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StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm [Review]

Overall Feeling: 

Heart of the Swarm does what every good expansion/sequel to a Blizzard title (or game in general) should. It expands on the original concepts, without killing the reason we fell in love with it in the first place, and brings something new to the table. At first glance, the changes to the competitive gaming (easily the biggest part of the game for most gamers) seem subtle, but after playing with the new units for a bit, it’s easy to see just how drastically the game has been changed for all levels of gamers.

The Pros: 

+Improvements to the play and feel of the campaign mode.

+New units drastically reshape the gameplay in competitive, with subtle tweaks to the play-style.

+Top-tier production value that we’ve come to expect from Blizzard.

+Some of the most visually impressive gameplay and cinematics in the RTS genre. 

The Cons: 

-F*ck the Zerg.

ShogunGamer.com Rating : 
9

Does anyone else feel the connection between Blizzard Entertainment and Wolverine? Seriously, it’s been bothering me all week… Every time Blizzard comes out with a new trailer, a new game, an expansion, or whatever I hear, in my head, “We are Blizzard, and we’re the best at what we do and what we do is…” roll the title and display whatever it is they are showing off that particular day of the week.

Fair enough, they’re not the fastest developer/publisher out there. We’ve been waiting nearly three years for the first expansion to Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. But Blizzard has always had a knack for making us wait, and then consequently proving that it was worth the time.

They spend the time, they do things right, and then don’t skimp on the flair either. Their cinematics are easily some of the best in the biz. Coupled with solid storytelling, and genre-defining gameplay… has there ever been a Blizzard title that wasn’t of a Triple-A pedigree from the jump?

Yes, yes… gushing about the company makes this a fairly obvious review for those of your smart enough to read… well, not even between, but the lines themselves.  So, let’s just jump straight into why Starcraft 2’s first expansion is worthy of the praise that I’ve been bestowing on its developer, shall we?

Fans of the story of the game will be glad to know that the game picks things up pretty much exactly where the last game left off. If you still have yet to complete the original campaign (multiplayer fanatics that you are) I won’t get too deep into it… but I will say that the focus shifts (as the name of the title would imply) from Jim Raynor to his love-interest Sarah Kerrigan, who has (temporarily) resigned her role as “The Queen of Blades.”

 

 

As the game begins, you start the story from the point of view of Sarah as she’s re-integrated into the Terrans. Though, as one might guess, things go side-ways quite quickly and Sarah is “forced” to resume her role as the queen and commander of the Zerg armies.

Here-in lies my only real problem with this particular chapter in the Starcraft franchise: I hate the Zerg. I don’t care for their story particularly, I don’t like playing as them either in the story or competitively. I have a practiced dedication for avoiding them like the god-damned plague. So, when the entire campaign focuses around them. Their story. Their units. Their leader. Their evolution. You can guess how entirely thrilled I am, and how inspired I am to get through and unlock every single bit of it I can…

Though I have to admit, having said that, Blizzard has done a GREAT job of improving the feel of the game in the campaign missions.

While previous iterations of the franchise has felt a little bit like Blizzard trying to break an RTS to fit into a story-telling style… Heart of the Swarm’s campaign almost feels like a stand-alone product. It is a legitimate game in and of itself.

Yes, you still command the characters in the traditional sense, using your cursor to select, command, built units, and to gather resources… but the progress feels a little more natural and ‘game like’. The best example, that I can give, being the beginning of the game where you navigate a single character, Kerrigan, a la Fallout. Later in the game you even encounter some interesting ‘boss’ fights that feel like traditional action-game set-pieces and offer challenge and variety to the game.

But let’s be honest here… The majority of the gamers that play Starcraft aren’t going to be spending a whole lot of their time with the campaign. Most people I know rushed through it, as quick as they could, just to say they’d completed it. I’m sure for some people, who main the Zerg, the story will be a feature for them that they care about… but the vast majority are picking this up because it is one of the top competitive multiplayer games out there today, and the expansion adds new levels to the multiplayer.

The main thing, or at least most easily recognisable change to the game, is that several new units have been added to each faction.

Surprisingly though, these don’t come in the way of bigger/badder firepower. Blizzard, in their infinite wisdom and constant desire to tweak/balance from a variety of different angles, have focused more this time on the concept of ‘tool’ or support units.

Take for example the Protoss, my home team in Starcraft since day one. They’ve received three new units in Heart of the Swarm: The Mothership Core, Oracle, and Tempest. Yes, the Tempest is a more traditional “attack unit,” focusing primarily on ranged attacks from the sky… but the Oracle and Mothership Core are more what I’m talking about.

Their focus aren't strictly about dealing massive damage… but are more about harassment of the enemy. The Oracle, for example, harasses via a beam-weapon specifically tailored to destroy workers. It also possesses the ability to reveal enemy units, and in its immediate area, or as an AOE ability. The Mothership Core can attack directly, but also offers are more useful abilities in the form of a time-displacement field that slows down enemy troops and a Mass Recall that will return the Core all surrounding troops back to home-base.

That concept is represented in each faction, providing a new harassment or support unit to each group. It’s an awesome concept that, for a spectator like me (I will NEVER be pro-tier at this game, and readily admit it) offers another layer of complexity and intrigue to the professional-level of competitive gaming that has been at the core of this franchise since its inception.

Look, it’s near impossible at this point to “sell” people on the concept of a Blizzard title. They are the very best at what they do. It is a niche, but a massive one. If you get it, you know why they are amazing, and probably were at the launch for every single one of their titles. And it’s not a small niche, World of Warcraft and Starcraft individually represent two of the largest and most fiercely competitive pro-gamer scenes and have raked in over their many years a simply unfathomable amount of money…

Heart of the Swarm does what every great Blizzard sequel does: It keeps what made the original series so amazing addictive and competitive, and tweaks on it in small ways that completely re-vamp how it’s to be played for the next 3 or 4 years (until the next expansion is released). What has me most excited is to see how those top-tier players, those professional gamers whose job it is to play dawn-‘til-dusk, day in and day out, find ways of breaking and exploiting and abusing these new units for the entertainment of the hundreds of thousands that follow the circuit with near religious emphaticism.

Beyond that, the more ‘casual’ level of gamers among us will appreciate the fact that Blizzard has continued the support and progression of the Starcraft “Arcade” which allows gamers to build and play custom game types. Everything from Tron cycle chases, to turn-based dungeon crawlers, right up into real-time variants of Risk are represented… and just the very tip of the iceberg. So when all is said and done. When you’ve cleared that campaign on it’s very hardest of difficulty settings. When you’ve become a Grand Master in the Platinum League online (maybe even won some real-world tournaments) there’s still an infinite amount of player-created abominations to work your way through (most of which, the promoted titles, are of a calibre that someone, somewhere should be getting paid proper money for).

A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC
Release Date: March 12th, 2013
Price: $39.99 (Game), $49.99 (Digital Deluxe), $79.99 (Collectors)