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Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That, or tentacles – because it’s certainly not Sarah Kerrigan’s disposition that keeps cowboy-turned-space-marine Jim Raynor chasing after his queen in Blizzard’s Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm.
We’re not spoiling anything you haven’t already seen on any of the game’s trailers – or box art. Kerrigan is back and ready to lead her squishy-sounding army of Zerg to victory once again, flattening out any speed bumps in her way within one of the three plots Blizzard knows how to write nowadays: The good old Revenge Quest.
Kerrigan is back, and she's pissed!
The speed at which her allegiances flip would give Two-Face a run for his money, though we commend Blizzard for at least giving Kerrigan more of a Stannis Baratheon-like depth versus, say, the Terminator — as in, she’s more of an honorable badass than just a blatant killing machine (though she sure does her fair share of killing!).
The basic plot of the game takes 20 total missions to get through and two sentences to write out, not counting some of the campaign’s evolution-themed mini-missions (we’ll get to that in a bit). Kerrigan wants to kill Dominion Emperor Arcturus Mengsk because he tried to have her bumped off in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. A stranger “find the origin of the Zerg” and “prepare for battle against the great unknown” storyline interweaves with the revenge plot, but it’s not nearly as exciting to kill regular, old Zerg or the religiously high-strung Protoss as it is to tear little humans limb from digital limb.
Heart of the Swarm's official trailer
We sound like we’re grumpy about the game; we’re not. Blizzard struggled to come up with an interesting plot that wasn’t downright guessable in Diablo 3; it continues to struggle in Heart of the Swarm. But, ignoring this bit, this title delivers plenty of engaging gameplay (and a lovely tweaked interface, to boot) that kept us satisfied through two full playthroughs.
Kudos to the company’s ingenious designers —Blizzard’s gotten much better at using the Starcraft II engine to stretch the limits of typical real-time strategy gameplay. We loved the diversity of the missions the game summons forth: Smaller Alien-like battles in ships or buildings (including a delightful bit where you evolve from a small, chestburster-like larva to a unit-pooping Broodmother by infesting innocent animals), frantic missions that require you to complete objectives before something horrible happens (like a giant Battlecruiser mowing you over), and missions that attempt to throw boss fights into a real-time strategy game.
One of our favorite campaign missions has you decimating the poor Protoss after they periodically get frozen still. Clearly, they never quite mastered space heater technology.
Granted, the major example thereof – the mission entitled "Supreme" — does contain a final battle that’s nearly a carbon copy of the Belial fight in Diablo III. We’ll forgive Blizzard for drawing from the same well on that one if for nothing else than our sheer surprise at seeing the faithful recreation in an RTS game. Also, it’s a pretty feisty challenge on “Brutal” difficulty.
Since Heart of the Swarm centers on Kerrigan for most of the campaign, the star of the show gains power as you complete various missions and the bonus objectives sprinkled therein. You aren’t going to want to overlook these extra bits, as a fully-stacked Queen of Blades is quite the force to be reckoned with – one that’s able to singlehandedly drive the pain train across a number of baddies even on the game’s toughest difficulty setting. Which brings us to one of our few beefs with the raw gameplay of Heart of the Swarm: It feels pretty easy.
Blizzard’s writers might not be able to create a plot, but its CG department can sure make some breathtaking cutscenes.
To clarify, we’re not Starcraft II experts; Bronze League is where we spend most of our time, the lowest challenge tier within Blizzard’s multiplayer matchmaking. Still, Heart of the Swarm’s single-player campaign is more of a cakewalk compared to its predecessor, Wings of Liberty. To say Kerrigan is overpowered is a bit of an understatement. Combining her formidable powers with decent strategy and plenty of Hydralisks and Roaches took us to victory after victory without nary a sweat being broken.
