Over two years after the release of the critically acclaimed Real Time Strategy (RTS) game Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, it’s first expansion: Heart of the Swarm has finally been released. Heart of the Swarm (HotS) picks up shortly after the events of Wings of Liberty and centers around Kerrigan and her struggle to assimilate back into human life. She has to learn how to control her powers, without awakening the Queen of Blades that lies dormant deep inside of her. Will the campaign’s story reach the same caliber as it’s predecessor, and how does the multiplayer stack up?
AudioMuch like the video aspect, Heart of the Swarm’s audio department did an amazing job. Like the cinematic, the voice acting is move quality and there are thousands upon thousands of lines of dialogue to enjoy. Each of the new characters also have a distinct voice, which gives the impression that Blizzard hired a voice actor for every single character, with no overlapping. The in-game sounds are just as good as they were in Wings of Liberty. From the sounds of Banelings bursting against a horde of marines, to the sounds of a Battlecruiser firing it’s Yamato Cannon into a poor Ultralisk, the sound effects are perfect.
Normally, story isn’t a huge part of the game in non-RPGs, but Heart of the Swarm is the exception. This story has been running for the better part of 15 years, and veteran players will have a real attachment to the characters. In Heart of the Swarm the story is just as good, if not better, than it’s predecessors. The story centers around Kerrigan, and she finally has her chance to grow as a character. The writing team does a great job in giving insight into her inner demons and struggles. Heart of the Swarm also fleshes out the stories of some of the other characters in Wings of Liberty, which is a nice addition. With the cinematics alone, the player can easily forget that they’re playing a game at all; which is the true mark of a great storyteller. Overall, the story in HotS is absolutely amazing and definitely leaves players excited about the final chapter in the Starcraft II trilogy, Legacy of the Void.
GameplayIt’s safe to report that everything that players liked from Starcraft II is back in Heart of the Swarm and most of what they didn’t like has either been fixed or removed. The game’s difficulty curve is balanced very well, giving each of the 4 difficulties it’s own feel. The new campaign unites and systems are also wonderful. Unlike in Wings of Liberty, the focus is less on acquiring a huge arsenal of units and technology and more on Kerrigan herself and the evolution of her brood. Kerrigan has a leveling system, in which she unlocks new and powerful abilities and passives as she completes main and bonus objectives in missions. There is a level of customization, allowing the player to tailor Kerrigan to their play style. Instead of purchasing upgrades for your army as you did in Wings of Liberty, gamers will mutate and augment units. After completing a certain amount of missions, an evolution mission will become unlocked. In this mission, the player has the choice between two different mutations for one of their previous units. For example, Zerglings can either evolve into either a Raptor or a Swarmling. The Raptor strain gives all of the players Zerglings the ability to scale cliffs, jump to targets and a slight increase in damage; whereas the Swarmling allows Zerglings to spawn instantly, and 3 of them spawn from one egg. These evolution give the player complete customization over the game, and add a lot of replay value just to see how each evolution affects certain missions. The only issue is that Heart of the Swarm lacks any sort of choice. In Wings of Liberty, the player was given a choice whether to side with the dominion ghost Nova or the mercenary Tosh. Heart of the Swarm has no such choice, and feels almost linear at times.
Multiplayer is generally added to a game as an afterthought. A game is either a multiplayer game, or a single player game with some multiplayer. Heart of the Swarm is neither of these. Both it’s single player and multiplayer are games on its own. Blizzard has done a phenomenal job on Heart of the Swarm’s multiplayer. With the addition of Unranked matchmaking, players who suffer from “Ladder Anxiety” or those who just wish to play casually have an option. The first season’s map pool is arguably the best map pool from any season, and the new units do add a whole new layer of strategy. The social aspect of Heart of the Swarm has finally hit the mark that Blizzard has been aiming at since the release of Battle.net 2.0. With clans, groups and an easier to navigate public chat system; this game finally feels like it has an in-game community. In this new community, it is finally able to watch replays with a friend or adversary. This opens up a new world of strategic discussion. Overall, Heart of the Swarm delivers on it’s multiplayer aspect. Hopefully, Heart of the Swarm can breathe new life into Starcraft II’s pro scene.
Heart of the Swarm is shaping up to be a definite contender for game of the year. The graphics, cinematic and art style are all near-perfect. The voice acting, sound effects are also amazing, though do suffer from slight stuttering. The story is written and told brilliantly. The gameplay expands upon Wings of Liberty and fixes a lot of it’s shortcomings. Finally, the multiplayer redefines the RTS genre once again. For seasoned players, it feels a lot like Brood War, and that is a step in the right direction. Overall, Heart of the Swarm is a perfect expansion and a near perfect game overall. It’s worth it for anybody who enjoyed Wings of Liberty at any point.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is available now for PC and Mac.
A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of this review.