Plunging Into the Heart of StarCraft II's Zerg Swarm

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Brad

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Edited By Brad

My biggest question so far about StarCraft II's first expansion, Heart of the Swarm, is what sort of zerg-oriented metagame Blizzard will wrap around the add-on's new set of campaign missions. In the first game's terran campaign, you walked good ol' boy Jimmy Raynor around his flagship between missions, overseeing laboratory research and developing new vehicle modifications that subtly changed the abilities of your units in subsequent levels. But the zerg swarm has no labs or garages to work with, so how are you going to provide the player any sort of meaningful between-mission progression? What's going to make this campaign different?

Now that I've played a couple of missions from Heart of the Swarm and played around with the stuff you'll be doing between those missions, I'm at least tentatively equipped to answer that question, and also fill you in on where we're at in the storyline with this expansion. But hang on: it's impossible to talk about any of this stuff without directly referencing the pivotal event at the end of Wings of Liberty. If you haven't finished that game and care at all about being surprised by the end of it, stop reading.

Still here? OK, so now that Kerrigan is a human again, how has the balance of power changed between the terrans, zerg, and protoss? Blizzard wouldn't say a word about how Heart of the Swarm actually opens, and where Raynor and Zeratul are in all this mess. But they did give us this teaser trailer to, uh, tease what's going on. Special guest appearance by Nova!

The playable demo dropped me further into the expansion's storyline, after Raynor and crew are out of the picture, at least temporarily. What is clear from the bit I got to play is that Kerrigan may look human (aside from that nasty tentacle hair she's still got going on) and she may be back in her old ghost uniform, but she's still very much in charge of the zerg swarm. Functionally, the between-mission interface in Heart of the Swarm isn't all that different from the one in Wings of Liberty, except it looks like you're inside someone's stomach instead of the bridge of a starship.

== TEASER ==
No Caption Provided

You've still got other entities hanging around that will fill you in on what's going on with the story--in this case a feminine advisor named Izsha, and Abathur, the evolution master--and you can click on stuff in the background scenery gets you some snippets of dialogue about the mission at hand. There wasn't much dialogue in the short demo I played, and some of it was said to be temporary, but I gathered that these zerg officiants were going through an awkward period of getting reacquainted with the new Kerrigan. Also, despite her recent metamorphosis, she's still perfectly eager to murder Warfield, Mengsk, and anyone else who wronged her in the past.

Back to the progression stuff. Going through Abathur into (where else?) the evolution chamber is how you'll access the persistent upgrades that will change the way your units work in subsequent missions. The sample levels I played only gave me access to the zergling, baneling, and roach, so no new units here (though Blizzard is obviously saying there will be some in the final game). But even those three most basic units have some really significant changes available as you finish missions and collect mutagen that you can use to evolve your units.

No Caption Provided

Some of these upgrades are pretty basic and should be familiar to anyone who plays StarCraft II online, like zergling speed or extra roach armor. But you can also get some crazy stuff like lings that train instantly and have a chance to spawn two broodlings when they die, or banelings whose acid slows targets after it hits. And once you've unlocked two of any unit's basic upgrades, you'll be able to evolve it into one of two final forms that adds some really wild bonuses. The zergling can become a raptor, which lets it leap toward a target much like the zealot's charge, or a swarmling, which gives you a third zergling per egg at no extra mineral cost. Banelings can become gorgelings, which will turn killed enemies into collectible resources, or splitterlings, which split into two when they explode and then split again to four. And while the roach's prowler sounds kind of boring with a simple burrowed movement ability, the leech, which gains 10 points to its maximum health with every kill, sounds like a real beast. These upgrades seem like they'll drastically change the way you use some units, and they would sure as hell be fun to play with in multiplayer, even though they'd probably break the game balance outright.

