Review: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is the second instalment in an intended trilogy about the ongoing battle between Terrans (humans), the insectlike Zerg and the psionic humanoid Protoss.

NameStarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Summary:Heart of the Swarm is enjoyable, but it’s not a huge leap forward for the franchise.
Rating:3.5/5
Games Info:Developer: Blizzard Entertainment; Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Classification:M
Platform:Mac OS X,PC
Test Platform:PC

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StarCraft was released back in 1998, and as an immensely popular military strategy/action series, has spawned sequels, including StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty in 2010. The newest release, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is the second instalment in an intended trilogy about the ongoing battle between Terrans (humans), the insectlike Zerg and the psionic humanoid Protoss.

The first installment of StarCraft II focused on Terrans and the redemption of Sarah Kerrigan, who had previously been captured by Zerg and genetically mutated into the Queen of Blades, a powerful Zerg/human hybrid. At the end of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Kerrigan was returned to human form. Heart of the Swarm is devoted to the Zerg storyline and the struggle of Kerrigan to find her identity as both human and the Queen of Blades.

As the single-player campaign begins, Kerrigan teams up with Jim Raynor, her rescuer and would-be love interest, to fight against their old nemesis, Arcturus Mengsk. Pretty soon however, she must decide how far she is willing to go in her quest for vengeance.

The plot is fairly linear, but that’s nothing new for StarCraft and it’s handled smoothly. At each point, Kerrigan decides which planet or region to go to next, but you get to do all of the 30 available missions before the campaign is through. The majority of missions are the typical StarCraft mix of developing resources, building troops and - inevitably - attempting to crush your opponent.

One early mission, for example, sees Kerrigan taking over the Zerg home planet from a usurper, Zagara. Each mission has essential objectives - in this case, Kerrigan has to collect 100 Zerg eggs to start her army, while preventing Zagara from doing the same. Neutralising Zagara is the natural and brutal conclusion to the mission. In addition, bonus objectives, such as eliminating all Baneling nests, earn additional points for Kerrigan’s growth in power and achievements.

Each mission adds an extra level of challenge, whether it be from new and powerful enemies, maps where strategic positioning is crucial, or maps where blocks or detours have to be tackled at the same time as juggling troops, resources and battle.

But there’s more than just battlefield missions and maps here. Heart of the Swarm is all about the Zerg, who perform genetic manipulation to achieve perfection. The new evolution missions involve you in this drive for perfection. You can try out all possible mutations in the evolution missions, experimenting and then pitting your newly-developed Zerglings, Banelings and Mutalisks against enemies to find out which combinations work best with your game style. Instant Zerglings? Sign me up!

Even aside from the evolution missions, you can regularly upgrade your troops, as well as Kerrigan herself. At the start of one mission, I could choose between giving my Zerglings harder carapaces, faster movement speed or rapid attack speed. In that case, faster movement was a no-brainer, but you can select whatever improvements work with your game style in a satisfying way.

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With Kerrigan, each level she gains sees her able to choose one of two powers - some tied to her personal abilities, such as Crushing Grip or Chain Reaction, and others tied to her role as Queen of the Zerg swarm such as Wild Mutation and Span Banelings.

But it’s in this development of Kerrigan and her abilities that some of the flaws of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm come to light. On normal difficulty many early missions are straightforward, even easy, to complete. It was trivial to complete the objectives, bonus objectives and extra achievements by accident on many maps and missions. Sure, there was the occasional map where reacting just a little too slow meant a complete restart - timing your expansion and troop development is vital to success, as always. However, once you give Kerrigan some of her more powerful abilities, the game gets just a little too easy.

Even the achievements are, on early levels, all acquired while playing at normal difficulty - it wasn’t until around two-thirds of the way through the game that I finally saw some achievements that you could only get on Hard or higher difficulty. I’m looking forward to diving into the harder difficulty settings and trying to tick off all of the really tough achievements, now under the Mastery section of the achievements page. If you, like me, love to tick off every possible achievement, then there’s enough to keep you busy for the basic 16-20 hours of campaign play, and about the same amount to get through the replays on the two higher difficulty settings.

This ease of gameplay on normal game settings has also been a flaw of other recent Blizzard games, such as Diablo III, but if there’s an area in which Blizzard excels, it’s cinematics. Of course, it’s been three years since the last release, and graphics have been boosted immensely. It’s great to see the Zerg get a lot more attention in terms of graphical detail, this time round. The graphics for Heart of the Swarm have undergone an upgrade from those in Wings of Liberty. With a new, rebuilt physics engine the edges are sharper and movements smoother. It’s much prettier to look at. The frequent cutscenes are just gorgeous, and if the dialogue is a little cheesy - well, at least it provides some humour.

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We ran into a few bugs while playing - the game crashed a couple of times, and we hit a bug that wouldn’t let us save games until I restarted the PC. Be aware, too, of which server you are logged in to - any achievements from Wings of Liberty only get carried over if you use the same region’s server. Hopefully the bugs will be ironed out quickly - Blizzard is pretty good at frequent patches.

Multiplayer is also available, with matches around your skill level to make multiplayer games challenging and interesting even if you’re a beginner. You get points even if you lose, ensuring that you’ll slowly work your way up the ladder. For those with more experience, it will be a matter of learning how best to use the new skills and unit developments against your opponent. The first Heart of the Swarm tournament has already been held, and with so many people working to master the new skills, maps and creature developments it will provide entertainment and challenge for months to come if multiplayer is your thing.

Heart of the Swarm is enjoyable and with some interesting storyline developments that I won’t spoil for you here, except to say that it makes me wonder how they will wrap things up in the third part of the trilogy. It was almost disappointing to have the Campaign turn out to be entirely Zerg missions, when Wings of Liberty was a mix of Terran and Protoss missions. Having said that, on hard difficulty, the campaign missions should provide good challenge even for long-time players, though there’s not quite as much meat at Wings of Liberty provided. For StarCraft beginners, you can buy a bundle pack of Heart of the Swarm with Wings of Liberty direct from Blizzard that provides great tutorials and is a solid way to invest in the series.

At its best, StarCraft is a challenging, thrilling, fast-paced real-time strategy game. Heart of the Swarm is a worthy sequel to Wings of Liberty, but doesn’t reach quite the same heights.

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Zara Baxter

Unknown Publication

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