The battle for intergalactic supremacy between the Zerg, Protoss, Terrans and South Koreans has been raging in the Koprulu Sector for fifteen years. Fifteen years of six pool Zergling rushes, Mineral Line Marine Drops and Zealots blocking the entrance to their base like gigantic idoits! StarCraft has no doubt had a rich and assorted history and now, a decade and bit after we first heard the chilling words “you must construct additional Pylons,” we get Heart of the Swarm. An expansion to the Terran focussed Wings of Liberty and a title that gives us, eager gamers, an intimate look at the instectoid Xenos we’ve come to know and love (or hate).
The actions picks up where Wings of Liberty left off. Kerrigan, Queen of Blades and sole ruler of the Zerg Swarm, is now human and MAJORLY confused. Raynor is still in love with her, but incredibly conflicted. Mengsk is still a jerk who wants to wipe out both Kerrigan and Raynor to secure galactic dominance. And no one can figure out what to do with the puzzle pieces. A couple of tutorial missions later and the Kerrigan/Raynor relationship is on an indefinite split, prompting the tentacle dreadlocked lass to re affirm her burning hatred for Mengsk and get to work rallying an army to bring to his doorstep. Get to work harvesting those minerals and gas nodes you so desperately require and build up that fighting force!
Gameplay in HotS boils down to a nice mix of standard RTS-style levels and heroic missions – in which you control one character or a small group of characters to work your way through a gauntlet. It’s the same basic formula from WoL, only Blizzard has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort amping up their level design. One minute you’ll be battling Protoss on a freezing glacier and in the next you’ll be hunting for bio mass aboard an intergalactic cruiser as a heroic Broodmother. Aside from the Devil May Cry reboot, DmC, I’ve never been so consistently impressed by a game’s level design.
Even during the slower paced opening sections, (and speaking as a seasoned Zerg player) I was never bored or frustrated by the baby steps tutorials. Every single mission in HosT is interesting in its own right. Just enough of the plot is dangled via in-mission cut scenes or voice clips to drive you forward and each level completion rewards you with some sort of new unit to toy with in the next. It’s a mixture that keeps the action fresh and it progresses far too quickly to ever become stale.
As in WoL you’re also given the chance to customise your army with unique upgrades. Just about every unit in the Swarm, from Zerglings to Ultralisks, can be enhanced with powerful evolutions. Some are presented to you as simple button clicks – would you rather your Lings run at 160% speed or attack 50% faster? But others are self contained mini missions that give you the opportunity to test two unique strains before making an irreversible evolution decision.
For example, and again using Zerlings as an analogy, you’re given the option to upgrade the critters with either ‘Raptor’ or ‘Swarmer’ genes. Raptor Lings can jump up and down cliffs AND leap towards enemies (overpowered as anything), whereas Swarmers spawn from your Hatchery instantly and pop out three at a time. Once you make the call, you’re locked in for the entire campaign and exactly how you choose to customise can drastically alter your attack methods in levels to come.
It’s not just the Swarm you take control of, either – Kerrigan herself is present on almost every battlefield and becomes more powerful over time. As you progress, you’ll unlock unique abilities. Some are truly deadly and change the flow of battle – like summoning a giant flying Zerg whale that attacks with tentacles. Others are slightly more subtle and affect the way individual units behave. For example: after picking the Raptor Zergling strain, again, I upgraded Kerrigan with the ability to respawn dead Lings at no extra cost. Every 30 seconds a stream of Zerglings were rushed to the front lines without me needing to lift a finger. Great! While upgrading business is exceptionally entertaining, it’s also completely overpowered. This flags one of the two problems I have with the game. It’s too damn easy.
With all of the upgrades and evolutions you acquire for both Kerrigan and the Swarm, gameplay becomes a cakewalk. Even on the harder difficulty settings, I was able to steamroll 90% of the levels with mass Zerlings + Kerrigan alone. It literally provided no challenge. All of the alteration and upgrading is done in between missions aboard the Leviathan – Kerrigan’s equivalent of the Hyperion Battle Cruiser from WoL.
Cutscenes and possible between-level-menu-conversations are also much more frequent. One of the major plot threads has Kerrigan slowly regaining the memories of her time spent as the Queen of Blades and this is done via exchanges with the on-board NPCs. Some of the best moments in the entire game, at least for me, simply involved chatting about how the Swarm operates. Learning that isolated Zerg strains evolve to better suit their surroundings isn’t exactly a revelation, but talking to the…er creature…responsible for assimilating said genetic mutations and learning of his grizzly process certainly is.
Short version. Lore buffs and long-time series fans will get answers to decade old burning questions in HotS, though it comes at a bit of a cost. And that flags the second issue I have with the game – the ridiculous storyline. I’ve seen it mentioned in more than a few reviews that the dialogue in HotS is pretty cheesy, and I take issue with that. Sure, it’s a little on the nose, but if Call of Duty can get away with characters saying “we’re Americans – it’s our duty” and be praised for advancements in narrative direction, Kerrigan and her “there’s a little more Zerg in my hair” can too.
The issue I have is with the plot and what it seems to be setting up. Without giving too much away, the game goes from love story, to survival mission, to gimmick fest and settles on “WTF really?” as the credits roll. I think, if I may be so bold, that Blizzard are suffering from the classic creative problem that dogs us all – they have no frigging idea how to end the series. They are literally throwing everything, including the kitchen sink in the Leviathan VIP lounge and the Spawning Pool, at this and the story comes off feeling a bit sloppy as a result.
Maybe it’s a little soon to be casing doubt, since they still have one more game to wrap it up, but if Legacy of the Void turns into Mass Effect 3, don’t say I didn’t warn you (and, for the record, I really hope I’m wrong.)
As a whole, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is an extremely polished game with a few minor narrative faults. The sound is great, level design is excellent and cutscenes are top notch. And the overall flow of gameplay, though light hearted, is very enjoyable, It’s just a little … shark jumpy. This is such a far cry from what StarCraft was back in 1998. A few years ago I would have found that abhorrent. But now, after being blown away by rebrands like DmC and Tomb Raider, I’m willing to roll with it and judge it on its merits alone.
- Reviewed On