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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 Dberg

I've given it more thought and I think the only way I could've been happy with the multiplayer of a new starcraft game would be if they added another faction. That's extremely unlikely to happen though because ~~Esports~~. I'm just so done with what's already there. It was amazing 15 years ago, it was a nice nostalgia ride last year, but its welcome wore off. The Protoss SC2 "expansion pack" will likely be the first Blizzard game I skip.

At least they've never been afraid to mix things up with the Warcraft RTS games, so there's always the hope that a 4th might come around and be completely off the rails. Barring that or a Rock n Roll Racing remake, I think Blizzard have stopped catering to people like me.

Posted by Zevvion

I personally don't see how this "expansion" could receive 5 stars. I could conceivably accept 4 stars simply because its a blizzard game and the only RTS around, but even then...

There are 3 types of people who will buy this expansion: 1) those that still play the multiplayer, thus want to upgrade to the new units(many pros don't care about the campaign), 2) those who play both the multiplayer and are interested in the singleplayer, and 3) those who stopped playing and now want to just play the campaign for the story and might play some multiplayer, if any at all, for a bit while its fresh. The majority of people will probably fit into the 2nd and 3rd(majority here) category meaning the singleplayer will almost certainly be more important then the multiplayer for the majority of people.

Singleplayer: The story is terrible, which creates writing where some of the voice acting isn't just cheesy, but comes off as really bad. Also the majority of characters are entirely forgettable and non-unique(lets be honest if Dhaka wasn't conveniently used for a future mission he would literally serve no purpose). The mechanics are literally the same as WoL(which makes sense, but when someone does that in an expansion for any other game type people complain about how its more of the same), except now you have this hero unit in Kerrigan who is godlike and dumbs down much of the game. Many of the missions are less unique then the WoL missions. I will admit the "boss" battles with the primal zerg were cool, but that is literally the only "new" thing adding any positive merit from a SP standpoint.

Multiplayer: If you are NOT currently playing starcraft 2 multiplayer, this expansion WILL NOT be a reason for you to start, its literally the exact same stylistically. There are new units(making the current tournaments more interesting to watch for a bit) and balance was preserved quite well, but spending $40 for just this aspect is pretty terrible for the cost.

This expansion essentially added nothing new or better for the average Starcraft 2 consumer and for a dedicated Starcraft 2 consumer it only adds new multiplayer elements in new units and strategies from them. The mechanics from the engine are still great and it is still the only real RTS in town, but that doesn't help if you have your writer's children write the story.

I seriously doubt that.

Also, an expansion is to expand the existing game. Which means it's logical it would be 99% similiar in mechanics if not 100%. What you're thinking of is sequels.

Anything else is really your opinion against Brad's isn't it? You thought the story was terrible, he thought as long as you don't take it very seriously, it's not that bad. You thought all the characters were forgettable, he liked a few of them.

If you read the review, it's pretty clear why Brad gave it 5 stars. You can pick the review apart for things you don't appreciate yourself and decide whether or not to buy the game based on that. It's all in there to make a well informed decision I think. I don't think it's possible to write a review that applies to everyone objectively.

Edited by suicidepacmen

shocking

Posted by Brad

HOTS has "two-thirds" as many missions as WOL? It's strange that Brad would say that considering WOL has 26 missions and HOTS has 27.

WOL has 29, and half a dozen of HOTS' missions are just five-minute tutorials for the upgrades.

Edited by spandexmonkey

Another pointless Brad review. "Game isn't for everybody, it's kind of just more of the same" 5 out of 5.

Posted by Assirra

Another pointless Brad review. "Game isn't for everybody, it's kind of just more of the same" 5 out of 5.

So you mean an expansion for a game has be completely different?

It's a bloody expansion, ofcourse its more of the same, you know, like the people that bought the first one wanted.

Posted by bolognarock

@brad: Hmmm....It still says 26 for me, in WOL. Where are you getting 29? Maybe there are extra Protoss missions the game doesn't take into account? Thanks for the clarification on HOTS, though.

Posted by Cataphract1014

@bolognarock: I believe WoL counts the missions where you have to make a choice like help Tosh or Nova, save the colonists or help the protoss.

Posted by bolognarock

@cataphract1014: Oh, right. I played my second playthrough on a different computer, so that's probably why it doesn't count the other 3.

Edited by bolognarock
Posted by Assirra

@brad: Hmmm....It still says 26 for me, in WOL. Where are you getting 29? Maybe there are extra Protoss missions the game doesn't take into account? Thanks for the clarification on HOTS, though.

Well i know at least 1 secret mission (the hybrid space station) and 2 choices (tosh/nova and kill ground or air force of zerg)

Posted by Lind_L_Taylor

It scored a 5/5? Get out!

Posted by Cirdain

YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Darkhollow

Great review Brad.

Really enjoyed the campaign and I can't wait 'till Legacy of the Void hits to see how the story concludes.

