At this stage, releasing a follow-up to Starcraft is a little bit like releasing a follow-up to Football or Chess; it’s so ingrained in esports and gamer culture.
Starcraft has been, and probably always will be, a driving force in the esports industry, technically being South Korea’s national sport. Heart of the Swarm looks set to continue that trend.
But is it for the right reasons? Is Heart of the Swarm a worthy successor to Wings of Liberty?
Release: Out Now
My heart. Your swarm
Heart of the Swarm’s campaign drops you into the role of Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, and one of the antagonists of the previous installment After being returned to her former human self, she soon finds her love interest, Jim Raynor – protagonist in former entries – being snatched by the bad guys. Enraged, she vows to get him back.
This simple dude in distress premise, set against the backdrop of Starcrafts’ deep lore lays out the foundations of a story with more twists and turns than you’d expect from any other RTS series, and will leave you feeling pretty satisfied when the credits roll.
In terms of gameplay, Blizzard have opted to keep the experience much the same as Wings of Liberty, but with additions such as the ability to mutate various Zerg units into new forms with different properties. You’ll also be able to evolve Kerrigan through killing enemies and completing bonus objectives within the campaign’s many missions, granting her bonuses and abilities as you go.
Blizzard clearly didn’t want to reinvent the wheel here. They just wanted to sand down the edges a little, tweaking and refining with minor adjustments to the formula. It’s hard not to be impressed at how little they’ve changed, yet how different the game feels.
It’s worth mentioning that Blizzard are still on top form with their cinematics and cutscenes. They remain unmatched in the area of blowing us away with intensely detailed, beautifully choreographed CGI and that is ever prevalent in Heart of the Swarm. Before you’ve even started playing, you’ll have your jaw hanging loose from the amazing intro cinematic. It seems to be the way with Blizzard; the only way is up, and the cinematics in Heart of the Swarm genuinely left me wishing that they’d just get it over with and make a damned animated movie already.
However, I’m speaking for a minority here. The majority of the audience for Starcraft 2 really aren’t fussed about cinematics. They don’t care about Sarah Kerrigan’s furious determination to rescue the man she loves, they’re not all that bothered about the plight of Raynor’s Rangers or Mira Horner.
The biggest draw in Starcraft 2 will always be the robust multiplayer component. This doesn’t disappoint. Again, Blizzard haven’t reinvented the formula here, opting to tweak it and make subtle, but significant additions instead.
The sport of the future
What the small tweaks, changes and additions betray is a desire from Blizzard to elongate matches and force players to, God forbid, actually play the game instead of striving to defeat their opponent before the 10 minute mark. All the powerful new units, bar one, are units that only really come into play beyond the time we refer to as the ‘mid-game’, where players have to start macroing (Making units, buildings structures, and researching tech) hard to get any kind of advantage over the enemy. Make no mistake, Heart of the Swarm matches are going to take up much more of your time and there’s very little you can do about it, but that is most definitely not a bad thing.
With regards to new units, it’s a party to which everyone is invited with all three races being blessed with brand new killing machines.
On the Terran side we’ve got Hellbats; variants of the fire-spewing Hellion, and Widow Mines which are essentially the Spider Mines from Starcraft and Starcraft: Broodwar.
For the Protoss, Blizzard have chucked in the Oracle; a flying caster, the Tempest; a long-range flying siege unit, and the Mothership Core; a flying support unit.
Finally, the Zerg get Swarm Hosts; a terrifying siege unit, and the Viper; a flying caster that can hook and pull specified units out of an army for easy kills.
What this essentially aims to do is iron out some of the issues that plague the races. The Zerg needed a ground siege unit and, boy, did they get one in the Swarm Host, those things are genuinely terrifying.
Protoss needed help surviving the early game and expanding to new bases safely, help that was granted to them in the form of the Mothership Core.
Finally, the Terran needed a unit to soak up and deal damage against Protoss in the late-game, fulfilled by the Hellbat.
Obviously, with a game so broad and filled with possibilities, the immediate worry is balance between the races, and to be honest that leaves a little something to be desired. I’m a Starcraft player, so obviously my views are tainted by the race I play, but the sad truth is that the balance in HotS needs some work. You need only look at the percentage of professional players playing each race since HotS to see there’s a bit of imbalance, although it’s certainly not as bad as it could be and Blizzard haven’t done a bad job by any means.
I’ve seen other reviews claim that HotS hasn’t changed the online experience too much, but that’s almost entirely different to my experience of the game. The way I play has been utterly changed with the addition of HotS units, and just a quick overview of the changes and the styles of play you see online, it’s clear the game has morphed quite drastically. It’s true that the changes and additions Blizzard have made are pretty minimalistic, but Starcraft 2 has such a delicate eco-system, those small changes have large repercussions.
Make no mistake, the landscape of Starcraft 2’s competitive multiplayer has changed and it’s a case of adapt or die.
Heart of the Swarm is a solid Starcraft title. The campaign is enriching. The cutscenes are compelling and the multiplayer is absolutely engaging. Unfortunately, the balance issues are noticeable and Blizzard will need to do some work to improve that in future patches. On the whole, however, this is a fantastic piece of software that proves, categorially, Blizzard have still ‘got it’.