When it was first announced that StarCraft ll was going to be split into three parts, fans were somewhat upset.
To be fair, It did kind of sound like Blizzard was trying to extract every last penny from its fan base by dividing one game into incomplete chunks. However, fans fears would be dispelled once Wings of Liberty hit store shelves in 2010. Boasting a near 20 hour Terran focused campaign, it was pretty clear that Blizzard wasn’t messing us around. I, and many others, started to come round to the idea of spreading StarCraft 2 across 3 games. Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of Void didn’t need to be massively different mechanically or visually, in order to justify their existence. By focusing on one race for each campaign, these games could potentially have their own unique personality and play style, without seriously shaking up the formula. And while Heart of the Swarm may stumble in a few areas, it manages to do exactly that.
Unfortunately, I can’t really talk about Heart of the Swarm’s campaign, without spoiling Wings of Liberty’s. So here is your warning, right here and now. Go away, finish Wings of Liberty, and come back.
So Wings of Liberty ended with Kerrigan having regained her humanity, or at least most of it. Heart of the Swarm begins with Jim Raynor and his raiders posted on a research facility where Valerian Mengsk, Arcturus’s son, is testing to see how much control over the swarm Kerrigan still has. Daddy’s not too happy with his son’s recent behaviour and sends in Dominion troops to take over the facility and assassinate Kerrigan. Kerrigan manages to escape, but it’s made clear that Arcturus Mengsk will sacrifice anything to remove her from the equation. So, she sets out to regain control of the swarm, but with her new found humanity keeping her actions and decisions in check.
The writing and storytelling in Heart of the Swarm is inconsistent. Kerrigan’s tale of redemption can at times be really engaging. Other times, it just gets way too silly, and falls into some old clichés. Heart of the Swarm suffers from its self-serious tone. Wings of Liberty was packed full of humour and constantly poked fun at its own ridiculousness. Because of this, I was able to engage and get wrapped up in the narrative, when events took a more serious turn. Heart of the Swarm is pretty much po-faced all the way through, which I have no problem with conceptually, I just don’t think the writers at Blizzard quite have the chops necessary to deliver that. In Blizzard’s attempt to get StarCraft to be taken more seriously, they’ve achieved the opposite.
The cast of characters aren’t nearly as charming as Wings of Liberty’s either. Kerrigan herself is a great character, with an satisfying arc, and more than adequately fills Jim Raynor’s shoes. But the characters that join her for this journey are just not that interesting. It’s very hard to emotionally invest in a monotone snake woman, with no history or motivations to call her own. Abathur, your evolution master, is the one exception. Kerrigan is a great believer in individuality, whereas Abathur basically sees the swarm as one massive entity that constantly chases after perfection. The conversations between these two showcase some of the best writing in the game, and I wish that the dialogue had been of this high a standard throughout the game.
Despite the cheesiness and unfavourable comparisons to Wings of Liberty, I did ultimately enjoy the story of Heart of the Swarm. The conclusion is definitely worth experiencing for long term fans, as it brings a couple of major story arcs to a satisfying close. The last cutscene will almost definitely leave you with a grin on your face.
Heart of the Swarm is as strong as StarCraft has ever been when it comes to gameplay. Structurally, it’s pretty much identical to Wings of Liberty. You have your space ship, or in this case, your giant slug monster who happens to let you chill out in his digestive system, which acts as your hub area. This is where you chat with large, disgusting growths, and upgrade your units before going into battle.
There has been quite a huge change to the way you upgrade units now, and this is nothing short of a small moment of genius on Blizzard’s part. Instead of being presented two upgrade paths and making a decision based solely on a text description, now you have unit specific scenarios called “evolution missions.” There whole reason for existing is so you can experience what these upgrades will do to your units, before making the difficult choice between the two. These missions are carefully constructed to showcase how and when to use these upgrades in more important missions. On top of that, they even give these missions narrative context that makes complete sense based on where you are in the story. Knowing exactly how useful these upgrades can be made choosing to commit to one vastly more painful than most games of this nature. It’s a simple idea, executed with intelligence and eloquence.
Another big change comes in the form of Kerrigan herself. Jim Raynor tended to hang back, shouting orders to his troops while safely aboard his space fortress. Kerrigan is much more hands on, and serves as a powerful hero unit throughout the game. Completing story missions and bonus objectives will level up Kerrigan’s stats and unlock more powerful abilities. There is a huge selection of useful powers to choose from, and I found there were plenty of opportunities to test them all out on the field. I personally tended to favour the more passive abilities that made Kerrigan, and any units fighting alongside her, more durable and more lethal. However if you’re more interested in bombastic abilities that tear up the battle field, there are a few that’ll tickle your fancy. One of my favourites grants Kerrigan the power to summon a massive Zerg leviathan, which completely obliterates enemy troops.
The missions are just as varied and well designed as the ones found in Wings of Liberty. Objectives are never as simple as, build a huge army and destroy the enemy base. The designers over at Blizzard keep changing things up, insuring you use different tactics and different units every mission. There are even a couple that completely change the basic rules of the game, and end up feeling more like DOTA or League of Legends than a regular RTS. All these missions do a great job of capitalising on the unique personality and play style of the zerg. In Wings of Liberty, I felt like I was in command of a rag tag battalion who were only just scrapping by. In Heart of the Swarm, it was like I was controlling a great wave of fangs and talons that swept across the battle field, laying waste to everything. Which is exactly what I wanted from the Zerg.
Of course, this being a game by Blizzard, Heart of the Swarm looks and sounds utterly fantastic. Visually it’s pretty much identical to Wings of Liberty, which is no bad thing. And the CG cut scenes still have no equal. It’s the score that sees the biggest change, replacing the country and western inspired strings, with more discordant and unsettling tunes. Again, this is another area where I preferred what Wings of Liberty offered. The space cowboy aesthetic is just a bit more appealing to me personally. That said, all the art work and music on display here is of an undeniably high standard.
Heart of the Swarm manages to successfully defend StarCraft’s position as the king of the traditional RTS experience. But for me at least, it just doesn’t quite reach the iconic status that Wings of Liberty managed back in 2010. By removing a lot of the single player’s humour, Blizzard removed a lot of StarCraft’s charm and personality as well. The story isn’t bad, but it is hard to take it as seriously as it takes its self. That aside, as a game, you’d be hard pressed to find anything as well designed in this genre.