In a world of day-one DLC, it’s becoming far less often that we see a full on expansion pack — but Blizzard is still rolling them out as ‘full on’ as they come. With more than two years passing since Wings of Liberty ceased a twelve year long StarCraft hiatus, the next installment is here. Read on for our full Heart of the Swarm review, by our resident StarCraft fanatic, Bobby.

Kerrigan Heart of the SwarmContinuing where we left off…

While the multiplayer aspect will always be the part of a StarCraft game that sees you playing for an almost infinite time after release, the single player campaign’s storyline is the part that fans are always most keen to see unfold. Heart of the Swarm picks up pretty much from the immediate moment that Wings of Liberty ended, and we get straight back into the meat of it with an opening cinematic that somehow manages to top even those of its predecessor.

It’s from this moment that I’m already struggling to write about it, as even from the very first time taking control of the Zerg, Blizzard are already doing hugely clever and unexpected things that I don’t even want to hint at in fear of spoiling your delight.

All I wanted to do was find out what happened next, it’s essentially all I was thinking about.

Here’s what I will tell you, though. Kerrigan makes for an amazing lead character, and Blizzard have managed to portray a wide range of personality among the various Zerg characters that she comes across as her vengeance is sought throughout the campaign’s storyline. You’ll also get to experience the lore of of the race, right back to its origins, as well as a few little bonus throwbacks to the very first StarCraft (something that WoL did for the Terran, and that’s always appreciated by long-term fans). I’d wondered endlessly how they would tie the Queen of Blades storyline into what had already happened in part one, and it’s extremely well executed. From even before the first mission, all I wanted to do was find out what happened next, it’s essentially all I was thinking about (which may say more about me than the game).

If you want some real-world proof that the storyline is compelling, my better-half — who‘s only knowledge of Starcraft is that I ‘never stop playing it’ — caught wind of the opening cinematic. She was then insistent that I replayed all the cinematic scenes for her in order, so she could see what went down. Since, she’s been asking why Blizzard have never made a StarCraft movie.

It’s not just the storyline…

baby banelings

Baby Banelings!

The actual gameplay within the campaign mode adds a lot of new slimy Zergy stuff too. Kerrigan plays a far greater role during missions than Jim Raynor did last time; she accompanies you as a controllable hero (almost Warcraft style) for a majority of the missions in the campaign. She levels up throughout, gaining new skills and abilities — which are going to be a huge help if you play on a harder difficulty, and whichever appear most useful can be selected before going into each mission.

That’s a theme that carries over to your more general Zerg units, whose evolution is much less linear than researching Terran upgrades was. Each Zerg unit gets a choice of three unique upgrades as you unlock them, which can also be reselected ahead of a mission. But they also get a fixed, more extreme evolution each, upon completing ‘evolution missions’. These are a choice between two that cannot be undone, but the nice part is that the evolution missions themselves are not only enjoyable, but allow you to actively use both evolution options in-game briefly before making a choice.

Kerrigan plays a far greater role during missions than Jim Raynor did; she accompanies you as a controllable hero (almost Warcraft style) for a majority of the missions in the campaign.

Experienced Zergs may find a couple of small gripes in the campaign gameplay, though. It felt like forever before I played a mission where I could build  a second hatchery, meaning everything felt slow compared with multiplayer where it’s common to build one at just 15 supply. The Queen’s inject larvae ability is also not present in the campaign, further slowing things down. Then, certain skills and upgrades have been altered or removed; the Infestor’s neural parasite is changed to give permanent control over the target unit, and there’s no speed upgrade for Roaches, to give some examples.

It was, of course, the same for Terran the first time around. However, the single-player unit changes feel much more noticeable as someone who’s played two years of multiplayer with the Zerg. The slow feeling does have a remedy, however. Unless you’re already playing on Brutal difficulty, turning that difficulty option up a notch will have you feeling far less complacent. To elaborate a little, I played Wings on normal difficulty, but this time around that setting left me getting ahead of what the game was expecting me to have built up at a given time, and I was able to complete missions using only the basic units. If it starts feeling a little easy-peasy, your enjoyment level will go up dramatically just by changing the difficulty.

swarm-screenshot

The whole single player portion is just as tasty as last time around, perhaps even more so with some of the new ideas that have been implemented. The cinematic sequences are quite simply masterpieces, and the story was literally infesting me with excitement at every plot twist — and left me seeing Kerrigan as a massively multi-dimensional character, tormented by the fact she may never be the same as she once was. A torment that shows not only within the dialogue, but is also portrayed with every facial expression — something that’s hard to do in a game, one that Blizzard nails regularly, but hammers right through the wall in the case of Sarah Kerrigan and her Queen of Blades darker-side.

