REVIEW: StarCraft II – Heart of the Swarm [PC]

Who doesn’t love a good love story, especially when that story involves a sexy hybrid alien with tentacles, a muscle bound rebel soldier, genocide on a planetary scale, tentacles and oh – did I mention tentacles?

This sums up the story line to the latest episode of Starcraft II, the aptly named “Heart of the Swarm“. This episode finds you focused on Sarah Kerrigan and following the Zerg race as she seeks revenge on the Terran dominion’s supreme commander, Arcturus Mengsk. After Kerrigan is converted mostly back to human at the start of the episode and returns to her true love Jim Raynor, they are then separated by Mengsk’s dominion. Later, Kerrigan is told Raynor is dead, which (understandably) creates a very pissed off Kerrigan, who then uses the Zerg to seek revenge on Mengsk.

I feel I need to get this out of the way first, and this is my only real big complaint about the game. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was released on July 27, 2010. Heart of the Swarm was released March 12, 2013. Yes, that is almost a three year wait for an expansion pack. Before I was reminded about it “coming soon”, I had completely forgotten the sequel was actually in development.

I understand that StarCraft II is an episodic game, however even movie franchises are capable of being updated more than once every three years. If you ask me what happened in the single player of the original game, all I can remember is Kerrigan was bad, that’s it. Blizzard, how about you put it into gear and get the next one out a little sooner, please?

[img_three]8016,2011-05-31/CharSet02-Izsha_your_advisor.jpg,2011-05-31/Char03-Kerrigan_and_her_swarm_overwhelm_Zagaras_base.jpg,2011-05-31/MissionSelect05.jpg,StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm[/img_three]

Blizzard has always been great at telling stories in a game, and Heart of the Swarm is no exception. Other than selecting which order to visit the planets in, the game itself is as linear as they come – there’s no side missions, and once you start, it’s story mission after story mission until you reach the end of the space opera. Kerrigan is piecing together her memory (having forgotten entirely that she was the Queen of Blades), and this “expansion pack” is crammed with more than enough narrative to warrant the extra purchase.

The game itself is pretty much what you’d expect. Heart of the Swarm – just like Wings of Liberty before it (and surely Legacy of the Void after) – focusses on the unholy trinity of Terran, Zerg and Protoss. The attention has shifted to team Purple this time around, but essentially the experience is the same. This new expansion adds seven new units to the game, alongside a handful of upgrades to existing ones. Rather than leaving us feeling like we’ve been cheated, Blizzard has instead paid close attention to the gaps in the game – and in the way multiplayer has evolved – and addressed each of those in turn.

The Zerg have been granted Swarm Hosts for siege attacks, Protoss takes to the skies with the Oracle, and Terrans are given the Widow Mine for easier land attrition. These new additions are so perfectly matched to the game that you’ll wonder how you played without them.

There’s some overarching differences, too: Wings of Liberty allowed you to choose specialised minions for each campaign, and this is expanded on in Heart of the Swarm, thanks to a new feature that lets you choose your own zerg power-ups, adjusting and strategising at an all new level. It’s these little elements that make the new game more than just a re-painted version of the last.

The notion of hero units is now firmly entrenched in the StarCraft II universe, and the whole lot’s been tweaked and tinkered with to ensure the most competitive gameplay possible, whether that be in singleplayer or the predictably solid multiplayer mode.

[img_big]center,8016,2011-05-31/KerriganUpgrade02-each_battle_focus_has_a_different_set_of_abilities.jpg,StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm[/img_big]

But Blizzard isn’t perfect, with the studio inexplicably making major changes between the way units act in single- and multiplayer modes. Solo play has been tweaked to make the experience more accessible, but the changes aren’t carried across to the game you’ll play with others. The Zerg Hatchery spawns nine larvae in singleplayer, making the unit one you don’t have to think about often. In multiplayer, it’s capped at just three, requiring significantly more micro-management.

That said, you simply won’t care when playing the rapidly-escalating single player, and by the time you make the jump to multi-player, the matchmaking system has been designed to only pit you against gamers of a similar experience level – that is, people who are also used to the single player “perks”.

Halfway between a sequel and an expansion, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is deliberately more accessible than the original, but no less engaging, challenging or exciting. It’s the perfect followup to Wings of Liberty, a natural progression that doesn’t change what ain’t broke. Here’s hoping we’re not waiting until 2016 for the final chapter.

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