The original StarCraft‘s campaign was actually three campaigns in one. In the first third of the game, players took up the cause of the human Terrans and Jim Raynor, who is probably best described as the series’ protagonist. The second third focused on Sarah Kerrigan (Raynor’s erstwhile love interest), who was left for dead by the evil Arcturis Mengsk, leader of the fascist Dominion. The final part of the campaign focused on the (mostly) mechanical Protoss as they fought to defeat the Zerg Overmind.
If that all sounds like science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, that’s okay. The point is that with StarCraft 2, developers Blizzard Entertainment decided to keep this same split. However, instead of each campaign being a sub-campaign within one boxed copy, it was decided that splitting the three parts of the campaign into one main game (released in 2010 with the Terran campaign, named Wings of Liberty) with two expansions was the better route to take.
Heart of the Swarm, then, is the first of these two expansions, and it sets out to drive the story forward while making some tweaks to the way the game plays. It’s successful at one of those goals, but falters somewhat at the other.
Heart of the Swarm picks up a few days after Wings of Liberty (which is required to play the expansion, so I won’t recap the story here), with a rescued Sarah Kerrigan being slowly brought back to health aboard Jim Raynor’s Hyperion ship. She’s no longer the “Queen of Blades”, having been made human again at the end of Wings of Liberty (okay, that’s a small recap, I guess).
Of course, things go awry when the Hyperion is attacked and Raynor is pronounced dead, leaving Kerrigan devastated and seeking revenge.
Heart of the Swarm takes place over 22 main missions (there are five so-called “evolution missions,” bringing the total to 27) as Kerrigan seeks to reclaim her lost power in order to attack the Dominion. There’s an inner-conflict at work here that’s interesting, as Kerrigan’s anger overwhelms her to the point where she loses control and inches toward becoming the “Queen of Blades” once again. There is a genuine growth to Kerrigan throughout the course of the campaign, and she feels dramatically different as a character by the end of the roughly 10-hour playtime.
Unfortunately, Kerrigan is all that’s really changed by the end of Heart of the Swarm. The narrative somehow finds its way back to where this all started, with the world in disarray, Kerrigan again controlling the Zerg, now off to fight a new villain. There isn’t much in the way of resolution at the end of Heart of the Swarm, and the narrative’s insistence on keeping Kerrigan in play make the story’s twists and turns predictable. In fact, there’s a major twist about halfway through the campaign that is telegraphed so clearly I’m not sure why Blizzard even wasted its time trying to hide it.
Heart of the Swarm‘s basic mission structure is the same as in Wings of Liberty, with Kerrigan returning to her hulking Leviathan between each mission to level up troops and converse with shipmates. In Wings of Liberty, the characters on the ship were interesting and the discussions they would have were at least somewhat enthralling. In HotS, however, the side characters are pretty one-note, and their alien appearance and motivations make them hard to relate to. That’s a complaint for the entire campaign, actually, as the game doesn’t do quite a good enough job of selling Kerrigan as a sympathetic lead, which undermines the surrounding motivation. The game seems to rely on players feeling bad about what happened to Kerrigan in the original StarCraft, but for those of us who either didn’t play the original StarCraft or weren’t all that affected by the events in it, that inherent likability of Kerrigan that Blizzard relies on is lost. In all, the narrative of Heart of the Swarm feels like getting everything into place for the finale, which has yet to be released. While this is the inherent trouble of a middle of a trilogy, there’s nothing here to hang onto going forward.
Thankfully, the adjustments Heart of the Swarm has introduced to the way players will interact with its campaign were more successful. Moreso than in Wings of Liberty, the campaign focuses on Kerrigan as a combat entity. She’s in almost every mission as a sort of “hero” character, able to perform actions above and beyond others in the swarm. Her powers grow and evolve over time, and she has an upgrade path that is separate from the basic army upgrades that exist here and in Wings of Liberty. In each mission are bonus quests that are typically hard to complete. These bonus quests grant Sarah additional XP which helps her grow in strength. Every 10 levels brings with it a new upgrade to choose, and these upgrades range from things like the ability to spawn Overlords (which dictate how big a Zerg army can be) instantly or to active abilities like a devastating ability that can wipe out entire bases.