Just as with Wings of Liberty I did feel a little disappointed after the campaign, but not because it wasn’t good. It was because a feeling of great sadness overwhelmed me during the credits, as it dawned upon me that I would never again be able to experience this game for the very first time.

After the campaign…

It’s time for the multiplayer. The changes to which, any regular StarCraft player is likely to have kept up-to-date and familiarised themselves with already. But for those who aren’t, there’s a few new units for each race, as well as some balance and ability changes to some of the old units. I shan’t mention them all here, but I will comment on how they’ve totally changed the dynamic of a multiplayer game for all three races.

Terran get some big early-game changes with the ability to to get the old Reaper unit out much faster, and it’s much more viable now it can heal itself out-of-combat. Plus, the new Hellbats which transform from Hellions can make for new and interesting army compositions later on. Zerg’s new Swarm Hosts and Vipers give them so many more options late-game. Then, for Protoss, well let’s just say the new Tempest air units and Void Ray changes mean you’ll becoming far more familiar with the term ‘Skytoss’. You’d also better keep your eye out for Oracles in your mineral line, or those workers are going to evaporate.

The most neatly arranged units in StarCraft history?

The most neatly arranged units in StarCraft history?

As an expansion, and after playing a significant amount of the beta myself, I feel the final changes are perfect to switch up the game, and that Blizzard have made sure nothing made it in which might completely break it (I’m looking at you, Warhound) — and as far as balance goes, we’re immediately in a far better place than Wings of Liberty was at release when it comes to high-level play. With two high-class e-sports events in the bag, and MLG playing out over this weekend, we’ve already seen some amazingly interesting games out of those who are the very best StarCraft players in the world.

I played Wings of Liberty religiously since its release, and I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll be playing Heart of the Swarm right through to the day Legacy of the Void is sitting on my computer.

Battle.net 2.5?

The last great thing to arrive in this expansion is the new featureset within Battle.net. As Wings of Liberty matured, much of the community was getting frustrated at the lack of any sort of community within the game itself, or any incentive for the less dedicated to keep playing the game aside from just improving their skill level. There’s several new features to remedy that which rolled-out alongside the expansion.

battle-netThe simple chat channels that were there before didn’t do a lot to get people playing together, but now full community groups can be created that mean you can join in with huge established groups of players, or create a small private community for a close group of friends — both of which feature their own chat channels and an ability for group admins to post news updates, which could be useful for organising things such as game nights. There’s also clan-support, which is similar to a group but aimed for competitive players and comes with a feature that adds a clan-tag prefix to your in-game name.

It’s also an amazing relief to be able to select your region before logging in; you can play on servers, and with people, from any region. There’s very few who’d argue when I say that this should have always been an available option, it’s just insane that you couldn’t play with someone outside of your region before. But you can now.

Shared replay watching is another giant change as far as getting people playing, watching synced replays of pro-gamers will get people logged-in, and being able to coach your friends who are new to the game by pointing out possible improvements will leave less-skilled players feeling far less helpless. Being able to play in unranked matchmaking games should also help to ease any of you out there who desperately don’t want to affect your league rank whilst practicing.

It’s a series which anybody who’s serious about gaming on their computers should go and purchase ASAP.

Finally, there’s a new levelling system where you’re awarded XP in every game, which goes towards improving your level for each race, subsequently unlocking new decals, portraits and even skins for some of your units or buildings. Oh, and you can also attain Gangnam Style unit animations for the ‘/dance’ command, making typing that command as your enemy’s base crumbles far more satisfying than ever before.

Just buy it already

If you already own Wings of Liberty, there is no reason not to buy this expansion. It represents one of the very best entries into a genre that has always been a favourite of PC gamers. So far so,  that it’s a series which anybody who’s serious about gaming on their computers should go and purchase as soon as is physically possible.

Just be ready to spend some time losing and learning when you first enter the multiplayer arena. Then, after that, be ready to become as hopelessly fanatical about as I have. After a somewhat sketchy Diablo III launch, the team at Blizzard who are responsible for StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm are essentially godlike in their field.

If you’re that guy complaining about it being too expensive for an expansion pack, get over it. Submit to the Swarm.

Score: 5/5