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StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Review

5
  • PC

If you're still at all invested in keeping up with StarCraft II, there's no reason you shouldn't have Heart of the Swarm.

A lot has changed for ol' Sarah Kerrigan.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was such a throwback to its seminal but aged RTS predecessor, it's fitting StarCraft is one of the few franchises still being extended out in the spirit of the old '90s boxed PC expansion pack. Heart of the Swarm is the first such add-on to StarCraft II, a robust $40 package that, quite frankly, gives you more StarCraft II in every way. At the risk of sounding overly reductive, if you spent any time at all with Wings of Liberty, you already know exactly how excited you should be to play Heart of the Swarm, or even whether you should play it at all.

StarCraft II might as well be two separate products in one box: the story-driven single-player RTS campaign, which is self-explanatory enough that anyone can play it, and a multiplayer mode so wildly fast-paced and complex that it's arguably the hardest video game, if not one of the hardest competitive activities period, to excel at on the planet. Luckily for everyone who wants to avoid falling down the multiplayer rabbit hole, Blizzard made the wise decision with Wings of Liberty to largely differentiate the content of the campaign from the multiplayer mode. That philosophy continues on here, giving you a new set of story missions centered around Kerrigan and the Zerg that's just as varied in design as the Terran campaign in the previous game.

At two-thirds the price of Wings of Liberty, it shouldn't be surprising that you get about two-thirds as many missions here, but each one features distinctive enough mechanics, objectives, and new units that your progression through the story is thoroughly satisfying. Just like in the last game, there's never an objective as simple as "build a big base and then go blow up the other guy's base" (and there are expanded options for skirmishes with AI if that's what you want). Each level places some interesting twist or restriction on map control, time limit, the way you acquire units, and so on, in the same style as the last game. If you've been playing multiplayer since that game came out, you'll find the campaign disappointingly easy on anything but the highest difficulty. But with that mission-to-mission variation and a nicely designed, multi-tiered upgrade system that might be more satisfying than in the previous game, this campaign here is just as much fun as the last one.

Would you believe this guy is one of the more likable characters in the campaign?

For better or worse, Heart of the Swarm's storytelling picks up and runs with the same tone and elements established in Wings of Liberty, which is to say there's way more focus on prophecies, artifacts, ancient aliens, and the somewhat out-of-left-field romantic cheese between Kerrigan and Jimmy Raynor, and less on the backstabbing, intrigue, and factional maneuvering of the old StarCraft games. The plot is moderately successful at creating a redemptive arc of sorts for Kerrigan, which is good since you're playing as her in this add-on, though some of the dialogue between Kerrigan and Raynor is laugh-out-loud goofy. Some other aspects of the campaign story are a bit ridiculous and hackneyed as well, and if you've played many Blizzard games it's easy to predict exactly where this whole trilogy is probably going to end up. But there are also a handful of neat, nostalgic callbacks to the story of Brood War, and I found quite a few of the supporting characters to be pretty likable. There's also what feels like more of Blizzard's best-in-class CG cinematics than there were in Wings of Liberty. There are worse video game stories out there, and it's a lot easier to forgive since the single-player game is so much fun, but at this point the overall plot arc of StarCraft II is a bit easier to enjoy if you don't take it too seriously.

At any rate, StarCraft is on the very short list of games whose multiplayer modes have far surpassed their story campaigns in popularity, so if the updates on the multiplayer side weren't up to snuff, this whole expansion would be pointless. While it will take months for the true usefulness of the new units and changes to become clear, my initial impression is that the all the new stuff is going to provide a serious kick in the pants to the metagame, which had gotten stale enough to make me pay little or no attention to the game at all for several months. Most imporantly to me, the Protoss finally have a valid tech path through the Stargate, between the new support/harass flier the Oracle and the long-range Tempest, that frees them up from needing to go straight to a Robotics Facility every single match. And the defensive Mothership Core lets you expand early on without quite as much fear of a rush shutting you down before you get started.

The expansion's new and modified units seem like they'll really revitalize the evolving competition in multiplayer.

But wait, there's more! A lot more. The Terrans get some important close-quarters capability (and a nod to the old Firebat) with the Hellbat transformation mode for the Hellion, and the new hidden Widow Mine provides some really annoying defense and containment options, since the mine doesn't actually destroy itself upon firing but has to be taken out manually. (It helps to know about this before you go up against a mined ramp). The Zerg's new flying caster the Viper and burrowed siege unit the Swarm Host should give the creepy-crawliest faction some extra options in engagements and increased map control, respectively. I'm just starting to get my head around all this stuff in competitive play, but I can confidently say the new dynamics these guys are bringing about are already enough to get me interested in playing multiplayer again.

