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StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Review

Subject: Editorial

Good effort goes a long way

The wait has been long and anxious for Heart of the Swarm, the expansion to 2010's StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. Blizzard originally hinted at a very rapid release schedule which did not exactly come to fruition. The nearly three years of development time for Heart of the Swarm is longer than a single studio spends on a full Call of Duty title; although, one could make a very credible argument that a Blizzard expansion requires more effort to create than said complete Call of Duty title.

But as Duke Nukem Forever demonstrated, a long time in development does not guarantee a fully baked product coming out the other end.

Blizzard games have always been highly entertaining albeit without deep artistic substance; their games are not first on the list for a university literature syllabus. But, there is a lot of room in life for engaging entertainment. In terms of the PC, Blizzard has always been one of the leading developers for the platform; they know how to deliver an exceptional PC experience if they choose to.

Watch the video and read on to find out if they did!

Blizzard actively maintains three major franchises: StarCraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. Each franchise has its own take on the balance between hero units and army control. Hero units shift the dynamic toward increasing levels as well as customizing skills and attributes of a few key units. Army control shifts gameplay towards economy, production, mobility, and positioning.

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It all comes back to Warcraft.

Warcraft was the first of Blizzard's big three. Armies consisted of a hero unit supported by a moderate collection of minions. Within a few years, Blizzard expanded with Diablo and later StarCraft and filled up more of the hero vs. army spectrum. Diablo builds itself pretty much solely on the hero unit. StarCraft, on the other extreme, has the player commanding blobs of individually weak units.

Warcraft was last seen as an RTS in 2003 with its Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne expansion pack.

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm expands both the single-player and multiplayer components of the original StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. The campaign is set upon Kerrigan and her connection with the insect-based Zerg race. Kerrigan has recovered her humanity through the events of Wings of Liberty and ancient Xel'Naga technology, at least skin deep. No one knows how much Zerg mutagen remains within her or, likewise, the power she retains over the Zerg.

By the way, does anyone else think of midichlorians when they hear mutagen?

The campaign story lasts about a half dozen acts with a total of about 27 missions, including the brief evolution side-quests. No secret mission exists as far as we know, which is a bit sad; the bonus missions in StarCraft were among the most engaging from a narrative standpoint.

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Most missions include Kerrigan, and others on occasion, as playable hero units. I believe Blizzard truly wanted to develop another Warcraft campaign and found Heart of the Swarm as a plausible vessel. Surprisingly, if you were looking for more single-player Warcraft gameplay, you might find extra enjoyment in Heart of the Swarm. Between missions you can use bonus objective currency, Kerrigan Levels, to customize both your army and her skills. These customizations allow for instant overlords if you find yourself consistently supply capped, a charge ability for Kerrigan to imitate Left 4 Dead with, or the ability to call down a fairly large roach-hydra force near the hero.

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Although, while the narrative is hefty and engaging, it is simultaneously predictable and filler for Legacy of the Void. That is not to say that you will be able to tell where you will end up next, but you should have a pretty good idea where each arc is headed and practically no doubt where you will end up just before the credits roll. Blizzard seems to acknowledge this, even at one point giving Kerrigan dialogue to comment on the predictability of an abrupt twist. Thankfully the dialogue of the whole game is pretty good. Blizzard tends to add a layer of cheese to everything they do, and Heart of the Swarm is no exception, but it is part of their charm.

As for multiplayer, it should be no surprise that StarCraft continues to do it right.

A Blizzard title often gets updated for many years after its release, including balance modifications. Slight changes are often made, let play out in the community at large, and monitored for quite some time before the edit is deemed a success. Slight imbalances tend to tilt and then cripple into a collapse, leading observers to overestimate the cause. Thankfully Blizzard practices a lot of restraint.

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Heart of the Swarm itself adds a handful of new units with a fairly unified goal: add choices for common situations where variety is limited. The Oracle and Tempest, for instance, slightly bolsters the effectiveness of Stargate-based play, reducing the weight of the robotics-branch of their tech tree. Likewise, Terrans received the Widow Mine for early mechanical aggression with effective anti-air and the Hellbat for a bit of mech-based meat-shields. The Zerg receive the Viper for casting variety and the Swarm Host to lock down areas of the map.

Heart of the Swarm also brings extra features such as enhanced replays. You are able to use any moment of a replay as the starting point for a rematch, either between players or against AI. This holds true for any replay, including ones recorded from professional gamers. This will allow you to repetitively try a tactic over and over again right from the moment you desire.

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Also bolstered is mod support. StarCraft Arcade has been redesigned and separated into its own main menu item. Frankly, the tug of war and other mods make up the overwhelming majority of my play time. I typically get a round of Desert Strike or Nexus Wars in when I feel the need to game.

As a game, I highly recommend StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. It is a great example of effective entertainment which is not afraid to be challenging. Still, even someone as bad at it as I am, it has a permanent space on my hard drive if only for its engaging modifications.

On the technical side, Blizzard made a great PC title. You are not limited in your customization by any reasonable measure, you can alt-tab freely, play in windowed or fullscreen modes with or without a constrained mouse cursor, and so forth. They also go above and beyond when they provide innovative replay features and extra content.

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Being a big fan of Wing Commander: Privateer in my youth, I was very much surprised to see between-mission dialogue choices. These extra cutscenes are not just there for completionists: they are genuinely engaging. You get to see what a specific character feels like with respect to the recent events. It is a lot of extra dialogue which did not need to exist, but does, and was treated like first-class citizens. Also available is a host of tutorials and challenge missions. While these are not inherently PC, it does highlight the detail delivered by Blizzard into their titles. That said, Heart of the Swarm did not carry the same wow-factor that I experienced when first diving into Wings of Liberty. The surprise somewhat wore off, and even trying to ignore that: Wings of Liberty felt like it had slightly more effort put into it.

