While StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty focused on Jim Raynor and the Terran race, StarCraft II‘s first expansion Heart of the Swarm puts players in command of Sarah Kerrigan, The Queen of Blades, and the Zerg swarm. The character of Kerrigan has been one of gaming’s more interesting antagonists as she blurred the lines between being truly evil or not, but as the game is quick to bring up, it’s hard to overlook the millions of people that have died to the zerg swarm under her control. Heart of the Swarm on the multiplayer side continues to deliver on much the same experience found in StarCraft, with a few changes and balances to keep things from feeling exactly the same, and the single player campaign attempts to put players into the mindset of the Queen of Blades, and her conflicting ties to both humanity and zerg.
The story is compelling and interesting enough to make you constantly want to see more, but Heart of the Swarm does slip up in its story telling a little. Spoilers for Wings of Liberty: at the end of the last outing Jim Raynor used an alien artifact to return Sarah Kerrigan to normal, well sans the zerg inspired dreadlock hairdo. After a series of tests that serve as Heart of the Swarm‘s tutorial, the reunited ex-marshal and Ghost-trained psychic plan to fly off into the sunset together and/or go after Emperor Mengsk, who was responsible for Kerrigan being captured by the zerg in the first place. Jim wants her to drop thoughts of revenge and Kerrigan feels like they can’t move forward together until Emperor Mengsk is dead, and we finally get to see some of the character arcs that began all the way back in the original StarCraft come to fruition. Sure, some of the dialogue is downright groan worthy, but it maintains the air of cheesy fun for which StarCraft is known.
One problem is that Heart of the Swarm reverts pretty much every character back to the status quo rather quickly and makes all the work you did in Wings of Liberty feel a bit invalidated. The reasoning for this is obviously to get Kerrigan back to the zerg, the race the expansion focuses on, but it would have been nice to see a little more payoff for the plots of Wings of Liberty. Thrust back to the swarm, the game goes through great pains to try to make Kerrigan into this complex character that’s conflicted in her loyalties and feelings, but it ends up coming off as more disjointed than anything else. She might avoid civilian casualties one moment, but is barking orders to her Broodmothers to kill everything the next. Wings of Liberty introduced a few moments where you were allowed to make a character choice, but these are basically absent here, which might have given a little more depth to the narrative. You will see a few of the choices made in the first game play out in Heart of the Swarm, but they don’t change much more than a line of dialogue here and there for the most part. It was actually a little disappointing to see them affect so little.
Much like the first game, there continues to be a heavy emphasis on creating a larger and more varied experience to the single player campaign. Rather than simple slugfests between your base and the opponents with only a vague sense of narrative layered over it, every mission tries to have some unique gimmick and the central hub allows you to customize your forces, unlock new powers for Kerrigan and interact with the various side-characters. One mission might have you exploiting ice storms that freeze your enemies in place, while another has you weaving your forces around a powerful battleship to try and bringing zerg anti-air swarms online. Between missions you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade and evolve both Kerrigan and her brood. By separating the single player and multiplayer, Blizzard allows you to have some truly broken and enjoyable powers and evolutions. By the end of the campaign I had Ultralisk units, think a walking tank with giant blades for arms, which both regenerated health for dealing damage but also revived upon death if its chrysalis wasn’t destroyed.
Also new to the series, and immediately befitting the signature race of this expansion, is the addition of a hotkey to select every combat unit in your command. It’s quite the sight to watch your zergling army moving out with upwards of 200 units that quite literally swarm over the enemy. This does however contribute to making the single player feel a little too easy on normal difficulty. If you’re a fan of the series, or other strategy games, and looking for some degree of difficulty beyond attack-moving your whole army to every objective, I’d recommend starting on hard. Again, there are achievements which add an extra layer of complexity by challenging you to complete missions under certain requirements, like under a certain time restriction or by not letting a unit drop below a percentage of health. They can provide a little extra replay value if you’re into 100% completing every title you play.
Mulitplayer is a completely different beast. StarCraft is, as always, a delicately balanced game among the three races, despite each one having intricate differences in how they operate. Much of the minutiae is ultimately the same as you left it in Wings of Liberty, but not everything is coming back exactly the same. New units, balance changes and different abilities have been introduced in order to shake things up and fill in any holes that might have been present. The Terran Reaper for instance, a powerful harassment unit during the early days of Wings of Liberty, has received a number of changes. They no longer have access to their D-8 anti-structure charges, but the unit doesn’t require an attached Tech Lab in order to be built now so you can generate an impressive early raiding force. Players heavily invested in the competitive side of the multiplayer will get the most out of these seemingly small changes, while more casual folks might not be able to stomach the expansions price for just a few new multiplayer units, provided they weren’t interested in singleplayer.
Heart of the Swarm offers a buffet of multiplayer gameplay options though, from competitive ladder matchmaking to more light-hearted arcade maps. Matchmaking will pit you against similarly skilled computer controlled opponents or live players with varying team sizes. Even if you don’t have dreams of playing on a professional stage, the tension over a closely contested match is a joy to experience again and again. For those not looking for such an intense play session, arcade and custom games can help to round out multiplayer for whatever you’re looking for. Players have already begun bringing various genres of play through the map editor, like tower defense or RPGs, and these offerings only stand to improve and expand over time. There’s even a new XP and leveling system built into the multiplayer itself that will slowly unlock new avatars and decals as you preform specific actions. It’s one more little hamster wheel for some players to enjoy, but you can ignore it as well if you want.
Bottom Line: Heart of the Swarm is a worthy follow-up expansion to StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Some of the narrative elements are weaker this time around, but longtime fans will appreciate seeing character arcs begin to wrap up as the game moves to its conclusion in Legacy of the Void. Those looking exclusively for multiplayer will enjoy how the small differences change the game dynamics and strategies, though $40 might be a bit steep for just a few units if you’re not actively invested in the ranked format.
Recommendation: Grab it if you’re really into the competitive side of multiplayer or looking to see how the StarCraft saga continues to unfold.[rating=4]
Justin Clouse wonders if anyone has recreated the old original StarCraft Aliens vs Predator dungeon crawl style custom maps yet.