cjduke's StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (PC) review

If you love Starcraft, this expansion is a must buy

After nearly a three year wait, the first expansion to Starcraft II has arrived and brought a plethora of welcome changes to the game. The expansion itself provides a new twenty mission campaign as well as new maps, units, and balance changes to the multiplayer. The expansion also launched Blizzard's all new UI for Heart of the Swarm as well as Wings of Liberty, which includes groups, clans, the ability to watch replays with other players, and the ability to start playing a game from a replay. If you are looking for any reason to get back into Starcraft II, Heart of the Swarm is worth your time.

Kerrigan in her new human form

Heart of the Swarm's campaign picks up three weeks after the end of Wing of Liberty, with Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan reunited. Although back to her human form, Kerrigan has retained some of her abilities to control the Zerg. While testing her abilities, Arcturus' Mengsk's Dominion forces invade the rebels hide out and Raynor and Kerrigan become separated. From there Kerrigan begins to pursue her long-term goal of killing Mengsk, which leads to a fairly thin and extremely predictable story-line the rest of the way through. Blizzard's writing feels like they really lacked the creativity, or the care to make the plot anything more than a generic Sci-Fi action story, but thankfully the voice acting and the characters are still as awesome as ever, even with their mostly very short appearances.

The campaign is structured very similar to Wings of Liberty, albeit some fun changes. Kerrigan flies through the galaxy on her Leviathan ship, which is where the player can interact Kerrigan with her Zerg minions, learning more about how the Zerg think and operate. Two of the biggest changes are the upgrade system and the evolution system. Kerrigan is a playable Hero unit in almost all of the missions and instead of using research to upgrade the zerg army as a whole, Kerrigan gains levels, earning new abilities that the player can swap between any mission. Using Kerrigan is fun if you just want to wreck havoc, but at anything below the brutal difficulty she is extremely overpowered. This ruins some of the balance of the campaign, so anyone looking for a serious challenge might not be pleased with how she works. The evolutions allow you to evolve your zerg units into new forms, such as the Zerg ling, which can evolve into a "Raptor" ling that can hop up and down cliffs and can leap onto enemies, or a "Swarmling" which builds almost instantly and morphs in groups of 3. The game only lets you choose one, and each of the different unit evolutions are really fun to play around with. The game also provides a short tutorial mission for each evolution, allowing the player to test out the new unit before making a decision.

The Leviathan is where Kerrigan can interact with her Zerg minions

Overall the mission structure offers a good mix of timed missions, macro missions, and hero unit missions with some really good design. It took me about 15 hours to beat the game on the hard difficulty and unfortunately I did not find it particularly challenging. The difficulty seems to have been toned down since Wings of Liberty, especially with the ability to use Kerrigan in nearly every single battle. The campaign does provide a whole new set of achievements, including a "Mastery" achievement category for completing achievements on the hard difficulty which is what seems like it will give players the biggest challenge if they care to try to get achievements. I find the achievements in Starcraft II to be the best achievements of any game because they provide really fun added challenges to the missions that usually require good unit control and strategy, although it is a shame the missions themselves are not as challenging as many people would like them to be.

The new Oracle unit harassing a mineral line

Heart of the Swarm also brings some really solid changes to the multiplayer that fit in good enough to allow for new strategies but don't completely change the game to the point where it feels entirely different. Blizzard has done a great job using player feedback through the beta to get an ok balance with the new units and try to fill the weaknesses of each race from Wings of Liberty. The Protoss now has three new air units, the Tempest, Oracle, and Motherhsip Core, to allow protoss to have a better map presence and an easier time defending rushes. Terran has the Widow Mine to allow for better map control, and the Hellbat to better defend against the mass ling/chargelot attacks. Zerg has the Viper, a flying caster that allows Zerg to grab units such as the colossus and pull them into the Zerg army, and the swarm host which acts as a good defensive unit or a strong siege unit. As a Protoss player, I love being able to use the Stargate in all three matchups and the game feels like using every single unit is a much more viable option. The new strategies and changes have made me realize I need to improve my game by adding more hotkeys and being less clumsy with my army, so it seems like the game is thankfully moving more towards skill and less towards easy to win strategies.

Blizzard has also added a leveling feature to the multiplayer, where players earn experience after every match that is used to unlock new portraits, unit skins, decals, and unit dances. Its a smart way to give players some kind of reward even after losing. The new Clan and Group features allow like-minded players and friends to talk, practice, and team up much easier than before. Clans give the player a clan tag next to their name and provide a clan chat. Groups can be made for all different types of things, so players who like the same professionals, casters, or websites can all get together and chat. The ability to watch replays with other players is something people have been waiting for since the start of Wings of Liberty so it is nice to finally have that feature. Also, being able to start a game from a replay is Blizzard's answer to disconnects during professional tournaments so it will be interesting to see that feature implemented in the professional scene.

Since Heart of the Swarm is only an expansion and not Starcraft 3, it is really hard to say whether or not these new features are worth the money to you. If you are just interested in the campaign and not excited to hit the ladder and rank up, join a clan, and hunt for achievements than this expansion may be questionable for you because of the thin story line. But if you are in anyway excited about more Starcraft, especially if you love the multiplayer, than this expansion is a must buy.

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