I won’t mince words here: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty completed floored me upon its release in the summer of 2010. Aside from its poorly written tale, Wings of Liberty epitomized the best aspects of the RTS genre to the tee. Everything from the stellar mission design (which perfectly mixed approachability, challenge, and variety), the balanced multiplayer, and the custom game possibilities came together to make the best RTS in years. Naturally, I have been extremely excited for Starcraft II’s first expansion, titled Heart of the Swarm, which features a campaign focused on the Zerg. The expansion hasn’t turned out to be anything revolutionary, but in this case it’s hardly a bad thing.
Heart of the Swarm‘s main addition is its new twenty-plus mission campaign focused on the deadly Zerg. It’s set a few weeks after the events of Wings of Liberty, and follows Kerrigan, the former leader of the Zerg who has been transformed into a human once again. The campaign follows her push to reform her force and exact long-brewing revenge on Arcturus Mengsk, the leader of the Terrans. While Kerrigan’s difficulty with consolidating her humanity to reform the Zerg is interesting on a basic level, the whole narrative generally feels pretty poorly written and predictable, with particularly ham-fisted dialogue.
Despite this, the story does offer a decent excuse from which to frame the gameplay structure around. Missions are contained in sets of two or three, and you’re occasionally given the option to tackle one set over the other first. Much like Wings of Liberty, each mission is preceded by a few different screens, where you can talk to supporting characters or modify some of your army composition. Kerrigan, for one, is a persistent hero unit, and can be given a variety of passive or active abilities that can be swapped before each mission as she gradually levels up. You can also choose to effect the abilities of the bulk of your army, by granting them one of three passive buffs or embarking on an “evolution mission”, which permanently modifies a unit in a huge way. For example, Zerglings can either be given the ability to scale cliffs, or spawn in groups of three instead of two.
These options initially feel quite empowering, and there’s normally a clear difference between the two units. It’s a shame then that the game doesn’t highlight their differences more explicitly; Heart of the Swarm seems more forgiving than Wings of Liberty, and it has the effect of making your choices feel somewhat meaningless, at least on a normal difficulty. Kerrigan’s abilities, on the other hand, are generally more noticeable, and can come in the form of extremely helpful defensive abilities or devastating active abilities. Kerrigan is the one change from Wings of Liberty‘s campaign that adds something to the game, but it’s hard not to miss the more impactful meta-game from Wings of Liberty when all is said and done.
This all being said, Heart of the Swarm does bring over the stellar mission design Wings of Liberty was well known for. The missions aren’t quite as fresh as they were before, but Blizzard has managed to create a wide variety of interesting missions that consistently change up how the game is played. One mission might have you slowly constructing a highway of creep in order to save your base from destruction, while the next might put you in the middle of an all out war between two Zerg factions. For all of its issues, at the end of the day Heart of the Swarm does have it where it counts.
Heart of the Swarm also features some changes to multiplayer. As soon as the multiplayer option is selected, its clear that the developer is more actively interested in easing people into the online portion of the game. You’re given the option of jumping straight into multiplayer, but there are also training, AI matches, and unranked multiplayer options included. StarCraft II is somewhat notorious for the difficulty of its multiplayer (which has never terribly bothered me due to how impeccably balanced and fun it is), so this can hopefully help people have an easier time of building getting into it.
There’s also been two or three units given to each faction. The Terran have received mines which can attack any ground or air enemies that appear above them, as well as a transformation to the Hellion unit that allows them to assume a form not unlike the Firebat from StarCraft. The Zerg can now morph Vipers, units that can attack from long ranges and pull in units to be more easily attacked, and Swarm Hosts, which can launch swarms of locusts when burrowed. The Protoss have had a huge boost to their air units with the Mothership Core, a unit that has some of the abilities the Mothership has, the Oracle, a unit designed for worker harassment, and the Tempest, which is a long-range siege unit. It’s difficult to say how these additions will add to the professional level, given how frequently it adapts the system, but on a smaller-scale these units should hopefully broaden the strategies of each race, and certainly have unique applications.
Still, I find myself wishing that Heart of the Swarm could be better. The promises of the campaign simply don’t come to fruition as much as I’d like, even if the levels themselves remain quite good. If you can accept that, then there’s a good amount to enjoy, and the series’ multiplayer continues to improve in some great ways. While it doesn’t reach the bar set by Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm is a solid, if flawed, addition to it.