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StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Review

Trying to explain what the original StarCraft meant to me as a person, and as a gamer, is a difficult endeavor. It was a game I played almost exclusively for years, and it informed most of my social life.

Lunchtime at school was spent talking about strategies and robustly boasting about close games and well earned wins. Entire weekends were spent observing friends as they got crushed on the ladder, while I tried to be the backseat player. I played StarCraft so much, that when I closed my eyes, all I saw were Dragoons laying waste to the enemies of Aiur.

So when the, “Hell, it’s about time.” teaser trailer came out at Blizzcon, you can imagine how excited I was for the long-awaited sequel. When it finally came out, however, it did not live up to my exceedingly high expectations.

Featuring a storyline that didn’t quite measure up to the original’s, and gameplay that felt too old in a post Warcraft 3, Dawn of War 2 era. Perhaps I was too blinded by my own hype to see the game for what it truly was, but it left me feeling disappointed. Now, with my expectations tempered to be more attuned to reality, I find myself playing Heart of the Swarm, feeling as if this was the game that I always wanted it to be – the true successor of the StarCraft that I had grown to love.

Heart of the Swarm picks up where Wings of Liberty’s underwhelming story line and slow gameplay left off, and in true expansion pack form, delivers a much more enhanced experience. Everything is better in Heart of the Swarm. Everything.

From a gameplay standpoint, Heart of the Swarm is my favorite RTS campaign to date. It feels more like a series of custom game maps from the Battle.net Arcade, than an actual campaign for your standard RTS and I love it for that. There missions are so memorable, so unique, that they truly break the mold of what we’ve come to expect out of an RTS.

I loved how the theme of the Zerg and their evolving, assimilating nature was present throughout every element of the campaign, from the story, to the missions, to the customization of the army itself. Upgrades were drastically improved upon in Heart of the Swarm. Between each mission they could be interchanged, resulting in an atmosphere that truly felt as if it belonged to the Zerg –constantly changing to meet a threat.

Often times an upgrade would prove to be very useful for one mission, but less than optimal for another. Being able to plan ahead based on the mission briefing, to specialize your army for the upcoming challenges, always felt Zerg-like. It was also fun to swap around Kerrigan’s abilities, in order to enjoy playing with them all.

The story is no exception to the immaculate quality of the campaign, either. In fact, it’s so good that it has allowed me to forgive and accept Wings of Liberty for what it was – a stepping stone for the events that transpire in Heart of the Swarm. I don’t wish to spoil anything, but finally getting a conclusion to characters and story elements that I grew up with, was truly bittersweet.

Having the original cast remain (remember when that almost wasn’t the case for StarCraft 2?) had a large influence on my emotional reaction, and their talent is beyond question. James Harper’s performance as Arcturus Mengsk is especially noteworthy, as he turns a despicable villain, into a legendary one. Though, to be fair, Robert Clotworthy as Jim Raynor delivers what is easily the best line in the entire series [I’m tearing up just thinking about it].

For me, the campaign and the story were the highlights of Heart of the Swarm, but the multiplayer ended up far exceeding what I ever thought StarCraft 2 could be. Everything about Heart of the Swarm seems to be about streamlining the experience and speeding it up.

It seems as if every change they make, Blizzard is telling the players that they want you to spend less time macroing, and more time microing that Oracle, Medivac drop, or those Mutalisks. With the inclusion of UI updates that allow you to instantly glance to see if your resources are fully saturated or not, you can now spend less time manually counting, and more time baiting a bunch of Banelings chasing your Marines and Marauders into a reserve of Widow Mines.

For better or worse, I would say that this expansion is more or less targeted at pro play. Games are getting faster and much more intense, far sooner than they were in previous tournaments. The metagame has been shaken to the core, and the result is that the pro scene is so much more enjoyable to watch. The problem, of course, is that these new units and strategies aren’t nearly as fun to play against, as they are to watch.

The average player will (most likely) find the Widow Mine, Swarm Host, and Oracle frustratingly difficult to deal with, but watching pro players deal with, or get destroyed by them is incredibly entertaining.

Blizzard has admitted to the fact that they don’t think Heart of the Swarm is completely balanced, and that they’re looking at specific units and strategies very carefully. For now, it is impossible to speculate about where the balance and metagame might go from here.

