It’s been nearly three years since Starcraft 2 – Wings of Liberty was finally released. It was the sequel to a game that is one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed strategy games of all time and a personal favourite of mine. It was also a sequel that, itself, was released a whole 12 years after the original game. Blizzard certainly like to take their sweet time with these things, but it is usually worth the wait. The first part of the Starcraft 2 trilogy more-or-less lived up to the hype for most, but does part 2 do the same?
Beginning just days after the events of Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm begins with the newly de-zergified Sarah Kerrigan being held in a research lab. She has finally been reunited with Jim Raynor who had moved heaven and earth to save her and bring her back to him. But things quickly get ‘interesting’ again for our heroes and Kerrigan finds herself having to use her influence over the Zerg Swarm to build up an army and get revenge on evil Emperor Arcturus Mengsk. She does this from the Leviathan, a massive living Zerg vessel, and a team of Zerg creatures whose job it is to advise her and help her manage the swarm.
Tricia Helfer continues in the role of Kerrigan from Wings of Liberty. She delivers a good performance overall, though even some of her writing is dubious and a bit too ‘gamey’ at times (but that’s not her fault). The other characters fall rather short though. Some old faces, such as Zerhatul and another notable character who reappears, are OK, but unfortunately the rest of Kerrigan’s brood seem rather uninteresting and not particularly likeable, particularly when compared to Raynor and the crew of the Hyperion in Wings. Certain key moments are well executed, but a lot of the lines feel like they were ‘phoned in’. The only exceptions are levels where Kerrigan needs the help of Raynor’s crew and you get to interact with characters from the previous game.
Overall, the story is very clichéd and very similar to many other stories, including Blizzard’s own Warcraft III (all the warring races must unite to defeat an ancient god-like entity that is suddenly returning to wipe us out for no very good reason.). Its not to say that it isn’t well-told, for the most part. However there is quite a lot of hammy, cheesy and overly gamey dialogue. Also, there are very few revelations that anyone who has been following the story so far won’t see coming, though it does explore the origins of the Zerg and what they were like before the corruption.
Ultimately, while this game does foreshadow some of what is to come in the third instalment Legacy of the Void, the story mainly focuses on Kerrigan’s rather petty quest for vengeance against Mengsk, which was slightly disappointing. Its also worth mentioning that the ending is very similar to a video which leaked out a while ago, but (without giving anything away) I think the leaked ending was slightly better than the tweaked one they finally went with…
Gameplay continues the fine Starcraft strategy traditions. The single-player campaign is broken up into a total of 20 missions (plus several minor ‘evolution’ side-missions) and between each mission Kerrigan can upgrade herself and her brood by interacting with various characters on the Leviathan. Units can be enhanced with permanent upgrades and certain creatures have branching evolution trees, such as the Zergling which can either be upgraded to ‘Swarmlings’ (which let you spawn three Zerglings at once and at a greater speed) or the ‘Raptor’ (which can leap and scale cliffs). This method of upgrading and evolving units feels suitably different and more ‘Zerg-like’ than the systems employed by the Terrans in Wings.
Some of the missions in the campaign feature unique elements (I hesitate to call them ‘gimmicks’ as that implies they are dodgy or pointless, which they usually aren’t). One level, for example, requires you to harvest the DNA of some yeti-like creatures to adapt to freezing temperatures, allowing you to attack while your enemy is frozen in place. Another has you sending a single creature onto an alien ship to slowly feed, grow and take it over. However, there seemed to be a lot fewer of these gimmicks in the missions this time around and many (such as requiring the player to gather special resource pods, avoid lava surges or send specialised units into a destructive field) just seemed to be recycled ideas from the previous game. Again the main exception to this statements comes during the levels that involve controlling the Terrans, which include some interesting space-only battles.
There are various new units that have been added to the game, some exclusive to the campaign and a few in the multiplayer too. However, I don’t feel these new units have really added anything, and have done little to alter my strategies for any of the races. I’ve experimented with all of them, but I rarely use them when I play against humans or the AI. This is a personal view however, I’m sure that certain experienced players will be able to find new ways to improve their offensive and defensive strategies with these units.
Some new Battle.net features have been added as well. You can now earn XP and level-up as you play with each race in multiplayer matches, unlocking rewards as you go. You can also play in ranked matches vs. the AI, which will adapt to provide you with a challenge. This mode seems a bit wonky to me, as it doesn’t judge your skill with each race (I am great with the Terrans, but not so good with the Zerg, and I kinda expected the game to take this into account, but it does not). However, for the most part these are welcome new features and I think will genuinely motivate me to keep coming back for more. As ever you can expect Blizzard to keep working to fix and improve these features until the next expansion and beyond.
This is a very impressive game, particularly for a strategy game. The action during gameplay looks great and the character interactions between missions are pretty amazing as well, though again the Zerg characters themselves are not as interesting as the Hyperion crew. Loading screens are some times a bit too long, but at times the game seems to flow seamlessly from cutscenes into the action. The whole interface has been streamlined, making it much easier to get to where you want quickly.
The game does seem to have moved on graphically too, with better physics, shadows, lighting effects. In-engine cutscenes seem more impressive and it almost feels like the three-year wait for the game was justified!
One thing that I did feel was lacking, however, is the trademark Blizzard cinematics. There are a number of them throughout the campaign but they didn’t feel as amazing as some of the ones from Wings, possibly because there isn’t as much of a great story to tell!
Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm has been an enjoyable experience so far, and I do intend to play it a lot more; brushing up on my skills, playing with friends against the AI and achievement hunting. It didn’t have quite the same impact on me as Wings of Liberty did, but I think its because its the middle part of the trilogy and because there are not as many interesting and likeable characters in the story. Also, I think I was expecting it to feel like part of a trilogy rather than a mere expansion and so was slightly disappointed.
But it is a well made game, with high production values and I have enjoyed revising the Korprulu sector once again. I look forward to the final instalment of the trilogy.
Recommendation: Die hard fans should buy it, anyone who is unsure should maybe wait until the price comes down a bit (though bear in mind Wings‘ price has only recently been reduced!)