The most important unit in Heart of the Swarm, of course, is Kerrigan herself, and she'll be a fully playable unit in most (or maybe all) of the game's 20 missions. She's sort of like a hero unit from WarCraft III, in that she can't really be killed--she'll just burrow and reemerge at your base--and she gains new abilities between each mission. Currently, these upgrades are doled out automatically as you move through the story, and they play into different selectable "battle focuses" that completely change what set of abilities Kerrigan will have in the next mission. The Spec Ops set offers abilities like a terran ghost's, giving you an energy-based area-of-effect stun, and the ability to generate a psionic clone that does half damage. Spec Ops also gets you a passive boost to your max energy. The Corruption spec taps into Kerrigan's zerg side, giving you an armor bonus, letting you explode a small enemy unit into broodlings, and cast a poison cloud similar to the infestor's fungal growth. Those were all the abilities I got to see in the demo, but there are slots for two more full specs with five abilities each, and you're free to pick which of the four specs you want Kerrigan to use before every mission. Between the per-unit upgrades and all the choices as to how Kerrigan will play in each mission, it looks like you'll have a ton of different offensive options based on the choices you make.

No Caption Provided

Both of the levels in this demo showed the same sort of unique mechanics that made every mission in Wings of Liberty distinctive--and they both gave the sense that Kerrigan is in a weakened state and has a lot of work left to do to gather all the wayward zerg back to her command. Terran General Warfield is still rampaging around the zerg homeworld of Char, other feral zerg groups are running amok around the galaxy, and of course the protoss will take any chance to roast some zerg they can get. In the Char mission, Kerrigan was competing with a rebellious broodmother who was trying to build up her own swarm. The goal here, in addition to building up a base and amassing units, was to roam the map and collect 100 baneling eggs before the broodmother did, and I ended up clashing with her and pockets of her zerg repeatedly before I reached that goal. After hitting the magic egg number, I had about a hundred freaking banelings in a giant clump that I just rolled over the enemy base with. SO MANY BANELINGS.

The other mission took me to an icy planet that had a different, frosty visual style than anything I remember from the last game. Kerrigan was initially in pursuit of another rival zerg brood, but quickly found that a group of vengeful protoss had beaten her to the punch, and I ended up having to fight the protoss instead, along with a bunch of indigenous yeti-like creatures. The unique aspect of this mission was a period "flash freeze" that would sweep the map, rooting all your units in place for a few seconds. That got to be slightly annoying when I was in the middle of fighting the yetis, who were unaffected by the freeze, but by fulfilling a secondary objective of killing enough of the beasts and collecting their genetic material, my units were able to evolve an adaptation to the cold, letting me resist the flash freezes. Bummer for the numerous protoss bases dotted around the map, who had no such resistance. Every time a freeze came on, I rolled right through their defenses while their units stood there helpless.

These demo missions could only be played on normal--and just like in Wings of Liberty, normal is pretty much a joke for anyone who's spent much time playing RTS games online. If that's you, play these on hard or brutal, for your own sake.

Hey, here's a video showing clips of nearly everything I just talked about!

Heart of the Swarm isn't diverging too drastically from the Wings of Liberty formula, but that's fine by me, and it probably goes without saying that I can't wait to get my hands on the final product. As much as I'm looking forward to the campaign, though, it's the potential changes to multiplayer--balance tweaks, new units, the possible disappearance of old units--that really have me excited. But Blizzard really won't discuss any of that stuff yet. I will say that as a protoss-only player, I'm really hoping the campaign in Heart of the Swarm will serve as a good primer that will finally ease me into playing the highly mechanical, macro-heavy zerg on Battle.net. I'm so tired of being on the receiving end of mass muta harassment.

The weird thing about previewing Blizzard games is that the company's designers readily admit that anything you're seeing at the current moment is subject--if not likely--to change outright, but that's just about everything I can tell you about Heart of the Swarm as it stands right now. To hear what director Dustin Browder was willing to say this time around, here's one more video. It doesn't sound like there's much hope of seeing Heart of the Swarm on shelves this year, but I'm willing to wait long enough for Blizzard to get it right. The existing game sure isn't going anywhere in the meantime.

