StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm: The Kotaku Review

Near the beginning of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, as the noble pirate Jim Raynor and the psychic-soldier-turned-evil-Zerg-queen-turned-confused-human Sarah Kerrigan are escaping from a squad of invading marines, Kerrigan picks up a gun. "Been a long time," she says. "Like riding a bike," Raynor says.

Kerrigan walks over. Kisses Raynor smack on the lips.

"Yep," she says. "Like riding a bike."

That's StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm.

***

The first thing you should know about Heart of the Swarm -- or at least the singleplayer campaign of Heart of the Swarm -- is that you can't take it too seriously. Feel free to snicker at some of the deliciously cheesy banter, and by all means fall in love with the cast of characters, who are great, but don't waste any brainpower giving serious thought to the story.

See, if you start taking Heart of the Swarm's campaign seriously, you start asking questions like "Why is Raynor suddenly in love with Kerrigan when they barely knew each other before she turned into a Zerg?" and "Didn't Raynor vow to destroy Kerrigan for killing millions of people?" and "Psi Disrupter? Why is there ALWAYS a Psi Disrupter?"

The lack of answers will just drive you mad. Like a popcorn flick or episode of 24, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm's story is fun and entertaining, so long as you don't think too hard. Which is okay! Just don't expect much.

Heart of the Swarm, an expansion to 2010's Wings of Liberty (and part two of what will be the StarCraft II trilogy), begins where the first game left off. Thanks to Raynor, Kerrigan is no longer the most terrifying creature in the galaxy. The Queen of Blades is now the Queen of Fleshy Limbs. And she's been captured in a Terran prison, trapped while the humans try to figure out what to do with her.

As tends to happen with prisons, there's an attack and a big explosion, and eventually Kerrigan escapes to a distant planet. She receives some troubling news about her buddy Jim Raynor, and she decides that it's time to enact vengeance on the treacherous Arcturus Mengsk, who has been a grand and menacing villain in the StarCraft universe since Brood War back in 1998.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Because it's more StarCraft.

Developer: Blizzard Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac Released: March 12 Type of game: strategy What I played: completed the singleplayer campaign in 11 hours, played around with multiplayer extensively during the beta and a little bit today

Two Things I Liked

  • New buildings and units change up multiplayer entirely.
  • Almost every mission in the singleplayer campaign gives you something new and interesting to play around with.

Two Things I Didn't Like

  • Evolution missions are essentially a waste of time.
  • If you start thinking too much, the story makes no sense.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "Zerg rushing never felt so good." -- Jason Schreier, Kotaku
  • "Yep, like riding a bike." -- Jason Schreier, Kotaku

Remember, back in Brood War, Raynor and Kerrigan were sworn enemies. Now they're star-crossed lovers. We are expected to just go with this, even though they were barely even friends before Kerrigan's transformation and Raynor once swore to kill her and...

Uh oh. I'm asking questions again. Let's move on.

Okay. Kerrigan and Raynor are separated by a lot of nasty obstacles, like Mengsk's Terran forces, rogue Protoss armies, and even rival Zerg swarms that need some coercing before they re-accept Kerrigan as their leader -- and, yeah, Kerrigan has decided to become leader of the Zerg again. Kerrigan's psyche is less stable than SimCity.

In an attempt to reunite with her now-long-lost lover, Kerrigan must build up her new swarm over the course of 21 missions (and 6 supplementary "evolution missions" that are more like glorified tutorials that didn't need to be missions at all). Some of these missions are pure StarCraft: you build up an army and use it to attack or defend your base from another army. Others are more creative: you get to defend a tram's engines from enemy ships, fly a battlecruiser through space and even fight boss battles -- yes, boss battles! -- on the ancient Zerg homeworld of Zerus.

The one constant in almost all of these missions is Kerrigan. While in Wings of Liberty Mr Raynor preferred to stay on his battleship and bark orders from above, Kerrigan spends most of her time in the vanguard, using her ridiculously powerful abilities to lead your army. As you progress through the game, Kerrigan will level up and evolve, and you can pick skills for her to use on the battlefield.

