Sunday, March 17, 2013

Game Review: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm (PC, 2013)

After nearly three years, we finally have StarCraft II’s first expansion, Heart of the Swarm (HotS), and it is glorious.  Picking up where Wings of Liberty left off, HotS gives us the next chapter in the continuing struggle between Terran, Zerg, and Protoss forces, this time focusing on the Zerg swarm’s side of things.  Also introducing several new multiplayer units and a number of new features and interface changes, HotS is a significant upgrade to StarCraft II.

The campaign gives you 27 missions to explore the Zerg swarm’s dominance of the Koprulu Sector.  A number of great features from Wings of Liberty return: There is some quasi-nonlinearity, in that there are a few places where you get to choose which missions you’ll embark on next, affecting the units you’ll have available to you.  A number of between-mission upgrades are available for making the swarm stronger, but this time you can change which upgrades are active any time you want (they aren’t permanent choices like they were in Liberty).  You’ll also see several stunning cutscenes and fantastic storytelling, making for the most cinematic StarCraft outing yet.

The cutscenes are fantastically animated.

Speaking of the story, HotS has a pretty compelling plot.  Following closely on the heels of the final moments of Wings of Liberty, HotS gives us a much more focused storyline, showing different elements of Kerrigan’s rise to power (again) rather than the disjointed mission sequences that we had in Liberty.  We accompany Kerrigan on her quest for revenge against Emperor Mengsk, and every mission and cutscene contributes to that plot.  I was a little disappointed with the romantic subplot, as it was used as an unnecessary crutch at times, but even that felt like a natural development for these particular characters.  It’s a really tight narrative, which makes it that much more exciting.

HotS also introduces some exciting new features to complement its exciting storyline.  The most obvious is the fact that you get to control Kerrigan in many of the campaign’s missions.  She behaves very much like an RPG character (or the heroes from WarCraft III), gaining levels and learning new abilities as the game progresses.  It’s cool to have this powerful hero evolve under your command.  You also have the modified upgrade system mentioned above, as well as variety of missions and mission objectives.  It comes across as a diverse game.

A considerably less exciting feature that comes with Kerrigan’s RPG tendencies is the presence of hero-centric missions.  These missions give you control of only a handful of units, including Kerrigan, akin to the “facility” missions of the original StarCraft.  Your goal is to infiltrate a base or escape some area with this small task force, which feels a bit out of place in a real-time strategy (RTS) game.  What makes these missions feel like they’d be much more at home in a Diablo game is the fact that there are occasionally big boss battles.  Rather than trying to overwhelm some powerful army, you have to utilize Kerrigan’s skills to eliminate some big baddie.  It’s kind of cool the first time you see it, but by the third boss, it definitely loses its charm.  I would much rather have had more hardcore strategy missions.

A boss battle, in my RTS?

In fact, the biggest flaws of the HotS campaign come from a general lack of hardcore strategy missions.  The number of missions (27) is a bit deceiving, as 7 of those missions are really simple evolution missions.  The evolutions themselves are a cool idea – at certain points in the campaign, you get the chance to evolve one of your basic units, changing its fundamental features (for example, one zergling evolution allows them to jump up cliffs).  The evolution missions let you try the available options in action before deciding on one of the mutually exclusive evolutions, but that’s all they do – they are really short and are very easily completed.

On top of the number of disappointing missions, the campaign is pretty easy.  I had no trouble blasting through everything even on the hardest difficulty, so it’s not much of a challenge.

Kerrigan shows her proficiency with force lightning while destroying a Terran base in the campaign.
Despite the flaws, the campaign is quite fun.  The basic StarCraft mechanics are definitely there, making the missions enjoyable, and the presentation definitely conveys the urgency and scope of commanding the totality of the Zerg swarm.  It’s a lot of fun building a powerful army and smiting your enemies, and the programming (unit AI, controls, etc.) is fantastic.  I never felt like my units weren’t doing what I had intended them to do, and the units seem quite balanced, so it’s a damn good game.

Of course, there is a vast multiplayer community in addition to the HotS campaign.  New units for multiplayer matches mean new strategies and new metagames.  A new online leveling system gives players something to strive for, as you can unlock additional portraits and unit skins by playing as your favorite race.  The interface has changed a lot since the launch of Wings of Liberty, too, making it much sleeker and easier to navigate.  The changes to multiplayer all make it more accessible and addicting while still maintaining the competitive nature that defines online play in StarCraft.  Even better – you can easily switch back to Wings of Liberty to play under the old multiplayer system (or the Liberty campaign, if you like), so you don’t lose anything by adding in the expansion.  The active multiplayer community means that you'll never have to wait too long to get a match - HotS can easily keep players entertained for the next three years.

My base getting destroyed in a 3v3 multiplayer match. That happens a lot...
All things considered, Heart of the Swarm is a fantastic expansion.  It adds some quality missions and chronicles the next stage in the StarCraft saga beautifully.  Although it is a little on the easy side and has some odd missions, the fundamentals are solid, and it’s hard to stop playing once you start.  Add in some nice customization options and a deep multiplayer experience with an impressive community, and you have an all-around fabulous RTS experience.

My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.

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