Ever since I randomly lucked into the beta for Warcraft III before my time in the games press, I've deeply admired Blizzard's take-no-prisoners approach to RTS balance, and Heart of the Swarm shows they still aren't afraid to make cuts and deep changes wherever appropriate. In that sense, the modifications to existing units may be even more important to the longterm health of StarCraft II than the new units. The overly powerful Terran Warhound from early in the beta is gone, while the Carrier, long subject to removal, somehow managed to survive through to the shipping game. Void Rays don't charge up anymore, but have an active ability with bonus damage to armor instead. The underused Hydralisk, a mainstay of the Zerg army in Brood War, finally has its speed upgrade back. The infernal Medivac also gets a speed boost with an awfully short cooldown. A speed boost? Like Terrans needed any help dropping your expansions? While each faction only gets two or three all-new units, there are so many changes across the board in this expansion that it practically feels like playing an entirely new game. And that's very exciting.

Even the interface around the multiplayer kind of feels like a new game.

Blizzard has done quite a bit of work to the StarCraft II client interface, bringing all the content in Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm together into a common interface that will clearly also house Legacy of the Void when it ships a decade from now. The single most important change, which will be new to you if you're just coming back to the game, is an unranked matchmaking option that lets you play against opponents of similar skill without any impact to your all-important ladder standing. This is a much-needed way to get back into the rhythm of competition or play off-race without any sort of ranking anxiety. There's also a new experience system, not dissimilar to that in most shooters these days, that lets you level your way up to new profile portraits and decals. You earn a little experience even when you lose, which ensures everyone will be able to unlock at least a few things. Some of these improvements are also retroactive to Wings of Liberty and thus aren't exclusively part of this expansion package, but they still make the whole experience more enjoyable. If you haven't played StarCraft II since the original came out, every last thing about it today feels different in some minor or major way.

The traditional expansion pack is such a rarity these days that in reviewing one, it's tempting to suspend our standard graded rating system in favor of a binary "buy it or don't" recommendation. If the occasionally cheesy storytelling or slavish adherence to resource-gathering and micromanagement put you off of Wings of Liberty, there's nothing in Heart of the Swarm that will bring you back in. But for those of us who still deeply love this specific style of real-time strategy and want more of it, this is a must-have add-on.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+
179 Comments
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Posted by Stimpack

Get back to playing, Shoemaker. Next time write more about the Zerg vomit.

Edited by Winsord

Not into the competitive multiplayer scene, but tempted to pick this up for "Arcade" maps and the campaign. Pretty unsurprising review, but in this case that's definitely a good thing. Also glad that there are portraits to unlock through leveling up, since I didn't get any at all in the original WoL.

Posted by iAmJohn

This is Jimmy.

Edited by Amaru25

I wish I didn't suck at RTS games.

Edited by ComradeCrash

I want this so bad! Great review Brad.

Edited by mlarrabee

Let me finish the campaign in WOL and I'll get back to you.

Posted by TheRealDJ

Starcraft is one of the best values you can get from a game. The single player alone is worth the cost at $40, but the online multiplayer can give years worth fun with near limitless depth to how good you can get.

Posted by ch3burashka

Is there any chance Giant Bomb will return to video reviews? I loved the format; they were great additions to the written review. I figure they're labor-intensive for both the speaker and video editor, but it's probably my third favorite GB feature after QL's and the Bombcast.

Posted by Jost1

@iamjohn said:

This is Jimmy.

This is Jimmy

Edited by AlwaysBeClothing

Not wholly unexpected but sounds like a solid time. The servers are holding at least!

Edited by Astrophyle

I'm definitely interested in watching some more matches, but count me out of this one for now, even though I'm historically a Zerg fan in MP. I've gone on to appreciate *playing* games like Supreme Commander and Sins of a Solar Empire because I've felt that those push the genre forward in some awesome ways.

I still love watching a great Zerg match from time to time though.

Edited by Aegon

Kerrigan's lips...mmmmmm.

Wait, what?! Oh...Yeah, the game looks cool I guess.

Posted by RudeCubes

Don't really plan on buying the game, but great review regardless!

Posted by RetroVirus

Oh wow, I didn't know the carrier was still in multiplayer. Good review, Brad.

Online
Posted by Wastrel

No one in the game addresses the Narud = Duran backwards thing and it pisses me off. IT'S SAMIR DURAN. NO ONE WANTS TO POINT THIS ONE OUT?! I FEEL LIKE I'M TAKING CRAZY PILLS

Posted by MarkWahlberg

click on the space sheep.

