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.
If survival horror is one of the game genres that I tend to rate poorly because of my internal bias against them then real time strategy is the genre that I find myself rating consistently higher for the same reasons. This could be some kind of survivor bias that led me to drop many RTS style games early on in their lives before I could make it to the end to review them (Company of Heroes comes to mind in this regard) but it’s probably more due to my gaming roots being firmly planted in this space having whiled away many hours on the RTS classic, Dune 2. You can then imagine my intrigue when Auralux, a game from independent developer E.B. McNeill, claimed to be the very essence of RTS, cutting away all the peripheral elements until the game was refined to its core.
Auralux, like many independently developed games, has had to make choices as to what needed to be included in the game and what should be excluded. For Auralux this means that there is no story to speak of, you are simply a sun orbited by little dots who needs to take over all the other suns in the area whilst competing with 2 NPC suns who are doing the same thing. The introduction to the game is also quite thin on the ground as well but considering that there really isn’t that much to explain it actually suffices quite well. Your missions start out easy but as time goes on they get increasingly more difficult but you’re also blessed with some additional options to make your time with Auralux much more enjoyable.
The graphics of Auralux are incredibly simple with the most complex item on the whole screen being the suns that dot the landscape. It’s akin to many other ambient titles where the minimalistic graphics combined with the soothing background music make for a very pleasing game experience. The simple graphics are also due in part to the fact that Auralux is also available on Android and whilst many handsets are capable of producing much more elaborate visuals than what Auralux has that narrows the potential market for this game significantly. All that being said it’d probably look a whole lot better on a smaller screen so I’m probably being a bit harsh in that regard.
As I alluded to earlier the core game of Auralux is incredibly simple. You start off with a sun that produces little dots that you can use to take over other, unoccupied suns or to upgrade your own if its capable of doing so. Those same little dots are also your battle units and you can use them to take over other suns owned by the other players. That’s essentially it and the rest of the game is played inside your head as you work out the best strategy to overcome your foes and inevitably take over the entire board with your glowy blue goodness.
Initially the odds are heavily stacked in your favour with you usually starting from a position of power strategically. This serves as the tutorial of sorts as whilst the game play is refined down to the absolute basics its still very easy for you to get into a position that you can’t recover from. The games are also slow and methodical at the start, encouraging you to take your time with each move and consider the best path of action before committing all your available units to it. It’s a good introduction to the idea but it eventually starts to wear thin as you sometimes have to wait for a significant amount of time to pass before you’re able to progress to the next stage.
Thankfully the developer behind Auralux realised this and after a few levels you’re able to unlock “speed mode” which allows you to play the exact same game sped up significantly. This turns matches that would last 10~20 minutes into 5 minute affairs something that is definitely required considering how long it can take to build up and move your army around the map. Once I unlocked the mode I didn’t play it any other way and still managed to eek out a couple hours worth of game time and I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by doing so.
The bulk of the game stays in either the stacked in your favour or equal footing level of difficulty where you can get by with relatively unimaginative strategies. The last quarter or so puts you in situations where the odds are clearly stacked against you, usually either starving you of resources compared to your competitors or putting you in a really non-strategic position. These maps are the ones that require an incredible amount of strategy to conquer and I can say that these maps took up the vast majority of my total game time.
Something that I feel is key to understanding this game (that is only made clear to you in one of the tips that’s quite easy to miss) is that whilst the AI appears to work differently on different levels it is in fact identical across the board. Now it’s not strict as far as I can tell, it will make different decisions when two options are basically equal, but the way it operates stays the same no matter the map you’re on. Considering the matches are essentially a free for all (or more realistically a 2v1) the game then is usually to get the 2 computers to fight each other so you can quietly build up an army and devastate them before they can retaliate.
Indeed the only advantage you have as a human in this game is the fact that you’re able to think non-linearly. The screenshot below is an example of this as the AI has the terrible habit of putting all of its available units on the front lines leaving its production at the rear incredibly exposed, letting me swoop in to get it. Now if you play like the AI does you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose as the AI is very aware of when 2 of its opponents are duking it out and will take advantage of this so the way to win most games is to wait for an opportunity like the one below and make yourself an unattractive target for the other AI. There may be other ways to win but this was the only way I found to win consistently and even then I’d sometimes lose because both the AIs figured out I was an easier target then the other AI, devastating me in a short time.
Whilst the metagame might not be as rich as other RTS titles it’s still thoroughly enjoyable when you manage to pull off an incredibly risky maneuver that gives you the game winning advantage. It’s true that this is probably the simplest game that you could still reasonably call a RTS and whilst that’s an achievement in itself it also means that the variety of game play possible is also limited. The replayability of Auralux isn’t particularly high if you approach it like a traditional game but for a timewaster on a phone I can see it having quite a long life.
Auralux then is one of those curious indie games that, by necessity, strips back all extravagances in favour of a solid core game mechanic. Auralux does it well and I’d struggle to find anything simpler that could still be realistically called a RTS, even from 2 decades when games had to be simple. Whilst I might’ve cursed its name for the apparent randomness and the AIs ganging up on me I came to realise that it’s all part of the higher order strategy required to conquer your opponents. For RTS fans and casual gamers alike there’s much to love in Auralux and I’d heartily recommend a play through.
Auralux is available on PC and Android for $4.99 and free respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with about 3 hours of total play time.