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Brad

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#1  Edited By Brad

My biggest question so far about StarCraft II's first expansion, Heart of the Swarm, is what sort of zerg-oriented metagame Blizzard will wrap around the add-on's new set of campaign missions. In the first game's terran campaign, you walked good ol' boy Jimmy Raynor around his flagship between missions, overseeing laboratory research and developing new vehicle modifications that subtly changed the abilities of your units in subsequent levels. But the zerg swarm has no labs or garages to work with, so how are you going to provide the player any sort of meaningful between-mission progression? What's going to make this campaign different?

Now that I've played a couple of missions from Heart of the Swarm and played around with the stuff you'll be doing between those missions, I'm at least tentatively equipped to answer that question, and also fill you in on where we're at in the storyline with this expansion. But hang on: it's impossible to talk about any of this stuff without directly referencing the pivotal event at the end of Wings of Liberty. If you haven't finished that game and care at all about being surprised by the end of it, stop reading.

Loading Video...

Still here? OK, so now that Kerrigan is a human again, how has the balance of power changed between the terrans, zerg, and protoss? Blizzard wouldn't say a word about how Heart of the Swarm actually opens, and where Raynor and Zeratul are in all this mess. But they did give us this teaser trailer to, uh, tease what's going on. Special guest appearance by Nova!

The playable demo dropped me further into the expansion's storyline, after Raynor and crew are out of the picture, at least temporarily. What is clear from the bit I got to play is that Kerrigan may look human (aside from that nasty tentacle hair she's still got going on) and she may be back in her old ghost uniform, but she's still very much in charge of the zerg swarm. Functionally, the between-mission interface in Heart of the Swarm isn't all that different from the one in Wings of Liberty, except it looks like you're inside someone's stomach instead of the bridge of a starship.

== TEASER ==
No Caption Provided

You've still got other entities hanging around that will fill you in on what's going on with the story--in this case a feminine advisor named Izsha, and Abathur, the evolution master--and you can click on stuff in the background scenery gets you some snippets of dialogue about the mission at hand. There wasn't much dialogue in the short demo I played, and some of it was said to be temporary, but I gathered that these zerg officiants were going through an awkward period of getting reacquainted with the new Kerrigan. Also, despite her recent metamorphosis, she's still perfectly eager to murder Warfield, Mengsk, and anyone else who wronged her in the past.

Back to the progression stuff. Going through Abathur into (where else?) the evolution chamber is how you'll access the persistent upgrades that will change the way your units work in subsequent missions. The sample levels I played only gave me access to the zergling, baneling, and roach, so no new units here (though Blizzard is obviously saying there will be some in the final game). But even those three most basic units have some really significant changes available as you finish missions and collect mutagen that you can use to evolve your units.

No Caption Provided

Some of these upgrades are pretty basic and should be familiar to anyone who plays StarCraft II online, like zergling speed or extra roach armor. But you can also get some crazy stuff like lings that train instantly and have a chance to spawn two broodlings when they die, or banelings whose acid slows targets after it hits. And once you've unlocked two of any unit's basic upgrades, you'll be able to evolve it into one of two final forms that adds some really wild bonuses. The zergling can become a raptor, which lets it leap toward a target much like the zealot's charge, or a swarmling, which gives you a third zergling per egg at no extra mineral cost. Banelings can become gorgelings, which will turn killed enemies into collectible resources, or splitterlings, which split into two when they explode and then split again to four. And while the roach's prowler sounds kind of boring with a simple burrowed movement ability, the leech, which gains 10 points to its maximum health with every kill, sounds like a real beast. These upgrades seem like they'll drastically change the way you use some units, and they would sure as hell be fun to play with in multiplayer, even though they'd probably break the game balance outright.

