(PC Review) Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
P D/Athlon 64 X2, 1.5 GB RAM, NVidia GeForce 9400M or ATI Radeon 9800 Pro, XP / Vista / 7 / 8

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is the second release in the Starcraft II trilogy, bookended by the previously released Terran campaign Wings of Liberty and the upcoming Protoss campaign Legacy of the Void. Each release serves as a single act in a multi-title storyline that builds upon its predecessor narratively and mechanically, furthering plot points and finding occasion to add new units across the board. The integration of the titles has been designed in such a way that Heart of the Swarm is not a standalone release, and requires that gamers have Wings of Liberty if they wish to join the Zerg. As both games are fantastic parts in an as yet fantastic whole, that’s not a bad thing.

Heart of the Swarm is a direct continuation of Wings of Liberty, with Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan continuing their battle against the Dominion and its leader, Emperor Arcturus Mengsk, alongside the rebels. Smartly phrased dialogue and some gorgeous cutscenes do wonders in filling in any gaps that may have formed since 2010, allowing players who haven’t gone through Wings of Liberty recently to join the action without skipping a beat. The story picks up as Kerrigan, former Queen of Blades, undergoes tests under the supervision of Prince Valerian Mengsk to determine her remaining influence on the Zerg. As Raynor prepares to take leave with Kerrigan, the Dominion attacks, resulting in a series of battles that will see Raynor taken prisoner, the rebels siding with a former enemy, and the Queen of Blades returning as master of the swarm.

Kerrigan’s journey back up the Zerg hierarchy is a treat for fans of the murderously assimilating aliens. Not only does she encounter primal Zerg on the species’ homeworld Zerus, where they continue to evolve uncorrupted by the swarm, but she also battles recalcitrant brood mothers and meets an especially interesting cast of characters. I never took the Zerg to have much of a personality, but Kerrigan’s lively band of advisors proved otherwise. Just as Raynor could interact with characters and access facilities to gain upgrades, Kerrigan too can talk with others and unlock both personal and unit enhancements. Her advisors include the soft spoken Izsha, something akin to a Zerg personal assistant; Dehaka, a primal Zerg obsessed with collecting essence; Abathur, a slightly maniacal and genuinely funny researcher who blithely tortures other Zerg to help them achieve evolutionary purity; and a revolving secondary cast who come and go as the campaign advances. The less-intelligent Zerg also show their own form of personality whenever they interact with Kerrigan, switching from their traditional role of an insane nightmarish insect killing machine to a subservient protector. This side of the Zerg, especially the interactions with Abathur, was by far the most interesting element of Heart of the Swarm, and one that I think campaign players will really appreciate.

Ever since Warcraft III, Blizzard’s campaigns have been taking a very hero-centric approach. Wings of Liberty followed suit, and Heart of the Swarm goes even further, with Kerrigan a centerpiece of nearly every mission and possessing powers that turn the tide of every battle she joins. She gains access to new abilities as she levels up, with new two-power rows gradually unlocking throughout play, as well as an eventual third power for each. By around the mid-point of the campaign, she is so powerful that the missions become a little too easy. The campaign also doubles as an extended tutorial, however, so there’s still more to learn, and story to see, even when the difficulty begins to slack. Kerrigan’s campaign is less pressing and more linear than Raynor’s, though, with very few asides from the main string of missions. The biggest change in this regard is the Evolution Missions. Now, whenever an upgrade is available, players must go through two missions, which are impossible to fail, in order to experience the upgrades firsthand and to choose which evolution route they wish their units to take. These aren’t a particularly engaging substitute for genuine side missions, but they are decent tutorials. However, aside from these missions, Heart of the Swarm is unfortunately a much more linear game.

After the campaign ends with a massive Dominion-versus-Swarm showdown, players still have untold hours ahead of them with the game’s multiplayer component. Heart of the Swarm does a fine job in expanding multiplayer by adding new units for each faction: the Hellbat and Widow Mine for the Terrans; the Swarm Host and Viper for the Zerg; and the Mothership Core, Oracle, and Tempest for the Protoss.  The Hellbat is similar to the Vulcan in that it can adopt two forms, the older buggy form and a new slower-but-stronger bipedal ‘battle’ mode. Widow Mines are one of my favorite additions; they are similar to Spider Mines but instead launch a missile that not only damages its main target but also causes splash damage to nearby units. Swarm Hosts burrow into the ground and pop out eggs of Locusts—in an animation that, to be honest, creeps me out a little—that rush towards nearby enemies; they are great for defense, as well as harassing (re: annoying) newly established enemy bases. The Viper is a flying unit that uses acid to attack other ranged units, and can pick up and move ground units with a tentacle. The Protoss’ Mothership Core can teleport troops around the battlefield, while the Oracle can be used to gain intelligence, by detecting nearby hidden units and revealing uncloaked and unborrowed enemies from a distance, and harass with an energy beam. Lastly, the Tempest is a new capital ship that is capable of unleashing stored energy in powerful attacks.

Being far from a hardcore multiplayer addict, I really appreciate the steps Blizzard has taken to ensure that newcomers and those whose skills might have lapsed are able to comfortably integrate themselves in versus play. Even though I’ve been playing the series since the original release, I have not devoted the countless hours needed to perfect every nuance of multiplayer, but I do greatly enjoy experimenting with the factions and going back to dip my toe into AI skirmishes and unranked matches. Blizzard’s approach to easing players into the competitive world of online play is to create a matchmaking system that begins with tutorials and ends, only after hours of practice, with playing ranked matches against real opponents.

After a series of tutorials that helpfully guild players along, focusing on timing and build order, the system then leads to skirmishes against the AI. This can actually take a while as the AI begins on easy and gradually becomes more difficult, and progression takes longer the higher up the difficulty meter the player climbs, with more and more victories required for the meter to inch its way to completion. It’s only after this rightfully long slog that the game recommends playing unranked matches against online opponents, and only after several of those does it suggest tackling ranked matches. For solo play, Custom matches can be created to team up with the AI against a computer-controlled enemy, solo or as teams, or to square off against multiple AI opponents at once. I played against the computer for hours on end, so it’s entirely possible to forego online by skirmishing against the AI, though the game’s mechanics are only truly tested by human opponents.

Aside from the more linear campaign, the only quibbles I have with Heart of the Swarm are a slight graphical glitch and a tedious log-in process. I noticed that after several hours of play, an object, typically along the perimeter of the map, would become elongated as I scrolled past it. The model would stretch to an extended length, covering everything under it, and then flicker and disappear once I scrolled far enough away from it. This had an easy fix, though, which was for me to simply back out of the game and restart the program. The log-in process is more of a nitpick, but the system still requires a password to be entered every time to play the game, regardless of whether it’s an offline single-player game or online versus match. The extra security is understandable given the problems Blizzard and other companies have had these past few years, but I would’ve hoped by now a system similar to Steam’s would be in place, where users can opt to ‘remember’ certain computers by utilizing a double-sign-in system for automatic entry in the future. The complaint is almost as much a compliment, given that I only found the process tedious due to how much I played Heart of the Swarm.

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm has a less varied but a more personable campaign than Wings of Liberty, and its unit additions—a mix of tweaked upgrades of older units and entirely new  ones—do a good job mixing up multiplayer. The hero-centric campaign doesn’t entirely suit multiplayer, but the lessons learned do give players a leg up as they segue into online and skirmish play. Minor issues aside, Heart of the Swarm is a great game.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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