The original StarCraft is well known in gaming circles. That game was one of the biggest factors in making eSports mainstream, and is still counted as one of the most finely balanced games ever created, to the extent that it is still played in a lot of tournaments, especially in South Korea. Back in 2010, Blizzard decided to release a new game in the series 11 years after the Brood War expansion pack for the original. While it didn’t reach the same level of success and praise from the eSports community as the original, it still managed to garner a rather large following in its own right. Three years later and we have the first expansion pack for StarCraft 2, dubbed Heart of the Swarm. Does it manage to be as good as Wings of Liberty? Short answer: Yes.
Right off the bat the game is different with a whole new interface. Wings of Liberty had a functional, but not very good interface. Most of the screen was wasted on graphics. This time, any game mode you might want to play is at most a couple of clicks away. The in-game interface is more or less the same, however, and this can be either a good thing or a bad one. Some may call it good since even the tiniest change in the interface can and will be criticised by hardcore pro-gamers for upsetting the balancing of the game, but some may also argue that it holds the game back from becoming more accessible.
The story picks up immediately after the events of Wings of Liberty
The single player campaign has received a major overhaul compared to Wings of Liberty. The game brings with it a ‘Hero’ system, much like the one we had back in Warcraft 3. This time, however, Blizzard seems to have taken some cues from World of Warcraft for the skill tree. Every five or ten levels, you get to pick a new skill for your hero from one of three. The hero in this game (depending on your definition of the term ‘hero’) is Sarah Kerrigan, aka the Queen of Blades. She has a large amount of skills at her disposal - both active skills that use up energy, as well as passive ones that are activated by default at no cost.
Blizzard has also managed to pull off some rather impressive things in the main game. Outside of the Dawn of War series, this is one of those rare strategy games that manages to have boss fights. By boss fights, I don’t mean beefed up units with higher attack damage and health. Instead, we have full-on boss fights like what you’d expect in an RPG, complete with attack patterns and unique mechanics.
Almost every other mission in the campaign manages to have new game mechanics. These can range from something as simple as gathering ‘biomass’ to waking up an ancient Zerg to capturing temples and helping Kerrigan win a kamehameha-esque energy beam battle.
Campaign mode is hilariously fun with new game mechanics almost every mission
The addition of Kerrigan as a hero unit does bring some problems, however. While it does make the game much more fun and allows it to try out many different game mechanics, the campaign ends up feeling way too easy. This is especially in sharp contrast when compared to the rather challenging campaign from Wings of Liberty. This however isn’t much of a problem since there’s always the harder difficulties to play on.
The story picks up right where Wings of Liberty ended. Kerrigan has been turned from the queen of the Zerg into a human, albeit with tentacle hair. The story follows her as she becomes the Queen of Blades once more and rallies up her brood to fight the greater threat at large—the Xel’Naga threat that was prophesied during the events of Wings of Liberty.
It manages to stay in line with most of the background lore that has been fleshed out in the first game as well as the expanded universe novels. Much like Blizzard’s other games, however, the writing, rather than the plot, is what makes this game great. The events themselves manage to be much more interesting than the plot at large. The dynamics between Raynor and Kerrigan, for example, are more interesting than the Protoss prophecies.
The writing is what sells most of it, rather than the main story
Before you go online and get your ass whooped by Korean players, you might want to check out the tutorials that Blizzard has added. While they won’t exactly make you good enough to play on the Platinum or Diamond leagues, they will get you ready to play against the AI. The tutorials also do a good job of getting you used to playing your preferred race, as well as the general basics, such as building order and researching new abilities and technologies.
After you’re done with the tutorials, you can play some matches against the AI to get better, but only up to a certain degree. The game does a good job of scaling the AI difficulty depending on how you play, but there’s only so much that playing against the AI could teach you, especially because of the constantly evolving metagame and strategies of and against the races.
After wrecking the hardest AI that you can find, you’ll find yourself in the StarCraft 2 ladder. Before you can actually start fighting your way up the ranks, however, you have to play five placement matches that decide what league and ladder you’ll be put in. Do well enough and you’ll be put in Gold or higher leagues, while playing bad will put you in Bronze. One of the major issues of the Wings of Liberty ladder system was that most of the online-playing population found themselves in the Gold league. This time around, Blizzard has tweaked the leagues so that a much wider variety of leagues actually get used. Average players this time around will find themselves in Silver instead of Gold.
The gameplay is classic strategy, something that's sorely lacking these days
The multiplayer games are relatively simple in concept. Just like any other strategy game, you have to gather resources, build buildings, create armies, and wreck the other guy’s base. The complexity comes from the differences between the three races. Each race as their own strengths, such as the Terrans with their fast early game resource gathering abilities, the Zerg with its quantity-over-quality abilities, or the Protoss with their ability to tech up to get stronger units faster. Each game feels dynamic depending on who you play as and against, and each race has a number of ways to play it.
Most of the multiplayer is focused around 1v1 matches, but that doesn’t mean that more people can’t play. There are also 2v2, 3v3, and FFA (free for all) game modes. All of them, except for the FFA mode, have their own distinct ladders and leagues. The FFA game mode is mostly played for fun because of the chaos and hilarity that generally ensues when playing it.
Once you’re bored of playing the regular game, you can check out the user-created maps in a section dubbed The Arcade. These maps are completely different from the regular game, as is to be expected, since Blizzard’s map editors have always been extremely powerful.
The tutorials do a good job of teaching you stuff
User-created maps range from the inane, such as simple repositionings of existing maps, to having full-blown overhaul of game mechanics. Back during Wings of Liberty, Blizzard had released a couple of maps to show off the power of the map editor, like Aiur Chef and StarJewelled. Players took these ideas and ran with them. There’s a map that’s a full-blown RPG in its own right, with completely overhauled gameplay and a story. Another map is a collection of random mini-games that are ideal to play when you and a bunch of friends stumble into a LAN party while drunk.
Heart of the Storm has top-notch production values and presentation. While the graphic fidelity isn’t exactly something that will set high-end gaming rigs on fire, the game still manages to look good. And as usual, Blizzard has once again outdone themselves as well as everyone else with its CG cutscenes. In fact, it makes you wonder why the company doesn’t just start making animated movies.
This isn’t to say that the game is perfect, however. The game seems to have some memory leaks. Even the highest-end computers sometimes have trouble cranking up the game’s graphics to their maximum, despite it having (at this point) rather dated graphics. The framerate drops are especially evident when you have a ton of units on the screen.
The multiplayer manages to be well balanced
There is also the issue of DRM. The game needs you to log in to its cloud at least once every two weeks or so for DRM purposes. After that, however, you can play the single player skirmishes and campaign to your heart’s content. There are however some times when Battle.net goes down. As long as you’re playing a single-player game, though, the most you’ll lose out on is the ability to earn achievements.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a great game. It surpasses its predecessor—Wings of Liberty—in almost every way. The campaign is fun and constantly keeps you on your toes with new mechanics and boss fights, and the multiplayer is a tight and balanced experience. Despite the aging graphics and the sometimes-bad writing, it’s still a great game. Be warned though, since Heart of the Swarm needs you to own Wings of Liberty.
In an age where expansion packs are forgotten and DLC rules supreme, Blizzard manages to show everyone how it’s done and what gamers should be getting for their $40.