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.
I talk a big game when it comes to cloud stuff and for quite a while it was just that: talk. I’ve had a lot of experience in enterprise IT with virtualization and the like, basically all the stuff that powers the cloud solutions we’re so familiar with today, but it wasn’t up until recently that I actually took the plunge and actually started using the cloud for what its good for. There were two factors at work here, the first being that cloud services usually require money to use them and I’m already spending enough on web hosting as it is (this has since been sorted by joining BizSpark) but mostly it was time constraints as learning to code for the cloud properly is no small feat.
My first foray into developing stuff for the cloud, specifically Windows Azure, was back sometime last year when I had an idea for a statistics website based around StarCraft 2 replays. After finding out that there was a library for parsing all the data I wanted (it’s PHP but thanks to Phalanger its only a few small modifications away from being .NET) I thought it would be cool to see things like how your actions per minute changed over time and other stats that aren’t immediately visible through the various other sites that had similar ambitions. With that all in mind I set out to code myself up a web service and I actually got pretty far with it.
However due to the enormous amount of work required to get the site working the way I wanted to work it ultimately ended up falling flat long before I attempted to deploy it. Still I learnt all the valuable lessons of how to structure my data for cloud storage services, the different uses of worker and web roles and of course the introduction into ASP.NET MVC which is arguably the front end of choice for any new cloud application on the Windows Azure framework. I didn’t touch the cloud for a long time after that until just recently when I made the move to all things Windows 8 which comes hand in hand with Visual Studio 2012.
Visual Studio 2010 was a great IDE in its own right the cloud development experience on it wasn’t particularly great, requiring a fair bit of set up in order to get everything right. Visual Studio 2012 on the other hand is built with cloud development in mind and my most recent application, which I’m going to keep in stealth until it’s a bit more mature, was an absolute dream to build in comparison to my StarCraft stats application. The emulators remain largely the same but the SDK and tools available are far better than their previous incarnations. Best of all deploying the application can’t be much simpler.
In order to deploy my application onto the production fabric all I had to do was follow the bouncing ball after right clicking my solution and hitting “Publish”. I had already set up my Azure subscription (which Visual Studio picked up on and downloaded the profile file for me) but I hadn’t configured a single thing otherwise and the wizard did everything that was required to get my application running in the cloud. After that my storage accounts were available as a drop down option in the configuration settings for each of the cloud roles, no messing around with copying keys into service definition files or anything. After a few initial teething issues with a service that didn’t behave as expected when its table storage was empty I had the application up and running without incident and it’s been trucking along well ever since.
I really can’t overstate just how damn easy it was to go from idea to development to production using the full Microsoft suite. For all my other applications I’ve usually had to spend a good few days after I’ve reached a milestone configuring my production environment the same way as I had development and 90% of the time I won’t remember all the changes I made along the way. With Azure it’s pretty much a simple change to 2 settings files (via dropdowns), publishing and then waiting for the application to go live. Using WebDeploy I can also test code changes without the risk of breaking anything as a simple reboot to the instances will roll the code back to its previous version. It’s as fool proof as you can make it.
Now if Microsoft brought this kind of ease of development to traditional applications we’d start to see some real changes in the way developers build applications in the enterprise. Since the technology backing the Azure emulator is nothing more than a layer on top of SQL and general file storage I can’t envisage that wrapping that up to an enterprise level product would be too difficult and then you’d be able to develop real hybrid applications that were completely agnostic of their underlying platform. I won’t harp on about it again as I’ve done that enough already but suffice to say I really think that it needs to happen.
I’m really looking forward to developing more on the cloud as with the experience being so seamless it really reduces the friction I usually get when making something available to the public. I might be apprenhensive to release my application to the public right now but it’s no longer a case of whether it will work properly or not (I know it will since the emulator is pretty darn close to production) it’s now just a question of how many features I want to put in. I’m not denying that the latter could be a killer in its own right, as it has been in the past, but the less things I have to worry about the better and Windows Azure seems like a pretty good platform for alleviating a lot of my concerns.
One of my most hotly anticipated games for this year, and I know I’m not alone in this, will be Blizzard’s Diablo III. I can remember the days of the original Diablo, forging my way down into the bowels of the abandoned church and almost leaping out of my chair when the butcher growled “Aaaahhh, fresh meat!” when I grew close to him. I then went online, firing up my 33K modem (yes, that’s all I had back then) and hitting up the then fledgling Battle.Net only to be overwhelmed by other players who gifted me with unimaginable loot. I even went as far as to buy the only official expansion, Hellfire, and play that to its fullest revelling in the extended Diablo universe.
Diablo II was a completely different experience, one that was far more social for me than its predecessor. I can remember many LANs dedicated to simply creating new characters and seeing how far we could get with them before we got bored. The captivation was turned up to a whole new level however with many of us running dungeons continuously in order to get that last set item or hoping for that extremely rare drop. The expansion pack served to keep us playing for many years after the games release and I still have friends telling me of how they’ve spun it back up again just for the sheer thrill of it.
Amongst all this is one constant: the torturous strain that we put on our poor computer mice. The Diablo series can be played almost entirely using the mouse thanks to the way the game was designed, although you do still need the keyboard especially at higher difficulties. In that regard it seemed like the Diablo series was destined to PC and PC only forever more. Indeed even though Blizzard had experimented with the wild idea of putting StarCraft on the Nintendo64 they did not attempt the same thing with the Diablo series. That is up until now.
Today there are multiple sources reporting that Diablo III will indeed be coming to consoles. As Kotaku points out the writing has been on the wall for quite some time about this but today is the day when everyone has started to pay attention to the idea. Now I don’t think there’s anything about the Diablo gameplay that would prevent it from being good on a console, as opposed to StarCraft (which would be unplayable, as is any RTS on a console). Indeed the simple interface of Diablo’s past would easily lend itself well to the limited input space of the controller with few UI changes needed. What concerns most people though is the possibility that Diablo III could become consolized, ruining the experience for PC gamers.
Considering that we’re already got a beta version of Diablo III on PC it’s a safe bet that the primary platform will be the PC. Blizzard also has a staunch commitment to not launching games until their done and you can bet that if there were any hints of consolization in one of their flagship titles it’d be picked up in beta testing long before it became a retail product. Diablo III coming to consoles is a sign of the times that PC gaming is still somewhat of a minority and even titles that have their roots firmly in the PC platform still need to consider a cross platform release.
Does this mean I’ll play Diablo III on one of my consoles? I must say that I’m definitely curious but I’ve already put in my pre-order for the collector’s edition of Diablo III on the PC. Due to the tie in with Battle.Net it’s entirely possible that buying it on one platform will gain you access to another via a digital download (something Blizzard has embraced wholeheartedly) and I can definitely see myself trying it out just for comparison. For me though the PC platform will always be my primary means by which I game and I can’t deny my mouse the torturous joy that comes from a good old fashioned Diablo session.