I will, however, say that Blizzard is certainly on the right path. They clearly know where they want the game to go and every single change they’ve made will force players to go into that direction. While it will never be like Dawn of War 2, where you could decide the fate of the game in the first minute, Heart of the Swarm provides, in true Blizzard fashion, a perfectly polished old-school Real Time Strategy game.

Indeed, this is truly the StarCaft we’ve grown to know and love from days long past. Only, it’s been.. modernized. It’s prettier, complete with physics (Marines go flying like bowling pins when killed by Siege Tanks) and has a new progression system, to keep it as addicting as those Call of Duty and RPG games. Fear not, though – its purely cosmetic.

As you spend resources, or destroy things that cost your opponent resources, you get experience towards your level with the faction that you were playing as. If you thought it was fun to massacre Marines with Colossi, then you’re in for a treat when you see +50, +50, +50, +50, float across the screen, over the burning bodies of Marines sliced in half by Thermal Lances. Your rewards, as you level up, will include new skins for units, buildings, decals and profile pictures.

Do you want your profile to be a picture of a High Templar? Get to level seventeen as Protoss. Want your Marines to look like the Mercenary Marines from the Wings of Liberty campaign? Get to level thirty as Terran.

Following the trend of an E-Sports expansion, Heart of the Swarm brings in some crazy new features that are incredibly useful. Previously, when a player crashed or disconnected in the midst of a tournament match, the players would have had to immediately go into a rematch. No longer is that the case, with the new feature that allows both players to resume their last match from the exact point in which it was lost.

In the latest MLG tournament, this feature was used several times, and already I can’t believe we’ve spent this much time watching Brood War and Wings of Liberty E-Sports matches without this feature.

Another incredibly cool feature is the ability to watch replays that you’ve played, or other people have played, and at any point in the match, be able to jump in and play. This new tool is a paragon shift for gaming, and allows you to now experiment with specific builds, on demand.

Want to know how to defeat a specific timing attack? Load up a replay where you got stomped by one, and keep trying different builds until you can hold off the attack. Want to master your micro with a specific build? Load up a pro match, and replay from when the units started rolling out, and see how far you can get.

Between the new training modes, which gives step by step build orders for you to use, and the incredibly customizable AI that you can tell how to play; StarCraft has never been easier to get into. The game can be intimidating, but if you stick to the training mode until the build order becomes second nature, you can either head off to play against harder AIs and specific strategies, or make your way into the ranked or unranked matchmaking.

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is easily the most polished game I have ever played. This is instantly recognizable the moment you start up the game and get into the main Menu, or when the UI locks into position at the start of the game. Units and buildings are meticulously crafted and are a joy to command.

The story is emotionally impactful to those of us who have stuck with StarCraft from the beginning, sporting some of the best dramatic voice acting in the business. Everything in this game has been labored onto until perfected. While Heart of the Swarm doesn’t try to aspire to evolve the genre, it has, without a doubt, mastered the art of the 90’s RTS. If that’s your cup of tea, or you were simply disappointed by Wings of Liberty, it’s time to come back home.

Heart of the Swarm is waiting for you.

Gameplay
The new units are incredibly fun to play with, but can be a bit frustrating to play against, especially for people in the lower brackets. They do, however, make the E-Sports scene that much more enjoyable to watch.

Graphics
With the addition of physics, StarCraft 2 went from beautiful models that traversed terrain with elegance, into beautiful models that now also die with… elegance?

Sound
While I never got tired of hearing “My life for Aiur!” some of the Menu UI sounds became a bit annoying. Also, the Zerg and Protoss music never really compared to the high bar the Terran music set. Having said that, the voice acting and sound effects for the actual game, were all top notch.

Presentation: 10
Heart of the Swarm is about as polished as you can get. Everything oozed quality, especially the story line and campaign. Truly a huge step up from Wings of Liberty.

Value
Priced as an expansion, and giving an experience that truly improves and expands upon everything Wings of Liberty did, Heart of the Swarm is worth every penny.

Verdict
This game is so good, that it helps restore not only my faith in StarCraft, but in Blizzard.

9.5

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm


This game is so good, that it helps restore not only my faith in StarCraft, but in Blizzard.