Long time readers will know that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has long held the crown for the highest rated game here on The Refined Geek. It’s not an undeserved title either as they managed to capture in my attention in a way few games have been able to and indeed only one (DOTA 2) has been able to do so since. From the start I knew it was set to be a trilogy carving the game up into 3 separate installments each of which would focus on a single race. Heart of the Swarm, the second game in the Starcraft II trilogy, continues the story started in Wings of Liberty and as the name implies focuses primarily on the Zerg race.
Heart of the Swarm picks up not too long after the final events that take place in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has been locked away in a test facility run by prince Valerian who is eager to see how much control she retains over the Zerg. Shortly after the final test is complete (which had resulted in Kerrigan using the Zerg to destroy much of the test facility) Dominion forces attack, forcing them to evacuate. However in the confusion Raynor is unfortunately left behind and Kerrigan refuses to leave without him. After waiting for him to contact her she reads a news report that he was captured and summarily executed, causing Kerrigan to swear brutal vengeance against Mengsk yet again.
As always Blizzard has delivered an incredibly beautiful game, one that will run well on nearly any system built within the past 4 years. Whilst the in-game graphics haven’t changed significantly, apart from higher-resolution textures and better lighting (which you could say is significant, I guess), the whole game feels a heck of a lot more polished. The in-between mission cut scenes, dialog sequences and cinematics have all seen improvements which are very obvious when comparing them side by side.
From a core game perspective Heart of the Swarm doesn’t change much with the standard real time strategy mechanics applying throughout the game. However like Wings of Liberty not every mission is simply a build army, send at enemy, rise and repeat deal with most of the missions being rather unique in their implementation. Of course there are your standard base/army building type missions however most of them have an unique twist to them which can make them more complicated or provide opportunities to make them far easier, should you be willing to take the risk.
Whilst this might not be too different from Wings of Liberty (although individually the missions are all very different) the levels do seem to be better designed as I can remember struggling to get into the campaign in the original whilst it didn’t take me long to get hooked on Heart of the Swarm. Indeed since all the missions are so varied and unique I rarely found myself becoming bored with them. This ended up with me engaging in a rather ravenous binge on missions which only stopped when I realised I was playing on into the early hours of the morning. That hasn’t happened to me in a while and is a real testament to the quality of each mission in Heart of the Swarm.
Outside of the core missions you’ll be given the opportunity to upgrade your units, giving them unique abilities that will make them far more effective in game. There’s 2 types of upgrades that will be available for all of your units, the first being a choice of 3 different types of specializations which you can change at any time. The second is a permanent change to the unit itself giving it either additional abilities (like the Raptor Zergling pictured about which can now leap at targets and jump up cliffs) or giving it an evolutionary path (like the Hydralisk being able to evolve into a lurker). Thankfully you’re not making this decision blind as all of the permanent evolutions come alongside a mission that gives you a feel for how the new unit will behave and where it will be effective.
For long time Starcraft players the upgrade paths have a pretty obvious “best” path as certain combinations become almost completely unstoppable. Sure each of them is viable in their own sense and some choices are better than others in some situations however my initial combination of frenzied hydras with roaches that slowed was enough to melt most armies without too much hassle. Once I got respawning ultralisks it was pretty much game over for any large army as they couldn’t kill them quick enough and all their precious siege defences just melted away, leaving the rest of their army vulnerable.
Wings of Liberty included some hero units but apart from the basic in game upgrades (which were only available during base building missions) there wasn’t much you could do to customize them. Heart of the Swarm often gives you direct control over Kerrigan and her list of abilities is quite impressive. The good thing about this is you can craft her to fit your playstyle effectively as you can play her as a big spell nuker, tanky siege destoryer or 1 woman army that can take out bases without the assistance of any other units. On the flip side however this can make it feel like your army is just like an accessory for Kerrigan, something that’s nice but not necessarily required.
For me I went with a tanky building that favoured direct attacks over spells. Her attacks would chain and she would attack faster with each subsequent attack which would allow her to melt armies in no short order. Couple that with a spammable healing ability and she was for the most part invincible and should she get into trouble I could simply walk her out of there whilst healing her every 8 seconds. It did seem somewhat unfair at times as since the heal was AOE I could keep my army going far longer than it should have been able to normally which usually meant once I hit 200/200 I rarely found myself building any further units. I get that she’s supposed to be an immensely powerful being but she does take some of the challenge out of it. Maybe it’s different on brutal (I played on hard, for what its worth).