Posted by mrpandaman

@winsord said:

Not into the competitive multiplayer scene, but tempted to pick this up for "Arcade" maps and the campaign. Pretty unsurprising review, but in this case that's definitely a good thing. Also glad that there are portraits to unlock through leveling up, since I didn't get any at all in the original WoL.

Not only portraits do you unlock but alternate skins for some units and some animations as well. Also finally there is a unranked matchmaker which takes some of the nerve off.

Edited by Esposito426

I don't know.... that beginning was a little wordy.

Edited by Atwa

I can't get over tentacle hair.


Still, cool game.

Edited by Snail

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was such a throwback to its seminal but aged RTS predecessor, it's fitting StarCraft is one of the few franchises still being extended out in the spirit of the old '90s boxed PC expansion pack.

Hah, he ended up keeping it just about like it was on the Friday show didn't he?

And regarding the game, I tried giving Wings of Liberty a shot but it didn't work out. So I probably won't buy this game.

Edited by DeF

Is there any chance Giant Bomb will return to video reviews? I loved the format; they were great additions to the written review. I figure they're labor-intensive for both the speaker and video editor, but it's probably my third favorite GB feature after QL's and the Bombcast.

This has been brought up many times and the reasons you cited are exactly why they've stopped doing them. The time investment (capturing relevant footage, editing, then writing a second version of the review) is not worth it and they'd rather put out more of the other stuff.

Edited by BlackSymbiote

I can't play RTS games, but I do want to just watch people play this.

Edited by UlquioKani

I'm cancelling my subscription!

Man I wish I had a good enough computer to run this. I can't even run Dawn of War 2 properly. Good read though.

Posted by davo

The score does not surprise me at all. Gotta love Brad's passion for StarCraft.

Posted by TheSouthernDandy

@wastrel said:

No one in the game addresses the Narud = Duran backwards thing and it pisses me off. IT'S SAMIR DURAN. NO ONE WANTS TO POINT THIS ONE OUT?! I FEEL LIKE I'M TAKING CRAZY PILLS

Oh man I didn't even clue into that until I read this. I FEEL SO DUMB!

Posted by Video_Game_King

So I guess I should play Starcraft 1 at some point, then?

Edited by leem101

@def said:

This has been brought up many times and the reasons you cited are exactly why they've stopped doing them. The time investment (capturing relevant footage, editing, then writing a second version of the review) is not worth it and they'd rather put out more of the other stuff.

Maybe with that ps4 video capture thing they could become a much easier task in the future

Edited by Chadster

I mainly just came here to see if Brad made any changes to the first paragraph.

Posted by MocBucket62

Is there any chance Giant Bomb will return to video reviews? I loved the format; they were great additions to the written review. I figure they're labor-intensive for both the speaker and video editor, but it's probably my third favorite GB feature after QL's and the Bombcast.

I haven't really missed the video reviews as of late, but looking back it was a good feature. Brad's video review of Wings of Liberty might be my favorite GB video review:

Posted by Winternet

So I guess I should play Starcraft 1 at some point, then?

Unless you're an RTS fanatic, I can't see why you should go play the first Starcraft.

Edited by Hawkerace

The writing in the game is pretty bad imo, but i'm sure it deserves its score because of its mechanics and, well being a very popular RTS.

Posted by bloodsoul5

@video_game_king said:

So I guess I should play Starcraft 1 at some point, then?

Unless you're an RTS fanatic, I can't see why you should go play the first Starcraft.

SC1's gameplay is still best in class. The campaign has the best story in RTSs, everyone who fancies themselves a PC gamer should play the original starcraft and the expansion.

Posted by ripelivejam

FOR THE EMPEROR!

err wait...

Online
Posted by G0rd0nFr33m4n

Is there any chance Giant Bomb will return to video reviews? I loved the format; they were great additions to the written review. I figure they're labor-intensive for both the speaker and video editor, but it's probably my third favorite GB feature after QL's and the Bombcast.

To me at least I feel as if the combination of the quick look and written review accomplish what a video review tries to do already... and in some cases, with a robust quick look mind you, even the written review feels obsolete :/

Edited by Sharpshooter

I know its wishful thinking but I really hope we aren't waiting 3 years for Legacy of the Void.

Edited by EmuLeader

I really enjoyed WOL, but my computer is too poor to run it in any decent form, so I missed out on some of the most fun stuff, such as the user created games. I liked what I played, but I couldn't even finish the campaign because the quality of my video card just kept dragging it down. I need a desktop badly.

