Review: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm Collector’s Edition (PC)

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm Collector’s Edition
Genre: Real Time Strategy
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: 03/12/2013

When Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty came out around in 2010, its reception was… interesting, to say the least. While the game was largely recognized critically as an interesting and well assembled piece of work, fans were all over the place about the split-up campaigns that were to be sold as expansions, as well as the retuning of the online play. While the game has largely settled in well amongst competitive players at this point, in the two and a half years since people have been looking forward to the second part of the series, Heard of the Swarm, with good reason. The events of the first game, Wings of Liberty, were quite the change of status quo plot-wise, and new units were promised for multiplayer play that looked to be very interesting and possibly very useful. Well, while some of the units promised didn’t quite stand up to long-term testing due to balancing concerns and such, Heart of the Swarm does indeed add in some more well-tuned units to online play, as well as a campaign that’s quite a lot of fun, if a little silly. Whether or not it’s worth your money, either on its own or in its Collector’s Edition format, will depend on a few things, though.

For those who have missed out on the plot between Starcraft and now, long-standing big bad Sarah Kerrigan, anointed the Queen of Blades in the original series, has been reverted to human form at the end of Wings of Liberty, and is in the care of James Raynor and Valerian Mengsk. Well, for about five minutes, at which point Arcturus Mengsk’s people blow their hideout to hell, leaving Jim and Sarah to escape, which Sarah does, while Jim… not so much. This drives Sarah to revenge in the only way she knows how: by taking up the role of the Queen of Blades out of a desire for revenge and the need to make Arcturus Mengsk pay for his crimes. Now, here’s the thing: there are two plots going on here, and while one is very good, one is very not. The GOOD plot is the “Kerrigan seeks revenge so she goes back to leading the Swarm out of a misguided need for justice” plot, as it’s actually very well written and Kerrigan has reasonable motivations this time around. Kerrigan’s kind of needlessly mean to everyone but Jim Raynor, mind you, but outside of that the main plot works and it’s actually pretty interesting. The metaplot, however, is this whole “THERE’S A MYSTICAL EVIL PROTOSS OR SOMETHING AND HE’S MORE POWERFUL THAN ANYTHING BLAH BLAH BLAH” and it’s basically the motivating factor for a bunch of stupid decisions that make the story more annoying than it should be. The original game and its expansion were fine: evil big bad Overmind wants to kill everything, the rest of the universe kills it, Kerrigan fools everyone and becomes the BIGGER big bad, roll credits. Coming up with a The First-like uber bad guy to blame everything on, aside from causing the writers to basically pull a mulligan halfway into this chapter, is silly, especially since the end result is now “The Zerg aren’t evil anymore” more or less. In other words: main plot good, metaplot bad, end result is a push.

Visually, Heart of the Swarm is using the same visual engine as Wings of Liberty, and if there’s been any kind of tuning involved, it’s so non-obvious as to basically be nonexistent. That’s not meant to be a negative, mind you, as Starcraft II is still a solid looking game, and it can handle a fairly massive amount of units on-screen at one time without much difficulty. The different units you can use are generally instantly distinguishable from one another and the game allows you a fairly good zoom range to get up-close in combat if you wish, and even running the game at its highest settings I was able to retain solid framerates until about two hundred units were on-screen at a time. You’ll need to have a fairly beefy system to run games that feature several different armies at one time with maximum settings, mind you, but the campaign and smaller battles generally run fine so long as you have a decent system to work with. Aurally, the music features the same electronically enhanced orchestrated score of its predecessors, and it’s a perfect fit for the product, as always. The voice work, in cutscenes and for your various units, is quite good, featuring strong performances and the odd funny bit here and there that makes the performances stand out overall. The general sound effects are also quite good, and give the game an immersive feel that it does quite a lot with in general.

For those who haven’t spent much time with a PC real-time strategy game ever, Heart of the Swarm works about the same as most games in the genre: everything you can do is done either with the mouse or with hotkeys on the keyboard. You’ll spend your time either hightlighting units or structures and doing things with them. The general flow of most battles amounts to sending resource gathering units off to gain you either minerals or Vespene gas to build facilities and train units, while also managing your supply resources to ensure you have enough supplies to train larger armies. You can hotkey various aspects of your process as needed, so you can simply hop to various buildings to generate upgrades or units, set up specific groups of units for strategic strikes, or simply select all of your combat troops for one huge rush, depending on what you’re interested in doing at the moment. You can also move around the map manually by scrolling at the edges of the screen or click on the mini-map in the bottom left corner to move instantly to a part of the map if you’d rather use the mouse for micro-management. For players who are interested in high level play, learning and working with hotkeys is the way to success, but there are often a few ways to accomplish whatever you want to do regardless of your skill level so you can mix and match as needed.

