Everyone is familiar with the fact that RTS games are my ‘thing’. They were among the first games I ever played (at least that had a lasting impact on me), and I grew up with them. It’s a genre I can’t get enough of, and StarCraft has always been among my favorites. Thus, when Blizzard finally announced StarCraft II, I was understandably excited, but was even more interested when they announced they were separating the game into three parts.
While it’s a bummer that we have to wait for each section, It’s hard to argue when it means we get more StarCraft games for sure in the foreseeable future. Alright, enough about me, let’s get on into the heart of this review.
Expansion vs. Sequel
It’s been a couple long years since StarCraft 2 first launched, and after so long, many fans (including myself) wondered why they didn’t just go ahead and call Heart of the Swarm a full on sequel, rather than an expansion? It seemed like that would appease people a tad more, and give them a little more peace of mind when it comes to waiting so long between games (chances are the third game is going to take the same amount of time). Now that I’ve had some extensive hands on time with the game and the story, I have to say that this is most definitely an expansion.
The game plays and feels like an expansion, despite it adding in enough content for a full game in its own right. Wings of Liberty included a lot of extra stuff that you could do around your command vessel, that made it worthwhile to travel around and talk with a bunch of people (and even an standalone arcade game). On top of that, it featured a branching mission path, wherein you could choose particular missions that would shape the path of your story and the allies you ultimately worked with.
Heart of the Swarm keeps some of these elements, but cuts down on them as well. There are still people to talk to on your vessel and upgrades you can do, but that’s about it. The conversations you have aren’t as plentiful as they were before, and the mission progression is linear this time. You’ll play every mission, and the only real choices you’ll make are in dealing with your upgrades; but even those can be changed back and switched up.
Some new units are added (we’ll talk more about that stuff later), and the story picks up where the previous game left off, without any real summary provided. If you haven’t played through the first game, it doesn’t take the time to really catch you up; but why would you want to skip out on that awesome game to begin with?
In all, “expansion” is probably the best way to refer to Heart of the Swarm, as that’s about all it does. While it whittles down some of the more encompassing aspects of the ‘main’ (or first) game, it adds in more than enough to hold it’s own. Despite it’s length and general awesomeness, it’s hard to consider this a full on sequel.
The best thing to keep in mind when it comes to Heart of the Swarm is that it’s vitally important to not take it too seriously. The characters are loveable, it’s hard to not enjoy seeing them on the screen, but if you think too much about the storyline (or at all really) you’ll quickly realize that it makes little-to-no sense. At times the motives for the characters are in direct contradiction of the story established by previous games, or even earlier segments.
That’s not to say the story is bad overall, it just doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the StarCraft universe that we know. It’s almost as if they forgot about their own continuity, and decided to just go with whatever worked for them at the time. Even so, I still found myself anxious to keep the story going, because it is kind of fun, just don’t try and get invested into it too much.
The story centers on Kerrigan this time around, after she is brought back to her human form at the end of the last game. Now that she’s redeemed, everyone seems happy about it, but as tends to happen in these scenarios, all Hell breaks loose and she once again finds herself in control of the Zerg. Seeing as how Wings of Liberty was all about finding and dealing with Kerrigan (mostly to try and save her), it seems odd that this game is all about her taking control of the Zerg again.
This happens within minutes actually, and basically makes it so that all you accomplished in the first game, in terms of story, was absolutely pointless. You saved Kerrigan, only to have her go back to her old ways almost immediately, and once again bent on revenge and destruction. So we’re back to square one. As I said, when you think about the story, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s hard to be too upset when the story, as ridiculous as it is, is presented in such a gorgeous way. Don’t go in expecting deep storytelling and you’ll be just fine.
The campaign took me about eleven(ish) hours to complete and I enjoyed every minute of it. As campy as it can be at times, it was fun to play through and see the story from the ‘bad guy’ perspective. I enjoyed seeing the deeper side to the Zerg, rather than the mindless beasts they’re normally portrayed as.
Just Like Old Times
The gameplay is exactly what you’ve come to expect from traditional real-time strategy games. You gather resources, build armies, and then rain destruction down upon your foes. Where Heart of the Swarm really shines, however, is the fine layer of polish it has on the gameplay and controls. While it’s a formula that’s been around for years, Blizzard has perfected it, and it plays incredibly smoothly.
The controls are simple enough for people brand new to the genre to pick up without much issue, while offering plenty of depth and nuances for the more advanced players. New tweaks like the leveling system for your hero, more dynamic interactions with the maps you play on, and slightly different takes on missions feel at once refreshing and familiar. Even for someone who’s played a ridiculous amount of varied RTS games over the years, nothing felt mundane or routine. I still felt compelled and a desire to keep trucking along on a mission.
