A long time ago in a…wait wrong “Star” franchise. Ok, so this is actually set in the future. But I digress.
Last week Blizzard released their first expansion pack for their space themed RTS game Starcraft II entitled Heart of the Swarm. The major additions include a new chapter of the story via a full new campaign with over 27 missions, roughly 7 new units and maps for multiplayer and a major overhaul to the game menus.
My main focus here is to talk about the campaign. I’m also going to assume you have ‘some’ knowledge of the franchise and the RTS genre as the base Starcraft II game is required to play this one. I’ll also be avoiding story spoilers as best I can, though gameplay mechanics are fair game.
If you were to only look at the numbers on paper, the length of the campaign may seem short. All 27 main story missions took me roughly 9-10 hours to complete, allowing for a few maps where I got a bit too into destroying things and ended up having to restart due to my checkpoints being stuck in ‘no-win’ situations, where there just wasn’t enough time for me to salvage certain mission objectives. I played the game on normal difficulty for speed of the review purposes and I did manage to complete the majority of the bonus objectives for the missions. I only ended up missing 2 of the upgrade points for Kerrigan, finishing the game at level 68. Later I did go back and pick up the final 2 levels after completion via the Master Archives option (more on this later). I fully expect the missions to take slightly longer at higher difficulties, however I’d say this would be more on the side of player error than timing as most of the missions seem to have underlying timers for events or checkpoint based objectives that will usually take the same amount of time overall.
[pullquote]Chris Metzen and his team of fellow writers do a lot right by me.[/pullquote]The campaign really does a lot right; almost from the start you have a sense of being extremely powerful and it only grows as you progress. By the end of the game I truly felt like nothing in the universe could stop my Zerg swarm. But how does that work you say? It’s best described as a combination of Wings of Liberty style unit abilities and upgrade choices, “Hero” character leveling for Kerrigan similar to Warcraft III, and a small yet diverse ability tree for Kerrigan herself to go along with those level-ups. Unit upgrades this time are still a ‘fixed’ choice like in Wings of Liberty, however this time they’re accompanied by ‘test’ missions with a bit of story. This lets you ‘try before you buy’, if you will, so you get to see the potency and practical uses of each choice before you make your decision.
The other interesting thing to me is this expansion’s story does a lot to devillianize the Zerg. Most of this comes from Kerrigan herself, but because of it I connected with playing as the Zerg Swarm; basically for the first time ever. I don’t feel like it’s just a bunch of crazed killing machines destroying everything in their path — though that aspect is still there — there’s a higher mentality behind it now, a purpose if you will.
Now I have to comment on the bad, but let me say this: I generally love Blizzard’s storytelling. Chris Metzen and his team of fellow writers do a lot right by me. However, I’m not going to be cast as the blind fanboy here either. Rather I bring this up to hope for improvement in the future, though it’s really hard to make this complaint without revealing some fairly important spoilers.
Early in the story, a fairly important event occurs which spurs basically the whole of the campaign by pushing Kerrigan’s buttons and forcing her into action. This feels like a trope to me. Hardcore. Now this wouldn’t bother me terribly, however it’s never resolved properly in my opinion. There needed to be some conversation between some of the characters to properly take care of it. That said, I’m no writer. [Ed: I beg to differ] The kind of resolution I wanted to see for it may not have lent itself well to the overall experience; only Blizzard can say for sure. Other than that bit there the campaign ends on I guess a happy medium note. Bittersweet even, similar to the ending of Wings of Liberty, though that had a much happier feel to me.
Once you finish your campaign you’ll unlock the Master Archives I mentioned earlier. This option found from the Heart of the Swarm section of the campaign menu allows you to do quite a bit. From here you can replay any cinematic, story mission, or unit upgrade mission of your choosing. Also once loaded to the mission screen you’ll be given the option to change up any of your Kerrigan Powers based on the highest possible level she could have based on your progression for said mission. All of the unit upgrades can be switched out here as well, including switching to a evolution type that you had previously decided against, and any of the normal mutation choices. Finally you can choose any of the four difficulty settings you would like to try the mission on and proceed to try and pickup achievements and bonus objectives you may have missed the first time around. It proves to be a much more user-friendly and customizable option than those presented in Wings of Liberty. I’m hopeful to see a Master Archives option patched into the WoL campaign eventually.
Your general profile and menu options have improved to be a more streamlined and convenient user experience. It’s relatively hard to describe this as it’s been over a year since I played StarCraft II so my memories of the old system are rather lacking.
There is one thing for multiplayer I would like to cover as I think it may be enough to keep me trying to learn and get better: race leveling. Now, every non-campaign game you play gives you XP for the selected race you play as for every unit you create and destroy, plus bonus XP based on certain qualifiers like first game of the day or playing with a friend. Just like any standard leveling system XP equals a level up.
Why should you care? Well you unlock cool stuff as you go.
Nothing terribly fancy but it gives you access to more unit portraits for your profile, decals for your units in-game, and the best thing, new skins and dances for the units! Each race’s rewards stop at level 30 right now but I would expect it to be fairly easy to patch in more as they go.
Graphics and sound are, as in Wings of Liberty, fairly top-notch and lend well to the overall presentation. Particularly in the cinematic and music departments. Blizzard soundtracks never disappoint and this one lends itself well to the Zerg feeling with a powerful yet creepy resonance. I would also like to mention the VO performance done by Tricia Helfer as Sarah Kerrigan is spot on. I’ll admit I was still a bit skeptical of being able to accept someone else as the character even after her performance in Wings Of Liberty, but this time around she completely nails the character right, striking a wonderful balance between the character’s internal toil between heavy emotion and maintaining a leader’s composure.
So whats my verdict? It’s a must buy for any fan of the series for sure. If you know someone who’s never played Starcraft at all but is a fan of science fiction or RTS games, I highly recommend getting them to try out a starter account and letting them get a taste of what is arguably still one of if not the best RTS franchises out there. All said, I’m eagerly awaiting the next expansion currently titled Legacy of the Void, which should focus more on the Protoss while wrapping up the SCII story and as always with Blizzard we only know it’s coming “Soon“.
Brad Coggins is the Senior Editor for Constantly Calibrating and a co-host of the Constantly Calibrating podcast. To hear more of his thoughts on gaming, primarily World of Warcraft, check out his Twitter @B_Cogs.