Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty heralded the triumphant and long-awaited return of the Starcraft franchise. Does Heart of the Swarm continue the greatness, or is it just another bug hunt? Do we really even have to ask the question?
No, but despite continuing the juggernaut that is the StarCraft II franchise, Heart of the Swarm is (somewhat ironically, given the protagonists of this episode) less of an evolution, though it does add some interesting twists and new mechanics to the game.
It’s all about getting even
Kerrigan, now the Ghost formerly known as the Queen of Blades, begins the game restored to her human form. The Dominion—the Terran Empire led by the Machiavellian Emperor Mengsk—continues its ruthless quest to eliminate all opposition—which means Jim Raynor and his rebels naturally.
There are some brief, touching re-unions, and the future looks promising until—predictably—things go horribly wrong. Mengsk finds Raynor and his rebels. In the wake of their escape, Kerrigan and Raynor are separated. Raynor doesn’t show up at the rendezvous point.
Raynor’s fate is unknown. And despite the fact that Mengsk can’t be trusted further than you can throw an Ultralisk, Kerrigan believes a news story that Raynor has been caught and executed. Suffice to say, the Zerg hath no fury like a woman scorned, and it doesn’t take long for Kerrigan to get Zergy with it—resuming control of the Zerg and embarking upon a quest for revenge against Mengsk—even if it means becoming the Queen of Blades 2.0.
Heart of the Swarm is another excellent chapter in the Starcraft II trilogy, but being the second in the series means it doesn’t have quite as much novelty working in its favor as its predecessor Wings of Liberty did.
The single-player story comprises 27 missions, all of them so widely varied you rarely do the same thing twice. This keeps the game interesting and you on your toes as you constantly adapt to new challenges and the myriad of new units you acquire throughout the game.
On the downside, the constant change-up actually left me a little wanting at times. Although Heart of the Swarm’s missions never bore, the game insists on so much hand-holding that it almost feels like one long tutorial. Sometimes you just want to build a base, grow an army, and go trash the enemy.
Regardless, Heart of the Swarm still delivers a great story, an excellent single-player game, and of course the ever flowing fountain of multiplayer continues to flow. And it does introduce some interesting tweaks to the formula introduced in Wings of Liberty.
The Zerg evolve, but Kerrigan still has high heels
Like the Terran campaign, in between missions you can converse with various crew members aboard your ship, which in Heart of the Swarm is a massive Leviathan.
Kerrigan’s crew isn’t just a bunch of rabid Hydralisks sitting around hissing and waiting to impale someone. Through the course of the campaign Kerrigan acquires a motley crew of Zerg to keep her company, including a Brood Queen, the half-Russian, half Zerg Stukov, Izsha (her ship’s “computer”), and Dehaka, a primal Zerg.
The Zerg evolve, but Kerrigan still has high heels
And then there’s Abathur, the science Zerg responsible for evolving your units, one of the cool innovations Heart of the Swarm adds to the Starcraft II formula.
Mutations are simply modifiers to a unit. Every unit has 3 possible mutations, and you can activate one of the three in between missions. Mutations typically enhance the unit's speed, damage, range, armor, etc. depending on the unit. You can change the selected mutation for any unit in between every mission, so selected mutations are not a permanent choice. Mutations basically enable you to experiment with and 'mutate' your own strategy.
Evolutions are a variant of a standard unit and effectively a new unit. Prior to selection, however, you have to play an Evolution mission to unlock the evolution choices for a particular unit. These short missions are impossible to fail; They’re purely designed to let you test drive each evolution in combat before deciding which one you want.
Each unit has 2 evolution options which are unlocked gradually as you play through the campaign. For example, for the Mutalisk evolution you can select either a Brood Lord, which fires broodlings from long range that attack ground units, or you can select the Viper, which uses a long tendril to grab friendly or unfriendly units and place them elsewhere on the map—good for moving your own units across terrain, or snatching enemies (like Siege tanks) and dropping them into the middle of a pack of Zerglings.
As if all the mutations and evolutions didn’t give you enough options, the Zerg have (naturally) also acquired a huge array of new units. Swarm queens heal units and can lay creep tumors, which you can use to spread creep rapidly around the map. Roaches provide ranged support, and Banelings are your suicide bombers.
There’s also the Swarm Host, the Infestor, and the Aberration. The Swarm Host looks something like a giant walking mushroom that shoots groups of swarmlings (small Zerg units) at enemies. Infestors can possess other units—great for taking over siege tanks or giant Terran mechs. Aberrations are large melee units similar to Ultralisks but quicker and not as tough.
As if all these new units, mutations, and evolution options didn’t give you enough to play with, Kerrigan also levels up and gains new abilities throughout the campaign—faster if you complete bonus objectives in each mission. Some of the abilities are passive—one for example lets you produce 2 drones per egg instead of 1 per egg. Others are powerful attacks, defenses, and more. Like mutations, you can change Kerrigan’s abilities in between missions.
Personally, I would have liked one of Kerrigan's abilities to get rid of the 4-inch spiked heels she has on her feet. That doesn't seem like an advantageous mutation; Abathur would not approve.
Heart of the Swarm gives you countless different strategies you can use, but you still need to focus your strategy. You can’t (and don’t) need to use every unit or evolution, and if you try you’ll likely spread yourself too thin. In addition, managing such a large, diverse force of units isn’t easy.
For example, of the new units I mainly used Swarm Queens, Aberrations, and Roaches, but never really made use of Brood Lords, Impalers (a Hydralisk evolution), or Swarm Hosts (unless the mission started with some), but neither did I need to in order to win the scenario.
Heart of the Swarm will assuredly infest your heart for StarCraft II all over again. Slake your hunger with multiplayer when you’re done with the single player campaign—because now we’ve got a long wait until the Protoss chapter Legacy of the Void comes out.