Reviews

Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm

The RTS genre has certainly seen better days, but with the arrival of Heart of the Swarm, the second installment of the Starcraft 2 saga, fans can finally look forward to some good old fashioned strategising. Blizzard’s decision to split Starcraft 2 into three separate games has raised a few eyebrows in the past. However, 2010’s Wings of Liberty proved that it wasn’t a bad decision after all. Heart of the Swarm (HotS) continues the trend with a meaty single-player campaign and new additions to the unmatched competitive play of Starcraft 2. Do note that this review will focus mostly on the single player campaign.

HotS focuses on the Zerg race and, like the Terran-focused Wings of Liberty, you’ll be playing as a single race throughout (the third and final instalment, Legacy of the Void, will feature the Protoss in the lead). The story picks up right after the ending of Wings of Liberty and you’ll find yourself in the shoes, well the skin-tight suit, of one Sarah Kerrigan, the former Zerg Queen of Blades. It would be difficult to get into more details about the story without spoiling its major twists and turns, so I’ll just say it’s a revenge story mixed with some romance and a generous helping of space opera.

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The execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Video game writing has come a long way since the days of the original Starcraft, but Blizzard somehow has gone a step back with its recent titles. Some of the early dialogue is absolutely cringeworthy and sounds like something right out a bad made-for-TV movie. While it does even out a bit as the game goes on, HotS certainly isn’t going to win any awards for writing. The story is mostly told in the form of pre-rendered cinematics, in-game cutscenes, and optional conversations between missions. The conversations play out like Mass Effect minus the dialog wheel, and offer additional details on the story, which aren’t delivered via the cutscenes. However, be prepared to hear the word “essence” a lot.

Some of the early dialogue is absolutely cringeworthy and sounds like something right out a bad made-for-TV movie.

All that might sound a bit too negative, but the story is serviceable and provides a decent enough backdrop for the missions, which is basically what you’ll be doing for the most part anyway. Like WoL, HotS doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its varied and engaging missions. The core formula of build, defend, expand, and destroy is largely intact, but each mission provides its own unique twist to it. Varied objectives and a constant stream of new units and upgrades to play with ensure that almost every mission brings something new to the table. Speaking of which, HotS handles upgrades and abilities brilliantly. Every unit comes with a set of three passive abilities that you can freely switch between. However, the real highlight here is unit evolution.

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Every once in a while (mostly after completing a set of missions in a particular area), you’ll get the option of evolving one of your units into a new version with unique abilities. You’re provided two distinct paths to evolve the unit. For example, the basic zergling can morph into a raptor or a swarmling. The former can leap over cliffs and can easily flank enemy bases, while the latter spawns instantly in groups of three. Almost all units have enticing evolution paths and it becomes rather difficult to choose between them. Thankfully, instead of explaining what the evolution does via text or a short video, you’re actually given a short mission to try out the evolutions. The upgrade is permanent so trying them out first-hand surely helps you find out which evolution fits your play style better.

You can also level up Kerrigan herself and choose which active and passive abilities she carries into battle.

If all that wasn’t enough, you can also level up Kerrigan herself and choose which active and passive abilities she carries into battle. Reminiscent of the hero units in Warcraft 3, this adds a minor RPG element to the proceedings. These abilities not only affect Kerrigan, but also give other bonuses such as instantly spawning Overlords or boosting resource gathering. Unlike the unit evolutions though, you’re free to swap between her abilities between missions. With all those options at your disposal, there’s a ton of different strategies to try in the campaign. If a certain mission proves to be too daunting, you can always go back with a different set of abilities, though you probably won’t be in that situation unless you’re playing on Hard or Brutal. Normal difficulty is extremely easy and doesn’t require much strategy besides pumping out units and overwhelming the enemy, so if you’re really looking for a challenge, I suggest playing on harder difficulties.

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Speaking of overwhelming the enemy, the Zerg race is specifically tailored for that. Almost everything is designed around creating a massive army and literally overrunning the enemy. Most of the individual units are weak on their own, but they’re also relatively inexpensive and spawn quickly. It’s all about strength in numbers and the game even gives you a hotkey to select your entire swarm at once. If you’re coming fresh off the WoL campaign, it may take a while to get used to the Zerg style of play. It’s a joy to watch hundreds of units tearing through enemy defences. The brilliant unit design and a very capable engine make sure that HotS is one of the best looking strategy games on the PC. The Zerg units are rendered in exquisite detail in all their slimy, pulsating glory, and some of the new environments look amazing.

Almost everything is designed around creating a massive army and literally overrunning the enemy.

On the multiplayer side, HotS adds a handful of new units per race to the existing roster. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put much time in the multiplayer, so at this point, I can’t really comment on how much they add to the game, but I’m sure we’ll see some interesting strategies involving them sooner or later. Blizzard’s presentation still remains a strong point; everything is snappy and well organized. There are also plenty of new Achievements to collect.

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Conclusion

Heart of the Swarm is a great new addition to the Starcraft franchise. While the story won’t win many hearts, the varied missions and loads of customisation options will surely have you swarming back for more.

Test rig:

  • Motherboard: Intel D975XBX2
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 @ 2.4 GHz
  • Graphic Card: Asus HD5850 1 GB
  • RAM: 4 GB
  • Power Supply: Corsair GS700 700W

IVG's Verdict

8/10
  • Engaging missions with varied objectives
  • Deep customisation
  • Evolving units adds a new layer of depth
  • Fantastic visuals and art direction
  • Plenty of replay value
  • Predictable story
  • Dialog is cheesy and can be downright embarrasing at times
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