Although there were no bugs to report, even with the streaming which I thought would cause all manner of strife, there were a couple issues that marred my experience in Heaert of the Swarm. Whilst the out of mission upgrades were good they were often choices between upgrades that were available in multiplayer games. As someone who played Zerg back in Wings of Liberty (well, I randomed for a long time so I played all races) I often found myself missing some upgrades that overcome the inherit weaknesses of particular units. The removal of larva injects also didn’t sit particularly well for me as that was an in-grained habit and its removal relegated the queens to creep tumour/heal bots which, after a certain point in the game, relegated them to units I’d only build when I was running low on larva. These aren’t systemic issues with the game per se, but they definitely detracted from my experience.
Warning: plot spoilers below.
I also can’t praise the story as highly as I did back with Wings of Liberty as Kerrigan starts off strong but quickly degenerates into a character with confused emotions who makes decisions that don’t make a whole bunch of sense. This might be because the over-arching plot is somewhat predictable (the twist about Raynor for instance) and when her motivations don’t line up with the direction you think they’d be going in it just feels…weird. I did like the nods to previous unresolved plot threads from the original Starcraft series (if you can’t figure out who Narud is then your head is on backwards, hint hint) as Wings of Liberty only half alluded to them. The foreshadowing for the final instalment has got me excited for what’s to come however, even if the story might end up being not much more than your generic sci-fi action movie.
Plot spoilers over.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid follow up to Wings of Liberty providing a highly polished game experience that is par for the course for Blizzard games. All of the missions feel unique, banishing the usual RTS campaign drudgery and creating an experience that is both challenging and satisfying. Unfortunately I can’t rate it as highly as its predecessor as my many hours in multiplayer set up expectations which would probably never be met and the strange treatment of Kerrigan as a central character marred an otherwise great experience. Still these are comparatively minor nit picks in a game that drew me in and trapped me for hours and I would do it again willingly.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is available on PC right now for $48. Game was played on hard with around 12 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
What can I say about Starcraft that hasn’t already been said? The game was released over a decade ago and is still the definitive standard for what a real time strategy game should be. I can remember my times with it fondly, playing through the campaign as it was laid out before me, savouring every mission and becoming wholly engrossed in the story. Years later I would return to the game to play it online with a friend of mine, my first taste of real competitive online gaming. I became hooked on custom maps, playing everything from RPGs to the first versions of tower defense. As the years went on Starcraft remained on my hard drive and nearly every LAN I would attend saw it copied around and played for at least a couple games. Truly Starcraft was the game that just would not die and it’s sequel has been the talk of my friends for the past couple weeks. Its legacy is undeniable and a lesser game development company would struggle to keep to meet such expectations. Blizzard however is not one to disappoint.
Starcraft 2 takes place 4 years after the events of Starcraft: Broodwar. You play as Jim Raynor, former Vulture pilot turned revolutionary after his former leader Arcturus Mengsk wiped out an entire planet using the Zerg. The plot initially focuses around Raynor’s desire to overthrow Mengsk, who he now believes to be worse than the confederate leaders that came before him. This sets the scene for the initial set of missions as you set about building your army by gathering resources, completing missions for credits and finding new units with which to proceed forward. Each mission is given to you by one of your crew mates and they serve to build the characters as the story progresses.
The mission delivery format is completely different from the usual affair you might be familiar with in the RTS genre. Whilst most would simply limit you to certain units until after a number of missions were complete Starcraft 2 instead gives you the opportunity to choose which units you receive next as well as the upgrades that they receive. This can be both a blessing and a curse as some missions are trivialized by certain units whilst others require a certain unit to be able to complete some objectives. Additionally the game includes a Zerg and Protoss research tree which you can unlock by finding items or killing a particular unit during a mission. The upgrades unlocked from this tree are game altering and depending on your choices can make the difference between a mission being a breeze and it being nigh on impossible.
The upgrade and non-linear missions ensures that everyone’s play through of Starcraft 2 will be quite different, ensuring that even if you only play the campaign you’ll have a good few replays before the game is done. Whilst there’s always a strategy that trivilizes a mission the infinite amount of possibilities for completing an objective had lead to quite a few entertaining stories with my Starcraft playing friends. I think most of my missions past a certain point can be summed up by the quote: “Siege tanks are like violence, if they don’t solve the problem use more”.
Starcraft 2’s non-combat experience really draws the game together. Whilst you only have 4 places to visit most of the time the interactions between they never seem to get stale as their landscape changes as you progress through the campaign. The interactions with various members of your crew between missions helps to flesh out the characters and their motivations and nearly all of the decision moments in the game were influenced by these short bits of dialogue with my crew members. There’s nothing to lose by not interacting with them but if you’re a lore sponge like myself you’ll be clicking on every crew member after every mission, eagerly awaiting what they have to hear.
