When you think of a typical Starcraft player, you think of someone with intense, robotic focus, endlessly clacking away at their keyboards with super human speed and accuracy as they wage war across the digital battlefield. They know at what exact second they’ll have exactly enough minerals to construct the particular building that they would require at that precise moment, as they had it planned out three minutes ago. They thrive to push their APM higher and higher in order to demonstrate full battlefield control, exerting pressure at the right choke point while sacrificing some units to draw attention away from their actual goal. I am not one of those players. I play Starcraft because I like the story. This is not the most popular stance to take, but I can’t mentally take the stresses of Battle.net. Believe me I’ve tried, and in the hours I’ve dedicated to playing, I’ve learned one thing, I’m just not that good. (Warning, spoilers ahead for both the Wings of Liberty campaign and Heart of the Swarm, you’ve been warned.)
What does keep me coming back to this series however is the story, and in their latest offering, Heart of the Swarm, felt a little lacking in that department. The main thrust of the story sees Sarah Kerrigan, no longer the Queen of Blades, returned to human form as the result of the Xel’Naga artifact Jim Raynor discovered and used at the end of Wings of Liberty. Now a prisoner to prince Valerian Mengsk, she begins the story as a research subject, Valerian attempting to use her to control the Zerg to his own ends. Soon, Arcturus Mengsk shows on his campaign to destroy Kerrigan, Jim is captured in the escape and he becomes the motivation Kerrigan needs to rebuild. It feels incredibly old hat and stale, but the overarching story only serves to deliver some memorable side characters and world building that hopefully pays off in the upcoming Legacy of the Void.
The overall mission structure is similar to that of Wings of Liberty, however this time around it feels slightly more restrictive in regard to narrative choice. You’re more or less selecting an order of missions rather than a branching path. At any one point you have a selection of one to three different planets, each with their own set of missions to take part in. Once you select one, you’re locked in for all the missions that planet offers. The missions themselves are quite varied and rewarding in and of themselves, keeping things fresh and new all along the way. There’s even a small Terran side quest in which you control the Hyperion Battlecrusier alone in a few skirmishes in space. These a-typical type of missions are peppered throughout the story and help to keep things fresh. Completing missions will give you rewards in way of new units, new possible upgrades of units and leveling Kerrigan herself as a hero unit. Much like Wings of Liberty Kerrigan levels throughout the story giving you access to new abilities and traits that will greatly change how she performs on the battlefield. I found myself constantly changing up her skills to try new combinations of abilities just to see how they could work together. My only gripe is that there aren’t enough missions once you maximize her level to really find out which of her top tier abilities you like best, you get a chance to try each once, and maybe only keep one for a few more missions, which is a pity. Just like Wings of Liberty you are given the chance to permanently modify your units throughout the campaign to create a custom set of warriors to use throughout the campaign. Where in Wings of Liberty it felt like ordering out of a catalog, Heart of the Swarm makes it feel much more organic. You’ll be periodically presented with evolution missions, hyper specialized mini-missions which highlight two options for the given unit. At the end you’re given the choice between the two and discarding the other permanently. A small touch, but much deserved as it lets you experiment with differing strategies before making a final selection, a feature I’d love to see carried over into Legacy of the Void. At the end you feel like you have an army that best suits your own play style, one that will better enable you to wage war and topple Arcturus.
Missions usually took between ten and thirty minutes, but I found it difficult to put it down in the middle of running through an entire planet. I had played through on the Normal difficulty and never really ran into a difficult challenge. There were a few hairy moments, but nothing that just balling up all of my units and throwing them at the enemy wouldn’t fix. The sense of scale during these battles was impressive as well, and they capture the feeling of controlling The Swarm fantastically. Once you have a group of one hundred or more units you do feel as though nothing can stop you, and on Normal that certainly is true, just don’t expect the AI in the campaign to put up much of a fight.
Heart of the Swarm feels like a narrative lull in the greater story that is the Starcraft II saga. It feels as though Blizzard is stalling in order to get certain characters into positions that are needed for the conclusion that are at odds with where they ended up at the conclusion of Wings of Liberty. At its core it’s still a Starcraft game and is incredibly fun to play. I found myself awake and much later hours than I am usually just to play “one more level”. As a package it felt somewhat short, but at the current price of $20 I can’t complain. If you’re one for the multiplayer aspect, that’s an extremely attractive price for one of the best strategy games around. I’ll admit I dabble against the AI, and it’s just as rewarding to swarm them in multiplayer arenas as it is in the single player campaign. If you’re a fan of the genre, pick up Heart of the Swarm, there’s a ton to like here, and if you’re on the fence about RTS in general, I’d still recommend it for the single player alone, it could serve as a good introduction to the genre.