As far as reputation goes, Blizzard has a pretty stellar one. People line up out the door for their games and ask for more with a smile on their face. The company starts off 2013 with releasing a much anticipated Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. An expansion set for one of the most iconic strategy games that brings the Zerg, and their enigmatic and now outcast leader – Kerrigan – to the forefront. Is it worth picking up the fight or should you let this one slide?
I’ve always been a strategy game enthusiast. I can’t go up a level to “player” or “fan” because I’ve never been good enough to be competitive in them, and nowhere did it show more than with Starcraft. The game already has a builtin fan base, a forever spot on the MLG pro circuit and a number of relentless advocates. That and Blizzard’s name alone guarantee it will sell. But the one question no one ever asks remains: what do I think?
Heart of the Swarm picks up where Wings of Liberty left things. The Zerg swarm has been defeated and Sara Kerrigan seemingly cured and reunited with Jim Raynor (still a better story than Twilight). Things fall apart just as fast since Arcturus Mengsk just won’t let the love birds be. As soon as Kerrigan starts to figure out she still has telepathic control over the Zerg, the leader of the Dominion swoops in and splits them up again.
I’m not a big fan of the story, and at some points, it is almost laughable. There are some cringe moments where you wonder how did they write this and did someone read it before approval. It is however a strategy game and even getting a story at all, told in beautifully rendered cutscenes at that, should be considered a luxury. It works as you see Kerrigan descend into the darkness yet again. A major complaint here is that it feels like a prelude or a prologue to something else (Legacy of the Void perhaps? *wink* *wink*).
The actors are once again fully voiced, both in cutscenes and gameplay. This is a game that has way too much going on at any one time, and the sound is no exception. You will constantly be assaulted by the audial representation of your units working, building, fighting and background noise of whatever world you’re fighting on. Blizzard does a good job of making it all fall on top of each other into one cohesive experience.
Visually, HotS takes a fews steps forward from WoL. The screen packs a bit more action on at any given time and there are some really new animations included. Hero and new unit design is the real a standout here. The graphics engine is still very strong. Cutscenes stand out visually as well. It’s clear Blizzard is committed to telling a story (it doesn’t matter if it’s really a story worth telling). The interface design is intuitive and smart, but then again, it was all of that in the original StarCraft as well.
My favorite part about HotS is how cleverly Blizzard differentiated between the single player campaign and its multiplayer. The campaign is varied. There are a lot of different objectives, and while some missions are a primer for what you can expect online, don’t expect to come out fully prepared. The campaign throws some curve balls in the shape of boss battles and other small challenges that feel very unorthodox in a RTS game but work surprisingly well.
From a gameplay standpoint, some things were patched up well and there were minor alterations, but at the heart it is still StarCraft. I found that it was relatively accessible from the start, but if you’re new don’t expect to be sweeping through the opposition as soon as you hop online. As much as before, it remains a game of trial and error, multitasking and high time demand if you want to excel at it.
What was always great about Starcraft is the diversity of gameplay depending on who you choose to play, and that is of course back this time. The campaign gives you a really good feel for the zerg, but don’t be shy and try out every race before you decide to be a Starcraft II champ.
Verdict: It’s a phenomenal strategy game. Really accessible on the surface, and deep once you get into the thick of it. Slight visual tweaks and adjustments to the balance do well to prolong it’s already long life. If you’re a strategy fan, you already own this game and have a million and one tactic to get ahead. If not however, it’s a good game to get into and try your tactical battlefield chops.