The good thing about Combat Kerrigan is that she's a blast to control; she can blow up marines with her mind, heal allies, and eventually summon a massive Zerg whale that punctures everything in sight with its tentacles. And in a game where you throw around thousands of Zerg soldiers like they're disposable toys, it's comforting to have at least one recurring hero to care about.

The bad thing about Combat Kerrigan is that she makes the game way too easy. She can kill just about anything, and she respawns whenever she dies, so losing her is never a problem. I played the game on Hard -- the second-highest difficulty setting -- and I cut through most missions like a zealot through Zerglings, mostly thanks to Kerrigan and her special abilities.

Exacerbating this whole "Heart of the Swarm is way too easy" problem is the fact that every single mission gives you very specific instructions about what to do and where to do it. When you're not building and recruiting, you're following arrows and doing what the game tells you to do. Bring this drone here. Leap on this enemy there. There are optional side-quests, yes, but they're almost always marked on your mini-map, and they're way too easy to find and finish.

But it's still StarCraft. It's still a joy to go through the now-familiar ritual of training and killing, and even the easiest missions are designed with the attention to detail that we've grown to expect from this series. Every single mission is interesting in some way. And even the easier moments exercise your mind in the way that only a real-time strategy game can. As Raynor points out, it's just like riding a bike.

Heart of the Swarm's campaign -- which took me about 11 hours to finish -- is quite good, and I imagine I'll play through it again at some point in the near future. There are some surprises, and most of the dialogue is so silly and endearing that it's kind of brilliant. Here's an example, from the inevitable Raynor-Kerrigan exchange in which they talk about how battling feels just like old times:

Raynor: "My hair's got more grey in it." Kerrigan: "And my hair's got more Zerg."

But the campaign is just gravy. The real appeal of Heart of the Swarm is that it enhances the StarCraft recipe. More missions, more plots, more units, more buildings, more balancing and tweaking of the formula that Blizzard has been following for many years now. Harvest. Build. Recruit. Kill. Repeat.

The game -- not the interactive story, but the set of rules and conditions that form the basis of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm -- has grown into a classic, an eternally replayable e-sport that you could seriously compare to chess or even football without making people snicker. (Good luck doing that in 1998.) I have played thousands of matches in StarCraft and StarCraft II over the past decade and a half, and I don't think I'll ever get sick of it.

Some people prefer to play against the computer. Other people like to hop online and delve into custom maps. (SCII ships with a map editor, and tons of friendly modders have hacked up all sorts of crazy scenarios that you can play online for free.) But you really haven't played StarCraft until you've played it against other people. Forget Raynor and Kerrigan: it's other human beings who make StarCraft II great. Two people starting off on a level playing field and fighting to see who's better -- not who's luckier, or who spent the most time grinding for gold, but who's better. Who's better at mastering the rules and figuring out how to outsmart their opponents in a game that's as demanding as any sport.

Heart of the Swarm brings with it more units, more buildings, and some heavy-duty tweaks -- siege tanks don't need research for siege mode anymore! -- that will change the multiplayer game for years to come. And, in another 15 years, I imagine we'll all still be playing it.


Comments

    I haven't had a chance to play multiplayer yet, but are Queens E Z mode in that too? Was kinda shocked when I didn't have to lava inject and heals were automatic.

      That surprised me as well. Although since it max's out at 6 larvae it's not like you can bank larvae so you will need more macro hatches.

    Just on the SP element, it did seem WAY too easy. And, on a personal level, the story for me wasn't the same quality as Wings of Liberty or the first generation games. I dunno... it just seemed a bit too CoD-- Over the top in it's epic story elements, several significant plot holes and dumbed down compared to WoL, but still a blast to play. Jason's bang on the money there. Assuming Blizzard are kind enough to allow us to play this in 15 years time (what with the various DRM in place), I'll definitely be coming back to this.

      Just on the SP element, it did seem WAY too easy.

