StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Review

Gaming

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StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC, Mac
Release Date: March 12, 2013
Price: $39.96 – Standard Edition; $79.99 – Collector’s Edition Edition

Overview
Very few titles make me giddy enough to want to sing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, but StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm sure knows how to get this heart racing. Ever since Wings of Liberty – the first installment – was released, I knew I would be acquiring the latter instalments strictly based on the campaign storyline.

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Wings of Liberty’s protagonist Jim Raynor has done everything in his power to bring Sarah Kerrigan (Queen of Blades) back to humanity. He has learned that the coming evil cannot be stopped unless the Zerg, Protoss, and Terran unite against the singular threat. Will Sarah be able to control the swarm in her human form? Who is aiding this ancient evil? Did Jim give up everything just to lose more? All questions will be answered and perhaps lead to more questions…

Story
Spawning from the existing cliffhanger of Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm enthralls you from start to end with cinematic clips in-between missions. While you are actually playing out the story through campaign mode, the meat of the story is developed in these small interchanges and continues to build the mystery of the intertwined characters. Blizzard has done extremely well in creating cinematic clips that makes the audience feel as though they are in the movie theater. This very aspect makes Heart of the Swarm addictive to play. Players will yearn to get to the next cut-scene to reveal the fate of their strategic exploits.

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* CAUTION – May contain spoilers *

We find Sarah Kerrigan in a bit of a predicament at the very start of the campaign. The Terrans have her secluded in a secured base to test her Zerg controlling abilities in her reformed human state. Under the control of the Emperor’s renegade son – Prince Valerian, the Terran base has been made a temporary sanctuary/containment cell for the former Zerg Queen. Shortly after experimenting Kerrigan’s psionic prowess, the Terran facility becomes under attack from Emperor Mengsk’s forces containing an elite ghost unit, Nova. Kerrigan – no longer bound – joins up with Jim Raynor in trying to escape the facility. As Sarah crosses a platform to destroy a heavily armored Archangel unit, the bridge collapses separating Jim and Sarah once again (setting up a similar experience that determined Kerrigan’s fate). Sarah promises Jim that she will rendezvous with him upon the Hyperion, battlecruiser command center, and leaves with Jim’s airship. The Hyperion, however, cannot reach Jim due to being under heavy fire leaving Jim to fend for himself. Nova approaches and takes Jim as a prisoner.

And that is only the beginning of this epic tale. The story continues to build on the development of who Sarah is and who she has to be. This leads her to changing back into the Queen of Blades but with her own personal consciousness rather than being directed by an “Overmind”. A search for greater power or “essence” determines Kerrigan’s route to save Jim and be rid of the monster that is Arcturus Mengsk.

New characters join the fray in effort to make the Swarm stronger. One of the most interesting character’s is Abathur who takes on the role Zerg mad scientist. Through the collection of essence and genetic mutations, Abathur aids the Swarm in evolving different strains of DNA to make the Zerg more powerful/adaptable. Additionally, Kerrigan tries to remember why she had despised Abathur before in her previous experience as the Queen of Blades. The answer why shouldn’t surprise anyone that experienced the original StarCraft.

Gameplay
Most of my time in experiencing Heart of the Swarm has been dedicated strictly to playing the campaign. Thus, I will be discussing in detail the experiences involved in the campaign missions, achievements, and Kerrigan’s abilities. Campaign missions begin with a very different approach that has not normally been in the StarCraft franchise. A slightly more Warcraft III direction has been taken with Sarah Kerrigan acting as the hero using unique abilities in battle. Adding more of a Warhammer 40k feel, the Heart of the Swarm has instances were a boss battle will occur instead of the normal strategy of building units. This builds upon the complexity that Heart of the Swarm provides giving players something more to look forward to than a straight up collision of armies.

Abilities offer a subtle twist in the already interesting single player campaign. Sarah Kerrigan is able to gain “levels” by performing extra objectives during campaign missions whether by collecting Zerg essence or protecting an existing brood. As she increases in level, Sarah is able to acquire new abilities that can actively or passively help during missions. On such active ability unlocks at level 60, and Kerrigan can summon “Drop-Prods” of her Swarm as reinforcements. A total of 50 Zerg will be unleashed at that location doing damage by exploding drop-pods on ground contact.

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When picking out a passive ability, it is important to plan understand how it will help you for the next mission. An ability called “Zergling Reconstitution” allows you to respawn 10 dead zerglings every 30 seconds until all zerglings are brought back to life. Other passive abilities can provide automated vespene geyser extraction, instant overload spawns, or even broodlings spawning from Kerrigan’s dead opponents.

After every mission – excluding evolution missions, there are certain achievements that can be completed. The basic achievements can be attained simply by completing the level, but more difficult achievements will have you complete a mission within a time frame or without losing much health with Kerrigan. Completing enough of these achievements will earn you more completion in the overall campaign.

Evolution missions do not offer any extra achievements, but they will decide your new DNA strain for your Zerg Swarm. For instance, you will have to choose between two very different strains of a single unit. Being a new unit of Heart of the Swarm, the swarm host is able to burrow on top of the ground and spawn locusts to attack ground units in a single area. The first strain that is shown allows the swarm host to burrow and create carrion locusts that fly and attack ground units. This can be used effectively when rifts separate units and locusts can fly over to attack units. The second strain is known as the creeper strain which allows the swarm host to tunnel deep within the ground and resurface in any available creep area. Such units can provide a quick defense for a separate base.