New units are thrown into the mix as well and valued additions. After playing with some of the newer units after a few missions, there was a part of me that wondered, how I had played without them in the previous game. They added something worthwhile to the experience and could genuinely alter your strategies. The new units aren’t simply there for decoration, they’ll impact the way you play through missions.
One of the things I really enjoyed (though it’s not exactly new) is the way in which the maps you play on, feel full of life. They aren’t static backgrounds from which you battle your enemies, they feel like an actual world in which you are conducting business on. Planetary effects such as freezes that halt your troops unless you upgrade, or lava flows that can wipe out your entire army if you aren’t paying attention add to this feeling. Couple those with warring factions of creatures, and other things you have to look out for other than your opponent, and each map feels different and unique to play.
One new element thrown in that not everyone has enjoyed are the evolution missions. To be honest, they aren’t so much missions as they are tutorials. They’re impossible to lose at, and their sole purpose is to show you how the new units work and the best ways in which to use them. This is perfectly fine with me, and frankly, I found them to be a more interesting and engaging way to introduce upgrades, rather than having you click a button and watching a little video about it. In this way, you can actually play around with the new units and upgrades, before having to make your decision on which ones you want to implement. Are they simple? Absolutely, but it’s easier than other trial and error methods.
If you only play the campaign in StarCraft II then you’re really only playing half the game. Getting online and battling armies against your friends (or random strangers) an experience all unto itself. Blizzard spent a lot of time on Heart of the Swarm’s multiplayer aspect in an effort to optimize it for eSports play and to give it a lasting quality. Frankly, I think they succeeded.
They didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything with the multiplayer, but it feels far more refined. The balance between units and armies is unparallelled in any other game, and for the most part, it feels as though you’re starting out matches on a completely even keel. Matchmaking has been tuned a tad in an effort to partner you with people roughly your skill level. This doesn’t always work out, but it’s better than it has been in the past.
On the whole, Heart of the Swarm’s online component feels like it’s more welcoming to newcomers than it has been in the past. The new tweaks to the formula are sure to excite veterans, but they don’t exclude the novices either. You’re given a wealth of modes that can ease you into the online atmosphere and prepare you to make the jump to real opponents. This was probably the best aspect for me. I’m not huge into playing games online, and when I jump on to play and immediately get my ass handed to me, it can put me off of going on to the next match.
I don’t think I’m the only gamer who feels that way, and these new modes helped prepare me to the point where I had way more fun playing in matches without any of the frustration; though I still got beat handily at times. The Heart of the Swarm multiplayer feels like one I can play for a very long time to come, and seeing as how that was Blizzard’s goal with the tweaks, they’ve succeeded in spades.
Not All Rainbows and Sunshine
Regardless of how good a game is, there are inevitably some problems with it, or things we wish would have been done differently. Heart of the Swarm is no different, and there were a couple ‘gripes’ I had as I played through. Perhaps the most significant was the overall difficulty of the campaign. Even on harder modes, I can’t think of a mission that gave me much trouble, and I never had to replay any due to losing. While I love the hero character of Kerrigan, she felt overpowered at times and there were very few enemies I dreaded facing.
This sort of ties into the easiness complaint, but the game seems to hold your hand quite a bit. There are still bonus/side missions to complete, but they’re marked clearly on the map for you, and you’re generally guided to them anyway. It also continually reminds you of what you should be doing. Rather than figuring something out on your own, it explicitly tells you to take this drone, put him over here, build that, do this…etc. Even though it’s an RTS game, there were some missions where I felt like I wasn’t coming up with my own strategies, the game was merely telling me what I should do.
Outside of the goofy storyline, I can’t say I found much else wrong with the game. I wouldn’t consider any of these problems as deal killers either. The biggest thing that bugs me, is that we’ve got to wait for the next game!
As many of you are aware, this month is crowded with a lineup of stellar game releases. So many in fact, that even some of the large games could be overshadowed or even lost in the crowd. With a stack of games waiting for me to play, I still found myself coming back to Heart of the Swarm. I just couldn’t stay away from it. It’s an addictive formula, that’s so well crafted, it’s hard to break away from.
Even in this crowded month, with your backlog of games filling up, you’ll find yourself coming back to Heart of the Swarm. It has an irresistible pull that draws you in, and once you’re at the computer, “just one mission” doesn’t happen.
It’s StarCraft II…what more do you want? In all seriousness, Heart of the Swarm provides an excellent experience that’s fun and rewarding for both newcomers and veterans alike. While it uses traditional RTS mechanics, they’re so well-tuned you can’t help but love it. Despite it’s story, the game still sucks you in and even with a stack of other games, you’ll have a hard time putting it down.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (available now for the PC) gets a 9 out of 10.