      You could try increasing the difficulty :P

      I'm sure many of the achievements are hard to get too if that's your thing.

        lol, nah, I had it on Hard, but I felt like I should have been having my ass kicked. Then again, I'd been playing through WoL a lot in this past week, maybe that was it. And yeah, I'm not into acheivements. If getting acheivements meant getting rewards like the extra bunker capacity or units that regenerate (like in WoL), then I'd be into achievements, but if it's just something that says "I jumped through these hoops", then screw that! :p

    See, if you start taking Heart of the Swarm‘s campaign seriously, you start asking questions like “Why is Raynor suddenly in love with Kerrigan when they barely knew each other before she turned into a Zerg?”

    Are you for real? Did you even play Starcraft 1?

      Agreed! there was absolutely a romance plot running through those games, which was even used as pathos in wings of liberty!

      A better question might be "Why is Raynor suddenly in love with Kerrigan when he swore he would kill her in SC:BW?"

        didn't they cover that in WoL? The whole zeratul thing, save kerrigan or the universe goes to shit. In the "forseen" timeline Jim killed sarah rather than tryin to save her. It was Zeratuls involvement that altered that.

    Raynor was pretty clearly always smitten with Kerrigan and she flirted back with him most of the time prior to being zergified. I'm assuming the actual relationship is another Blizz retcon but I've never read the books and there would have been plenty of time for it to happen on some level during the first game/s. We didn't spend all our time with them in the game and the missions weren't immediately one after another on the timescale. Again, I thought it was always pretty clear that he wanted to save her / talk her down etc. but that he'd take her out if needed.

    I dunno how you can have an accurate review up less than 24 hours after the game goes live. This isn't a game that you could actually play before they switched the servers live. I'd take this and any other review up this quickly with a grain of salt.

    Last edited 13/03/13 2:09 pm

      This is an AU site, the game went live Midnight Tuesday, and the review came out at 1pm Thursday, so that makes it MORE than 24 hours - 37 hours even.

      So, given that he said it took 11 hours to complete the Campaign (assuming that's probably all he did yesterday), Jason then had about 5 business hours to write up this review, which seems more than enough to me.

      Further, from the short amount of time I've spent with the game, I'd say he is right on target

        This is an AU site but this is the US review. The game has been live less than 24 hours at the time this went live.

        Note: I haven't actually played the game yet, it's installed and sitting on my hard drive waiting for me.

        This review was originally posted on Kotaku US site at 6PM on the 12th. So there was only 18 hours from launch to play the entire game and write a review. I haven't had the chance to play it yet so I can't comment on the quality of the writing but what @whitepointer said rings true.

          Since they finally allowed global play, he could've logged onto SEA where the launch was 19 hours ahead of the US.

            Due to region IP locking that wouldn't have been possible.

              One of the "features" of HotS is that they did away with that nonsense and you're now free to play on any region. Feature in inverted commas as it should've been there from the start.

                I realise they enabled global play, but they still blocked you by IP from accessing it until your region was "unlocked". I had mates in Europe that couldn't play even though SEA was unlocked until the game officially went live in their region.

      Heart of the Swarm‘s campaign — which took me about 11 hours to finish

      Multiplayer has been in beta and available to play for quite some time. Seems perfectly possible to me... Late stage beta would have been pretty much indistinguishable from the final product, only the campaign was really locked to anyone with access to that beta. 11 hours of gameplay in a 24 hour period seems pretty plausible to me...

      Unless they gave press early access.

    Does anyone else think the music in Blizzard games is not as good as it used to be? Been playing a bit of Diablo3 lately, and it makes me pine for the sounds of Diablo2.

    And I just can't dig starcraft 2s new music. I just don't understand why they didn't just put in the original music. God those were great tracks! Even when you booted up the game, the title music made you think 'hell yeah, this is in space!'

    One thing that really pissed me off was having shitty internet. The day it launched it dropped a 3gb patch which for me would have taken numerous hours to complete, so i thought the hard copy of the game would be able to update it. The Dvd didn't only allowed you to install a fresh installation whereupon you had to download 6gb. So i ended up downloading the 3gb from my old installation it took about 4 hours. Game is up to date (Y) but then i noticed that even though id downloaded all this shit it still streams the cutscenes.

