Imagine if you will, a futuristic ecumenopolis, with towering skyscrapers and a force of heavily armoured soldiers rushing into an open plaza.
Now look up, and in the sky you’ll see an enormous, organic spacecraft, firing off drop pods while on the surface, cannons fire desperately to ensure none of them make it to the surface. This is where StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm begins.
Following the breathtaking cinematic opening we’re back in our familiar digs. The game works very much like its predecessor, this time placing you in the role of Sarah Kerrigan, as the resurgent Queen of Blades. Heart of the Swarm begins in true RTS fashion with a series of introductory levels, designed to teach you how to play, with each subsequent level introducing a new unit for your army. Fans of the series will note this is the same formula used in previous instalments, and helps the player acclimatise to the new style of play.
Each mission rewards the player with achievements for completing additional tasks and a plethora of beautifully crafted and often quite emotive cutscenes to get you into the story. Following on from the events of Wings of Liberty, Sarah Kerrigan is once more human and being kept in a research facility under the supervision of Prince Valerian Mengsk and former lover, Jim Raynor. Before long the forces of the Terran Dominion arrive in force to destroy Kerrigan at any cost. Divided from her allies, Kerrigan must once more call on the Swarm for aid as she embarks on a personal journey of revenge against Arcturus Mengsk, the man who left her to die and was responsible for her initial transformation into the Queen of Blades.
Through the course of her journey, Kerrigan faces threats both familiar and old in the guise of the Terrans, Protoss and newcomers the Primal Zerg. On the Zerg’s homeworld she searches for the power she will need in order to topple her hated nemesis and is quick to return to the mantle of Queen of Blades. But this iteration of the character is not the megalomaniacal avatar of the swarm as seen in previous games. This new character takes the best from both worlds, the ruthlessness and the humanity, and sets them against one another to create surprising levels of depth, exemplified greatly by some world class voice acting.
When not in missions or viewing cutscenes, the story is told in a manner very reminiscent of Wings of Liberty. Instead of the Hyperion, Kerrigan has access to the Leviathan, a colossal zerg craft, and her former flagship. Like the former, the Leviathan serves as a hub for optional cutscenes as well as a place to upgrade your army.
Anyone that has played Wings of Liberty will remember the upgrade system, a series of passive abilities intended to enhance gameplay in the singleplayer campaign. Unlike Wings of Liberty, most choices made in Heart of the Swarm are reversible, allowing the player to decide which abilities they want for a mission, and to switch them as they please. For example – each zerg unit has three possible upgrades, but only one can be used at a time. One might offer greater firepower, while another increases defence. The third might give them a passive ability, changing a single ranged attack into an area of effect blast. A player may choose any one of these three between missions without fear that the choice is permanent.
Oddly enough permanent choices do rear their heads again in the shape of “evolution missions”. Every so often the player will be given the option of running these to permanently upgrade their Zerg units. These missions act primarily to showcase new abilities your swarm can master, increasing their potency and offering new abilities. The missions themselves are fairly basic – kill something to take its genetic “essence”, then kill a bunch of hapless soldiers who never see it coming. What is a little irritating about these missions is the fact that they are rather blatantly designed to act as tutorial levels, with no real challenge involved. Completing them often feels unrewarding, and pointless as it is entirely possible to complete the game without ever having done them.
Your last possible upgrades are those of Kerrigan herself. Completing missions will grant her levels, much like an RPG character, with each subsequent level-up boosting her health points and damage output. In addition she gains access to a tree of abilities, granting benefits both passive and active. These are much more like Wings of Liberty‘s research upgrades, but can be changed at any time. Similarly, completing bonus objectives grant Kerrigan more levels, though there is little incentive to adhere to this as the game dictates when abilities are released, and it is impossible to “farm” the highest abilities through gaming prowess alone.
This brings us back to the actual gameplay. Much like Wings of Liberty, the levels of Heart of the Swarm hearken back to classic RTS missions with such objectives as defending a base from wave upon wave of attackers or preventing enemy convoys from reaching their destinations. Much of the gameplay is familiar, though there are plenty of surprises along the way. One I found particularly enjoyable was what could almost be called “boss levels” where you control a hero, and usually a very small force of Zerg, and must battle specific enemies in set pieces reminiscent of Diablo‘s boss battles.
Hero levels aside however, the game offers up precious little in the way of original challenges, or at least none a hardened RTS player hasn’t already played through a dozen times or more. This doesn’t stop them from being enjoyable however, and there’s never any real danger that commanding a legion of bloodthirsty alien fiends will get old anytime soon.
Having said that, the game’s one major failing is in the replayability of its singleplayer campaign. While the cutscenes are amazing, and the story offers more than a few tear-jerkers, there’s no real incentive to replay missions once you completed them the first time. Evolution missions, for example, are pointless in this regard, save to remind you of your units capabilities. Main storyline missions offer achievements, as in Wings of Liberty, but many of these are painfully easy and can be completed without much effort. Where Wings of Liberty darkened your otherwise pristine achievement page with greyed out Hard difficulty achievements, Heart of the Swarm leaves you with an irritating barrage of easy achievements that feel far less rewarding.
All said and done, Heart of the Swarm is a solid expansion, giving StarCraft fans exactly what they want: more story, more units, and of course, more Queen of Blades. In spite of the familiarity of many levels, the game remains entertaining and never once feels like a rehash of old content.
Players: Single-player, Multiplayer (up to 4 players)
Platform: PC, Mac
Official Website: http://us.blizzard.com/en-us/games/hots/