In an era where many games now have downloadable content available on release day, Blizzard’s post-release content strategy seems almost parochial. It’s been two and a half years since StarCraft II was released. In that time many games have come to market, spammed out five or more downloadable content packs, and receded into fond memory or ignominious obscurity just in time for a sequel to be released precisely 12 months later. Twice.
Blizzard’s tortoise-like approach to game development has largely yielded remarkable results, and it’s not hard see why it’s the envy of developers everywhere as they crunch another milestone on another annual franchise. Still, it’s hard to be a fan of such a protracted development cycle, and it leaves almost no room for error: two and a half years of expectation is an onerous burden that it could be disastrous to miscarry.
Happily, Heart of the Swarm, the first expansion pack to StarCraft II, delivers. Costing only as much as a few downloadable content packs, Heart of the Swarm offers a singleplayer campaign that is every part the equal of the core game it expands upon. This time, players will assume the role of Sarah Kerrigan, and control the xenomorphic zerg as she seeks revenge on the tyrant who betrayed her and left her to die, emperor Arcturus Mengsk.
This newest instalment in Metzen’s melodramatic space opera doesn’t throw up any genuine narrative surprises, but it is another enjoyable romp through the Korpulu sector. Kerrigan has been reunited with Jim Raynor, but when the latter goes missing and Mengsk declares him dead, she turns to the only army she has left available: The Swarm.
The notion of character is antithetical to the very nature of the zerg. With that in mind, the writing team has done a commendable work. From the faintest trace of jealousy in Abathur – the creature responsible for the evolution of Kerrigan’s swarm – to Zagara’s almost endearing eagerness for instruction, more than one dimension has been brought to each member of Kerrigan’s supporting cast.
With Kerrigan a playable character in almost every one of the 20 missions that compose the singleplayer campaign, the balance of gameplay is somewhat different than that found in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan is an incredibly powerful unit, easily capable of decimating the enemy with only a little support, and most of the missions are designed demonstrate it with aggressive mission objectives.
The campaign brings with it a host of new units, abilities, and technology paths that are not present in the multiplayer. As Kerrigan crosses the sector regaining control of her swarm, Abathur will alter each unit in one of two ways: mutations and evolutions. The former are load-outs that can be changed at any time between missions. For example, the airborne mutalisk can be mutated to have a chain attack, a heavy armour attack, or health regeneration. It can be further evolved one of two ways: it can learn how to morph into a broodlord, or a viper.
When it all finally comes together in the closing missions of the campaign – when hundred of zerg units swarm across the map as an unstoppable wave of chitinous plates and fangs, and as Kerrigan lays waste to entire bases by herself – we’re reminded that few developers can sell a power fantasy quite as well as Blizzard.
The experience is buttressed by superb in-game cut-scenes and cinematics that do much to ameliorate any frustration over the length of the production cycle. The universe of StarCraft has never looked so good.
The campaigns in StarCraft have never adequately prepared players for multiplayer, and it’s clear that Blizzard has abandoned even the pretense that Heart of the Swarm might do so. While Wings of Liberty included some rudimentary challenges and limited versus-AI modes before throwing multiplayer neophytes in the deep end of laddering and ranked online play, Heart of the Swarm has sought to improve the transitional training period. It makes good headway, but it’s weirdly truncated, and focuses unevenly on early builds where the game is somewhat less flexible.
More useful is a smart AI that constantly gauges the player’s ability level and adjusts itself automatically in order to provide a challenge that is rarely insurmountable. But its unranked play that is the greatest boon (at least for those prepared to complete their mandatory practice matches): players are match-made against others of their own level, but the result will not affect their position on the official charts. It’s a useful way to warm up for a series of laddering matches, practice new builds, learn other races, or kill some time risk-free after getting home from the pub, for example.
In ranked multiplayer, the game continues to excel. Each race has new units that create new strategic options for each – and new headaches for opponents. The zerg viper is a delicate flying spellcaster that is unlikely to fall out of fashion, particularly given its ability to dismantle enemy stacks piecemeal. The swarm host is a kind of siege unit that constantly spawns smaller units in order to provide zerg with a legitimate pressure option mid-game.
The protoss have two new flying units that put an emphasis on stargate builds: the oracle, a harassment unit, and the tempest, another fragile air unit, but one with more range than any other unit in the game. These both provide the protoss with invaluable harassment abilities the race sorely needed.
Finally, the terran have the widow mine. This unit has several benefits, not the least of which is providing map visibility to the terran player. The respawning missiles will loose themselves to any unit that flies or strays too close, and after a short period detonate with significant splash damage.
The initial map pool has also benefited from two and a half years of professional gameplay. The original StarCraft II maps were tight, and the intention of the developers was to force quick engagements. As professional StarCraft II has evolved, the map size and the number of expansions players control has increased significantly. The only downside has been a tendency for players to build huge armies midfield and smash them into one another. Heart of the Swarm’s first multiplayer maps provide more options and channels for units, and the clear intention is for smaller, more frequent engagements.
It’s remarkable to think that in the mid-nineties, real-time strategy games were as ubiquitous as first-person shooters are today. Every publisher was rushing them out to fill our seemingly insatiable appetite for base-building. Today, real-time strategy fans have surprisingly few options. Good news that StarCraft, the competitive pinnacle of the genre, shows no signs of apathy with Heart of the Swarm. The memorable campaign and the careful evolution of its peerless multiplayer make it an expansion that will please all appetites.