All of this would be for naught if the game play itself was nothing special. In the beginning the differences between Starcraft 2 and its predecessor are almost all graphical which is no small feat in itself. Each and every map is deliciously detailed in true Blizzard fashion, using every polygon to create a stylized but highly engrossing world. All the controls you’re familiar with from Starcraft work as expected in the sequel with many augmentations to make handling large groups of units far easier. All the units and buildings will be instantly recognizable as well with the new units and augmentations giving you enough variety to feel like you’re playing Starcraft but not one that’s just a revamp of its predecessor.
What really seals the deal for the single player campaign of Starcraft 2 is the absolute uniqueness of every mission. Throughout the 26 missions that you’ll play through each of them has something different that will force you to rethink the usual “build big army, attack move to enemy” strategy that got you through other RTSs. From avoiding a rising lava tide to robbing a train to preventing (or not) Terran colonies from being purged by the Protoss you’ll always be trying to figure out the optimal strategy for taking out your opponent. Taking the last mission as a great example of this the list of strategies I have for finishing it are probably the most varied of any game I’ve seen before. It really is a testament to Blizzard’s ability to build a complex and intriguing game.
I initially lamented the idea of including achievements in the game as I viewed them as just something that “has to be done” these days, rather than something that enhanced game play. For most games this still rings true with many achievements being quite pointless and merely serve to try and increase the replayability of the title. Whilst achievements weren’t my foucs whilst playing through the missions initially I’ve found myself going back to get the achievements simply because they make you a better player for doing them. Many of them require careful force management or using carefully planned out strategies to accomplish the goal. I’m still under half of the achievements done but I can see myself coming back to finish them off for a long time to come as a single mission can be done inside 30 mins.
If there’s one thing we can attribute the original Starcraft’s longevitiy to it’s the multiplayer. Blizzard spent years tweaking and refining the multiplayer and it shows as it was one of the few games that anyone could call truly balanced. Starcraft 2 is no exception as whilst I’ve only just dipped my toes into the revamped Battle.net I quickly lost 4 hours on a saturday night playing 10 matches with one of my long timefriends. The party system and new socially focused interface made connecting with fellow Starcraft players extremely easy. Whilst I lament that they’ve removed LAN play I can see the reasoning behind it since the interface is so heavily integrated with Battle.net. Still they’ve thought of nearly everything from keeping the last 10 replays (since you never always remember to save the ones you need to) to make getting into a match no harder than a couple clicks and waiting for the match to begin.
What really binds this entire game together though is the story that Blizzard has masterfully crafted into an epic tale of redemption, love and loss. Each and every character is exteremely believable, all having their own motivations for being involved with Raynor’s quest. The interactions between the characters are real and there’s distinct growth for all of the major players as the story unfolds. I can’t really talk about it much more without spoiling any points that I feel you must experience on your own but rest assured Blizzards reputation of telling great stories with amazing games is not let down by the first installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
I must also commend Blizzard for their 3D artists and animators. I’m a stickler for motion capture as the technology is at a point where it shouldn’t be hard to get it right. Starcraft 2 stanmds out as an example of not only getting it right but doing it so well that I didn’t even notice how well it was done until I took a step back to analyze it critically. The movements of the characters and units are fluid and most importantly they get the lip syncing spot on with the dialogue. After the disaster that was Alan Wake’suse of motion capture I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Blizzard’s work. Additionally the full cinematic sequences are tear inducingly good with the attention to detail surpassing that of what I’ve come to expect even from 3D film production houses. I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself should Blizzard ever state they were going to make a full length movie of any of their franchises.
Starcraft 2 is one of those shining examples of a game where everything about it stands out as an example of how things ought to be done. The story and gameplay make for an extremely enjoyable single player experience that will provide you many hours of enjoyment even after you’ve completed it once. The multiplayer just plain works and once you’ve had your first taste of victory you’ll never be able to look at the shortcut on your desktop again without thinking about diving in for “one quick match”. Overall I can’t recommend the game enough for those who enjoyed the first Starcraft and wholeheartedly recommend anyone who considers themselves a gamer to play the game through at least once. 12 years is a long time to go between releasing a game but Blizzard has managed to make something that justifies the long wait and I can’t wait to see the next installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
Starcraft 2 is available right now exclusively on PC for $79. Game was played on the Hard difficulty for all missions with approximately 30% of the achievements acquired in the first playthrough and around 18 hours of play time.