It's a lot of content for an expansion and also cheaper which is nothing but a plus. I don't care for the multiplayer myself since I don't like the competitiveness of it, but hey that's just me, I'm a story guy.

Posted by IcarusFoundYou

The gameplay is good, the plot is moronic.

Posted by ThisIsJimmy
Posted by Troispoint
Posted by Y2Ken

I'm probably 1 or 2 missions from the end of the campaign now. Loved it, yeah Brad's right the story is better if not taken too seriously but it's decent enough, and actually pretty funny at times (in ways which feel intentional as well as the dumb stuff). I like the hero unit mechanics (including a couple of missions which almost feel like a MOBA more than an RTS), the single-unit stuff feels way better to me than the ones from the WoL campaign.

As for multiplayer, I love everything they've done with the presentation and generally everything which surrounds the game itself. And the new units and changes seem pretty cool, I've been watching mainly WoL until now with a bit of HotS stuff here and there, but the transition has been very smooth and I loved the MLG final between Flash and Life yesterday.

David Kim said on the forums today that he doesn't feel anyone has a full grasp of what some of the new (and altered) units are capable of yet, so I'm definitely interested to see where people can take it. Definitely having an amazing time with it, and it's great seeing a launch (albeit for an expansion) go so smoothly and have the transition be as well-handled as it was by Blizzard. So good job there.

Posted by SilverSaint

@happypup70: I am not saying this is a 4 star game or quibbling over 4 vs 5 as a game with 4 or 5 stars can be of equal fun since its more about the style of the game and the players preferred genres. A 5 is saying the game has minor flaws, when there are straight up major flaws in HoTS just taken as eh, "if you just consider this story a joke its all good". I would personally give this expansion a 3-3.5 due to how disappointing the SP story/balance was(sad for how long this game was in production) and how good the MP balance was(it better be after taking more then 2 years). The sheer disappointment from the single player campaign at this point also makes it less likely for people to buy LotV as the story has a clear path now (Zeratul getting some sort of artifact, power, or gathering forces and eventually joining Kerrigan and Jim/Valerian to destroy Amon).

Posted by codesamurai
Edited by Rhaknar

as someone who only plays the single player, i quite enjoyed it, but WoL was much better in my opinion. This might sound redundant (since this IS an expansion) but the campaign felt just like that, an expansion. The mutation missions are just glorified tutorials that last a few mintues only (and 7 of the 27 missions are that) and the Stukov campaign felt like rushed padding. Still liked it tho, but I grew up on anime, so cheese in stories doesnt bother me.

And Brad is right, you can see how this will end a mile away, its basically just warcraft retold again, but in space

Posted by Stepside

For those of you like me who never/rarely play the competitive multiplayer aspect of RTS games, I'm halfway through the campaign and it's awesome. Definitely worth the $40 to the single-player lovers out there.

Posted by DystopiaX

@rhaknar said:

as someone who only plays the single player, i quite enjoyed it, but WoL was much better in my opinion. This might sound redundant (since this IS an expansion) but the campaign felt just like that, an expansion. The mutation missions are just glorified tutorials that last a few mintues only (and 7 of the 27 missions are that) and the Stukov campaign felt like rushed padding. Still liked it tho, but I grew up on anime, so cheese in stories doesnt bother me.

And Brad is right, you can see how this will end a mile away, its basically just warcraft retold again, but in space

I think the campaign does a really good job of making you feel like you're playing as the zerg, if that makes sense. I specced out my units in such a way that roaches were spawning more roaches, swarm hosts were really powerful, and dead lings would be respawning for free, so in missions I felt like I really was controlling a huge swarm. The times when the game gives you like 250 supply of units to fight with does a really good job of making you feel like you're playing a distinct faction as well. It might be because I play zerg in multiplayer but I liked this campaign better than the WoL campaign, even if it was shorter.

Edited by Brozik

This is Jimmy.

Edited by chocolaterhinovampire

@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:

Durger

Edited by SKaREO

I completely disagree with this review. I gave WoL 9/10, but this crap gets no more than a 6/10 from me, and that's being generous. $40 for a few new units is a rip off, and after Diablo 3, Blizzard is going to have a really hard time convincing me to spend money on their software again.

Edited by DrainBlut

Can't believe these people gave this shit 5/5. They're saying this is an all around masterpiece in every way possible. Are you fucking kidding me? This series has storytelling that gives the Star Wars prequels a run for the gold in "worst writing ever", featuring a rather boring, uninteresting, and overly fast paced campaign, and didn't really do much for MP either other than add a few new units. It seems that with Blizzard games, people either under rate or over rate based entirely on whether they like it, dislike it, or hype. The reality is that this is a generic, average, game. It would have been worthy of a 5/10 or maybe even a 6/10, but 5/5(10/10) is a fucking joke.

Posted by AlexGBRO

They reality with rts games is that multiplayer is the focus just like shooters and fighting games, that said Blizzard did put a lot of effort into this game in the singleplayer even if story is so and so, the objectives are diverse, the normal dificulty is a bit easy but for more chalange there is hard and brutal.