Friday, 5 April 2013

Review: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (PC)


One thing that StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm does extremely well is present the monstrous Zerg as an undulating blanket of slimy, unspeakable nightmares. During the course of a few of the large scale battles when there were literally a hundred Zerg units crashing into enemy defenses, my skin actually crawled and I felt a flash of fight or flight. Something about the way the units are animated… it’s creepy. And when they’re all lumped together it’s close to terrifying.

Maybe I should see someone about my video game version of entomophbia.

As an “expansion” for StarCraft II, Heart of the Swarm picks up the story soon after the events of Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades and leader of the Zerg swarm, had her humanity restored thanks to the determination of Jim Raynor and life was good! As Heart of the Swarm begins, the Dominion arrives to screw things up royally. Jim Raynor is killed – or captured, I don’t want to give anything away – and Kerrigan returns to the swarm to have her revenge on Dominion leader, Arcturus Mengsk.

It’s a story of revenge through and through, but somehow Blizzard makes it interesting enough that I always wanted to go from mission to mission to see some of the best CG work in video games.

It was definitely a good thing that the missions don’t repeat too often as is always the danger for real-time strategy games, which very often, at least in the past, march in lockstep with build a base, build an army, crush the opposition, in that specific order.

Heart of the Swarm has its fair share of base building, et al. but it’s interspersed with smaller missions, where the player may have control over Kerrigan and a handful of units to perform some specific task or even take control of a human cruiser in outer space.

There are also Evolution Missions, which are basically hands-on time with upgrades for Zerg units before committing to one. Accessed via the Evolution Pit and explained by the charismatic Abathur, who speaks very much like another sci-fi geneticist Mordin Solus from the Mass Effect games, these quick missions afford concrete examples of advantages/disadvantages associated with each upgrade. A flying zergling or zergling that hatch almost immediately and each cocoon releases two zerglings? The choice is permanent but at least the player gets to take the unit for a test drive prior to committing. Each unit type can be modified a little more, but those changes can be flipped on a whim between missions.

As the hero unit, Kerrigan also gets in on the upgrades as the game moves forward and by the end she’s far more powerful than when she restarts her Zergling ways. Moving her around the battlefield is the key to success because she is so much more powerful than any other unit just having her show up often tips the balance. It does make those missions where she’s unavailable more of a challenge, but it does lend itself well to forcing the player to think differently when it comes to base defense and exploiting unit weaknesses.

More than with the human campaign – Wings of Liberty, released 2 1/2 years ago – there’s also plenty of opportunity with Heart of the Swarm to select every available fighting unit on a whim (with a button press) and smash them against the enemy force. This actually makes spreading creep important. (“Creep” is essentially Zerg mucus).

Not only does spreading creep lift the fog of war without putting units in harm’s way, it also allows Zerg units to traverse the battlefield more quickly and in the case of one unit there’s the chance to burrow into the ground and pop up immediately wherever there’s creep.

In the later missions, it does create multi-front engagements, which are harder to manage, but offers some “job well done” satisfaction at the end of a mission, many of which are hard fought (though it does depend on the difficulty level the player chooses).

Besides the additional Challenge Missions, there’s the daunting prospect of multiplayer, which, with all honesty, I have yet to play. Having dabbled with Wings of Liberty’s multiplayer, it taught me enough that I would simply come away from the experience frustrated more than anything. I get a lot of enjoyment from the Campaign – and replaying certain missions – so I’m not sure if I’d ever dive into multiplayer. I’d probably just drown.

I’ve watched some multiplayer matches and gape at the skill and speed with which the upper tier of players can proceed through a map. I know that not everyone is going to be at that skill level, but it does nothing to encourage me to jump in when the time commitment necessary to memorize build orders, map layouts, and strategies and adjust everything on the fly just isn’t possible.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm offers a challenging campaign, plenty of story and character to consider, and much in the way of production value that few other games can match. The “always on” connection to the internet might rankle some – though I experienced no issues in this regard; even if Battlenet was offline of the Internet was down, the single-player was still available though “achievements” were not – but Heart of the Swarm is a great follow-up to Wings of Liberty and makes me wish the game rolled into part three immediately.

- Aaron Simmer

The Good:
- Some of the best production values you’ll find in a game
- The swarm wriggles convincingly
- Kerrigan plays second fiddle to no one
- *SPOILERS* Heading to the Zerg home world is neat

The Bad:
- Multiplayer doesn’t even tempt me! Co-op would have grabbed my attention more *
- Players expecting a tactical fight will be sorely disappointed

Score: 8.5 / 10

* ADDENDUM: After this review was posted I was contacted a reader who wanted me to correct something about the review. Being so laser-focused on the single-player campaign I ignored the fact that Heart of the Swarm does offer co-op play in contrast to what I noted in "The Bad" summary. Very politely he explained:

There are in fact a myriad of co-op opportunities:

1) 2v2, 3v3, 4v4 against other people. In this case, you and a buddy can sit down and take on an opposite team together.
2) 2v2, 3v3, 4v4 against AI. If other players are too stressful, you can play against the computer. The computer adapts to your ability to play giving a nice sustainable experience. There are also custom maps such as Left 2 Die where one gets to play missions similar to the campaign with friends.
3) THE ARCADE. There's a huge number of player-made custom maps, many of which are co-op. The mapmaking tools included by Blizzard make it possible for anyone to make new games within the Starcraft 2 client. For a less daunting experience, try for example Desert Strike HOTS. It's a tug of war game against other players, without almost any economy management or micro.

I stand corrected and humbled. Apologies if I mislead anyone! The co-op, from what I've played of it, is pretty darn fun.