The most important unit in Heart of the Swarm, of course, is Kerrigan herself, and she'll be a fully playable unit in most (or maybe all) of the game's 20 missions. She's sort of like a hero unit from WarCraft III, in that she can't really be killed--she'll just burrow and reemerge at your base--and she gains new abilities between each mission. Currently, these upgrades are doled out automatically as you move through the story, and they play into different selectable "battle focuses" that completely change what set of abilities Kerrigan will have in the next mission. The Spec Ops set offers abilities like a terran ghost's, giving you an energy-based area-of-effect stun, and the ability to generate a psionic clone that does half damage. Spec Ops also gets you a passive boost to your max energy. The Corruption spec taps into Kerrigan's zerg side, giving you an armor bonus, letting you explode a small enemy unit into broodlings, and cast a poison cloud similar to the infestor's fungal growth. Those were all the abilities I got to see in the demo, but there are slots for two more full specs with five abilities each, and you're free to pick which of the four specs you want Kerrigan to use before every mission. Between the per-unit upgrades and all the choices as to how Kerrigan will play in each mission, it looks like you'll have a ton of different offensive options based on the choices you make.

No Caption Provided

Both of the levels in this demo showed the same sort of unique mechanics that made every mission in Wings of Liberty distinctive--and they both gave the sense that Kerrigan is in a weakened state and has a lot of work left to do to gather all the wayward zerg back to her command. Terran General Warfield is still rampaging around the zerg homeworld of Char, other feral zerg groups are running amok around the galaxy, and of course the protoss will take any chance to roast some zerg they can get. In the Char mission, Kerrigan was competing with a rebellious broodmother who was trying to build up her own swarm. The goal here, in addition to building up a base and amassing units, was to roam the map and collect 100 baneling eggs before the broodmother did, and I ended up clashing with her and pockets of her zerg repeatedly before I reached that goal. After hitting the magic egg number, I had about a hundred freaking banelings in a giant clump that I just rolled over the enemy base with. SO MANY BANELINGS.

The other mission took me to an icy planet that had a different, frosty visual style than anything I remember from the last game. Kerrigan was initially in pursuit of another rival zerg brood, but quickly found that a group of vengeful protoss had beaten her to the punch, and I ended up having to fight the protoss instead, along with a bunch of indigenous yeti-like creatures. The unique aspect of this mission was a period "flash freeze" that would sweep the map, rooting all your units in place for a few seconds. That got to be slightly annoying when I was in the middle of fighting the yetis, who were unaffected by the freeze, but by fulfilling a secondary objective of killing enough of the beasts and collecting their genetic material, my units were able to evolve an adaptation to the cold, letting me resist the flash freezes. Bummer for the numerous protoss bases dotted around the map, who had no such resistance. Every time a freeze came on, I rolled right through their defenses while their units stood there helpless.

These demo missions could only be played on normal--and just like in Wings of Liberty, normal is pretty much a joke for anyone who's spent much time playing RTS games online. If that's you, play these on hard or brutal, for your own sake.

Hey, here's a video showing clips of nearly everything I just talked about!

Loading Video...

Heart of the Swarm isn't diverging too drastically from the Wings of Liberty formula, but that's fine by me, and it probably goes without saying that I can't wait to get my hands on the final product. As much as I'm looking forward to the campaign, though, it's the potential changes to multiplayer--balance tweaks, new units, the possible disappearance of old units--that really have me excited. But Blizzard really won't discuss any of that stuff yet. I will say that as a protoss-only player, I'm really hoping the campaign in Heart of the Swarm will serve as a good primer that will finally ease me into playing the highly mechanical, macro-heavy zerg on Battle.net. I'm so tired of being on the receiving end of mass muta harassment.

The weird thing about previewing Blizzard games is that the company's designers readily admit that anything you're seeing at the current moment is subject--if not likely--to change outright, but that's just about everything I can tell you about Heart of the Swarm as it stands right now. To hear what director Dustin Browder was willing to say this time around, here's one more video. It doesn't sound like there's much hope of seeing Heart of the Swarm on shelves this year, but I'm willing to wait long enough for Blizzard to get it right. The existing game sure isn't going anywhere in the meantime.

Loading Video...
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Sorasha

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#2  Edited By Sorasha

Cool

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Kyreo

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#3  Edited By Kyreo

I am pretty damn excited about this.  

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Afroman269

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#4  Edited By Afroman269

oh, hello

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canucks23

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#5  Edited By canucks23

Crazy hyped for this. Terran's my least fav race to play, so this should be a lot more exciting for me.

