Just as the Zerg are always evolving, so too is Blizzard’s iconic real-time strategy series. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm doesn’t just upgrade and expand the exceptional StarCraft formula—it also hacks, cuts, and refines the core gameplay. The good news: With series antihero Sarah Kerrigan as its star, this expansion pack to 2010’s Wings of Liberty makes the original game better, improves the multiplayer, and progresses the story in new and interesting ways.
Still, there are sure to be a few people disappointed by Heart of the Swarm. Building on 15 years of success creates a unique challenge for Blizzard: How do you improve a well-balanced game with three iconic races and a dedicated, fervent community that scrutinizes every update? Blizzard struggles to answer the question in Heart of the Swarm, which is uneven and at times maddening, but still manages to raise the standard for real-time strategy games. As the middle story in an expected three part arc, Heart of Swarm has an intimate, troubled, and hammy narrative, but still manages to possess its own strange beauty.
Wings of Liberty was a Western-influenced space opera with the cast-based feel of The Dirty Dozen or Firefly. Heart of the Swarm is a revenge story focused on Kerrigan’s journey and the extremes she’ll reach to achieve her goals. The narrative picks up shortly after the events of Wings of Liberty, with Jim Raynor and his allies having smuggled the mostly-cured Kerrigan (once the queen of the Zerg) to a remote research facility. As the story progresses, Kerrigan unites and evolves the Zerg swarm, once again taking up her mantle as Queen of Blades in her quest to kill Emperor Mengsk.
As Kerrigan unites the Zerg swarm factions, her abilities and army are upgraded. Every major unit type has an upgrade that can be changed in the Evolution Pit, the Zerg version of an armory. Standard units like Zerglings become deadly cliff-hopping grasshoppers of death, or Hydralisks transform into long-range attackers. Meanwhile, Kerrigan accesses new healing and attack powers, as well as passive abilities like automated Vespene Gas gathering. This makes for a single player campaign filled with units and abilities that surprise and amuse even the most seasoned StarCraft player.
While Wings of Liberty’s missions focused on management and careful deployment of large forces, Blizzard took a cue from WarCraft III (or heck, Defense of the Ancients) and made the Heart of the Swarm’s 20-something missions almost entirely focused tactically on the (anti)hero, Kerrigan. Base and army management are largely secondary. As it turns out, Kerrigan is simply too powerful and many missions are just a matter of moving her towards the goal and killing/destroying everything in the way. Blizzard deserves credit for providing a range of mission goals, but the single player campaign is tactically more single-unit focused than what’s expected.
As a result, you’ll employ a fairly limited range of tactics to solve a puzzle or defeat an enemy. Everything is timed just right, from holding out against an enemy invasion to navigating a hostile area. Venturing through nooks and hidden pathways on your own isn’t encouraged, so the game feels a bit funneled and overly designed.
That doesn’t mean the level design is predictable. You’ll guide a parasitic unit through a Protoss ship and slowly take the ship over—an interesting twist on the Alien formula. You’ll find yourself in a jungle boss fight that is something out of an action game rather than a sci-fi war strategy title. A Terran mission in the middle of the game takes place entirely in an asteroid field, giving StarCraft its first true space battle mission—capital ships firing, space stations launching fighters, and mines exploding everywhere—and it’s fantastic. I want more missions like this—and where the heck have they’ve been all series?
The “evolution” side missions, where you test drive new Zerg units (and ultimately choose which ones to keep) are the only clear misstep. These missions put a brake on the narrative momentum and felt like chores.
While Kerrigan is a seemingly complex character who struggles to balance her humanity and her alien side, Blizzard’s biggest misstep with the single player campaign is its writing. Kerrigan’s internal conflict is mostly smothered by her predictable, the-ends-justify-the-means quest for revenge. The dialogue, while interesting from a StarCraft lore sense, is nothing more than clunky, hammy exposition. The characters Kerrigan interacts with aren’t boring because they’re vaguely sinister insectoid aliens, they’re boring because they’re characteristically flat. I can’t decide if Kerrigan’s science officer is a talking beanstalk or an alien sexual organ with arms—either way, it’s hard to take what he says seriously.
The name of the game is still build-order—construct buildings, train troops, and purchase upgrades. Even with shiny new units and welcomed gameplay tweaks, the battle against human opponents for online supremacy comes down to juggling the demanding (and at times overwhelming) ways to control your army.
Blizzard tries to bridge the gap between experienced multiplayer gods and noobs with a tutorial and experience system. The tutorial walks through the basics of base setup, but it doesn’t explain how to counter a Zerg rush or a Protoss Air Armada or a group of Siege Tanks and Vikings. The whole spectrum of strategies to exploit (and how to counter them) is still left up to you and how willing you are to watch YouTube replay videos of pro gamers.
Still, for those of us who can’t manage hundreds of actions per minute (APM), there are some basic fixes and tweaks to enjoy. You can now see how many workers you have working in a particular base, which is exceptionally useful. And if you’re a Zerg commander, you can now summon your whole swarm with a click of a button.
StarCraft II’s three races all get upgrades here, though how they’ll be exploited online remains to be seen. Some highlights: Terrans get widow mines, powerful hidden explosives that can target both air and land units; Protoss get a duo of new ships for their already formidable fleet and the Mothership Core that augments their abilities to teleport across the map; I’m a big fan of the Zerg Swarm Host, a turtle-looking land unit that spawns little fighting buggers. (It’s a rare defensive unit for the Zerg, who are more commonly used as fast attackers.) It’ll be interesting to see how the upgrades are used in games as the online community evolves.
Blizzard already has numerous custom maps and scenarios in the Arcade tab of the game. If you’re tired of multiplayer strategy sessions or the Kerrigan-focused single-player campaign, you can always hop over to the community and play all kinds of crazy creations.
Heart of the Swarm does what any good expansion should: it renews interest in a series, hones the rough edges of the original, and expands the scope of the narrative. Story-wise, the single player probably doesn’t stack up to Wings of Liberty, though many players will enjoy the RPG-focus of the core missions and exceptionally well-engineered level design. The new units, maps, and gameplay tweaks will help satisfy multiplayer fans, but the core gameplay remains largely unchanged.
An overarching theme in Heart of the Swarm is the Zerg’s evolution, and how they must always change to survive. Many fans will want more units, mechanics, and tweaks to the StarCraft formula. But remember, evolution takes time…and apparently more than three years.