StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm review
It’s a game of two halves, but then it always was. Once again, StarCraft II is split between a heavily scripted singleplayer campaign that’s in equal parts epic and overblown, and strategy gaming’s most ferociously competitive, tightly-balanced multiplayer.
And never the twain shall meet? Well, not necessarily – the singleplayer in Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, this first of two planned expansions for Blizzard's strategy sequel, is perhaps better training for the exacting demands of multiplayer than its predecessor, Wings of Liberty. That’s due to the focus on Aliens-like race the Zerg, the titular swarm, and a faction who are rather different to control than the real-time strategy norm. These slimy critters are a sort of rolling wave of destruction across the game’s maps, but maintaining their vast numbers require unusual and rather technical upkeep.
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StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm - Single player
The sizeable campaign – some 27 levels in totals – teaches the basics of controlling the swarm, but at the same time it continually alters the rules of engagement in order to realise a fairly extreme power fantasy. Battles in singleplayer are far more about indulging yourself in overwhelming alien might than the incomparably tense, unforgiving push’n’pull of multiplayer.
This ties into the campaign’s story, the tale of Zerg-corrupted human Sarah Kerrigan, and her quest for revenge against those who destroyed her life. While Wings of Liberty’s conclusion saw her restored to humanity, Heart of the Swarm doesn’t take long to welcome her back to the Zerg fold, albeit less monstrous than before.
Sadly the game’s writing is a mess of cheese, clichés and taking itself far too seriously, which is unfortunate in that it undermines what could have been a fascinating character study – a woman struggling to retain her humanity even when granted ultimate power to destroy those she feels deserve punishment.
Alternately mawkish and pathetically self-important dialogue was Wings of Liberty’s greatest failing too, so it’s a shame to see no lessons have been learned on that front. Meanwhile, a superficially refreshing attempt to cast a sci-fi action tale with a female lead is rather than undone by the ridiculously sexualised depiction of Kerrigan - curves conveniently left on show even while the rest of her is covered in Zergised spines and scales – and that her fate is repeatedly and ultimately decided by the ‘wisdom’ and actions of men. Despite cosmic levels of power, she’s still the princess waiting for her rescuer.
Rather better handled is the decision to make the campaign into as much of an action-RPG as it is a strategy game. Big battles with base-building and army-smashing abound, but they’re interspersed regularly with inventive missions focused on single characters and special abilities. One level essentially recreates Alien, with you as the Alien, another has you stalking around a jungle for a quartet of setpiece boss fights, another has you able to instantly summon a horde of Zerg roachlings so vast that even the most powerful PC will struggle to keep up. It’s impressive, clearly high-budget stuff, and puts paid to the lie that StarCraft II only really exists for multiplayer.
Between missions, there’s also a wide choice of upgrades for Kerrigan and her army, so while the level progression may be relatively fixed, you do get to choose how you go about it to some degree. And, should you still be too nervous about multiplayer to give that a go after the last, pompous cutscene rolls, the campaign’s rich with options to replay levels with new armies, new challenges and new achievements. There was much consternation about developer Blizzard’s decision to split StarCraft II into three full-price chunks, and while it’s hard not to feel there’s a certain amount of gouging going on, you certainly can’t argue with the quantity of incomparably spectacular singleplayer RTS available here.
Next page: multiplayer
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm - Multiplayer
Multiplayer, by contrast, comes across more like a glorified, if sizeable and highly thoughtful, patch. Beta-tested over several longs months, it’s packed with new units, abilities and tweaks designed to expand the range of tactical options available to StarCraft II’s none-more-hardcore multiplayer community. Units that sometimes risked feeling a little redundant are brought back into the fray with heavily-tested changes, while new ones include moveable, insect-hurling turrets the Zerg Swarm Host, a rare defensive soldier for the infamously offensive horde. All told, while the numbers aren’t that huge, it’s certainly enough to make matches play differently – and thus freshen up the game significantly.
Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of work done to try and get newcomers into this larger aspect of StarCraft II. AI for solo skirmish and training mission has become highly impressive, and there’s a raft of ways to discover how to play and how to improve. The road to reaching Gold or Platinum league remains as long and arduous as ever, but it’s now perhaps a little less daunting than once was.
Once you’ve elected to start on that road proper, the game’s auto-matchmaking against other, similarly skilled players is now reliable to the point of eeriness. God only knows what information the game’s secretly recording while you play, but nine out of ten times you’ll find yourself in a fight you could plausibly win yet just as likely lose. While other strategy games can’t hope to have StarCraft II’s budget (the list of names in the game’s credits is into four figures), if only more of them could somehow emulate the matchmaking magic on show here.
The degree to which StarCraft II is now a hub for community content also shines. The UI is awash with videostreams and replays of pro-matches, training videos and ingenious mods which transform the game into any and everything – RPG, platformer, quasi-MMO, all sorts.
As such, thinking about Heart of the Swarm as an ‘expansion’ isn’t quite right. It’s a necessary, fundamental part of StarCraft II’s ongoing evolution, and while balking at the price is quite understandable, it’s an absolute must-buy for even the most casual StarCraft II player.
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StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm: Specs
- Windows 7 / XP / Vista, Mac OS X
- Windows 7 / XP / Vista, Mac OS X
As far from a token add-on as you could imagine. Big, brash, cheesy singleplayer and subtle, thoughtful multiplayer improvements make StarCraft II's first expansion a must-have.