The implementation of Kerrigan as a character the player can control directly does ground players who have never played as the Zerg in multiplayer or in previous games. It’s necessary, too, because controlling the Zerg on the battlefield is a wildly different experience than players might be used to. It’s not just that each structure and unit is called something different (that’s to be expected), it’s that how these units come about is much different than playing as the Terran or Protoss.
As the Terran, each unit comes from a building, and the buildings themselves have a specific order to follow. For example, a Terran player can’t build a tank without first building a barracks to provide marines, and he or she can’t build a barracks until a supply depot is built.
With the Zerg, it’s entirely possible to create fighting units (Zerglings) immediately. Beyond that, creating buildings and defensive structures actually sacrifices workers, something that does not happen to either the Terran or Protoss. So, building an anti-air turret as a Zerg players costs both time and a worker unit. It’s a pretty drastic change for those accustomed to the more logically militaristic upgrade path of the other two factions in the game.
Thankfully, Blizzard has made some adjustments to the game in both single-player and multiplayer that help entry-level players immensely. These can range from the small (workers created at a base are automatically directed to the mineral fields instead of having to be commanded) to the large (a hotkey to control one’s entire army). For experienced players, some of these are simple nuisance streamlining, but for players either new to the game or trying to ease their way back in after a hiatus, these adjustments are a godsend.
Additionally, the Heart of the Swarm expansion brings a few enhancements to the way the multiplayer matchup system (the ladder system) places players. Previously, the game would place all players into a “placement pool” of sorts, then rank players based on their performance in those placement matches. Lose them all, and the game would place you in the lowest-tier ladder and allow you to grow your skills against similarly-skilled players. Win them all, and you’d be placed near the top of the ladder, with other well-versed players.
Now, the game places you in some optional placement matches against an AI-controlled force of increasing difficulty, giving the game a better chance to take full stock of your skills as a multiplayer competitor.
The multiplayer in StarCraft 2 is about as well-implemented as possible for players somewhat familiar to the proceedings. It’s possible to view replays after every match from the viewpoint of yourself or your opponent, and just about every action is logged and able to be viewed. So, if you felt constrained by supply and your opponent wasn’t, it’s easy to find out why after viewing the log.
However, for new players who don’t understand anything I just wrote, there’s still a layer of abstraction to the multiplayer that makes it impenetrable without a lot of research. Getting into StarCraft 2‘s multiplayer isn’t something that just happens. It has to be a conscious decision by the player to invest the time necessary to become familiar with the concepts behind it, and that’s before diving into unit strengths and build orders and other things that just pile up to what feels like an insurmountable mountain of things to learn and memorize.
The game doesn’t do a very good job of training complete neophytes, which will ultimately limit its multiplayer appeal. The focus on competitive play as opposed to cooperative play on the part of Blizzard’s design doesn’t help, either.
In all, Heart of the Swarm is a worthy companion to the excellent Wings of Liberty. The singleplayer campaign continually offers inventive twists on the standard real-time strategy gameplay, and the addition of Kerrigan as a hero character is a great addition. However, the narrative falls short and the multiplayer, while improved, is still going to be impenetrable for most players. It’s impossible to play Heart of the Swarm without having Wings of Liberty, so those who already have played WoL and enjoyed themselves should absolutely take the plunge.
The recommendation for players completely new to the series is a little tougher. StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty was my first real exposure to the RTS genre, so it’s definitely possible to get into and have fun with as a singleplayer experience, but multiplayer isn’t something to be taken lightly. Without the right tools, it’s aggressively not-fun for players, so either stay away completely or take the time to do some research before jumping in headfirst.
A copy of Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm on the PC was provided to the reviewer by Blizzard for the purposes of the review.