My heart will zerg on
This may be quite a late review. Blizzard very kindly sent us a review copy of Heart of the Swarm, loving packaged and ready for release; four months on we’re actually ready to review it. Now this isn’t because we’re lazy, it’s because we simply weren’t qualified. When it came to RTS games, I’ve personally always been one for building up huge armies and bases, then unleashing them on the world. That’s fine for single player and simplistic but rewarding fun in many games, it’s partly what HOTS’s single player mode is based around, but it’s not what people who are buying this game are looking for. Instead, they’re looking for ultra-competitive RTS multiplayer at every level, with many being petrified that an expansion could break the game completely. Instead they made it even better.
So what’s changed that’s led to this review? Put simply, we’ve started playing competitively. Eagle eyed readers might have noticed our Twitch stream lighting up with activity recently as I’ve started streaming some of our 2v2 games, there’ll be more and more of that in the coming months. Most of the time me and Le Petit Dodo are working our way up the 2v2 ladder (we may be in Bronze, but at least we’re near the top of Bronze) but there’s a bit of Silver 1v1 and we’ve just started a 3v3 team with OMGNinjaz for some variety. The ladder is something special that may be a huge part of Starcraft 2’s success. Simply put for every match up type or team you enter with, you play in 5 placement matches. These are against players of all skill levels, and your performance is recorded. Once those 5 matches are up, you’re placed in a league division of 100 people/teams where you’ll be competing against other players of your level. It works better than other matchmaking solutions as while you may be down in bronze playing against other people who are terrible, you’ve still got an achievable goal of being the best in your division. Me and Le Petit Dodo might just be starting out, but we’re on our way towards finishing in the top three of our division, that will be a real accomplishment to us. It’s enough to make the game incredibly addictive and many smart developers (including Team17) are starting to use the same system in their own games.
So Heart of the Swarm is the zerg-themed first expansion to Starcraft 2. The base game shipped with a Terran campaign (Wings of Liberty) and a fully featured multiplayer mode. This expands on that with a whole new campaign (that continues the story rather than just giving you a new angle) and new units; there’ll be a second expansion in the next year or two featuring the Protoss.
As Starcraft is taken so seriously as an e-sport, balance is everything. Should one side be given any kind of advantage, no-one will play the remaining races, therefore every change is scrutinised by hundreds of thousands of people to see how it will impact chances to win. With Heart of the Swarm, Blizzard didn’t play it safe, but they didn’t throw everything away either. Each race gets a couple of new units such as Terran’s Hellbat and Widow mines, Zerg’s Overseer, Viper and Swarm Host and the Protoss get the Oracle and the Tempest. Six or seven new units (and the Hellbat isn’t really a new unit, it is a mode for the Hellion) might not sound like much, but should they be overpowered they could destroy the game entirely.
Thankfully Blizzard know what they are doing and carefully paid attention to players’ feedback in the beta stages, removing some units entirely to preserve competition. The new units add many new options (such as the Swarm Host’s ability to contain a team in their base if you block off the ramp with waves of spawned locust, or the widow mines nasty missile attacks being used to pre-mine expansion places) without becoming a necessary part of an army. You’ll see them all used regularly, but not exclusively, which is a sign that things have gone right.
The campaign adds 20 missions for the story mode plus seven ‘evolution’ missions that are basically excuses to show off some new toy or monster that you can make part of your army. Each evolution mission ends with a choice of which one you’d like to use and this moves you towards a more customised army every time you go into battle. Single player and multiplayer are kept strictly separate in this regard, in single-player you get tonnes of units not available in multiplayer, so Blizzard can ignore balance and make cool units instead. For example, one of the early missions has you created Zerglings that can jump up walls and over enemies. This would make the Zerg insanely powerful in multi as an early swarm could simple avoid any defences put in their way, but in single-player it’s a lot of fun to watch as your ravenous little flying-ant type beasties cover a terran holdout within seconds, gnawing it away to nothing.
As per Blizzard tradition, the story is fine and at times interesting, and the CGI cut scenes are often breathtaking. You really need to have played through the Wings of Liberty campaign to make much sense of it, and that’s not a problem as it still holds up incredibly well. Each mission is well paced and offers much more variety than simply crushing opponents’ bases, with challenges revolving around nearly invisible battlecruisers, timed attacks and limited unit numbers. Each mission is designed for drama and tension, and the majority work very well. A couple can become a little tedious, particularly if you don’t quite play in the way they were intended but these are in the minority. Each mission also contains a couple of optional achievements for completing it in a certain time or avoiding some kind of danger.
Graphically the game still looks fantastic, despite getting on a bit in years. The art direction is incredibly strong and the game scales well, running fine on lower-spec PCs but looking beautiful with a plethora of visual effects if your rig can manage it. There’s a huge amount of variety in the landscapes too and the battlegrounds that you’ll be fighting on. While intense concentration is required in the game, you might miss little features like indigenous life running around the maps or satellites crashing out of orbit. There’s always a lot going on and if you watch a few games online you’ll start to pick up on these little details.
Audio too is a treat thanks to some fairly strong voice acting (it’s definitely a step up from the ham and cheese fest of Wings of Liberty) and each side having its own distinctive announcements. You quickly start to recognise audio cues as ways to let you know that something important has happened, whether it’s a hellion revving up or a spire that’s just completed. The sounds are unobtrusive but atmospheric and actually useful. The music is a little more forgettable than I’d like but is distinctly more effective in the single-player where they know when you’ll be reaching a crescendo.
If you’re looking to get into Starcraft 2, it can seem fairly expensive for an older game. You need to pick up the base game, plus the expansion, both of which are likely to set you back around £20 each nowadays. But for that money you’re getting a huge amount of playtime and one of the finest experiences PC gaming has to offer. If you’re still unconvinced, download the starter version, find a friend with Heart of the Swarm, and as long as you’re playing with them you’ll have access to everything they do, it’s genius. If you want to watch people play it just have a search on Youtube or Twitch, it’s an incredible spectator sport and many of the bigger tournaments attract crowds in their thousands.
Overall, there’s a reason there’s so few other RTS games out there over the last decade, and that’s because Starcraft 2 is so hard to fault. It’s fast and it’s complex but it’s also accessible, providing an entirely surmountable challenge for everyone in single player, and a method of matchmaking that can keep the competition alive for even the most ham-fisted of players. Starcraft 2 is almost beyond a mere game, spawning an incredibly successful e-sports scene where I can watch global tournaments in a bar in London or enter myself in many parts of the world. It’s the first game we’ve ever given 10/10 to and I strongly suggest that everyone gives it a go. Get on that ladder and start reading up, join the swarm.
Keep an eye on our Twitch stream and the website for times when we’ll be playing and streaming the game.