I’ve never been much of a fan of city building and strategy games. I mean sure I grew up playing games like Sim City and Age of Empires much like the rest of my generation and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them, but as time as went on I found myself playing less and less of them, instead favouring other genres. I think this is due to the somewhat slower game play style, one that favours a decisive methodical approach that’s usually at odds with my “just entertain me” thought pattern. Still Anno 2070 managed to catch my eye with its curious blend of city building and real time strategy, something I hadn’t really come across before.
Anno 2070 puts you far into the future where the polar ice caps have melted, flooding the entire world. Because of this the world has united under one singular government with three distinct factions. The first is the Tycoons, a capitalistic consortium that look to rebuild the world as fast as possible regardless of the consequences. The second is the Ecos, an environmental movement who share the same goal as the Tycoons but favour sustainable approaches over expansion at any cost. Finally there’s the Techs, in essence a group of scientists who develop much of the technologies that power both the Tycoon’s and Eco’s economies. You are put in charge of an Ark, an advanced submersible craft that’s capable of restarting civilization on the uninhabited islands of the world. Anno 2070 follows your adventures as you rebuild civilization and do battle with the various problems that cross your path.
The graphics of Anno 2070 are visually pleasing to say the least, providing a level of eye candy that I haven’t seen in this genre before. Much of this owes to the soft glow that seems to surround everything, giving a soft blur that makes the graphics appear much better than they actually are. The camera work done for the cut scenes in Anno 2070 is also quite good with many scenes having a distinct movie feel to them. As an added bonus all this doesn’t seem to put too much strain on my gaming rig as even when I had hundreds of buildings on screen the game was still buttery smooth, something that the developers behind Anno 2070 get a lot of brownie points for.
However Anno 2070 falls into the lazy trap of nothing bothering to do any kind of lip syncing at all, not even for the voice acted parts. This really irks me as it’s not exactly a hard thing to do and Anno 2070 just doesn’t even bother, the characters just randomly flap their mouths while the sound bite plays. You may think this is being overly harsh but I watched my friends almost a decade ago accomplish near perfect lip syncing when they were doing a 3D animation course. When a game doesn’t bother to do this I can’t help but feel they had lazy animators, especially when there’s not that much more animation in the rest of the game. The voice acting, whilst passable, doesn’t really help matters here either.
As I alluded to earlier Anno 2070 is a curious blend of Sim City/Civilization city building style mechanics coupled with elements of real time strategy. The campaign missions serve as a good introduction to these mechanics, introducing each of them slowly so you can get a feel for them, and after the first couple missions I had a pretty good grasp on what I needed to do. The two different genres are heavily intertwined, as I’ll explain below.
The first part is the city building. You start off by dropping a warehouse on an island which gives you an area to construct non-residential buildings in. After that you can then drop a community centre which allows you to build homes for people to live in. These people have needs which take the form of food, drink, community and so on. Should you satisfy all their needs the buildings will then upgrade to the next level of citizen, one that has more nuanced needs but also generates more income for you. There are 4 distinct levels for each race and each level brings with it new buildings that are bigger and better than their previous ones.
However you’ll never be able to find everything you need to get to the highest levels by using just one island. All of the islands have natural resources on them that can be exploited but its guaranteed that one island won’t have everything you need. That’s when ships and trading routes come in, you can use them to ferry resources between islands. At the same time you’ll probably want to expand your population there, because otherwise you won’t be able to pay the upkeep on the ships. Of course those people have needs to, which the island probably doesn’t have, so you’ll have to use those same ships to start ferrying resources to them as well.
It’s really quite incredible how much effort you have to put in to make sure everything stays balanced so that you don’t run out of money or that you residents leave you. In the one multiplayer game I had with a mate of mine it was an intense 4 hour session of bouncing between islands ensuring that all the needs were met, ultimately unraveling before me as I underestimated just how costly satisfying the highest level resident’s desires would be. We didn’t even get to the other part of the game, the real time strategy component.
Whilst the main focus of Anno 2070 is the city building the RTS side of it is just as important if you’re looking to win. Whilst its not as complex or nuanced as say StarCraft II it can’t be ignored either as one combat ship can make you life rather painful if left unchecked. The final missions of the campaign focus heavily on this and whilst you won’t be spending all your time focusing on the combat it’s still enough to break up the monotony of constantly balancing the needs of your populace with the costs of doing so.
On top of all of this is the ancillary activities which can change the way you play your game. There’s regular votes for the world council with the outcome granting certain bonuses. A World Event is always happening that will reward players who complete it based on the number of people who participated in it and there are Current Events that can be completed for rewards from certain factions. For someone who’s a fan of the Anno series or just this instalment this kind of thing would be a veritable gold mine of additional content, further extending the replay value of Anno 2070.
Anno 2070 represents an interesting fusion of genres that you don’t usually see coming together and manages to pull it off surprisingly well. With the pleasing graphics, intricate game play and wealth of content Anno 2070 is definitely one of those games that won’t disappoint traditional PC gamers. The experience isn’t perfect however, what with the terrible lip syncing and ridiculously long play times for multiplayer games. Still for the price I paid I’d consider it a winner and I can see it being busted out at LANs for those looking for a Civ style fix without the minimum 8 hour time commitment.
Anno 2070 is available right now on PC for $20.99 (or $90 on Steam). Game was played entirely on the PC with around 16 hours of single player and 4 hours of multiplayer.