It’s weird to think that Wings of Liberty came out nearly three years ago. The first chapter in Blizzard’s StarCraft II trilogy certainly left things hanging, but it doesn’t really feel as if the wait for chapter two has been that long. Perhaps that’s multiplayer longevity talking?
The Wings of Liberty campaign is a tough act to follow. When I reviewed the first chapter of StarCraft II back in 2010, I said that it was the best thing to happen to the RTS genre in years. That was largely thanks to the in between mission bits set on the Hyperion, the game’s narrative and the fresh mission designs. Heart of the Swarm certainly lives up to its predecessor, but that doesn’t surprise considering it’s essentially more of the same. So then, aside from a campaign starring a different playable race, what’s the difference?
Let’s start by saying that the campaign in Heart of the Swarm outdoes Wings of Liberty, which might be a bit of an unfair opinion considering the extra years of development the expansion has had. If you think about it, Blizzard hasn’t developed an entire game from scratch; they’ve instead expanded an excellent one that already exists. Here’s the thing though: throughout the Heart of the Swarm campaign, it never felt like I was playing an expansion. This felt like a full-on sequel as there was enough new content, but enough familiarity to make the 25 hours I spent on the campaign (pro players will undoubtedly take less time) feel like about 10 hours.
At the end of Wings of Liberty, thanks to the Xel’naga artefact, Raynor was able to restore most of Kerrigan’s humanity. At the start of Heart of the Swarm it’s clear that traces of the Queen of Blades remain within her, as Kerrigan is still able to reach out and control Zerg forces. This obviously comes in really handy considering Kerrigan is nowhere near ready to give up her primary goal: getting revenge on Arcturus Mengsk. Yes, despite her newly reacquired dose of humanity, Kerrigan is still out for revenge, but she’s well aware that that’s firmly out of reach without the help of her Zerg swarm.
After the events on Char at the end of Wings of Liberty, the Zerg swarm was shattered, and numerous queens fled all over the solar system to rebuild their own broods. After a rather brutal reminder of why it is that Kerrigan wants Mengsk dead, she resolves to reunite the Zerg swarm under her rule and lead them to Mengsk’s doorstep on Tarsonis.
Much of the campaign will be spent returning the swarm to its former glory – a process that Kerrigan echoes as she pursues anything that will give her an edge in the impending final encounter with Mengsk’s forces. This results in a constant tug-of-war between Kerrigan’s failing humanity and her revenge-fuelled hatred, which finds personification in the Queen of Blades. It’s compelling, character-driven narrative and some of Blizzard’s finest work to date. I haven’t been this wrapped up in a game’s fiction for quite some time.
The missions in Heart of the Swarm are brilliant. There are 27 of them in total and you’ll be unable to find any with similar objectives. Many of the missions have curveballs of sorts; elements that force you to tweak your play style in order to progress. The result is a series of campaign missions that provide enough variety to obliterate any modicum of boredom.
Kerrigan’s quest to create the most powerful Zerg swarm yet leads her to numerous planets. In Wings of Liberty, Raynor had the Hyperion to ferry himself and his forces around space. In Heart of the Swarm, Kerrigan has a Leviathan – a monstrous Zerg unit that makes the Hyperion seem tiny by comparison. There are numerous Zerg characters populating the Leviathan, and a lot of the game’s narrative is divulged during conversations between them and Kerrigan. One of the characters runs the Evolution Pit on the Leviathan; his name is Abathur and he applies different mutations to Zerg units by spinning DNA with desirable traits. This also creates one of the game’s more interesting subset of missions: the evolution missions.
At certain points in the campaign, Abathur will inform Kerrigan of some new genetic trait he has discovered in various species on different planets. You then get to play mini missions in which you field test two possible evolutions to specific Zerg units. At the end of the mission you get to pick one of the evolutionary strands for Abathur to weave into Zerg DNA, which permanently applies that particular evolutionary perk to the specific unit for the remainder of the campaign. For example: Banelings are able to evolve into “Splitter Banelings” or “Hunter Banelings”. The former explode but then release two smaller Baneling Spawns that also explode, dealing extra damage to the target; the latter imbues Banelings with super agility allowing them to leap over obstacles to reach targets, as well as jump up and down cliffs.
There are seven Zerg units that you are able to evolve during evolution missions: Zerglings, Banelings, Roaches, Hydralisks, Mutalisks, Swarm Hosts (new to StarCraft II) and Ultralisks.
On top of permanent evolutions to seven units, you can pick between three different mutations per unit. These mutations can be chopped and changed between missions at no cost. They add slightly less fundamental alteration to unit functionality, but they’re nonetheless useful. For example: your Banelings could equip “Corrosive Acid”, which makes them twice as powerful; “Rupture”, which increases their blast radius by 50%; or “Regenerative Acid”, which still damages enemies but has the added effect of healing nearby friendlies as well as structures.
Between the flexible mutations and the more permanent evolutions, you’re able to customise Kerrigan’s swarm rather significantly. Once you’ve finished the game and unlocked the Master Archives, you can replay any of the campaign’s missions, but you get to alter your evolutionary choices and mutations in order to try different tactics.
Kerrigan isn’t left out insofar as new abilities are concerned. Throughout the campaign she is treated like an RPG character of sorts. Completing missions increases her character level as does completing bonus objectives. As her level increases you’ll gain access to new abilities. In total there are 24 abilities split across three branches. You can have up to seven abilities selected at a time once you max out Kerrigan’s character level. Many of these abilities provide passive perks to your entire swarm, such as spawning two Drones at once, being able to build automated Vespene gas extractors, or being able to spawn instant Overlords. Kerrigan also gets active abilities, many of which are incredibly powerful especially in the higher ability tiers.
One of the overarching effects of these Kerrigan abilities is that they make the swarm incredibly quick when it comes to spawning an army. In the later levels you can build up a base and spawn a max population army in minutes. What this does is create that sense of the Zerg being numberless and rapid when it comes to spreading. The StarCraft canon always reiterates how quickly the Zerg can infest areas, but this has never really been translated into gameplay. The Heart of the Swarm campaign does an excellent job of giving players a sense of power through the Zerg. During the later missions I never felt apprehensive about diving head first into an attack because I knew that this swarm Kerrigan and I had created was astoundingly swift to mobilise and really responsive to changes on the battlefield. Blizzard has done an excellent job in making the Zerg awesome – and I mean that in the literal sense of the word.
So, what about the multiplayer? You know what? Multiplayer is multiplayer; it’s still there, it’s still incredibly unforgiving and it’s still likely to be the best competitive RTS offering in terms of balance and depth of strategy. There are new units for all three races, so fans of the Terran or Protoss needn’t think that it’s just the Zerg getting love this time around. The expansion has its own ladder that is separate from the one in Wings of Liberty.
I loved Heart of the Swarm; more so than I did Wings of Liberty. The campaign is exceptionally well polished and loaded with variety, but it was the narrative and exploration of the Zerg race that did it for me. I loved learning more about where they came from and why they turned into this unrelenting force that they are now. Anyone who is a sucker for StarCraft lore is going to lap this up and ask for seconds. Anyone who is a fan of classic RTS games will do the same, because it doesn’t get much more perfected than this.