Review: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is an evolving love story

Never has the term “star-crossed lovers” fashioned itself quite so literally and figuratively, at the same time, as it does in StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. From colleagues, to guilty actions, to hated enemies, to desperate rescue missions, and finally to lovers – you can say Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan have a past. These two characters have been part of the core of StarCraft lore since the very beginning. The final scene from StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty — Jim is carrying the recently transformed human body of the Queen of Blades — sets up the start of Heart of the Swarm.

Back in 1998, I was only 14 the first time I took command of Raynor and Kerrigan. Blizzard's real-time strategy games were what I grew up on and what introduced me to the genre. Fifteen years later, their saga is still developing with a record breaking layer of complexity. In the most general, cryptic, non-spoiler plot synopsis of Heart of the Swarm: the Terran Dominion is on the rebel’s tail, sh*t goes down with Jim, and Kerrigan attempts to regain control of the Zerg swarm to fulfill her passionate revenge on Emperor Arcturus Mengsk.

As expected, you play the majority of the game as Sarah Kerrigan. The former Terran Ghost and Queen of Blades, returns to humanity after the Xel'naga artifact cleanses the Zerg world of Char. Now faced with transitions from Zerg to human, Kerrigan finds herself in a world that resents her for the millions she’s slaughtered while fighting the savage Zerg urges hidden inside of her mind. Not to mention Mengsk is doing everything in his power to see to it that Kerrigan’s revenge isn’t fulfilled.

Kerrigan Zergling

With all this said, the character of Sarah Kerrigan is strong. This deep into the StarCraft lore she has played the heroine, the villain, the damsel in distress, and now the protagonist/anti-heroine. Blizzard did an exquisite job with evolving her character throughout the game. Through the missions you get a sense of what she is dealing and her thought process for what she needs to do. Her motivation and drive is predictable, but that is also due to knowing her for 15 years. How she gets there isn’t exactly the way you may expect. During the cinematic scenes, her facial expressions tell the player everything that’s going on in that complex mind of hers. Even her choice of weaponry alters as the story develops. At the beginning of the game, when she is closest to being Terran, she uses the ghost sniper rifle. As she begins taking control of the Zerg she switches to psionic attacks.            

Gameplay with Kerrigan takes me back to a FAR more polished and advanced version of Warcraft 3 with influence from the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre. She serves as the ultimate and overpowered hero unit with four abilities (Q, W, E, and R). Throughout the campaign she will gain levels (maxing at 70) based of off completing missions and bonus missions – NOT from killing creatures. These levels unlock options of abilities that the player can give to her allowing customization. If you want her to have extra passive health and a stronger auto attack, you can do that. If you’d prefer Kerrigan to be more ability based with fast refreshing mana, you can set that up as well. The beauty of this system is that nothing is permanent. After every mission you can change this load out at no cost. Levels also gain her more passive health and damage.

The other customizable aspects of the game come from "Evolution Pit." Here rests my favorite new character, Abathur, and two customization options. After completing certain missions you’ll have the option to give some of your primary units one of three different bonuses. Like Kerrigan, these abilities can be changed after each mission. Throughout the campaign you will also unlock “Evolution Missions" — short, optional missions that present a way for you to specialize your units. You’ll be presented two options for some of your core units and be forced to permanently alter that unit. For example, with Zerglings you can give them the ability to scale cliffs and pounce at enemies or hatch nearly instantly with three Zerglings, rather than two. Once you choose this you can never change it; instant evolution is a harsh mistress.    

Zerg Gameplay

Level design is particularly appealing. Heart of the Swarm does a surprisingly stellar job of making each level unique. Each map isn’t just about raising an army from a hatchery and defeat X opponent. At times you’ll have to capture and hold points, command two different hero units that have to perform specific tasks, infiltrate ships, race against an opponent in tasks, and complete side missions to get bonuses. One mission that stood out to me was very Aliens like. You start as a parasite, take a host, build up biomass, grow into a brood mother, create Zerglings, and use the Zerglings to climb through vents to open doors for you — very intuitive. Just throwing this out there too, there are boss battles in the game.

As an expansion, you can expect to complete the campaign in 12-15 hours depending how involved you are in it; there are 27 total levels in the game and the constantly developing plot will keep you hooked throughout all of them.  While the story is entertaining, you really shouldn’t take the dialogue too seriously. After all, StarCraft 2 is a Blizzard game so you have to expect their sort of punny humor. This, of course, carries over to their achievements with names such as “Biomass Effect.” With various difficulty settings and level achievements, there is plenty of replay ability and score hunting.  

There are new units for each race, of which you'll need to find utility for and to learn to defend your base from, but there are a bunch of new features to make your multiplayer experience easier for beginners. Your workers will automatically start harvesting and the building attached to your workers will have a number above it to show optimized X / X type stats. An example would be, say, 8 / 12 workers at a Zerg hatchery. This tells you training four more drones would be more efficient. This number also exists above gas refineries so you know how many workers you’ve already sent there.    

Zerg Evolution Chamber

While these features are beginner friendly, they don’t necessarily prepare you for the multiplayer experience. The learning curve on an eSports game like StarCraft 2 is steep. Blizzard has added group replay viewing options, as well as a more customizable observer feature to watch matches. Ideally, the goal is to mimic that of professional sport tapes. The new “take control” feature allows you to take command of any team during a replay to see if you could have performed better or test how you would have responded in a pro type scenario. The ‘F2’ key will also select all of your non-workers for swarm and last ditch strategies. Other than that, the multiplayer is pretty similar to Wings of Liberty — which is not a bad thing at all.

I didn’t find much to complain about after finishing the campaign. I can’t remember the last time I played a game day 1 and didn’t come across any bugs or glitches; honestly, not one. People complain about how long it took for this expansion to be released, but for a product to be this polished is worth it. Diablo 3 still doesn’t have PvP and that is also a Blizzard title. If you’re a StarCraft nut, a Blizzard fan boy/girl, or just an overall eSport type play – StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is a must buy. Although it's technically labeled an expansion, the amount of quality content and technical polish is well deserving of the hefty price tag.

Wings of Liberty left off at a killer cliffhanger that I was personally dying to know the conclusion too. The whole Kerrigan arc has always been my favorite part of the StarCraft world and I got a huge spoonful of it with this expansion. While the game pretty much sets up the third Protoss installment, I don’t feel the same sense of urgency as I did with Heart of the Swarm campaign. Blizzard delivered everything I wanted for the Kerrigan installment though, so for now it’s all about the Zerg.