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StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Review

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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 HellknightLeon

Bluh bluh bluh... If Brad likes it then im fucking in.

Posted by Bourbon_Warrior

@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.

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:

Never get why they got rid of the video review, it was the reason I found out about this site in the first place looking for a video review of ME2.

Posted by bkbroiler

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

I never finished it back in the day, but I'm just gonna jump into the beginning of this one. I feel like I have the gist of what happens in WOL. Damn the storyline, I want to play with weird Zerg units!

Posted by sirdesmond

All of the Starcraft talk this week has led me back into Wings of Liberty. I never finished the campaign so now seems like as a good as ever. Then I'll make my way through Heart of the Swarm (since Zerg are definitely my favorite race).

Edited by vegetashonor

A five star Starcraft review from Brad...You don"t saaaaaaaaaaay...

Edited by HighPriest

So does anyone know any good tricks for dealing with Blizzard's customer support? My account's locked as "a deterrent to those who may have compromised it" whatever that means, and they want me to hand-mail them a copy of my driver's license before they'll lift the block...

Gotta say, not a huge fan of always on DRM. Not going to be picking up any more Blizzard games, but I'd at least like to get access back to the ones I've already foolishly paid for.

Posted by courage_wolf

I am really liking HotS, the campaign is quite fun and I am considering trying multiplayer again. The learning curve in Wings of Liberty was way too intimidating for me, but with the newly shrunk Bronze League I might be able to survive for more than 5 minutes.

Posted by langdonx

Is this game still dying in the competitive sense? I remember reading something about it not being as perfect as Brood Wars and less and less people were playing it. There's some big brou-ha ha last summer about all this iirc.

Posted by mrpandaman

@doe3879 said:

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.

What do you mean? You can turn it off. Or toggle it on selected units, I think.

Edited by probablytuna

I've always wanted to get into Starcraft but I think I'll just wait until all three parts are out before I start playing. They'll surely have some awesome cheap bundle deals when Legacy is released right?

Posted by ripelivejam

more like fart of the fworm, lol?

Edited by StarvingGamer

@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!

I'm not sure why Blizzard's writers have been so coy about it, but Kerrigan already knew that Narud = Duran in WoL. Maybe she just didn't feel a need to announce HEY I KNOW THAT GUY since everyone around her would have just been like, "Huh?" Not sure about Stukov though. Man, thinking back on it, that whole part of the game felt really weird to me too. Maybe Stukov is just an idiot and Kerrigan didn't feel like enlightening him.

Posted by Brackynews

Never get why they got rid of the video review, it was the reason I found out about this site in the first place looking for a video review of ME2.

Jeff sometimes addresses it here and there in his Q&As.

The jist I can recall (perhaps rightly or wrongly) is that video reviews are a very good pull for a particular peak demand of viewer/consumer, but the metrics tell them that video review numbers don't necessarily carry to other numbers. Whether anonymous views on other content, new users, or subscribers. Congrats for being exceptional. :)

Ultimately all production decisions are a return on investment, and there are so many other ways to spend time on content that gives the existing GB community what cool cats crave. Most big sites out there have a video review team, yet they are the ones following GB's lead for the longplay "quick" look and casual couch formats. That just wasn't there on the media giant sites before 2008, and in my opinion, they still don't have enough staff with more compelling media personalities than today's YouTube superdarlings. The rapport we get here is so rare.

The only production team I'd put on the same "feel good" level as Giant Bomb is/was the Area 5 CO-OP Show, which both Patrick and Brad guested on. Meanwhile, I would say Chris Watters is the "best duder" GameSpot has. Tint his eyebrow and I'm not ashamed to fantasise he's Rich Gallup.

Posted by Animasta

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

seriously brad, god! D:

Edited by Bourbon_Warrior

@bourbon_warrior said:

Never get why they got rid of the video review, it was the reason I found out about this site in the first place looking for a video review of ME2.

Jeff sometimes addresses it here and there in his Q&As.

The jist I can recall (perhaps rightly or wrongly) is that video reviews are a very good pull for a particular peak demand of viewer/consumer, but the metrics tell them that video review numbers don't necessarily carry to other numbers. Whether anonymous views on other content, new users, or subscribers. Congrats for being exceptional. :)

Ultimately all production decisions are a return on investment, and there are so many other ways to spend time on content that gives the existing GB community what cool cats crave. Most big sites out there have a video review team, yet they are the ones following GB's lead for the longplay "quick" look and casual couch formats. That just wasn't there on the media giant sites before 2008, and in my opinion, they still don't have enough staff with more compelling media personalities than today's YouTube superdarlings. The rapport we get here is so rare.

The only production team I'd put on the same "feel good" level as Giant Bomb is/was the Area 5 CO-OP Show, which both Patrick and Brad guested on. Meanwhile, I would say Chris Watters is the "best duder" GameSpot has. Tint his eyebrow and I'm not ashamed to fantasise he's Rich Gallup.

