After a three-year wait Starcraft II’s new Heart of the Swarm expansion has officially launched its invasion on humanity. The expansion, which includes so much content that it almost deserves the title of sequel, has players taking the reins of the Zerg swarm and continues the story where the original campaign left off.
On the campaign trail
In the Heart of the Swarm (HoTS) campaign players take control of Sarah Kerrigan, freshly purged of most of her Zerg influence. Imprisoned in a Terran research centre, the Queen of Blades seems all but stripped of her former glory, her control of the swarm shattered.
Kerrigan however is no damsel in distress, and as the story unfolds we learn to control her psionic abilities with deadly efficiency.
In the HoTS campaign, missions are presented in wildly varying ways. In some the player controls Kerrigan and a small band of troops, while in others you are able to harness entire Zerg hives, fielding hundreds of ravenous Zerg to overrun the enemy.
This variation keeps the action from becoming stale, with each mission requiring players to utilise increasingly complex Zerg mechanics and units in order to achieve victory. One striking difference between the HoTS campaign and its predecessor is that from the very first mission there is a greater focus on macro mechanics (building lots of bases and units). Even the tutorial mission sees players spawning and commanding hundreds of Zerglings.
In addition players have access to the evolution pit, a Zerg laboratory of sorts where new strains of Zerg creatures can be evolved. Throughout the campaign you gain access to a number of new and old units, as well as being able to create terrifying new strains such as cliff leaping Zerglings and parasitic Roaches.
In between missions players are treated to beautiful cutscenes, both cinematic and in-game. You can also converse with key characters aboard the Zerg leviathan (Kerrigan’s capital ship and base of operations), to flesh out some of the finer points of Starcraft II’s lore. Kerrigan herself can also be upgraded in the Queen’s quarters, with players able to customise the Queen of Blades with a large number of spells and abilities.
It warrants mention that the sheer quality of the narrative in HoTS makes for a truly movie-like experience while playing. If you like a good story, HoTS is definitely going to make your day.
Forge the Swarm into vicious killing machines with a variety of evolutionary upgrades.
Once players have completed the single player campaign, the game is far from over. As always, Starcraft II’s real strength makes itself felt in the online multiplayer compartment. Battle.net, Blizzard’s online matchmaking service has received a number of big updates over the past few months in preparation for the game, and they definitely show.
In addition to adding new modes such as a tutor-driven trainer for newcomers, the service now also sports group and clan support and private chat channels. Significantly, the new ‘resume from replay’ feature will allow players to jump into a recorded game and take direct control of any players’ forces. This means players can resume dropped games, as well as jump into the shoes of any of their favourite Starcraft II players simply by loading a replay.
Earning experience in-game has also been added, and players will be able to level up their profiles when enough is accumulated. Earning these experience points unlocks new character portraits, colour schemes, decals and even custom unit and building skins.
Perhaps the biggest change in the new Battle.net, however, is the addition of global play. In the past, players could only compete on servers within the region where they bought the game, meaning South African players did battle on the European servers. So if for example you wanted to play a game with your Australian friend, he or she would have to buy an EU license first and vice versa. With the launch of HoTS though all players, whether they bought the expansion or not, can access servers from around the globe.
This means you can now play with your local friends on the EU servers, then have a match with your Canadian or Australian friend on their servers, and if you’re feeling especially brave you can even try your luck at taking down one of the notoriously skilled Koreans.
A new leveling and reward system will keep you coming back for more.
As far as gameplay is concerned a plethora of changes has been introduced, from new counters telling players how many workers are needed to optimally harvest a certain base, to new hotkeys and of course terrifying new units.
The Zerg have access to two new units, the Swarm Host and the Viper. The former being a large burrowing unit that spawns a constant stream of attackers, with the latter being a spell casting flyer employing several abilities to gain the tactical advantage on the battlefield.
The Terrans can now morph their Helions into Hellbats, giving the fragile vehicles a significant armour and AOE boost while lowering their mobility and speed. Terrans can also construct the vicious Widow mine, a robotic unit which burrows into the ground and launches a devastating missile attack once any unit strays too close. Used for both offense and defence, these robotic destroyers have already caused much havoc (and consternation) on the ladders.
And last but not least, the Protoss gain two new flier units, the Oracle and the Tempest. Oracles are fast fliers whose purpose is to harass the enemy base. Not very powerful in a straight-on fight, these units are best at employing guerrilla tactics; darting behind an undefended mineral line and pulverising workers before quickly retreating again. The second new Protoss unit is almost the exact opposite, being a massive flying unit sporting the longest range in the game. Tempests are slow and expensive, but extremely useful at siege warfare.
Take your army online and wage war using terrifying new units and abilities.
From these changes it’s clear that Blizzard wants players to focus on utilising their armies in new ways. In Wings of Liberty (WoL), Terran players focussed almost exclusively on infantry production, the so-called MMM (Marine, Marauder, Medivac) strategy being the preferred unit composition. In HoTS though, a new emphasis is being placed on Terran mechanised units, giving players several new strategies to test out.
Similarly Protoss can be seen as being nudged into becoming an air-superiority force, with the new units aimed at decreasing Protoss players’ dependency on Gateways and Robotics Facilities while gaining a fast harassing unit at the same unit, something which the Protoss sorely lacked.
Finally the Zerg changes sees less weight being placed on mass Infestor strategies, with the Swarm Host in conjunction with the existing Broodlord allowing Zerg players to effectively contain their enemies for the first time. The Viper also gives players a new weapon to use against powerful enemy units such as Colossi or Siege tanks, pulling them out of emplaced positions and restricting their range with noxious clouds.
Playing the villain has never felt this good.
Starcraft II (review) launched almost three years ago, and in that time the notoriously tricky strategy game has evolved into the most popular RTS title on the planet. The game has been continually refined and updated by the technical wizards at Blizzard, and massive tournaments have been held around the globe.
The biggest issue that players have with the new expansion is the simple fact that they have to buy it, but take our word for it, HoTS is no cheap add-on. The campaign, complete with Blizzard’s gorgeous cinematics and gripping storyline, definitely operates on a playing field of its own.
So if you haven’t logged onto Starcraft II for a while, or are wondering whether or not the expansion is worthwhile, do yourself a favour and check out the new Battle.net. The new changes (available to WoL players as well) will surely help whet your appetite for getting back into the saddle.
Pros: A mind-boggling number of changes and updates makes Starcraft II feel like a whole new game.
Cons: Requires Wings of Liberty to play.
Verdict: With crisp storytelling, brutal multiplayer and a devoted fanbase, all signs are pointing to Starcraft II having a very bright future.
Go forth and slay all who oppose you, for you are numberless, you are the Swarm.