As with most RTS titles, Heart of the Swarm features three different races to work with and a campaign to give you some experience in the basics of play. The campaign proper is based around the Zerg this time around, so while there are a couple novelty missions based around the Terran forces, almost all of your play time will involve managing Zerg forces. Campaign missions, since they are not constrained by the needs of the normal multiplayer setup, can be simple “obliterate the enemy forces” missions, but more often than not incorporate special requirements, such as destroying a specific target or using only the troops provided. The campaign missions frequently also have side objectives, such as destroying alternate targets or finding “biomass”, which, when completed, increase Kerrigan’s level. While in Wings of Liberty the campaign was based more around regular play, Heart of the Swarm focuses a good bit on “hero” units, which amounts to Zerg Brood Mother Zagara, infested Terran Alexei Stukov and primal Zerg Dehaka, each of whom gets their own mission or two to show off, as well as Kerrigan herself, who is around for most of the missions. While the other heroes who show up have their own set level for their mission, Kerrigan frequently increases in level as you play, learning more and more new skills across three skill trees, allowing you to activate one skill per group of three. Assuming you do all of the side missions, Kerrigan becomes a beast by end game (though she is in no way capable of surviving long by herself, of course), so there’s plenty of motivation to do so, as she also improves her stats, health and so on with the level increase.

Much like Wings of Liberty, in between campaign missions you’ll return to your home base where you can talk to your crew and such, though the interface is a bit more refined and user friendly this time around. For one thing, there are really only two locations to visit in the Leviathan you travel in: the main deck, where your crew mostly hangs out, and the research pit, where you can develop new strains of Zerg through Abathur, the… thing that runs it. In Wings of Liberty, these deviations were initiated through choices in the campaign or purchased with credits (oh, and for those wondering, the one “big” choice in Wings of Liberty does mostly nothing here plot-wise). In Heart of the Swarm, however, your forces will instead receive the option to be upgraded through mutation missions that pop up as you complete campaign missions. You’ll be offered two types of upgrades to a unit, each of which has its benefits, and asked to pick one, which then dictates the mutation the unit holds from then onward, which can include elements like making ground units capable of flight or jumping cliffs, increasing damage, regenerating upon death and so on. There’s no cost for these upgrades so you’ll likely see all available upgrades as the game progresses, assuming you play through all of the available missions. You likely won’t need to on easier difficulty levels, but higher levels will almost require every advantage you can get. You can generally plow through the campaign in around ten to twelve hours, depending on your difficulty and skill level, though you can return to it on higher difficulties or jump into any mission you’d like in the Archive if you wish (though this sadly doesn’t apply to Wings of Liberty as well), or go back to clear the Achievements if you’re interested.

The campaign is only part of the experience, however, as a big draw for the game is its online multiplayer, which offers an extensive amount of options for players to have fun with. The general multiplayer pits players against one another or the AI as one of the three races: Terran, who have flexible build options and average stats, Zerg, who have unconventional structure and work through strength in numbers, and Protoss, who are powerful but expensive overall. For those who spent a good amount of time with the multiplayer in Wings of Liberty, you’ll find some new units to play with in Heart of the Swarm to modify your play a bit, including the Hellbat (Terran flame thrower robot), Swarm Host (Zerg stationary defensive unit spawner), and the Oracle (Protoss aerial support unit). While these units are fairly well balanced into the existing forces, they have some interesting upsides that could change up your play a bit if you spend some time with them, and give the multiplayer a bit of a boost in terms of strategy. You can jump in with friends or play competitively through league play or play alone against the CPU to practice as you wish, though that’s not your only option if you want to fool around online. There’s also an Arcade where various alternate games exist, including tower defense, co-op versions of solo missions, team deathmatch games and all sorts of other crazy modifications, and you’ll likely find something worth playing here, as there are a fairly steady stream of new games popping up as well as solid games already there to play with.

The Collector’s Edition also comes with a few added novelties to make it worth considering over the standard release. You’re given a hard box that itself is actually attractively designed, featuring a tooth-style closure and a battle scarred exterior for a novel look. In addition to the game, you’re also given a Behind the Scenes DVD that shows information from the developers, the voice cast, Starcraft‘s rise as an ESports title and so on. You also get an eleven track soundtrack featuring the game’s music, a hard bound shrinkwrapped artbook with a reflective Kerrigan on the front, a beautiful mousepad, and two Starcraft II and World of Warcraft Guest Passes. Diehard Blizzard fans will also be pleased to know that the CE gives you three exclusive Starcraft II portraits for your profile, a pet Baneling for World of Warcraft and a sigil for Diablo III; seems to know the game is the CE from the product key, so I’d imagine this unlocks just by installing the expansion. As I don’t play World of Warcraft or Diablo III I couldn’t tell you definitively, but if that’s the selling point to bring you into the CE fold, you probably already have it in the first place.