They just need to video review the big games I reckon.

Posted by Ben_H

I am very impressed with it. I have played SC2 for almost 3 years, and like many people I was a little skeptical. The multiplayer in the beta went from being kinda meh to really good to really bad but then back to really good with various patches and they seem to have found a bit of a sweet spot now.

I've only played the first few missions of the campaign so far (on Brutal of course) and it seems pretty good though kinda easy compared to Wings of Liberty.

Also, SC2 beat League of Legends in viewers at MLG today for a while, that is a pretty good sign. The community has been very positive about the two major tournaments we have had so far. At the end of WoL there were some players (foreigner zergs in particular) winning with certain strategies that were kinda known to be broken against players vastly better than them but they all got put in their place HARD today and yesterday. A couple of them in a particularly embarrassing fashion. It was quite satisfying to watch.

Edited by gamefreak9

I've gotta say this was the best campaign i've ever played, granted not for the story, but the mission variety and general feel was awesome, the whole Kerrigan character development was amazing.

Edited by ZeForgotten

@thesoutherndandy said:

@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!

I'm not sure why Blizzard's writers have been so coy about it, but Kerrigan already knew that Narud = Duran in WoL. Maybe she just didn't feel a need to announce HEY I KNOW THAT GUY since everyone around her would have just been like, "Huh?" Not sure about Stukov though. Man, thinking back on it, that whole part of the game felt really weird to me too. Maybe Stukov is just an idiot and Kerrigan didn't feel like enlightening him.

So wait, Samir Duran is Emil Narud?
He has changed a lot over the years, even nationality.

And Stukov shows up in SC1 in like three bonus/secret missions.
I was kinda happy seeing him pop up

Edited by Murdoc_

" 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."

So exactly what I expect and what I have played for $40? Not to give your grief, because, clearly you've enjoyed it, but really?

Posted by bombedyermom

*insert douchy brad hyperbole joke here*

But seriously, this looks great.

Edited by siaynoq

I just got tired of hearing Raynor say darlin' all the time.

Edited by StarvingGamer

@starvinggamer said:

@thesoutherndandy said:

@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!

I'm not sure why Blizzard's writers have been so coy about it, but Kerrigan already knew that Narud = Duran in WoL. Maybe she just didn't feel a need to announce HEY I KNOW THAT GUY since everyone around her would have just been like, "Huh?" Not sure about Stukov though. Man, thinking back on it, that whole part of the game felt really weird to me too. Maybe Stukov is just an idiot and Kerrigan didn't feel like enlightening him.

So wait, Samir Duran is Emil Narud?

He has changed a lot over the years, even nationality.

Well, considering that he's a shapeshifting entity that has lived for over a millennia, whose most recent escapades (as Duran) included working to create a Zerg/Protoss hybrid as the "completion of a cycle", the connection should be obvious.

Posted by mlarrabee

@winternet said:
@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.

Good to know, since I just bought the Starcraft 1 battlechest on Amazon.

Posted by Enigma777

Abathur is 1/2 Mordin and 1/2 HK-47. Great character.

Posted by TooWalrus

I finished it last night- I'd give it the same rating based on the single player alone- it's only about 8 hours but it's fuckin' quality.

Edited by prestonhedges

@brackynews said:

@bourbon_warrior said:

Never get why they got rid of the video review, it was the reason I found out about this site in the first place looking for a video review of ME2.

Jeff sometimes addresses it here and there in his Q&As.

The jist I can recall (perhaps rightly or wrongly) is that video reviews are a very good pull for a particular peak demand of viewer/consumer, but the metrics tell them that video review numbers don't necessarily carry to other numbers. Whether anonymous views on other content, new users, or subscribers. Congrats for being exceptional. :)

Ultimately all production decisions are a return on investment, and there are so many other ways to spend time on content that gives the existing GB community what cool cats crave.

I find it strange how their answer for cutting a feature is never "We decided we didn't like doing it." It's always "We crunched the numbers, and it turns out key demographics don't hit peak numbers blah blah blah..." If you ask them any other kind of question they're just like, "Pffft! Fuck you! We do what we want! Stop asking!!"

Posted by Scrumdidlyumptious

Too wordy Brad. B-

Posted by bgdiner

I've tried out the Wings of Liberty starter edition, and enjoyed its single-player levels, but I'm not sure whether I should make the plunge and buy it and Heart of the Swarm (and Legacy of the Void too, when it comes out). I played a few matches of the original Starcraft, and couldn't really get into it, but at that point I hadn't played many RTS games. Is it worth it to get into Starcraft II at this point?

Edited by shinluis

Dumbest story ever written should proooobably taken a star out, right? It's honestly so bad it hurts. Other than that everything's fine and dandy.

