Review

Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Review (PC)

Round 2, fight! Blizzard has finally given us the second chapter in StarCraft 2’s soap opera and it arguably has the best of the factions take the star role because, well, everyone likes being the ‘bad guy’ right? Well that might just be me, but the Zerg hold a very special place among RTS fans.

At its core this is exactly the same game as Wings of Liberty – nothing has changed – except all the fancy trimmings have been mutated and respliced together to tell the tale of one former Queen of Blades. Whereas the debut for StarCraft 2 focused on the Terrans, giving us something easy to identify with, Heart of the Swarm now continues the guilty treat of Blizzard’s B-movie extravaganza. The lines can be cheesy, the plot bonkers, villains given plenty of moustache twirling – but it’s what makes you march your units to victory.

You wouldn’t know a guy by the name Belial, would you Zavran?

Story is such an integral force in the StarCraft universe and Blizzard hits the ground running in Heart of the Swarm’s opening campaign missions. We control and assume the role of Kerrigan, former Zerg royalty, but all is not well in the kingdom of throbbing biomass, claws and teeth. It works out well as we’re given an introduction into how the Zerg are so much different in their approach at every level, from base management and expansion to incubating troops. The opening moments are actually reliant on hero characters and their special abilities giving us time to digest some more of the story and to start gearing ourselves up for a faction far more suited to offense in big throwaway numbers.

It’s here in this introductory prologue that Blizzard also starts to show off some of their new tricks like making it look as if we’re crossing a tram at high speeds, having to defend it from the invading forces of Mingsk, that pesky megalomaniacal emperor of the Dominion. We also get thrust into a boss fight which requires some good footwork – or click work – to stop our forces getting the full brunt off attacks. This is a common occurrence throughout Heart of the Swarm and, if you squinted hard enough, you might think you had accidentally fired up Diablo III or something. This is by no means a bad thing – they actually turn out pretty neat, and help build up how powerful these heroes are you’re playing.

Once the initial few missions are done we can start to select what worlds we want to tackle from our Zerg version of a starship – the Leviathan, which is much like Jim Raynor’s Hyperion. Again this serves as a hub of sorts where we can extract a little more information from various other characters we come across, as well as choose what ‘evolutions’ we want for our Zerg troops and adjust Kerrigan’s special abilities through a skill tree that unlocks more as we level her up. It’s not quite as chatty and bustling as Jim and the Hyperion was but there are enough little distractions to offer some interesting banter and some more back story if you’re so inclined.

We get to pick between a few evolutions/mutations for each different kind of Zerg, like increasing a units range and attack or their rate of healing when burrowed. However as a bonus we also have special evolution missions awarded to us when we reach certain points in the campaign granting us options between two very specific variations and these are permanent; not to be taken lightly. We get more than just a quick clip of footage to base our decision on as each takes us down to a location so we can try out these starkly different evolutionary paths for our self. They’re quick and informative. It’s another way you can customise the game to suit your play style.

Some can have wide-ranging impacts on strategy when you’ve got your base all set up and spreading creep all over the place. In the beginning you’ll find yourself more directly on the offensive but eventually after some new units have been introduced through the campaign you can start focusing more on some decent defence if you prefer to take your time, although that’s not always going to be much of an option. Blizzard doesn’t cookie cutter these missions as each is unique in their setup through the narrative, much like in Wings of Liberty; remember that delightful ‘train robbery’?

I was really impressed in the first game where we had to be very careful as entire areas of the map would get flooded with lava. These types of manipulations with the environment aren’t absent in Heart of the Swarm with an early trip to a frozen ball of a planet causing everyone to have their stuff frozen and be extremely susceptible to attack. Later, another mission has us infect Terran buildings to endlessly churn out infected that wander off like lemmings to attack enemy fortifications, only to have deadly gas vents periodically wiping them all out leaving us to attack on our own and fend off counter offensives. This can really inject some welcomed mayhem.

Zerg are formidable but lacklustre defence will see a hive crumble fast

Another more specialised mission gives you nothing but a small insignificant larvae that stows aboard a Protoss starship. Our goal is to still stay hidden as we look for biomass to consume and ultimately mutate into a Queen so that she can essentially turn herself into a mobile base of sorts that spawns zerglings. The goal is to ensure no Protoss aboard this ship survives to warn the Golden Armada of Kerrigan’s return to the Zerg throne. Each mission also comes with achievements, just like the first game, and these can provide some real challenges at times. They also draw you back to certain missions later once the campaign is complete to try and earn those you’ve missed.