    I don't know what it is but game developers don't take into account those with no to limited internet these days and its pretty sucky.

      I found this strange too.

      Luckily, I had updated by WoL client to the latest patch earlier, but I was still quite surprised when during the installation of HoTS I needed to download an extra 666Mb of data. Shouldn't this have been included on the disc?

      Yeah that was annoying as hell. I bought the game expecting the files to be on the disc but nope

      Haha just went to fire up HotS and it wants me to download another 1.6gb Hoorah!

      Because I've had WoL installed for a month, I didn't even have to put in the disc... I downloaded a 70mb patch and before I knew it I was in the campaign... That was quite awesome, the game automatically pre-loaded despite not having owned it yet.

        That was what the 3gb update and second optimization was.

    "decides that it’s time to enact vengeance on the treacherous Arcturus Mengsk, who has been a grand and menacing villain in the StarCraft universe since Brood War back in 1998." *head hurting* SERIOUSLY? Did you do ANY research? Arcturus Mengsk being revealed as a villain happened BEFORE the end of the FIRST ACT of the original StarCraft.

      honestly...this kind of detail wouldn't bother me normally, but then you go on to lambast the story and criticize plot details as though you present yourself as some kind of expert on the story so far.

    Just a quick note, Raynor and Kerrigan knew each other after a chance meeting when Raynor joined the Sons of Korhal. They started working together, fell in love yadda yadda yadda, until the last mission when the Psi disruptor is set off by Mengsk and Kerrigan is left to die. After it is found that Kerrigan is the new Overlord a.k.a the Brood Queen, Raynor then vows to destroy her for leading the Zerg to many a Terran colony. Just clarifying so people don't think the story is contrived tripe.

    I've only played Normal campaign thus far, but it does seem easier than WoL's Normal campaign. In the final few missions I mainly spammed mutas/hydras whenever I had gas and raptors (lings) for the rest, and used Kerrigan's Drop Pods and pretty much annihilated the place.

    Also, Blizzard seem to have forgotten some achieves compared to WoL; some of which seem to be 'dumbed down'. I.e., all the achieves are now obtainable on Normal difficulty. In WoL there were achieves only obtainable on Hard difficulty.
    With WoL there were also achieves for completing all campaigns in Normal, Hard and Brutal. HotS has no such meta achieves.

    Of course, who knows - maybe they're hidden and only available when you complete them.

      Wait; correction. I was just looking under the wrong tab. Looks like all the Hard-achieves have been given their own tab.

      I too am finding it easier, but that's probably because Zerg are overpowered... It's piss easy to max out your 200 supply in a matter of minutes and then steamroll.

      After I finish my leisurely playthrough on Normal, I'll be hitting up Hard and/or Brutal.

        Terran was sorely overpowered at the start of WoL too, and the campaign-specific units certainly didn't do anything to alleviate that. HotS campaign is just plain easier. It's also not more experience. After finishing HotS on brutal, go back and do All-In on brutal.

    "Evolution missions are essentially a waste of time."

    To an extent yes, but they were a good way to test an evolution before picking it... In Wings of Liberty, the research trees were good, but most of the time you wouldn't really know which upgrade would be better until after you picked it.

    I've been playing it for most of the day, I'm really enjoying it. At first I thought it was going to be a bit short, but it's starting to pick up now, half way through.

      Agreed, they're there to help you choose which PERMANENT upgrade you're going to take.

      They're 5 minutes each, and they prevent regets later on. Hardly a waste of time.

    Brb fangirling over Jim/Sarah. I'll call back when I finish the campaign!

    finished the game on hard difficulty.

    While i do agree kerigan is OP, i think they needed to make her that way. Seriously some missions i found myself using all the resources on the map to little avail. You would swarm in with everything but without kerrigan those tanks do some crazy crazy crazy damage and seem to shoot way way way further than normal.

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