In spite of Jim Raynor’s private hopes, it appears that for now at least, Sarah Kerrigan has no intention of abdicating her throne as the Zerg Queen of Blades.
Once a Ghost operative, Kerrigan was betrayed by the duplicitous Arcturus Mengsk amidst his Shakespearean powerplay for dominion over the human colonists of the interstellar Korpulu sector.
Assimilated into the xenomorphic Zerg and appointed as heir to the Overmind, Kerrigan soon revelled in her role as Queen Bitch of the Universe.
And despite reigniting some deeply buried kernel of humanity in the closing passages of StarCraft II’s Wings of Liberty campaign, it’s clear Kerrigan still seeks vengeance against Mengsk and hopes to bring low her former commander by any means necessary.
One avenue is clear: Kerrigan is still psychically connected to the Zerg. Nonetheless, her recent defeat and subsequent purging at the hands of Raynor and General Warfield has left her vulnerable.
Many of the Zerg once under her psychic command have gone feral, and many of her formerly submissive Queens and Brood Mothers have presumed to adopt the seemingly vacant role of Zerg overmind.
Or, this is the premise as we can piece it together from the little time we had with StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm at Blizzard’s campus in Irvine, California. There, we were presented with a handful of assets and two early levels from the game that demonstrate Heart of the Swarm’s not-insignificant departure from the campaign structure of the Terran-focused Wings of Liberty.
Foremost amongst these is the more proactive role that Kerrigan will take in the campaign. Hailing back to Warcraft III, Kerrigan operates as a genuine Hero unit. She is a controllable force in the campaign replete with preternatural skills that can dramatically impact on the success or failure of any excursion.
In this current build – and anything could change between now and release, warns Blizzard – Kerrigan is able to choose skill load-outs called Battle Focuses. In the build we played, two were available. Specs Ops is a suite of Ghost-like skills including an energy boost, a mirror unit that deals half damage and an area effect stun ability. Corruption is decidedly Zerg: Kerrigan can “explode” any enemy unit to create two Broodlings, or unleash a spore cloud – affected units are vulnerable to a damage modifier.
For now, these are two of a possible four load-outs. Game Director Dustin Browder hopes that by release, these Battle Focuses will present the player with a difficult question: “What we want to do is have very different styles for each, so that you can say, 'This is my defensive Kerrigan', 'This is my Roach-burrow supporting Kerrigan', 'This is my Kerrigan that combos with air units', 'This is my stealth Kerrigan' that can just sneak around and wreck shit', right? We want these different vibes so when you’re looking at it, it’s very clear what you’re choosing.”
The centrality of Kerrigan as a “Hero” unit is very much in the vein of Warcraft III, and Browder freely admits that the team has sought inspiration from StarCraft’s sibling franchise: “You know, Warcraft III did some very specific things [with heroes] that were very cool: They used the upkeep system to keep your army small. Even then, your food count was capped and your hero was levelling up … The end result was that it was pretty easy to keep the hero’s power always relevant to the power of the stack.”
Even so, the nature of Zerg gameplay means that Heart of the Swarm faces unique difficulties that its swords and sorcery counterpart never did: “I think right now she works in these [early] missions, but when you’ve got 150 food running around and seven Ultralisks, are you really going to care about this chick with the stun attack? I don’t know, I think probably not.” He continued, “So if the hero is going to be about 25 per cent of the firepower of the stack, and you can probably engineer that within a couple of percentage points throughout. We don’t have that flexibility from one- to two hundred food, right? So it’s going to be a real challenge for us to figure out how to make that work.”
But the difficulties in designing a Zerg-focused campaign aren’t purely mechanical. Browder’s colleague and lead writer on Heart of the Swarm, Brian Kindregan, goes on to explain the difficulties with creating wholly alien characters that the player can become invested in: “The Zerg is a Hivemind so most of them have no personality, but there are Zerg who are individually sentient, you know, Queens and Brood Mothers, for example.” These are the characters Kindregan has chosen to focus on in order to propel the campaign: “With those characters I will try to figure out about them is something that people can latch onto and recognise, something they can respond to on a visceral or personal level.”