Sadly, StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm requires "Always Online" DRM through its Battle.net service. That said, you will still be able to enjoy the campaign without the internet in an offline guest account. You cannot explicitly sign in to one of those accounts like you could in Wings of Liberty, you need to have connectivity issues, but at least Blizzard will not terminate the existence of the single player campaign by taking their servers behind the shed one day in the future.

In all, Blizzard put a lot of effort in Heart of the Swarm; while it may not seem like quite as much as Wings of Liberty, you cannot chastise them for setting a high bar in a previous release.

 
Review Summary
StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm
 
Recommendation
Technical Score*
 
9
*Technical Score grades how PC-friendly the game is. It does not rate the game itself.

Game and/or Artistic Merits

  • + Fun and reasonably balanced multiplayer
  • + Entertaining campaign missions design
  • + A lot of engaging content, especially mods
  • - Theme and story are slightly weak, filler for Legacy of the Void

Technical Merits

  • + A lot of PC customization options (hotkeys, etc.)
  • + Alt-tab, windowed, fullscreen, and other PC-features work as expected.
  • + PC-characteristic enhancements all over: enhanced replays, tutorials, clickable between-mission content, etc.
  • - (DRM) Online requirements, does not apply to campaign
  • - PC-features not as deep or as surprising as Wings of Liberty

 

 

May 1, 2013 | 11:26 AM - Posted by RustySeatbelt

I'd like to see an over-the-monitor shot of Scott (maybe wearing a headset even) instead of the medium close-up used in between game footage, in conjunction with a medium-wide shot of him turned in his chair at the desk facing the camera. I think this would add more flow to the review and make it easier to follow. Sorry to get all technical director there. Liked the review and hope for more on great titles soon!

May 1, 2013 | 07:14 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Thank you for the comments and suggestions. I will keep those ideas in mind.

May 1, 2013 | 11:50 AM - Posted by Humanitarian

Nice review, looking forward to seeing more of these! (Psst, grid 2 soon!)

Things to improve on - Sound/Camera shots&transitions, little bit more criticism, but for a first review nicely done!

May 1, 2013 | 01:34 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Thanks for the comments!

As for my audio, I'm currently just using my T2i built-in mic; I may not have upgraded audio by the next review (but I might), although it is on my TODO list.

May 1, 2013 | 02:35 PM - Posted by Zicoz (not verified)

HotS is actually the first "game" I've bought where I have started playing the multiplayer before the campaign, I have even yet to start the campaign. ^^

May 1, 2013 | 05:45 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Very nicely done. You obviously really have a thorough knowledge of all the ins and outs of this game and were easily able to expound upon them.

The white board behind you makes it as if you are a professor lecturing to his class. But without it, you would be lost in the background as it is the same color as your skin.

Ryan has a good eye for talent. But are you goofy enough? Keep up the great work.

May 1, 2013 | 07:17 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

You have clearly not seen my unhealthy relationship with puns...

... when I make them, people who relate with me look unhealthy.

May 2, 2013 | 10:39 PM - Posted by Filippo Dinolfo (not verified)

So you have to have a failed connection in order to play the campaign offline? Well, it's better than not being able to play it offline *cough*Diablo III*blarf* at all. Maybe the thinking is, "If he's on the internet anyway, he may as well sign in." or something. Still, just seems like an extra step to have to go through.

May 3, 2013 | 03:51 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

I believe either you *or* they need to have a failed connection to play offline.

And that really hits on one of my biggest fears of DRM: art disappearing after DRM becomes unsupported. Sure, Heart of the Swarm is by no means an artistic masterpiece to be reviewed by scholars in 400 years... but it sets a good precedent. It'd be nice if you could explicitly guest your playthrough as you could in Wings of Liberty, but at least it is a start.

I still prefer DRM-free, because if the DRM gets unsupported in any way (not just servers offline) then it is gone and potentially a felony (unless the courts or Librarian of Congress decides otherwise) to preserve it.

May 5, 2013 | 05:49 PM - Posted by Mark Lorkus (not verified)

I specifically came here to write a comment ( a suggestion) after listening to the podcast.

LAN (Local Area Network) support is crucial in PC games, and I am really really reaeaeaelly hoping that you'd make it one of your main scoring criteria.

A lot of people/reviewers seem to have suddenly forgot about it.
Me & my friends make & attend tons of LAN parties, especially during the holidays & it's becoming increasingly difficult to find games to play, because almost all games since 2007 have dropped LAN support, which to me & all of my friend is the most horrible & atrocious thing to happen to PC gaming in recent memory.

There are tons of issues with having to play games online in a LAN setting, especially in countries/locations where internet availability is low or if speeds are on the slow side.

Not to mention the fact that it's absolutely idiotic that I'd have to connect to a server 7 thousand miles away to play with my friend that is literally sitting next to me.

June 9, 2013 | 05:01 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Sorry about not responding sooner!

I care about LAN support too. Most of the time I played the first StarCraft was at a university computer cluster.

I decided that I would not make LAN support a dedicated point in this review just because I think I had enough points already. It is basically the same, for StarCraft 2, as the online-DRM demerit since that is really the root issue. After it authenticates with the home server, to my knowledge, it'll connect the clients "the quickest link possible" (which, on a LAN, is via LAN).

Mentioning no explicit LAN support, specifically, just feels redundant to the actual problem.

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