You simply don’t know what the heck the game is going to throw at you next in terms of gameplay. Are we going to be building a base and churning out the zerglings for an attack, or are we racing against time or some natural element? Maybe we’ll be managing a small force with Kerrigan leading the charge against some huge primal zerg? Not many real-time strategies could get away with throwing you into a fight with a massive foe in the style of an action-RPG, but this is Sparta StarCraft. Each type of mission is carefully spread far enough apart from one another so they don’t get stale and induce a sigh. I found myself welcoming a break from base building so I could feel Kerrigan be a Zerg Queen badass and tear the place up.

Thanks to some tuning up of the StarCraft 2 game engine, being that said badass and smacking terran, protoss and even other zerg around couldn’t be more visually rewarding. The extra physics given to ragdoll troops and the more fiery explosions with bits flying all over the place can really hit that smug sweet spot if you’ve got the PC muscle to flex these upgrades.

Heart of the Swarm also shakes up the multiplayer arena for StarCraft 2 by introducing some new units and tweaking others. While matchmaking changes are applied to both Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, ladder rankings and faction balances are separate. The addition of seven new units drastically upset the applecart of what tactics were known to guarantee victory almost every time. Now it’s back to the drawing board to throw these new toys at each other for a while and work out what sticks better. There are some pretty game changing additions.

The fact that the Protoss can nip their armies back to base through the Mass Recall ability of the Mothership Core isn’t to be understated. Whole units can be salvaged if something suddenly goes horribly wrong, saving a player time and precious resources. The Zerg gain the Viper which is perhaps not only a strategic win but a ‘WTF’ laugh riot too as it can lasso units right up off the floor and bring them closer to get pummelled. It can also disable units temporarily with a gas cloud. Terrans get an interesting rocket mine called Widow Mines, and stocky Hellbats for flame grilling. On their own they might not sound much, but given how delicate the balance of power in multiplayer is, too much advantage can ruin the entire ecosystem.

Yes it’ll be a little while before the top ranked online players get settled with these new found gizmos and the rules that go with them. Frankly, most players don’t tend to wander too far into multiplayer because of its reputation of being so ruthless. Blizzard has at least tried to lessen this sense of dread by offering some tutorials that try to explain some multiplayer specific tactics. We can now also ‘Take Command’ via the replay system, which lets you take over the match from a point you specify and try out something different. It’s brilliant for those who like to analyse their games or those of the pro-gaming circuit.

The good ship Leviathan, full of funny zany characters busting rhymes

It wouldn’t be exactly fair to call Hearts of the Swarm ‘just’ an expansion because frankly it’s quite capable of standing on its own multitude of legs. Of course strictly speaking, as it requires the original Wings of Liberty to be installed, it is in fact an add-on. However the galactic adventure with Kerrigan at the helm is an enthralling one as we see her transform, yet again, becoming a ruthless force with legions of Zerg at her fingertips, but it’s not a dehumanised journey – quite the opposite. While from a multiplayer perspective there’s arguably little gained for the sizeable asking price, it’s the continuation of StarCraft lore that’s the real gem here and shouldn’t be missed.

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm embodies an evolved RTS that shows Blizzard has taken on even more superior genes from other gaming greats, even when those greats coincidentally happen to be of their own creation. If this is what happened since Wings of Liberty, then we should be in for a real treat when Legacy of the Void drops out of hyperspace.

Top Game Moment: I have to admit, while technically not utilising the game’s core experience, fighting the primal Zerg with the freshly re-crowned Queen of Blades was a marvellous set piece of StarCraft theatre. That and the general squishiness of the Zerg is always cool.

Videos

Comments

By Eddard_Stark (SI Newbie) on Mar 20, 2013
Eddard_Stark
The story is absolutely abysmal. The characters, their actions and motivations, the cringeworthy retarded dialogues, the horrendous overall plot, numerous retcons and deus ex machinas - this all just kills HotS for me. WoL was bad enough in that regard but this hits new lows. Narrative wise it is almost on par with Diablo 3 which speaks for itself. Sad to see so much effort and production value being sinked down by the *narrative*. I mean the original Starcraft had a cheesy but solid story with reasonable and memorable characters in a somewhat silly but at the same time gritty setting full of petty politics & manipulations. HotS is just a constant facepalm on every scene and new character.

Not everything is bright on the gameplay side as well. Most missions have the same WoL *introduce new unit - just pump out as much of those as possible* gimmick. Add the extreme handholding and boring tutorial missions en masse, elements of which just keep coming back till the very end. Oh, and the overall difficulty of the new campaign is just a joke. I mean brutal is a cake walk, there's nothing challenging except a couple achievements. And I had some some tough moments in WoL on hard (e.g. last protoss mini-campaign mission).