Part of the Heart of the Swarm’s appeal lies in the fact that the Zerg – biological creatures that they are – can benefit from a variety of upgrades that you can use to customize each unit you bring to the battlefield (technically, hatch) based on the kind of Starcraft player that you are. And that’s what made our second playthrough just as fun as the first: The ability to try out different combinations of units and unit upgrades – not to mention Kerrigan’s powers – are wickedly fun for those looking to spice up the campaign with a little creativity.
Sometimes, Heart of the Swarm gives you a ton of units and says, “Hey, go destroy stuff.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Blizzard’s smart, as encouraging players to experiment with diverse tactics also teaches you how to think strategy like a true multiplayer Starcraft player. To get even more meta, many of the campaign missions themselves gently introduce you to techniques that you’ll want to master — like micro control (to win the campaign’s boss battles) and macro strategy (when a campaign mission forces you to divide your attention as far as it’ll go) — if you expect to have any hope of beating your online peers.
Each of the races get a few new goodies to play with in the multiplayer matches, and it appears that no one faction has really been able to dominate the competitive landscape with any of the additions (go figure; the Protoss Mothership Core isn’t sealing victories left and right). In fact, the Protoss are still the least-used of the races among the top-20 Starcraft players in the Americas region as of this review’s writing, but we wager everyone will realize just how cool these bravado-gushing warriors are once the game’s second expansion, Legacy of the Void, hits shelves.
Heart of the Swarm even tips its hat to the popular “Defense of the Ancients”-style gameplay that originated as a Warcraft III custom map.
If anything, the Zerg get hosed on the home field advantage in Heart of the Swarm’s multiplayer. Again, this depends on your playing style – if you’re big on casting units, you’ll love the insidious Viper, though we never found much joy slapping the Zerg’s new “Swarm Hosts” slash mobile guard towers in a defensive position. Give us something with big teeth and painful punching any day – or explosions. We’d rather burrow some Banelings.
The Protoss get nothing but flyers: The aforementioned Mothership Core, which you can ultimately upgrade to the game’s biggest multiplayer insult, as well as the ever-annoying Oracle and a flying homage to the Siege Tank, the Protoss Tempest. Terrans can shift their speedy Hellions into Hellbats, which ups their ability to pour painful flames over ground troops even more. Widow Mines, the second new Terran unit to join Heart of the Swarm, are just downright gleeful to plant around potential expansion chokepoints. Your friends will quickly learn to never again try to sneak in a base expansion using a lone worker.
If Dune’s sandworms belched fire, well, that’s about what you’d get for this boss battle in Heart of the Swarm. Spoiler: Avoid the fire.
We also commend Blizzard for doing everything it can to ease a tentative gamer’s transition to multiplayer in Heart of the Swarm. The game’s built-in training mode, a “Versus A.I.” that automatically adjusts difficulty based on an analysis of your Starcraft skills, and the game’s comprehensive replay feature (and the minutia of its per-match data dumps) couldn’t possibly hold a gamer’s hand any more in those first, nervous steps before one starts sending waves of units to their online deaths.
It can be said that Blizzard’s only real reason for providing a campaign within its Starcraft series is to encourage tentative gamers to jump into the real reason for the game’s existence: online multiplayer. Heart of the Swarm’s poor plot and relatively easy gameplay does seem indicative of that fact, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t have plenty of fun laying waste to planet after planet in Kerrigan’s (not quite) epic tale of revenge.
Blizzard saves much of its designer polish for the raw game itself: Heart of the Swarm looks great, plays great, and comes with plenty of ways to extend your interest in the Starcraft universe as a whole once you’ve strolled your way through the game’s core campaign. We only hope that Blizzard hasn’t made its game too tight to tweak; a few extra new units, a new building or two, or even bringing some of the upgrade focus of the game’s single-player campaign into the multiplayer world could have really blown the Heart out of this Swarm. But we still love it so.
Price: $39.99 (requires Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty to play), www.starcraft.com
Excellent graphics; creative in-game mechanics; great re-playability
Lame plot; multiplayer additions feel a wee sparse