Heart of the Swarm: StarCraft’s most powerful villain (hero?) created its most interesting campaign
StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm
StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is the first expansion and second installment in the StarCraft 2 trilogy, and successfully builds on the changes and principles brought by its predecessor, Wings of Liberty. We waited almost three years for this, and it's going to be painful if we have to wait that long again to experience something that can improve on the quality experience Heart of the Swarm offers.
Story of the swarm
Heart of the Swarm picks up right where Wings of Liberty left off, with Kerrigan no longer the infected Queen of Blades. Naturally, the Terrans want to make sure Kerrigan isn't a threat, so they run a suite of tests. Kerrigan cooperates, but also takes time to remind her captors that the Zerg can't be controlled, and playing with the idea is dangerous. Foreshadowing. Kerrigan's prison ship comes under attack, and in no time Kerrigan has her heart set on vengeance.
The campaign takes place over varied landscapes and interesting terrains, and every mission gives you something new to play with. You'll either receive the ability to build new units, be given a unique objective – such as a boss fight – or set of challenges, or even use Kerrigan on the battlefield, which is a blast. Summoning the Leviathan is impressive visually, and the colossal creature is a joy to see on the battlefield.
The missions are a little on the easy side, partly because of Kerrigan's badassery, but then, the phrase “Zerg rush” exists for a reason.Kerrigan isn't just a badass in the game; she's a badass character who is a fan favorite among female video game characters. She's been a ruthless villain in previous games, but justifiably so, and she always comes across as both confident and capable. She's a powerful psychic, able to turn human brains to butter with a thought. She also wears clothes that cover her whole body, something we don't see often enough. Kerrigan has not only legions of bugs that follow her every move, but legions of fans as well.
Which is why it's super frustrating whenever Kerrigan and Raynor share a scene, because it feels like she takes a back seat to allow good ol' Jim do the driving, and is reduced to spunky girlfriend. At one point Kerrigan picks up a gun, something she hasn't used for some time, and Raynor reminds her that it's like riding a bike. Kerrigan kisses Raynor and says in that oh-so sexy, sly voice of hers, “Yep, like riding a bike.”
A minor pet peeve: the plot also asks you to just accept Kerrigan and Raynor's relationship with little justification or acknowledgment of the two's previous romance. This is the same problem Ben had with Halo 4: without diving into extended universe material it's easy to get lost in the story.
Kerrigan and her swarm can also evolve, just as the Terran units from Wings of Liberty could be upgraded. Each unit will have two options that allow you to customize your army, but Kerrigan receives three choices later on, and her customization system is much more akin to something you would see in a traditional RPG. Although Heart of the Swarm improves on Wings of Liberty's campaign and is a satisfying experience unto itself, StarCraft's lasting appeal has always lied with its multiplayer. Enter the new units.
Fresh faces and new bugs
Heart of the Swarm adds several new units and alters the attributes of others, across all three factions. The Protoss get several units to increase their effectiveness in the air: the Oracle makes for a good scout, as it can detect invisible units and see through an enemy's eyes, the Mothership Core is an extremely powerful early game force of destruction, and the Tempest works great to neutralize massive enemy ships like the Terran Battlecruiser.
Terrans continue to show their love of Transformers by introducing Hellbats – not to be confused with Firebats – which are both a new unit you can build directly from your factory, and a new form that existing Hellions can morph into for free.
Helpful tip: use the Hellion's quick movement speed to get close to an enemy, transform into a Hellbat to gain boosts to damage and defense, and soften your foes up while waiting for heavier, slower units to arrive. It's fun stuff. Terrans also gain the Widow Mine, which is an improved successor to the original Spider Mine.
Interestingly, in the Zerg-themed expansion, the Zerg seem to get the short end of the new unit stick. They receive the Viper, which is a non-offensive flying caster designed to help players move their swarm in for the kill via its abilities Abduct – which pulls an enemy unit to the Viper's location – and Blinding Cloud – which forces units to use melee attacks, even if they have ranged capabilities, so long as they remain in the cloud. Zerg also receive the Swarm Host, which has no attacks of its own, but continually spawns units called Locusts at no charge when burrowed. Locusts are short-lived, only lasting 15 seconds, 25 if you choose to upgrade the unit. They move extremely fast while traveling through creep, but are painfully slow when moving through regular terrain. Hence, I used the Swarm Hosts mostly for defense, in case any enemy scouts came snooping around where they weren't wanted.
Various other tweaks have been made, but they will likely feel subtle to the average player. I did miss Vortex with my Protoss Mothership, though.
As for what veterans will think of the changes and the new balance Heart of the Swarm brings to each of the game's three races, it's difficult to judge. If everyone bitches fairly equally about which race is overpowered – as they tend to do – that's a good sign. The game will be continuously balanced as veteran players try new strategies and use the new units in interesting ways in competitive play.
You will know us by the trail of dead
Heart of the Swarm is a great RTS game, with a solid structure to its single-player and multiplayer components. The armies feel balanced and unique, and the new units complement the existing forces without feeling bloated or unnecessary. There's nothing quite as nuts or over-the-top for the Zerg as the Protoss Colossus or Terran Thor, both introduced in Wings of Liberty, but what has been added feels like a good fit.
But where Heart of the Swarm really succeeds is its extensive characterization of its cast, notably Kerrigan. Kerrigan is a complex figure, who sits somewhere between a Shakespearean tragic hero and vengeful anti-hero. When she's not being awkwardly written into a sassy girlfriend sidekick to Raynor, she shines. Raynor filled the standard protagonist boots in Wings of Liberty, but he could still feel insignificant, just another soldier on the battlefield, once a mission was underway. Even when Kerrigan isn't on the ground with her swarm, she still feels important and influential. This is an RTS game, with the character focus of an RPG. Everybody wins.
Well, unless you're in Kerrigan's way.