At least the multiplayer is fairly entertaining and the new UI is rather good (light years ahead of the interim awful ui from patch 1.5). And visually the game looks fantastic IMO.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 20, 2013
Kres
So it looks like players are going to bring the score down VS the critics. I may give it a go. Prolly will at some point.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 20, 2013
herodotus
Still having too many difficulties getting my legal copy of "WoL" though the ridiculous security barriers set up by Blizzard that only deter real customers to really bother with this.
I'm happy to read they've buffed the visuals as this was sorely needed. "WoL" has not aged well.
Hopefully I'll still have a few neurons left when the complete collection comes out, and by then I might be senile enough to forgive Blizzard and buy the lot...cheaply.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 20, 2013
Kres
So went to buy it and got this:

Due to suspicious activity, this account has been locked. A message has been sent to this account's email address containing details on how to resolve this issue. Visit http://eu.battle.net/account/locked.html for more information.

Managed to login but it looks like they removed Starcraft 2 from my account. This is a totally positive situation.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 21, 2013
herodotus
Blizzard told me I had to send them photocopies of both the serial number on my manual and my receipt for the game. My response to them is unprintable.
Fukm!
By danfreeman (SI Elite) on Mar 21, 2013
danfreeman
Wow,this sucks,i am really sorry this happened guys,wish i could help :(
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 21, 2013
Kres
The war of the Zerg starts on planet earth with Blizzard. Birocracy first.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 25, 2013
Kres
I agree to disagree.

Btw, I played a review copy of the game so I wrongly accused Blizzard support of stealing my game.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 25, 2013
Kres
I'm so afraid to start with something _new_ x) where's the buy link? I didn't really understand what is going on. You mentioned they did something new with it. Lets try it. If it's not via GPGNet then it's good.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 26, 2013
Kres
I don't have a clue where, or when, I bought it from. I got a hard copy of original Supreme Commander, but I believe I downloaded FA from GPGNet. Anyway, I can get it via Steam. It works with Steam version??
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 26, 2013
Kres
Did you noticed we're bombing Starcraft 2 review? Though it's a good thing to bomb a light RTS game, while giving emphasis to a true heavy RTS experience.

Got it via Steam. Downloading.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 26, 2013
herodotus
I've just been sitting back and wondering why you guys are milling over "SupCOm". I just picked up the Gold Edition from Gamersgate a couple weeks back on sale, as I'd sold my originals ages back. I'd never venture into MP though, as the AI is tough enough for me.

Also goes to show that "Starcraft II", while desperately trying to prove it is a new game, just reminds us of classics that we'd rather be playing.

Did you like the way I segued the conversation back to the review in hand?
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 27, 2013
Kres
Cause Sup Com (1) is still a far better game then SC (ehm short titles don't help here; starcraft) was and is. You play Starcraft because you have to, and you play Sup Com because it gives excitement much alike eating a chocolate does. MP is tough but very rewarding experience once you figure it out. It becomes personal when you become aware that your oponnent also has 2 legs and 2 hands. So it's human vs human. Victories are fun. Cause of the big explosion... Ehm

Starcraft = CoD
Sup Com = Battlefield (2)
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 27, 2013
Kres
While we're on this subject, I'd like to say that BF stopped being BF when they removed the commander layer from it. If they don't bring that back in 4 then it's just a CoD alike piece of an unquality spent time.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 27, 2013
herodotus
I've just finished watching the trailer for "BF4" and Kres, it's "Call of Duty: Battlefield" all over again...only more so.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 27, 2013
Kres
I may seriously prevent myself from buying it this time. It will be difficult but I think I can do it this time. Trailer looks very cool but doesn't show anything I wanted to see. I want to see improvements in squad management (VOIP as well), and I want commander layer back. Without those I really got no reason to buy it.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 27, 2013
herodotus
Just remember how bad the closed beta was for "BF3", and the open for that matter. How long did it take to really settle "BF3" into a stable state, with few disconnects and other glitches? Months.
This is a no-buy for me until at least 6 months post launch.