Posted by ildon

At the risk of sounding overly reductive

@brad you say this a lot.

Posted by peterpasinili007

I'm still finishing Wings of Liberty, damn gonna get this one.

Edited by iragequit

Loving this expansion. The extra units really make it feel more flexible.

Posted by Will_M

I can't wait for Brad to completely choke during GOTY time and not be able to utter a single coherent thought on this game. Get em Jeff!

Posted by ildon

@prestonhedges: The fact is, they have limited time and resources, and they only get to keep doing whatever they think is cool as long as they're using that time/resources to make money.

Edited by Giefcookie

@toowalrus said:

I finished it last night- I'd give it the same rating based on the single player alone- it's only about 8 hours but it's fuckin' quality.

As someone who stayed up from 2AM on tuesday (when it was released here) to 4PM the same day to finish the campaign, I totally agree. The biggest bummer was finishing it, then staring at the multiplayer menu for awhile and almost overcoming my crippling fear of it, just because I wanted more Starcraft. Legacy of the Void can't ship soon enough.

@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.

Man, there are some amazing maps and modes out there. I don't know how much it has been upgraded for HoTs but you should do a youtube search for "Star Battle". So much fun. There's actually kind of an homage to it in the campaign.

Edited by Dezztroy

Have they added global play yet? I don't feel like paying $80 just to be able to play with friends.

Edited by Cautionman

Well, you've convinced me to drip my feet back into those brackish starcraft waters; thanks for that...

Edited by JoeyRavn

Brad never liked this "Star Craft" thing. This review stinks of dirty developer money. How much did Blizzard pay you, Shoemaker? HOW MUCH!?

In all seriousness, I've been VERY tempted to get the WoL+HotS combo for €60... but I know I won't play multiplayer, just like Vinny. I never do, not in any game. Should I go for it? Or should I stick to the Warhammer games (I have Dawn of War 1 + DoW2 + All the expansion thanks to Steam sales!).

Posted by DeF

@leem101 said:

@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

Doubtful. They'd still have to have that running the whole time they're playing and then pull all the videos (probably right away) from Sony's sharing service (whatever that will be), if that's even possible. And that's assuming that the PS4 will be the default platform to review games on.

You can't really know all the talking points of your review WHILE you're playing the game for the first time anyway.

Just watch the QL and skim through the written review. It's not like we don't get enough opportunities to hear their opinions on games.

Edited by Olu

@joeyravn said:

Brad never liked this "Star Craft" thing. This review stinks of dirty developer money. How much did Blizzard pay you, Shoemaker? HOW MUCH!?

In all seriousness, I've been VERY tempted to get the WoL+HotS combo for €60... but I know I won't play multiplayer, just like Vinny. I never do, not in any game. Should I go for it? Or should I stick to the Warhammer games (I have Dawn of War 1 + DoW2 + All the expansion thanks to Steam sales!).

I think single player campaign is the best in the genre, and totally justifies the price. DoW games are good too, but single player is kinda stale, and the second DoW is more tactical RPG game than RTS.

Posted by TwoLines

"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."

Still a lil' bit wordy Brad. Seriously though, great review, I'll buy it for sure.

Posted by dropabombonit

CHAN! CHAN! CHAN! PYLON!

Edited by LegendaryChopChop

StarCraft: You click on stuff.

Posted by Xymox
@doe3879 said:

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.

It makes the whole game far less interesting to me. Is there any way to turn it off? It takes up so much screen real-estate and I want to actually see my units... Don't really care about microing health bars.

Posted by Slaneesh

The SP is more than worth the price tag, if you enjoy, as brad states, the main SC2 campain

Edited by Chibithor

@xymox said:
@doe3879 said:

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.

It makes the whole game far less interesting to me. Is there any way to turn it off? It takes up so much screen real-estate and I want to actually see my units... Don't really care about microing health bars.

There are a couple of options for displaying life bars: Normal (shows when you hold Alt), Targeting (shows when targeting an ability), Selected, Damaged and Always.

Posted by Winternet
@bloodsoul5 said:
@winternet said:
@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.

Good to know, since I just bought the Starcraft 1 battlechest on Amazon.

Like I said, only if you're into RTS enough will you enjoy it properly. If not, most of the time will be "oh god, is that . . is that an SCV? Fuck, is that a mutalisk? This looks horrible!"

Posted by ThePantheon

Awesome review Brad! You the man. Will be delving into WOL again and getting some Zerg action right after.

Edited by Norusdog

a perfect score from brad on a StarCraft game? sorry if I fail to have it mean anything. Shoulda had someone NOT so fucking obsessed with it review it.

yes I bought it. Yes I love it. But Brad reviewing a StarCraft game causes said review to lose all merit.

Posted by EnduranceFun

This review came as a total shock.

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