Posted by Buscemi2133

Not gonna lie, Heart of the Swarm is the best game I have ever played. Team Brad

Edited by Doppelgamer

@winsord said:

Not into the competitive multiplayer scene, but tempted to pick this up for "Arcade" maps and the campaign. Pretty unsurprising review, but in this case that's definitely a good thing. Also glad that there are portraits to unlock through leveling up, since I didn't get any at all in the original WoL.

Those are my thoughts as well. I'll have to pick this up in a month or two when I recover from my classic game purchasing binge.

Edited by allodude

@g0rd0nfr33m4n said:

@ch3burashka said:

Is there any chance Giant Bomb will return to video reviews? I loved the format; they were great additions to the written review. I figure they're labor-intensive for both the speaker and video editor, but it's probably my third favorite GB feature after QL's and the Bombcast.

To me at least I feel as if the combination of the quick look and written review accomplish what a video review tries to do already... and in some cases, with a robust quick look mind you, even the written review feels obsolete :/

I believe this was question answered by Jeff during one of his Jar Time videos. Basically he said that users were frequenting the video AND written reviews less and less (mainly watching QLs), which he could back up with site metrics. It's the same reason why they took out the playlist feature (WHICH I MISS WITH ALL MY HEART).

Posted by DG991

I know its wishful thinking but I really hope we aren't waiting 3 years for Legacy of the Void.

Same, I just finished this game and I want to play more so baddddd

Edited by JRock3x8

so I have a question - now that wings of liberty is $20 - is it in any way accessible for a relative newcomer? I played a little of the original game and just never got into it. Is this game and/or wings of liberty more noob-friendly?

just to be clear I have ZERO interest in multiplayer except to maybe play my brothers but that would be foolish because they could both destroy me with their eyes closed.

edit : disregard - just found out first five levels are free - I can figure it out for myself.

Posted by AURON570

Aww i thought they were going to make them 3 separate games.

Wait so if you only have Wings of Liberty you don't get the updates and can't play online with people who have HOTS?

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@jrock3x8: The single player is definitely accessible. If I can beat it, anyone can - I'm freakin' terrible at RTS's.

Moderator
Edited by Legion_

Didn't-this-one-coming-NOT

Posted by FakeKisser

Starcraft is one of the best values you can get from a game. The single player alone is worth the cost at $40, but the online multiplayer can give years worth fun with near limitless depth to how good you can get.

I agree. I don't play or watch SC multiplayer anymore (I did for several years), but I still think the singleplayer is worth the price of admission. Also, to be honest, I'm glad the campaign is a little shorter this time. WoL wasn't too long for me, by any means, but I have plenty of other games coming out this spring that I welcome HoS's shorter length.

Edited by ILikePopCans

@allodude said:

@g0rd0nfr33m4n said:

@ch3burashka said:

Is there any chance Giant Bomb will return to video reviews? I loved the format; they were great additions to the written review. I figure they're labor-intensive for both the speaker and video editor, but it's probably my third favorite GB feature after QL's and the Bombcast.

To me at least I feel as if the combination of the quick look and written review accomplish what a video review tries to do already... and in some cases, with a robust quick look mind you, even the written review feels obsolete :/

I believe this was question answered by Jeff during one of his Jar Time videos. Basically he said that users were frequenting the video AND written reviews less and less (mainly watching QLs), which he could back up with site metrics. It's the same reason why they took out the playlist feature (WHICH I MISS WITH ALL MY HEART).

It was less about nobody watching video reviews and more about them taking so long to make. It would take Drew or Vinny a whole day to make a video review, If i remember that right.

Edited by NTM

Cool! I have both StarCraft games, but beat neither of them. If I had more time with the PC I could play games on, I would have finished both. I could of course-with this laptop-play and finish the first, which seems like a good idea, but I can't play the other two. I really did like two a lot, and RTS isn't really my kind of genre, but there are some RTS', like StarCraft that have so many interesting aspects about it to me that I am motivated to play them. This probably isn't a popular wish, but I do wish that Blizzard brings these games to the next-gen consoles; all three StarCraft 2 games in one, that'd be a steal. I'm not into the MP stuff, but I would definitely play them just for the campaigns.

Posted by Efesell

Kinda digging the story, really. It may be a little cheesy at times, and probably going to continue in that Standard Blizzard Plot kind of way..but its entertaining to see unfold.

Posted by doe3879

The advantage of always on hp/energy bar makes the whole Esport thing far less interesting to me. I mean god damn, the screen is filled with them, especially the Zerg base with lavas.

Online
Edited by rentfn

Great Review. Can't wait to finish Wings and play this...I'm really slow.

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