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July 2010 saw the release of StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the follow-up to one of the finest RTS (real time strategy) games of all time. The game was a phenomenal success getting praise from critics far and wide, including myself who awarded it a perfect five stars. Over two years later and we finally get the next part of a planned trilogy dubbed Heart of the Swarm. Like its predecessor, which focused on the Terrans (basically redneck space marines) this installment centers on one of the game's three playable factions - namely the insectoid alien race known as the Zerg.
Following on from the events of WOL, players get introduced to the Zerg's former Queen of Blades (Kerrigan) who is getting re-accustomed to human life. Thanks to an ancient artifact she has transformed from a genocidal alien leader back to the smoking hot psychic sniper players may recognize from the early chapters of StarCraft 1. Kerrigan's return to humanity proves to be short lived however as forces loyal to the fascist leader of the Terran Dominion (Arcturus Mengsk) attack the facility she is being sheltered in. During the assault Kerrigan's main squeeze Jim Raynor is presumably killed which tips her off the edge. Kerrigan vows revenge, but in order to do so she will have to return to her Zerg brethren to amass an army.
The story is a sci-fi cheese fest, which may not satisfy fans that have become invested in the StarCraft lore covered in prior games and novels, but I think it is adequate for a strategy game. If you ask me StarCraft's plot has never been anything out of this world (no pun intended) and the older installments just seem more epic as they were enjoyed when we were younger and far less cynical. There are some good character moments as Kerrigan wrestles with the dangers of becoming the monster she once was. Although she needs the power of the Zerg to enact her vengeance, she doesn't want it to come at the cost of her humanity. On more than one occasion we see her show mercy, even if it places her forces at a tactical disadvantage, much to the annoyance of her bloodthirsty subordinates.
Heart of the Swarm's tale is conveyed via the slick presentation Blizzard is known for. The voice acting is solid and key moments are animated using spectacular CGI sequences akin to those used to promote World of Warcraft. Like in Wings of Liberty, in between missions, it is possible to chat with your lieutenants to garner their insight. I wasn't sure how this would all work, given that the Zerg is supposed to be a unified hive mind, but that is all explained away by the fact that the swarm has shattered into individual broods during Kerrigan's brief absence. The exchanges between Kerrigan and her minions are a lot of fun, especially those involving Abathur who has no empathy when it comes to genetically modifying hapless captured specimens.
Abathur's sole goal in life is to incorporate the DNA of assimilated creatures into the swarm, with the purpose of making the Zerg more powerful. The Zerg's nature of constant evolution plays a big part in the way that units get periodically upgraded as you play through the story. After certain missions budding Overlords get the choice of modifying their troops in one of two ways. You could for example splice Roaches with DNA that will spawn additional mini-roaches, from the corpses of defeated foes, or alter the toxic bile they spew to slow down their attackers. Urgh that sounds gross. I apologize for not warning my readers to stop eating prior to checking out this review.
Much like Warcraft 3, Heart of the Swarm introduces hero units to the single player campaign. In addition to the regular Zerg beasties, Kerrigan herself takes to the battlefield, along with a few other characters that I shall remain tight lipped about to avoid spoilers. Kerrigan is extremely powerful and can change the tide of battle by herself so it is good to learn that, apart from a couple of missions, her death does not signal a game over. In most cases a vanquished Kerrigan merely respawns back at base ready to once again torment the corrupt Terrans and misguided Protoss. I welcome this design decision as it can be annoying when certain games grant you control of a badass character, only to force you to hide them away at headquarters for fear that their death will cost you the current objective.
Like her Zerg babies, Kerrigan also benefits from the evolution system that bestows her with a plethora of abilities as the story advances. Completing missions and optional side quests level up the tentacle haired protagonist unlocking new skills that are selectable from a tree, similar to what you would find in a RPG. What a shame that none of those power-ups improve her walking speed. For whatever reason Kerrigan likes to traipse across maps at a snail's pace getting left behind by her more nimble army of Zerglings and Mutalisks. What's the deal lady? During the cut scenes you can gracefully fly through the air so why are you dragging your heels in the middle of a conflict zone?
Heart of the Swarm is pretty much the same as its predecessor and other RTS titles. Using the mouse and some hotkeys you mine for minerals and gas turning them into resources for building a base and combat units. Blizzard isn't keen to rock the boat and change things too drastically as balance is key given that the game is popular in competitive multiplayer circles (in Korea StarCraft is practically a sport featuring professional players with inhuman reflexes.) You get some new units for each race along with new maps to fight on, but on a whole the mentality behind this expansion is "if it ain't broke don't fix it."
That's not to say that the game isn't worth picking up. The single player campaign alone is worth the investment, particularly if like me the Zerg happens to be your favorite race. Blizzard have been creative with the level design so the action is more interesting than simply amassing an attack force large enough to overpower the opposing side. Most stages have unique elements to them, which keep things fresh. One moment you may be infiltrating a Protoss ship as a lowly larvae, that has to infect the crew, and in another level you'll be engaging in an Easter Egg hunt of sorts as you race against a rival to collect one hundred zergling eggs. There's even boss battles were you have to avoid super attacks, which remind me a little of Diablo 3 due to the point and click nature of the interface.
Needless to say I highly recommend Heart of the Swarm. The only real criticism I can levy at it is that the story ends all too quickly. There are only twenty missions to tackle and they aren't particularly challenging either. After having two years to hone their APM (actions per minute) I cannot see veteran players finding the regular difficulty setting to be too taxing. Even newbies may find the whole thing to be a cakewalk given that the upgrades you receive are so overpowered that they border on breaking the game in favor of the player.
Despite that the game is terrific value for money. The length of the campaign merely means you are more likely to revisit it to earn achievements and try out abilities you didn't utilize during your first run. There's also the newly introduced experience system that rewards gameplay with portraits, decals and other unlockable goodies. The multiplayer component is however what will keep players entertained months after the story is done and dusted. No matter what your taste there is something for everybody including StarCraft themed arcade games, the competitive league ladder and cooperative play were one to three commanders can team up to challenge the improved A.I.
Although I wasn't initially a fan of Blizzard chopping up StarCraft 2 into three games (it just felt like nickel and diming the fan base for all they are worth) I cannot fault their efforts thus far. Both Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm have been excellent, which is no mean feat, as I normally prefer turn based strategy games over RTS ones. Let's hope they pick up the pace with the release schedule though as waiting over two years for the concluding chapter would be unbearable.