In July of 2010, Blizzard unleashed one of the most anticipated games of the decade, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. The game was a massive success, delivering both a super-polished single player campaign, as well as a highly competitive multiplayer component that would change the landscape of professional competitive gaming. Never satisfied with what they have in front of them though, fans have eagerly awaited the release of the first expansion, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm and it is finally upon us all. And it is oh, so very good.
Before continuing on with reading this review one should know what type of StarCraft player they are. There are two types of StarCraft players. There is the incredibly hardcore, multiplayer gamer that has spent the last three years climbing the competitive ladders of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. And then there is… everyone else. If you fall into the first camp then this review is not for you. I could never go in depth enough to discuss the intricacies of the competitive aspect of the game and it would be foolish of me to even attempt to do so. You know more than I do. Take note that the multiplayer component is incredibly well balanced and will offer up months, if not years, of new strategies to be discovered and implemented and then you should just go buy yourself a copy, or snuggle up with the one you already have, and get to learning the new units and quirks.
If on the other hand though you are a dabbler in the multiplayer, enjoy StarCraft for its wonderfully polished single player experience, including its deep lore, or are a newcomer to the series and want to see what all the hype is about, then keep reading because Heart of the Swarm brings an evolved approach to StarCraft that is fun and exciting for all types of players.
Heart of the Swarm picks up shortly after the ending to Wings of Liberty. Thanks to the Protos artifact, Kerrigan is once again human. Her psionic powers still allow her to command the Zerg but she is no longer one of them. She is no longer The Queen of Blades. Players will immediately realize this will not last, after all The Queen of Blades is on the cover of the game box, and very quickly Kerrigan will once again be separated from her love, Jim Raynor. This separation, along with a well timed lie force Kerrigan to turn her back once more on humanity and take control of the Zerg Swarm.
Packing 20 campaign missions, and seven optional evolution missions, there is a lot of content in Heart of the Swarm’s tight package. And Blizzard has done a wonderful job of varying them so that you never feel you are doing the same thing over and over again. Playing as the Zerg is completely different than playing as Terans and understanding it all is a huge undertaking. Fortunately the campaign naturally eases you into control of the Swarm and I never once felt overwhelmed by the alien structures and units. If anything Heart of the Swarm is friendlier for novice players than Wings of Liberty was and it should serve as a great tool for players wanting to learn more.
Wings of Liberty did a great job of teaching players the basics of how to play StarCraft II but about two-thirds into that game the mission structure became a bit repetitive until the final, extremely difficult, level. Heart of the Swarm avoids that problem. Every mission will see players doing something different, encountering new challenges that require new skills. All while teaching players the core concepts of StarCraft.
As mentioned playing as Zerg is completely different and this more varied mission structure enables players to best learn how to utilize certain units in particular situations. But while that may seem a heavy handed way of teaching players the Zerg race, it actually feels quite natural. That natural feeling is all due to the perfectly interwoven narrative presented by Blizzard.
As with all Blizzard games, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm features wonderfully animated cinematics that deliver singularly dramatic moments related to Kerrigan’s deeply personal storyline. Additionally like Wings of Liberty before it, a lot of story is placed in between missions via conversations Kerrigan can have with crew members and visitors on her ship. Heart of the Swarm doesn’t feature as robust an area for players to explore as its predecessor but there is still plenty of subplots and motivations to uncover by talking with everyone on board. These motivations and subplots find their way into the campaign missions giving them more direction than they have previously had in the past.
This change to a more narrative driven design of the campaign though may turn some people off. It doesn’t fundamentally change the way StarCraft is played, it is still, at its core, a resource management, army and base building game and these core gameplay mechanics are very important to success in Heart of the Swarm. You’ll never be able to complete the varied mission objectives if you can’t first master the resource gathering mechanics that will allow you to build the units needed to advance in the game. And these core mechanics are certainly needed in the multiplayer arena.
As a fan of StarCraft lore, Heart of the Swarm delivers everything I wanted. Sure, parts of it are a touch cheesy, and the game’s big twist did not come as much of a surprise but it is well executed throughout and mostly satisfying. The least satisfying thing about Heart of the Swarm is in knowing that it will probably be nearly three more years before the final expansion, Legacy of the Void, is released.
The second least satisfying thing though is in the visual department. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was never a graphical powerhouse but its cartoony style worked to balance those deficiencies. This is still mostly the case but the balance is a bit out of skew. To be frank, when compared against other modern games, Heart of the Swarm looks old.
However old it may look though, StarCraft II is still one of the best playing games in the last five years and that has not changed with the Heart of the Swarm expansion. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm offers countless hours of that gameplay for a game that already had countless hours of content. The multiplayer component has been refined a bit with some units being eliminated and new ones being added in. The best in class ladder and league system is still in place to match players up with people of similar skill levels. That is of course provided that you have skill, which I do not. Still, my lack of skill has never impaired my ability to find enjoyment in StarCraft.
In an era where expansion packs have been forgotten by nearly everyone except MMO makers, Heart of the Swarm is a blast from the past, a true expansion that adds great content to a great game. The wait is on for Legacy of the Void. Blizzard can’t get it here fast enough for me and the other million eager fans.