The only obvious complaint one can express against Heart of the Swarm that bears any significance is that it still feels kind of silly to break the game up into a primary game and two expansions, especially when the current forecast is that the Protoss themed expansion may not even feature any new multiplayer elements. Essentially, if Heart of the Swarm stood on its own, that would be fine; the price point, forty dollars alone, eighty for the Collector’s Edition, is fine for a game running nearly three year old tech (as the game doesn’t look appreciably better than its predecessor), especially given that Wings of Liberty is the same price. However, Heart of the Swarm is an expansion, and a forty dollar one at that, meaning that it requires Wings of Liberty and assets contained therein… and you have to ask, why? As an expansion it reuses half of the assets from the original game (the campaign directory is half the size of that of Wings of Liberty) and its multiplayer assets could have been patched in for less than a gig of space. This could have been handled in a fashion that doesn’t leave the game taking up fourteen gigs of space, is the point here, and it seems silly that both pieces are forty dollars each at this point when the expansion is reusing half of the content from the original. It’s also unfortunate that the game heavily limits your options to fool around with the game when not online, as you’re essentially limited to the campaign if not connected to, which is understandable, certainly, but not entirely desirable.

On the other hand, the online actually seems to work fully from day one, so it’s not like you could ask for much else in this day and age, really.

The point being, Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is largely a strong entry in the genre and the series, and the fact that all of the complaints that can be levied against it are generally minor ones on their own, let alone in comparison to how strong the expansion is, says a lot. The game plot is quite strong, developing the characters of Sarah Kerrigan and Jim Raynor nicely while also explaining the events in a way that makes sense (regardless of how desirable they are), the game is still technically proficient and artistically interesting, and the audio presentation is stellar overall. The gameplay is as simple or as complex as you can handle, offering simple mouse controls and involved hotkeys depending on your skill level, and everything generally performs nicely. There’s a solid amount of content here, between the expansion campaign, added units for online play, and fully viable online and offline options outside of the campaign, so you’ve got plenty of toys to play with out of the box. The Collector’s Edition also comes with a lot of fun novelties for the fans, whether you’re only a Starcraft fan or a Blizzard fan in general. The metaplot is godawful, unfortunately (and only promises to become worse as it goes), the game needs a beefy system to handle larger games, the expansion itself could have arguably been better as a stand-alone product or could have been integrated with the main content better, and the offline options are underwhelming when not connected to Overall, though, the bad is far and away stomped out by the good, and if you have Wings of Liberty kicking around, Heart of the Swarm is a damn fine addition to pick up, whether you’re an online pro or complete cannon fodder, as you’ll still find something fun to do either way.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a strong expansion to 2010’s Wings of Liberty, thanks to a strong campaign and some solid additions to the online play, and while it’s certainly not perfect, it’s good enough that this doesn’t really matter. The core plot is pretty well written and should be fun for those who want to see more of Kerrigan, Raynor and the Zerg in general, the game looks as good as ever, and the audio is basically amazing, as always. The game is as mechanically varied as its predecessors, allowing you mouse controls and hotkeys to cater to both new and skilled players, and the game generally performs well and is intuitive to play all in all. There’s a decent amount of content to the expansion, between the lengthy campaign, the addition of new units for online play, and a wide variety of online and offline options to work with even outside of the basic multiplayer and campaign, so you’ll have a lot to do here. The Collector’s Edition also offers some interesting novelties for fans of Starcraft or the work of Blizzard in general, and it makes a fairly compelling argument to own it even with the extra cost. On the other hand, the metaplot of the series is basically uninteresting and obvious at this point, with no indication of improving as time goes on, the game requires some significant system specs to handle larger online battles, the expansion could have been better integrated with the main game or made into a stand-alone release and been better for it, and your play options when not connected to are unfortunately limited. Honestly, though, the good far, FAR outweighs what little bad exists here, as Heart of the Swarm is a solid, well designed, well executed expansion that has lots to offer to newcomers, works out of the box, and features a community that honestly seems somewhat welcoming, so whether you’re a casual or diehard genre or franchise fan, you’ll find lots to love here.



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