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Beyond the campaign, the multiplayer offers some new units to experience. A total of 7 new units are available with 2 Terran, 2 Zerg, and 3 Protoss. First up are the Terran’s hellbat and widow mine. Hellbats are the mechanized transformation of the hellion unit and can cause splashed fire damage to ground units. While these units are useful against biological melee units, they can be easily deterred by armored units. I am happy that Blizzard was able to somewhat incorporate the original “firebat” unit. Widow mines are the latest crave among Terran users. These beautifully crafted mines are the altered form of past “spider mines”. A widow mine is a highly mobile unit that can burrow itself into the ground rendering itself undetectable from normal units. They build up explosive charges that can break through heavily armored units as well as attack air units; having a few of these around the command center could help prevent uninvited guests.

Both the swarm host and viper are new units exclusive to the Zerg race. Swarm hosts – previously mentioned – spawn locusts when planted into the ground. By learning to burrow, swarm hosts can be undetectable by normal units and an endless supply of locusts. However, locusts in multiplayer are only able to attack ground troops. The second unit called a viper is Blizzard’s redesign of a flying “defiler”. Vipers have the ability to consume health from player-owned biological objects and convert it into usable energy. This energy can be used to emit a blinding cloud that reduces ranged attacks to melee distance or to abduct a unit to the viper’s location. The latter ability becomes extremely useful when dealing with siege tanks or colossus.

Left to Right: Terran Hellbat, Zerg Swarm Host, Protoss Tempest

Left to Right: Terran Hellbat, Zerg Swarm Host, Protoss Tempest

And finally the Protoss have three new units with the mothership core, oracle, and tempest. Unable to build a mothership right away? No need to fret because now Protoss lovers can build mothership cores fairly quick into the game. These little motherships can provide a quick escape to nearby units back to a nexus by using “Mass Recall” and can use “Time Warp” to reduce the speed of units entering the field by 50%. Once more resources are acquired, the mothership core can be upgrade to a mothership. Oracles are solely based on their abilities and the use of energy. They are able to use “Revelation” to reveal an area for 60 seconds by targeting an enemy unit or structure. Oracle’s “Envision” ability reveals cloaked, burrowed, or hallucinated objects for 60 seconds. Without an attack oracles would be rendered useless, so they have pulsar beams that are activated by draining 1.4 energy per second. The beams are an excellent harassment tool for probes, drones, or scvs. Last on the list is Protoss’s power house unit named tempest. Tempests are long distance shooters that somewhat resemble the Zerg’s guardian; however, this unit attacks both land and air units making it quite the commodity. One of the lagging skills of this air unit is that it has slow movement speed and can be taken out quite quickly if enough enemy air are in the area. Those in for the long haul would be wise to utilized a mothership alongside an armada of these beasty units.

Audio
Perhaps the only deterrence when considering sound quality is the guttural speaking of some Zerg characters. Abathur has almost a bubbling to his annunciation that makes some words hard to depict. A quick fix to this is having subtitles present making any conversation with Abathur easier to understand.

Tricia Helfer hands-down brings Sarah Kerrigan’s character to life. Whether it be her intensity or sheer passion for delving into her character, the Queen of Blades becomes a believable entity. One of the more difficult roles to play is that of a strong female presence holding back. With Helfer at the reigns this can directly be seen in a discussion with Prince Valerian just before an “invasion”. Kerrigan steps back from her usual role of being ruthless and showing no weakness to showing a smidgen of compassion for the sanctity of the Terrans.

Visuals
During cut-scenes with Abathur, you will notice that he occasionally spouts out saliva when speaking to Kerrigan. However, the distraction is that this saliva sometimes appears to be a blue/green glitch. I first questioned if this was on purpose because of Abathur’s nature of being the gene splicer of the Zerg and perhaps has an innate connection with technology. Yet the occurrence seemed unnatural and out of place that provides a minor distraction from the game’s content.

User interface has been overhauled to accommodate new features that Heart of the Swarm has brought. When accessing StarCraft II, players will be able to see a StarCraft news feed upon logging into their Battle.net account. A new menu selection appears on the left with campaign, multiplayer, arcade, and replays. Having purchased the Heart of the Swarm expansion will allow you access to the new campaign as well as to its multiplayer. Note that players can use the options menu to switch between Wing of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm multiplayer. If you cannot appreciate the beauty of Sarah Kerrigan, you can change the background as well to the planets theme.

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Many new portraits, decals, and skins have been added for further interactive play. Perhaps placing your own insignia on your troops gets your jollies in a bundle? Well, plenty new visuals have been incorporated with the leveling system allowing players to unlock the content. Skins will actually alter the cosmetics of specific troops and even add special affects to their abilities. Leveling up you skills with individual races will unlock not only new skins but new portraits/decals.

Overall
Wings of Liberty was only the beginning for StarCraft II, and now we can see the internal seed blossom with Sarah Kerrigan in Heart of the Swarm. The greatest experience of this title had to be a well driven story that can earnestly be felt by its onlookers. Containing a vast amount of emotions that have been festering since StarCraft’s original release in 1998, Heart the Swarm places you in its treacherous bowels only to emerge with new understanding of its developing characters. Sarah Kerrigan said it best herself, “I did what I had to…” And I’m here to tell you that Sarah did it very well.

9-5-capsules-out-of-10

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