The Good: Supreme unit balance, first-rate cutscenes, good mission mix
The Bad: Pretty much just like Wings of Liberty, only with Zerg instead of Terran
The Ugly: Nothing really.
Before I really delve into the review, I’ve got a confession to make: though I’ve been playing Starcraft and now Starcraft II pretty steadily for years, I’ve never been a Zerg guy. For the most part I play Terran, and occasionally Protoss, but rarely if ever Zerg. I find their buildings difficult to differentiate – one pool of glop or amorphous biological heap looks pretty much like another – and hard to figure out their function by how they look. Their attack patterns – the Zerg rush and such – are too chaotic for my taste as a somewhat methodical RTS player. I prefer setting up clean battle lines of soldiers and heavys backed up by vehicles and tanks to the sort of mass Helter Skelter of a Zerg swarm. That’s not to say that I wasn’t interested in reviewing Heart of the Swarm (HotS), the first of two planned expansion packs to Starcraft II : Wings of Liberty (WoL), if for no other reason than to discover the fate of star-crossed lovers Jim Raynor and Kerrigan (who I know is named Sarah, but will always think of as Nancy – if you don’t get the reference, Google it). But the idea of playing through twenty or so missions exclusively from the Zerg perspective did give me pause. /*end confession*/
It is good for me then that many missions are nothing more than glorified Zerg tutorials, putting you in somewhat artificial circumstances and limiting what units you have available, introducing a couple of new units at a time to let you grow accustomed to their strengths and weaknesses, how to build them, how they move, and what they can attack. Furthermore on normal setting the game is very forgiving, throwing only half-hearted attempts against my half-assed defenses as I try and figure out how to turn larvae into drones into whatever, and giving me ample crystals and vespene to toss away on unsuccessful attack spasms. Veteran Zerg players will probably disagree. They will argue that non-Zerg people could and should have played WoL skirmish maps as Zergs to learn the units, and HotS should have just gotten rolling right off the chocks. I really can’t argue with that. The other thing I probably can’t argue with is the general sentiment on the interwebs that HotS as a single player game is much easier than WoL – even at my playing level I noticed that. The game includes an RPG element in that Kerrigan gains additional powers (which you can select and reassign at will) as the campaign progresses. She starts out pretty badass, but somewhere around midway through she becomes a nearly unstoppable force, a one-person army, and she is along for the ride on every mission (incidentally, she can’t be killed – when really wounded she ends up in a cocoon back at your base). You can run her right into the enemy base, do tremendous damage, and flee to recharge while the world burns behind her. I’ve read discussions in which some players park Kerrigan in a corner of the map and play without her to make the levels more challenging. Perhaps to try and offset this reduction in difficulty, HotS implements an extensive achievement list, so while finishing the missions, even with the bonus objectives, may not be all that difficult, gathering every achievement (if that is your thing) is – at least for me.
The game is, as mentioned earlier, 20 missions. They’re more or less linear. Additionally there are half a dozen optional missions in which you get to choose between different buffs for certain Zerg units. The game calls these evolution missions, the choice being between one of two genetic mutations for an existing unit. They’re so simple that they’re not really missions – more along the lines of getting to try the different mutations before you buy. Choose carefully – once you’ve picked, that’s what you get for the rest of the campaign (though obviously you can go back and replay the campaign making a different choice the second time around). Many of the upgrades involved units that I don’t use that much in my personal strategy, but for those that I did, the upgrades meshed in pretty nicely – though increased that too easy thing I mentioned earlier.
I must admit that at this point in the review I’m having difficulties coming up with things to say about HotS that I didn’t say in my review of WoL. It’s as if I could have taken the previous review and done a find and replace with the words “Zerg” and “Terran.” Blizzard has clearly spent a lot of time and beta testing playing with the unit balancing. Mission variety is good, though many of them feel familiar in comparison to WoL. The whole game has a level of polish that most games in the RTS realm can only dream of. Unit animations are good. Cutscenes are great. Fanatics of the series will I think recognize characters from the distant past – Brood War and whatnot – but they rang only very faint bells for me.
Nothing major has changed with regards to multiplayer, though I understand (from discussion boards) that a lot of fine-tuning has occurred. For a game with worldwide league competition that kind of tweaking is probably very important, but as a sort of lower middle class player in the ladder most of that is invisible to me. Somewhat ironically, as a Terran player I recognized the changes to Terran units before I noticed the changes to the Zerg, or the Protoss for that matter. I will add that I continue to appreciate the matchmaking service that Battlenet uses to try and match me with someone who plays at the same level as I do. It keeps pros in Korea from annihilating me on a regular basis.
I haven’t read my own Wings of Liberty review in some time, but I seem to recall writing something about Blizzard taking the low-risk approach to Starcraft II – evolutionary, not revolutionary. They had a game in Starcraft 1 that had millions of fans the world over, even a decade after it had come out. Are people still leaguing the first C&C? Still playing the first Resident Evil? The original Doom? No, they’re not, not in any great numbers. So why would Blizzard risk alienating those players? Why would they do anything more than improve the game cosmetically, create a few new units while tweaking others, and leave most of the game alone? The answer is they wouldn’t, and they didn’t, not for Wings of Liberty, and not for Heart of the Swarm. So I’m giving it exactly the same rating.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
This review is based on a copy of Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm for the PC provided by Blizzard Entertainment.