Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm Review

Can the next installment of this beloved RTS truly give you the feeling of immense power wielded by the Queen of Blades?

It’s been almost 2 and a half years since Blizzard kicked off the Starcraft II storyline with Wings of Liberty, and there’s been no shortage of anticipation from fans of the series as they eagerly awaited to see the fate of Kerrigan and The Swarm.  After using the Xel’Naga artifact to restore Kerrigan’s hummanity and effectively weaken the Zerg, Tychus reveals that he intends to kill Kerrigan in return for his freedom.  Jim Raynor won’t allow that to happen and shoots Tychus while protecting Kerrigan, and the game closes with Raynor carrying Kerrigan off the battlefield.

This is pretty much where Heart of the Swarm picks up, not long after the events of that campaign.  Kerrigan is still sporting her Queen of Blades hair, but is back in a Ghost suit again.  You start the game in a testing facility where Prince Valerian is working with Kerrigan to try and assess what powers have carried over from her time as the Queen of Blades.  The facility comes under attack by Dominion forces and that gets the ball rolling along by setting up a series of events that ingite Kerrigan’s hatred for Arcturus Mengsk like never before, and she set’s out to reunite with her Swarm in Zerg controlled space.

Your Swarm Your Way

Meet the family…

For those that played Wings of Liberty, you’ll be pretty familiar with how this campaign is structured, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few new additions and improvements to seen.  You still click around the different parts of your ship in between missions to either converse with your crew, upgrade Kerrigan’s abilities, or to improve your units, but this time around your options seem a bit more meaningful.  Blizzard has opted to not have any missions where you have to choose a path, picking only one of 2 possible missions, each with different story outcomes and upgrades.  Instead, you can play through every mission on offer over the course of the campaign, but still have the choice in a few areas as to which unit you will pursue the upgrades for first.  Kerrigan herself levels up over the course of the campaign, capping out at level 70.  This progression is tied to completing missions and their bonus objectives, and allows you to select initally one of 2 (and later on, one of three) skills every 5-10 levels along the way.  These choices aren’t set in stone allowing you to customize your Kerrigan for different missions and playstyles.  Some of the later tiers of abilities are really quite powerful, making you really want to complete the bonus objectives so that you can reach those abilities or passive skills.  This ability to customize her “talents”, for lack of a better term, is really important because unlike in Wings of Liberty, you will be controlling Kerrigan on almost every mission.

Kerrigan Abilities

This is how my Kerrigan ended up at the end of the campaign.

Another welcome change comes in the way that your unit upgrades are handled.  You gain access to different mutations by completing certain story missions, and can freely choose between any one of the three for each unit any time that you’re on your ship.  The second way that you can customize your units is through Evolution, however, these choices are permanent.  I found the way that you are presented with the choice of two different evolutions for each unit to be very well done.  Before making a choice of which path you want to pursue, you play a mission that has you actually utilize the strengths of each different evolution to defeat a small group of enemies in a certain way.  This really gives a much better sense of what type of unit that you would prefer to play with in your Swarm than a looping video on the unit select screen, but that’s still there too for you to look at if you want.

Swarm Host

Swapping out mutations on the fly between missions is really useful for the harder difficulties.

The most notable improvement on display in Heart of the Swarm is the mission variety, and the various types of objectives you’ll face along the way.  This time around you’re not merely building up an army and taking out opposing bases, with the occasional environmental hazard slowing you down.  Instead you’re presented with different scenarios that have real purpose in their mechanics.  A notable example of this comes early on in the campaign, where you take control of a parasite and are tasked with sneaking through a Protoss ship and then infecting the various animal specimens that are on board, gradually building up your genetic material and evolving into a Queen.  Then you simply birth out some support units and build a small army eventually overwhelming the Protoss forces and taking over the ship.  It is variety like this that keeps the campaign entertaining and fresh.

On the multiplayer side there have been a few new additions to the lineup for all three of the factions, along with extensive tweaks and balance fixes to keep the competitive side of things moving along smoothly.  The Terrans have gained Widow Mines and Warhounds.  Widow Mines are basically suicide units that attach themselves to an enemy and then detonate for massive damage.  While the new Warhound unit is a mech that is strong against mechanical units and has a stong missile attack that can be used against groups of enemies to great effect.  The old Hellion has also been given a transformation mode that makes it more effective in the late-game.  The Zerg have been given two new units as well, the Swarm Host and the Viper.  The Viper is a really useful flying unit that can pull a single unit to the Viper’s location for easier assault.  The Swarm Host, which might be my favorite new unit, does not attack directly, but instead while burrowed it spits forth a constant stream of smaller Locust units that have a ranged attack.  This can be used to provide both base defense or a continuous harassment on an enemy base.  The old Ultralisks have received a new Burrow Charge ability that sends them speeding underground towards the targeted unit.  Finally the Protoss have gained the Tempest, Oracle, and Mothership Core.  The Tempest is a flying unit that can attack both ground and air with a bonus against massive units, and can also receive a range upgrade to attack from super far away.  The Oracle is another flying unit from the Stargate that is mostly designed for harassment.  It can temporarily prevent mineral fields from being harvested, and has also received the Cloak Field that the Mothership unit had in Wings of Liberty.  Lastly, the Mothership Core is limited to one per army, and connects to a Nexus.  It can be teleported to any Nexus you control, and can use Mass Recall to bring units back to your base quickly.  There are a few other changes and abilities that have been added or shifted around for units from all three factions, but they’re a bit more subtle than the major ones I’ve described.  Since I don’t pretend to be even a mediocre competitive player, I can’t really speak to how all of these changes have affected the balance or the strategies being used online, but they do certainly present some interesting matchups.

Overall, Heart of the Swarm really delivers what I was looking for in the second part of this trilogy.  Blizzard made enough changes from Wings of Liberty that the gameplay felt new and even more entertaining that before.  Controlling massive amounts of Zerg throughout the campaign really gave me the feeling that I was in control of the Swarm and was really a force to be reckoned with.  Having Kerrigan front and center on the battlefield leading your forces was really great, and is something that Wings of Liberty lacked.  If you aren’t a fan of this RTS franchise at this point, you may want to ask yourself why that is, because there aren’t many developers that can produce something this tightly balanced, visually stunning, and completely entertaining.  This is the gold standard for the genre.


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