improvements made to the multiplayer experience.
Last year I previewed the changes in the Beta. Blizzard have worked their magic and have taken the hive mind on thousands of matches to create a multiplayer experience that is fresh and exciting. As an old-school Protoss player, I was skeptical that the changes would push forward the experience, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Blizzard have "teched up" the Terran units, giving them more firepower in the mid-game through the battle hellion and widow mines. The Battle Hellion does what it says on the box, but the widow mines are game changers. These useful devices can lock down entire parts of the map, keeping swarms of zerglings funneled right into siege tanks (if youâ€™ve timed everything right). But donâ€™t make the mistake of thinking they are spider mines from a StarCraft of games past. They are units in their own right, which cost a fair penny to pump out. Spam too many and youâ€™re economy will tank.
The Zerg have been given two additional units too; the Swarm Host and the Viper. Of the two, Iâ€™d take the Swarm Host any day. It can burrow into the ground and spew out flying death bees to take down large, late game units. Itâ€™s the Zergâ€™s answer to the siege tank, finally giving Zerg players something more substantial to wield when the chips are down. The Viper adds strategic depth to the Zergâ€™s air game, giving players the ability to harass mineral lines â€” finally Zerg players have a way of replicating the gleeful cheese of a lone Void Ray or a reaper rush.
But the Protoss have won the multiplayer lottery, scoring the Oracle, the Tempest, and the Mothership core. The Tempest is the Carrier 2.0, but not as good; the Oracle is a powerful mineral harassment unit (although its super cool ability to block off mineral fields has been reduced to just slowing down extraction); the Mothership core brings added firepower to the 'Toss late game. These powerful units give the Protoss even more strategic depth. As a snobbish Protoss player myself, Iâ€™m very pleased.
Overall, its a good follow up to Wings of Liberty. With a series as robust as StarCraft, Blizzard didnâ€™t need to do much to provide an experience that will sate the appetites of its hardcore fans. Theyâ€™ve achieved that. Heart of the Swarm is a solid expansion that builds on and refines the Starcraft experience. As a stand-alone game, its campaign is oddly paced, it's got unnecessary bells and whistles, and it lacks strategic complexity. But whatever grumbles gamers might have, Blizzardâ€™s devotion to good storytelling and character development still makes the experience worthwhile.
Heart of the Swarm does not quite reach the lofty heights of its parent title, but it's a decent follow up and a worthy entry into the Starcraft canon. Blizzardâ€™s ambitious mix of classic strategic gameplay, excellent multiplayer, and emotional characters with anger management issues has raised eyebrows, but Heart of the Swarm provides starcraft fans with exactly what they wanted â€” and still leaves room for more.