The first Starcraft 2 Expansion Pack Heart of the Swarm dropped last week, infesting computers all over the world with vicious Zerg organisms. With years between outings, has it been worth the wait?
If you’ve already played Wings of Liberty, then you can probably stop reading this right here, because you already know what you think of Heart of the Swarm. It’s true that Heart of the Swarm hasn’t evolved at all since Wings of Liberty, and you could go so far as to say that Starcraft 2 hasn’t evolved at all from the original Starcraft. In both cases Blizzard took what worked and honed it continuously until it was a perfect representation of what they wished to achieve.
I was thoroughly impressed by Wings of Liberty. I thought that after waiting for over a decade whatever Blizzard delivered would ultimately be disappointing, but the game delivered in spades. The presentation of the characters and story outside of the missions helped breathe new life into a universe that had been laying fallow for so long, and each mission was framed in such a way that even the most straightforward build-base-smash-enemy level seemed fresh and interesting.
Traditionally achievements serve two purposes; firstly, to reward you for doing what you were going to do anyway and secondly, to artificially increase the playtime of a game (see also: collectibles), but with Wings of Liberty Blizzard crafted them to improve you as a player.
This is especially true on Hard difficulty, where the perfectly-balanced challenge when coupled with the achievements will push you to your limits in terms of how many troops you can balance, how many fronts you can fight on and how quickly you can pull off a decisive victory – skills you’ll need in later missions, and lessons that might help prepare you for entering the multiplayer realm.
So, is that all the Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm campaigns are? Training tools to get you ready for the multiplayer scene? No, not really. It does a far better job of preparing you than the original Starcraft campaigns did, but the two halves of the game are still worlds apart.
So far everything I’ve said is true for both WoL and HotS – so how are they different? Apart from the obvious difference – the larvae, creep and mutations that define the Zerg play-style – the only other change is in the metagame upgrades. In WoL you earned resources that you could spend upgrading units or buildings; in HotS the resources you earn are for upgrading Kerrigan herself. Her skill-tree is easily adaptable, whilst unit upgrades and evolutions are unlocked automatically as you progress through the game.
The selection of missions isn’t quite as varied as WoL, with its fantastic, pattern-breaking Protoss section and mini-games, but the core campaign has just as many flourishes as the Terran outing.
With a female protagonist who is independent, strong-willed and immensely powerful, Blizzard were off to a good start. It’s a shame then that she is presented in such a titillating fashion. Her Zerg form has clearly defined breasts and butt-cheeks and her feet even end in stiletto points, just to ensure that the Queen of Blades’ butt can look its perkiest at all times. This is the kind of sexist objectification we should see on Deviant Art, not coming from one of the premier studios in the industry.
Heart of the Swarm appears to be plagued by more technical issues than Wings of Liberty was. Playing through WoL on Normal and then again on Hard I only ever lost my connection to Battle.net once – in HotS I’ve already lost count. It only really matters if you care about Achievements, but the on-screen prompts are big and irritating enough for it to earn a mention.
The load times are horrendous too, which doesn’t make sense considering it is built on the foundation of Wings of Liberty which never gave me the same issues. I’ve also experienced issues where the screen freezes but the game and some audio continue uninterrupted, but I don’t know how widespread this issue is.
For a while now internet denizens have been critical of Blizzard’s writing talents, and now I’m beginning to see why. It flew under my radar with Wings of Liberty, but here the poor dialogue, fantasy tropes and flawed internal logic is smacking me in the face.
That’s right, I said fantasy tropes, because there’s nothing science-fiction about Ancient Prophecies and Reawakened Gods.
Speaking of the writing – MILD SPOILER ALERT – before you’re halfway through the HotS campaign you will have undone everything you worked for in WoL. It’s like a soap opera or a superhero comic – things happen, but nothing can ever change because change is frightening.
Wings of Liberty did a great job of making this intergalactic battle a human story and they threw all that away for a trite “emotional” cutscene in Heart of the Swarm.
If you’re obsessed with Starcraft and desperately need to see where the story is going to go, then you’ve already bought Heart of the Swarm. If, on the other hand, Starcraft or Wings of Liberty didn’t do much for you then there’s nothing here in Heart of the Swarm that will change your mind. It’s more Starcraft 2, and it is certainly a well-designed, utterly-streamlined experience, but it’s nothing new.