Review: Starcraft II: Heart of The Swarm

23 03 2013

The 2nd installment in the trilogy of Starcraft II games has finally arrived. Nearly 2 years after the launch of Wings of Liberty, Starcraft II: Heart of The Swarm continues the story of the Starcraft universe right where it left off in the previous chapter with 20 new campaign missions and various new units and improvements to the multiplayer gameplay as well.

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Whereas Wings of Liberty focus was primarily on the Terrans, following the exploits of Jim Raynor, this time around the grotesque and relentless Zerg race takes the spotlight, led by the “Queen of Blades” Sarah Kerrigan who has been an iconic and central figure to the Starcraft games since the original release of the series in the 1990s. Players take control of Kerrigan and scour the stars to unite the splintered remnants of the once-mighty Zerg swarm for conquest and vengeance.

Kerrigan’s quest to restore the swarm will revisit familiar locales across the expanse of planets and star clusters while also venturing deep into the unknown, delving into thus far unseen territories in search of the secrets of evolution and the origin of the Zerg themselves. You will encounter many new and interesting characters during this journey, with a few surprise appearances from old friends and foes along the way. I was unsure of how much interesting dialogue there would be in this Zerg-driven chapter of the story since the Zerg seem to vocalize primarily with phlegmy shrieks and gutteral hissing which doesn’t make for a very conversational species. Thankfully Kerrigan indeed encounters several Zerg characters that are memorable and sometimes even sympathetic in the form of unique specimens of the Zerg, individuals who have emerged from the faceless legions and have been instilled with intelligence and identity either through sheer force of circumstance or careful design on part of the hive mind. These “voices in the swarm” are genuinely fascinating to interact with and represent the different facets of the evolutionary path of the Zerg; a reminder of where they came from and also of where they must go. The secrets that are uncovered and the events that unfold will change the way you think about the Zerg swarm forever. Do the Zerg feel joy and sorrow? Do they feel remorse? Does the swarm have a soul? True to its name, Heart of The Swarm is an exploration of some of these topics and asks the questions that were there all along but nobody thought to ask and manages to answer many of them.

As a dedicated Zerg player myself, the campaign was an absolute joy to play through. “Zerg porn” springs to mind as the kind of morbid fascination to be had from progressing through the various scenarios and building upon the might of the swarm, cultivating and nurturing its power, watching it adapt, evolve, mutate, swell, and thrive. There are various Zerg organisms and abilities that make an exclusive appearance in the singleplayer campaign that are as unique as they are powerful and will have you enthralled, anticipating the next metamorphosis of your forces’ capabilities (I can make my zerglings do WHAT? I can make my ultralisks do WHAT?). Towards the end of the campaign your swarm will evolve into an unstoppable tsunami of crushing claws, venomous needles, acidic cysts, and various other unnameable things. I wish there was a mode of play in which you would be able to utilize all of the monstrous mutant strains of Zerg found in the campaign with a multiplayer component but alas, they are confined to the singleplayer experience only for now.

The design of the scenarios are also engaging and will keep you interested from mission to mission. One mission will will have you turning sub-zero blizzard flash freezes to your strategic advantage on a barren ice world while others will put you on the front lines of a planetary invasion against a heavily fortified Terran outpost, and each situation adds some intriguing considerations to the gameplay without being overbearing. My favorite mission has you take control of a parasitic larva impregnated into a Protoss host, sent to infiltrate and infest their ship from within, a definite ode to the Alien film franchise. One criticism I do have is that Heart of The Swarm has noticeably less branching narrative choices than in Wings of Liberty; that is to say pretty much none. In Wings of Liberty there were some interesting but tough choices you were asked to make at certain points in the story; which cause or character you would support that would win you some friends and some enemies, but these seem to be notably absent in Heart of The Swarm. However, you may be reminded of some of the choices you made in Wings of Liberty as old acquaintances turn up in the events of Heart of the Swarm, for better or worse.

Touching briefly on the multiplayer side of things, there are various unit additions to the 3 races to inject change into the capabilities of the different factions and the delicate balance of the metagame. The Terrans received the Widow Mine, which is able to burrow into the ground in a cloaked state to create traps and defensive positioning, as well as the ability to transform Hellions into Hellbats, walking battle-mechs that cast gouts of flame in a wide swath rather than a linear stream making them effective counters to clusters of weak units. The Zerg received the Swarm Host and the Viper, the first being a difficult to use but powerful siege unit that continually disgorges locust units to pester and pressure enemy positions and the latter being a late-game flying caster unit with a very useful “blinding cloud” ability that easily disrupts armies that rely to heavily on ranged units. The Protoss additions are all aerial units, such as the Oracle and the Tempest, the Oracle being a caster/harassment unit with detection and vision extension capabilities, and the Tempest is the replacement for the Carrier; an incredibly powerful late game airship with tremendous range. Additionally the Protoss can now create a Mothership Core, a premature state of the mighty Mothership that functions as a skirmishing support vessel. I was sad to see the omission of the Carrier in Heart of The Swarm since the spectacle of the packs of interceptors weaving through the battlefield was one of the iconic visuals of the Starcraft franchise.

Heart of The Swarm serves perfectly as both a follow-up to Wings of Liberty and a bridge towards the final chapter, Legacy of the Void. It brings closure to the events of the past chapter while unearthing new threats and omens of destruction that will come to pass in the epic conclusion of the Starcraft II saga. It’s a no-brainer for Starcraft veterans but I wouldn’t recommend it as a point of entry for newcomers, at least as far as the campaign experience goes. Play through Wings of Liberty first to get a handle on the story so far; it will be worth it to understand the significance and weight of the events of Heart of The Swarm.

EDIT: My friend Steven informed me that Carriers are actually still in the game, reintroduced at some point during the beta. Shows you how much I play races other than Zerg, haha!


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