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TheMailToad

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#6  Edited By TheMailToad

Oh, hello there Starcraft preview.

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MordeaniisChaos

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#7  Edited By MordeaniisChaos

Mornin' Brad. 
 
I am very interested in how this will differ from  the Terran game. I never really had a problem with these being separate games with the amount of content the last one had hopefully setting the standard, but it'd be nice to know that it'll have more than just content going for it. 
 
Man, Brad is such a good interviewer! Awesome interview, other than the first guy's sideburns bugging me the entire time v.v That little bit above his ear, specifically >:( 
Sounds really awesome though, I loved the progression in the Terran campaign, so getting something similar but unique makes me pretty happy.

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ajamafalous

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#8  Edited By ajamafalous

We're posting new content at like 2 am now?

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Marz

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#9  Edited By Marz

Looks like more starcraft in my future.

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Slaker117

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#10  Edited By Slaker117
@ajamafalous: 12 AM Pacific. Embargo just lifted.
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#11  Edited By SlightConfuse

nice 3 am treat

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CountMacula

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#12  Edited By CountMacula

I am very excited for this, Wings of Liberty was, by far, my most played game last year, and I'm still just starting the multiplayer now.

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MrGetBonus

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#13  Edited By MrGetBonus

Haven't read it yet, but damn am I excited to.

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#14  Edited By Vexxan

So much Starcraft!

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#15  Edited By frankxiv

so so ready, so so hyped.

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Hot_Karl

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#16  Edited By Hot_Karl

I've yet to make a dent in the single-player campaign of regular-ass Starcraft II. Don't hate me, guys :(

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#17  Edited By Ben_H

Who cares about the campaign, give me the multiplayer info! 
 
Crap they didn't get rid of the roach.  I hope they do for MP.  And make the hydra awesome like it was in SC1.  And of course bring back the lurker.

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#18  Edited By DerBrick

I have nerd chills.... 

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Afroman269

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#19  Edited By Afroman269

I'm pretty excited mostly for the single player. I gave up on multiplayer because I just don't have the drive and the time to sink into that game to be competitive. 

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madlaughter

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#20  Edited By madlaughter

Awesome Preview.  Well done.

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#21  Edited By mcbonjon

This looks good. I did like Wings of LIberty as it helped me understand the Terrans some more, so I'm hoping this does the same thing for Zerg. I'm not a huge fan or RTS, but this is something I'll be keeping on my radar.

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#22  Edited By Loomies

OMG i need to preorder it now, it comes out next week!??!?!??! 

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#23  Edited By sameeeeam

Pretty damn excited for the campaign.

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#24  Edited By BombKareshi

I have only myself to blame for being into StarCraft II for the single player.

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RandomInternetUser

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I can't wait for this shit, man.  Terran is by far my least favorite race, so even though I loved Wings of Liberty, this is going to be some next level shit, man.

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#26  Edited By Alphazero

Do the Zerg have Space Country music on their jukebox? 

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#27  Edited By mshaw006

I think Dustin Browder is kind of an awesome dude.

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Deusx

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#28  Edited By Deusx

Looks like Brad is the only one doing something this week. The site is dead. I'm not saying the other guys are lazy but come on... I know I'm not the only one feeling like this but hey, really nice article.

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#29  Edited By Hemlock

The Zerg blood that courses through my veins is simmering. COWER YOU TERRANS AND PROTOSS, WE ARE COMING (with lurkers plz blizz t.t)

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#30  Edited By Floppypants

While I'll happily, rabidly consume any scrap of preview coverage I can get for a Blizzard game, I can't deny I have a bitterness towards them for teasing games that are a year+ away from release.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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#31  Edited By sparky_buzzsaw

That's an awesome write-up that answers all the questions I had about how the zerg missions would integrate into Wings of LIberty.  Cool, cool stuff.

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#32  Edited By Titl

hmm, looks great, i'll be looking forward to seeing what units they'll get rid of in the multiplayer (void ray, reaper?). hopefully by the release of the Protoss expansion it'll be balanced like BW. 

