When StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty first came out after about 12 whole years since the release of StarCraft: Brood War, the franchise had become a legend in the real time strategy genre. So new game gained a lot of praise and acclaim at first. The campaign had a lot of new features and refreshing elements, and the story was alright. However, with those 12 years, the tastes of gamers had changed as well, so it was a challenge for Blizzard to satisfy the hardcore fans. With Heart of the Swarm, plenty of features that had been requested have been implemented.
This expansion features a new user interface design that has been redone from scratch, giving a more aesthetically pleasing and more functional experience, heeding requests that fans had been looking forward to since the release of Wings of Liberty. Aside from rearranged menu items, the chat has been expanded to make interaction within Battle.net 2.0 much better. There is the new clan and group features that let you join a group for more community interaction and a clan for better team integration and to foster a better in-game environment for training.
There is now an experience system for your account, wherein you can level up for each race. The current level cap for each race is 30, and you get to unlock various things like new portraits, animations, decals, music, and so on as you level up. This gives incentive for players to try out other races and enrich their overall gameplay experience.
You can also track your performance through various statistics like your actions per minute (APM), how long you’ve been supply capped, how long you have not made a unit, your average unspent resources, and so on. This helps you improve your macromanagement and improve your overall game. This, the unranked multiplayer, and the experience system helps greatly in conquering what StarCraft players like to call “ladder anxiety”.
With the singleplayer campaign, which is the backbone of the StarCraft franchise. The story continues from Wings of Liberty, wherein Jim Raynor and his Raiders had stormed the planet Char for a final assault against the Zerg, led by the malevolent Queen of Blades. With the help of a mysterious and powerful artifact, she was somehow made human again, but still retaining a bit of her Zerg powers. That kind of ending already raises eyebrows, and those who are familiar with Blizzard would start pointing fingers at Chris Metzen. However, it does deepen in this expansion as players learn more about the characters who are behind the bigger picture.
The centerpiece of the campaign is Kerrigan herself, who has a ton of abilities that you can choose from later on, which become unlocked as she levels up. You can raise her level by accomplishing side objectives in every mission. Also, if ever she dies, she respawns from your primary hatchery, so there’s less worry about keeping her alive and more about destroying everything in her path. She is pretty strong on her own and does have various abilities that raise her survivability, so you do have a say in that anyway.
There are also the various Zerg units that you can play around with, complete with their own abilities and various ways to improve them. In the campaign, you have the Evolution Pit, wherein the character Abathur resides, who draws some comparisons to Mordin Solus of Mass Effect with their similar interests in genetic modifications and their similar speech patterns. Abathur has a slower and more bariton voice though, and he serves as the one who improves your forces with Mutations and Evolution Strains. Each Zerg unit has their own mutations, which upgrade specific traits like attack damage, movement speed, and so on, like how you can choose between Adrenal Overload or Metabolic Boost for Zerglings. Then, you can improve them even further through evolution.
The unit evolutions are basically two strains for each unit, each giving unique abilities to it. However, you have to choose one for the rest of the campaign. For example, the Zergling can become either the Raptor, which can jump up and down cliffs, or the Swarmling, which spawns in a second in threes. Each have their advantages, which makes for some chin-rubbing when making a decision. However, you don’t get to just get the evolution strain of your choice without effort. You must first play an evolution mission, but it’s not just some side mission that wastes your time as it lets you test out each strain in battlefield conditions to help you make your choice.
This is like the armory and research console in Wings of Liberty campaign, but even more restricted. However, their effectiveness in battle can also be felt quickly upon use. As you get more specialized units when you progress through the campaign, combined with your chosen abilities for Kerrigan, you can power through the campaign specifically to your style of play.
The Zerg does play differently in the singleplayer compared to the multiplayer. The hatcheries yield more than 3 larvae each on their own, and the queen doesn’t do larva injects. It resembles more of the Zerg from Brood War, in a sense. Also, you can play this on Casual and Normal difficulties with relative ease, especially if you pick the right strains and mutations for each unit. You can essentially gather up a large army, then attack-move them towards the enemy base while making more to reinforce them. Of course, micromanagement is still needed in non-building mission, and becomes more crucial in Hard and Brutal.
One thing that people must take note with StarCraft II is that there’s a whole niche industry and subculture behind this game, built upon what StarCraft: Brood War had first established. If we are to compare competitive games to athletic sports, then games like League of Legends, DOTA 2, and so on are like Football and Basketball; while StarCraft II is your Tennis, Boxing, or MMA. There are people whose livelihood involves being a pro player, organizer, team manager, or commentator in StarCraft II tournaments, so there’s no denying that people do like it a lot.
Heart of the Swarm has already shown that its multiplayer is more complex than that of Wings of Liberty with new units and various buffs and nerfs to existing ones, mostly resulting from the extensive beta testing prior to release. The difference seen when Brood War first came out that made vanilla StarCraft seem shallow and even foolish is most likely also true for this expansion to StarCraft II. Through this multiplayer, StarCraft II is likely to have a decade or more of worldwide fandom. For casual players, that doesn’t mean much other than being a trivia fact, especially with the whole “National Sports of South Korea” thing going on, although League of Legends is the top game in South Korea right now.
There are new ways for players to get more comfortable with the multiplayer, aside from the ranked ladder. There is unranked mode for those who either want to test their skills with a different race and are too scared to lose ladder points in the process or are just anxious about ranked ladder altogether. There are also many other features that have been implemented to make the gameplay experience much better compared to Wings of Liberty. The ongoing support for the game by Blizzard is exemplary, with constant patching to keep making things better.
There is also the new replay system, which adds two new major features to watching replays. First is being able to watch replays with other players, so that you can look at a game together and analyze with greater ease. The second feature is the Take Command feature, with lets you and another player continue a game from any part of a replay, which rectifies game disconnects and lets players try out different strategies from a particular game. This gives competitive players an even greater edge to improve their game.
As an expansion, Heart of the Swarm has shown how much it has changed the game for both casual and hardcore fans of StarCraft II. The title has been well-received by the SC2 community, and the game saw a worldwide launch event in various parts of the globe, including Korea, France, Australia, and at the Blizzard headquarters in Irvine, California. The event was streamed in TwitchTV, with well over 100 thousand concurrent viewers tuning in. Few games can ever boast such a spectacle on such a large scale.
The singleplayer campaign can be finished in about 12 hours, with achievements and other features that help with its replay value. There is still custom games and the StarCraft Arcade to hold you over as well in case you’re not the competitive type of player who could grind out 1v1 and team ladder games. Heart of the Swarm does need you to already own Wings of Liberty, but the way it boosts the original title is such that it’s well worth the $40 you’ll be spending for it.
Besides, it’s not like you have to replace it after only a year like some other games.
Tested in PC. Final Score: 9/10