As for Commander Mode, I don't think that will ever return. They've strayed too far off their original course to ever return.
On a positive note, there is a great Commander layer in "DCS: World" which is when you buy the "DCS: Combined Arms" module. In MP that means as the JTAC (the ground commander) you can call in target packages for all vehicles, be they A-10C's, P51D's, KA-50's, SU-25's or any armoured vehicle that is playable. Lasing targets for guys flying Warthogs then calling them in on VOIP for an air-strike before sending in player-controlled tanks to mop up is a true battlefield experience. Last night I called in an arty strike, then contacted a couple of guys cruising over the Black Sea in A-10c's. I had a few SAM sites need taken down before the Black Shark attack choppers could go in against the Russian armour (it was NATO vs Russia). Lased the SAM site and got a "Roger on laser" from the lead Warthog, then laser-designated the lead SAM and popped smoke on the other two. They tried to get a couple of mobile AAA vehicles in to defend but the boys in the Hogs were too quick and one LGB , with two cluster bombs behind it were dropping in no time. SAM's were cleared and the boys in the M1A2's and Bradley's rolled in to finish off. The KA-50's took out any remaining fleeing armour.
A true delight:)
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 27, 2013
Kres
Didn't played it. Will check. Commander overlay over seeing human players on a mini map and doing stuff to support them is awesome. That would be worth the usual high price. It will come back in Battlefield 5-6. They will run out of ideas and will have to put that back at some point. Did you enjoy that mode? Is it just me?
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 28, 2013
herodotus
No, it was what made "Battlefield" Battlefield, if that makes sense.
"DCS World" is the closest thing to it now, and incorporates all the aircraft that have been released separately so far...with a load more to come.
If it's just the ground warfare you're after, remember this is an air combat simulator in the main that now come with a new module called "Combined Arms" where you can operate virtually anything on the battlefield. You can actually play it as an RTS.
"DCS World" is a free download and comes with the SU-25 Frogfoot for free. "Combined Arms" is on sale for $20 at the moment, but is usually $30. I've also played a load of SP missions as a ground commander leading my platoon of tanks, or IFV's, jumping out the the theatre map and choosing the JTAC on a hill. I can then either order attacks from there or from the map. Click on an orbiting A-10C for example, and order it to attack a pesky anti-armour weapon across from your line of advance then jump back into your tank and watch the fireworks. Then roll on forward and clean up.
Yesterday on my first try at the game, owning several of the aircraft already, I advanced on a Russian position (I was Ukraine and the air assets were NATO). The two A10's arrived from altitude but unfortunately I'd missed spotting a SAM site. As they released their bombs (idiots should have used Mavericks) flares and chaff started pouring out of them as they jinked for altitude with SAM's soaring after them. Both A-10's went down, with pilots ejecting safely in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics. They'd taken out their targets though, and had thrown in a few cluster bombs for effect allowing me to roll into the outskirts of the city unchallenged (got that pesky SAM site with a 125mm HEAT round - lovely).

In MP though, it really is a living, breathing battlefield and watch out if you're the JTAC (or Ground Commander) and you make a mistake as I did in SP. Loads of abuse over your headphones sure to follow in all different and colourful languages:)

My first try at MP I was just getting to grips with my KA-50 Black Shark attack chopper after a leave of absence, and I get a call from the JTAC to take out some mobile AAA. He lased the target (it was a night mission) then popped a smoke round near the target. I picked them both up on FLIR and relaed a couple of fire and forgets at them. Boom, goodnight!
Had to get out pretty damn quick though, as an orbiting A10 jock let me know a couple of SU-27 Flankers were on their way to deal. My wingman and I hugged the terrain, then dropped and turned on the Flankers taking one out with a couple of AIM's. Then high-tailed it for base before more showed up.
All the while a ground battle, with real gamers in each vehicle was raging not too far from airfield making landing tricky but quite visually impressive.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 28, 2013
herodotus
Damn, I do go on, and so way off topic as well....:)
*self-moderates*
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 29, 2013
herodotus
Actually I didn't much like "ArmA II" for MP, nor SP for that matter. Far too simulator-heavy for infantry combat for me where reflexes are everything. Vehicles are okay, but quite fiddly when re-mapping keys. Don't play the game for 3 months, and you have re-learn the keystrokes all over again.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 29, 2013
Kres
I've played ArmA2 but also didn't liked it too much. What was that other ARMA alike game that was released about the same time as ARMA2? ... I liked one of the two as it had AI defending posts that teams capture. So it gave it some extra gameplay layer. But on the other hand, yes too heavy realism in those games is also not really ok for me. I'd like something between BF and ARMA. WITH COMMANDER OVERLAY.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 29, 2013
herodotus
"Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising" was the one you're thinking of I believe Kres. I've played it, and despite much criticism I actually enjoyed it more than "ArmA II". I agree the capturing/defending of key points gave the game objectives, yet fundamentally it was flawed (particularly vehicular combat). The AI too was rather haphazard. I'd hoped that all might be rectified with the sequel "OF: Red River" but that one is absolute rubbish. The graphics are washed out by far too much bloom and lighting, and there is way too much time spent in travelling to waypoints.
Aside from "DCS: World" and "Battlefield 2" I can't think of anything else that gives the Commander experience at the moment, aside from grand strategies.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Mar 30, 2013
Kres
Cursed the day when Chosen told me about FA Forever! I want my life back. Seriously I'll need to deinstall it. The game is an absolute RTS perfection. I'm not talking about Starcraft.

And yep Herod that's the one. Didn't played an awful lot of em even though I got both. Altogether 2 hours, if so. Was BF junky at the time but losing respect for that as well.