The original Starcraft holds a special place in the minds of both critics and teeming masses of hyper-competitive fans. For critics, it’s one of the few examples of a dense, complex narrative stretching back to the early days of legitimate storytelling in games. It’s a mature, nuanced depiction of an impossibly grand conflict between three alien races and a handful of key figures and powerbrokers. It has drawn upon such themes as betrayal, redemption and subtle motivation since long before such tropes became blasé and in an era when the most we could expect from the classical bastions of gaming excellence was somewhat banal apologues of plumbers and princesses.
With aggressively mediocre dialogue and awkward production choices, Heart of the Swarm wallows in lethargy, squandering the capital that Starcraft has earned.
Few, if any, strategy games are really known for their exceptional narratives. It’s difficult to cultivate an artificial but nonetheless necessary excuse for perpetual warfare while also creating well-developed, relatable characters. Even more ambitious would be to attempt some sort of romantic plot without falling into the realm of groan-inducing camp. And yet the first Starcraft largely succeeds.
In the original Starcraft’s day, our expectations were quite a bit lower. Since then the gaming industry has hit its adolescence and standards for “good” and “bad” have adjusted with it. The writing, then as now, isn’t particularly great—it’s filled with a bit too much sci-fi cheese and universe-specific jargon. But at the heart of it all is a plot that’s both compelling and interesting.
Even after 12 years of growing expectations, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty managed to take the series in new and unexplored directions, with broader mechanics and fresh mission-specific requirements. With its sympathetic cast, the motivation required to finish a rather lengthy game came easily. The new expansion pack Heart of the Swarm cannot claim the same design high ground.
Sarah Kerrigan, a psychic spec ops soldier-turned-insectoid-queen, is the closest the installment has to a protagonist, and she serves the role of relatable anchor well. Tortured, experimented on, betrayed, captured and completely transformed by the mutagenic insect-like race known as the Zerg, the woman has now ascended to the role of emotionally scarred psionic god-queen.
Tricia Helfer, the actress behind EDI of Mass Effect and Cylon Number Six in the modern Battlestar Galactica series, stands out as one of the game’s real strengths. Her fantastic delivery draws out the character of a nigh-invulnerable woman despite questionable writing.
Beyond her, though, Blizzard’s selections for actors seem a bit odd. The voices for such series staples as Jim Raynor and Arcturus Mengsk are fine, but new characters like Dehaka and Izsha come off as either silly or jarringly out of place.
Unlike Wings of Liberty, players will find a rather restrictive, linear campaign with little level variety and few of the unique challenges and charming extras that give the series such a memorable flair. There are no mini-games, there are very few branching paths with any real significance, and even the more interesting levels often come down to just “destroy the other guys”.
The trailers, while exceptionally well-produced and demonstrative of the true awe that is Sarah Kerrigan as both a character and a badass, translate very poorly to in-game tension. Kerrigan and her broods are so powerful that few, if any, missions are at all challenging on normal difficulty, and even fewer feel as if they have any sort of weight or place within the events of the game. Even worse, so much of it retreads old ground that, after the genuinely refreshing Wings of Liberty, you might develop a craving for the not-so-olden days.
At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that I hate the game. Yes, the dialogue is grating. Yes, the campaign feels ultimately pointless, and at this stage in the series the plot has become so hopelessly convoluted that you really should keep your phone handy to quickly look up characters, dates and events. Still, it’s all overlaid on what is quite probably the most refined set of mechanics for a strategy game ever. This level of polish and precision is rarely seen in any game, even less so in the declining RTS genre.
As the harbinger of the rise of eSports, though, Starcraft is something of a phenomenon. It, alongside League of Legends, has demonstrated the mainstream appeal of competitive gaming. Many people will buy Heart of the Swarm and play the campaign, but I’d wager there’s almost no one who will buy it for the singleplayer.
To that end, if you’re active in competitive Starcraft, HotS is essential, simply because it will allow you to follow the mass exodus of players. Sure, some will stubbornly stick to the base game, but most will grab the upgrade when they can, and before long all of the major tournaments will be expansion pack exclusive.
The new buildings, units and mechanic changes are enough to earn our interest, especially for long-time casual players like myself. Siege mode for tanks no longer requires research and the Protoss Tempest gives them a spectacularly long range siege unit much like the Zerg Devourer and Guardian from Brood War. The new pieces are great fun, but place many classic strategies in jeopardy. My classic tactic of walling off base entrances with supply depots, bunkers and siege tanks is woefully inadequate when pitted against the new Protoss Tempests or Zerg Swarm Hosts. Similarly, Widow Mines give Terran players an excellent capacity for harassing other positions while also providing a cheap, fast defense against that same strategy.
Incorporating the new units into your strategies and adapting to those dynamics are, without a doubt, the best parts of the game. It is somewhat frustrating to know that I now suck according the leaderboards, but by forcing me to adapt, Blizzard taps the allure of the unknown once again. Finding and exploiting new weaknesses and figuring out ever more elaborate combinations of units and tactics build a thrillingly masochistic adventure.
When I took Heart of the Swarm online for the first time, I was thoroughly trounced. A lot. In the original game I knew my way around everything and could play any race somewhat decently. Starcraft II brought more complexity and, lacking the dedication to adapt, I fell quite far in skill. Now, it seems, I’m completely, hopelessly useless. Supposedly the matchmaking service is intended to help you win half of your matches, but I lost about two dozen in a row.
C’est la vie.
Custom games and the arcade are built just for players like me. The Starcraft modding community has proven to be remarkably resourceful at pushing the game’s engine and it’s mechanics to the limits. Those who don’t mind a little digging can find everything from an MMO to track racers. These modes are remarkably addictive, and give the game some longevity in what would otherwise be a wholly mediocre experience for the average player.
There’s nothing fundamentally broken about Heart of the Swarm. It’s a well-produced game that can be a ton of fun to play. My concern, however, is that it’s gone the way of League of Legends, and has begun to alienate the casual fans. This expansion is really built for those that are invested in the multiplayer.
Watching professionals and shoutcasters, then attempting to implement those tactics yourself, is the real appeal. That sort of total commitment to a game isn’t for everyone. If you’re genuinely not interested in the competitive multiplayer component and just want something fun to play with friends, I’d recommend sticking with Wings of Liberty. If you’re in it for the long haul and are simply waiting to see how this 15 year old story ends, hold off for a while yet. You’re probably going to have at least three more years before Legacy of the Void is released, and that’s plenty of time for prices to drop.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm was developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment. Our review is based on the PC verison. It is also available for the Mac.
Daniel Starkey has been writing about games for over seven years. His work can be found at Destructoid, Gamespot, ScrewAttack, and Extra Credits. He tweets @dcstarkey.