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#33  Edited By anamanaman

Damn. Kerrigan is still an evil zerg!? I definitely didn't see that coming. I was wondering who we'd be playing as this round. Should be fun.

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#34  Edited By sameeeeam
@Deusx said:
Looks like Brad is the only one doing something this week. The site is dead. I'm not saying the other guys are lazy but come on... I know I'm not the only one feeling like this but hey, really nice article.
It's the usual pre-E3 hush. Happens every year.
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Detrian

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#35  Edited By Detrian

Can't wait to see how bad the plot is this time. And wow Brad, you really had trouble imagining how the alien species that can evolve on the fly would have progression during the campaign? Man.

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#36  Edited By Soldier zero

Sorry I can't answer properly, I'm too busy keeping my drooling in check.

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#37  Edited By tahnit
@Detrian: I think everyone is too fucking jaded. I thought the plot in SC2 was pretty good.
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#38  Edited By SlayingShogun

Haven't played SC ll, but what has been said about how the Zerg race can evolve and turn out different at the end to how your friend's swarm could turn out has greatly interested me. Makes me want to pull a Vinny and buy all the SC releases to get the full story. Great article Brad!

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fishmicmuffin

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#39  Edited By fishmicmuffin
@Deusx said:
Looks like Brad is the only one doing something this week. The site is dead. I'm not saying the other guys are lazy but come on... I know I'm not the only one feeling like this but hey, really nice article.
It was Memorial Day today. I'm pretty sure they did not go into the office today. I would also assume that Brad wrote this article last week and it was on a timer to go up at midnight. 
 
As for the article, it was a really great read. The upgrades of the Zerg units sound significantly better than the Terran unit upgrades.
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GioVANNI

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#40  Edited By GioVANNI
@Deusx said:
Looks like Brad is the only one doing something this week. The site is dead. I'm not saying the other guys are lazy but come on... I know I'm not the only one feeling like this but hey, really nice article.
E3 is in a week or two.  Content usually dies a little when E3 is around the corner.
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#41  Edited By DeF
@ajamafalous said:
We're posting new content at like 2 am now?
probably some embargo+timezone thing. anything blizzard related will generate a lot of clicks so if an embargo lifts at midnight, why not get it out immediately.
 
anyway, great preview, I'm really looking forward to playing more SCII singleplayer! (and if they actually get Diablo III out this year, I won't even mind waiting a bit longer for Heart of the Swarm) :)
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Winternet

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#42  Edited By Winternet

So many Starcraft!

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blaze503

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#43  Edited By blaze503

can't wait, even though i am more interested in the multiplayer i loved the campaign so can't wait for this

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#44  Edited By Dunchad

I'm definitely buying this when it comes out, but I'm a bit worried I won't enjoy it as much. I enjoyed SC2 a lot mostly because I empathized with Jim and his almost hopeless quest to save Kerrigan. I just loved the ending. 
 
But now, I'll be controlling Kerrigan herself and I'm not sure if I'll get into it, especially since it seems she left Jim to go on some sort of quest for revenge or etc. To me, SC2 is just a tragic love story and I really want it to have a happy ending - I guess I just have to keep my fingers crossed.
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Arrested_Developer

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Nice.

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AndrewB

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#46  Edited By AndrewB

The only thing that pisses me off about Blizzard is that they show builds of a game that look like they could very well be in a near final state, yet the game will still be years away. This also happens to be why their games are so damn good, so I try not to complain too vocally. But damn... I want this game right now. I guess I have to be content waiting for Diablo 3... please let that game come sooner! I don't ever pre-order games, but I pre-ordered that one.

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golguin

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#47  Edited By golguin

So Brad is back in the game?

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arch4non

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#48  Edited By arch4non

Great writeup, I'm also digging this new site layout.

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ajamafalous

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#49  Edited By ajamafalous
@Slaker117 said:
@ajamafalous: 12 AM Pacific. Embargo just lifted.
That's what I figured.
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#50  Edited By GunsAreDrawn

I honestly forgot about these expansions. All I thought about was how Starcraft 2 multiplayer got boring after a few months.

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