Review: Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Single Player (PC)

Finally, after overcoming the plague(well, a flu), I have managed to complete the Heart of the Swarm Campaign. Heart of the Swarm is Starcraft II’s first expansion, and begins shortly after the completion of Wings of Liberty. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to assume people have played the original game since… if you’re interested in an expansion, usually you’ve played the core game. Whereas the first campaign featured the Terran race(with a few Protoss sidemissions), the Heart of the Swarm campaign is 100% Zerg. All Zerg, all the time, although in a few missions you do get to work alongside Terrans.

For The Swarm

Heart of the Swarm’s campaign is a healthy 20 missions in length, with 7 short evolution missions to bolster it a bit. While I was a bit worried that the decision to shorten the campaign would leave it feeling too short, I was pleasantly surprised to find that was not the case. Twenty missions felt like a perfect length for this campaign, and it managed to keep the pacing good throughout, with each mission feeling like it actually progressed the story of the Zerg and, more importantly, Kerrigan’s personality and identity.

In terms of the content of the missions, variety was certainly the name of the game… well, either variety or ‘essence’ but we’ll ignore that for now. Each mission offered a new style, with distinct objectives and options. Some of the most interesting were a mission that played out sort of like an Action RPG with mini-bosses leading up to a climactic final boss fight where you controlled Kerrigan and only a small force, a mission where you had to destroy a platform alongside waves of infested Terrans as they continually gassed it, and a mission where you controlled the Hyperion and had to take key objectives alongside waves of cpu-controlled space fighters. They even had a mission where you saw two key lore characters going all Dragonball Z on each other with the energy waves fighting for control. All of which were, needless to say, incredibly interesting. Quite possibly the most clever and interesting mission design I’ve ever seen in an RTS.

A Sense of Accomplishment

There are a very good variety of achievements, with 3 in each mission, to help prolong your game and have you thinking about alternate ways to tackle a given situation in subsequent playthroughs. There are also a series of achievements pertaining to Kerrigan herself which will have you exploring each of her varied abilities. Unfortunately, a few of these achievements appear to be bugged in the current version of the game, which can leave people frustrated if they aren’t aware of it. Blizzard is usually pretty good at fixing these kinds of bugs though, so I doubt they’ll be around for long.

The difficulty of the campaign will be a sore note with some, as even on its highest setting(Brutal) it fails to offer much of a challenge, and I was able to get over half of the mission-related achievements on the brutal difficulty without even really trying very hard – much easier than the Wings of Liberty campaign was on Brutal. That being said, due to the quality and variety of the missions, I was never really left feeling as though this was a detriment.

Cowboys in Space

The story is a rather controversial topic right now, with people talking about how corny it was and such. But I think people had mistaken expectations, Starcraft isn’t meant to be literary gold. It is supposed to be a little corny, it’s supposed to be a little cheesy. That’s what makes it so entertaining. I think that, overall, the conversations and dialog hit a perfect ‘Starcraft’ note here with the vast majority of the dialog. There were, unfortunately, a few conversations among the Terrans involved that felt a little stilted or forced, most notably in the first mission which was kind of painful to listen to.

But once you get into the alien races, especially the conversation between the various Zerg creatures Kerrigan interacts with, the conversation becomes both hilarious and feels quite natural… or as natural as the Zerg are meant to feel. Abathur and Izsha in particular hit dramatically distinct notes that are both fascinating and truly Zerg-y. The efficient and broken-English-style delivery of Abathur is just grating enough to get across the awkwardness of dealing with him while the childlike and ‘innocent’ Izsha allows for Kerrigan to actually explain certain things that are happening without it coming across in the wrong way. The one thing to watch out for is the word ‘essence’ – prepare yourself, by the end of this campaign you will hate that word. It is overused to an extreme extent.

Explosions of Sight and Sound

Finally, we get onto the presentation… this game is a masterpiece. The visuals for the between-mission sequences are incredible, the improvements to the physics are fantastic and make the game that much more engrossing, and the cinematics are gorgeous. The voicework is as well done as ever, with the voices from WoL returning – including the ever-iconic Robert Clotworthy as everyone’s favourite cowboy Jim Raynor and James Harper as the menacing and egomaniacal Arcturus Mengsk. But most noteworthy, for me at least, was the evolution of Kerrigan over the course of this campaign. Tricia Helfer did a truly fantastic job of portraying all aspects of the renewed Sarah Kerrigan, providing depth and meaning to her gradual progression from what we see at the start of the campaign to her lines in the final cinematic. The change is tangible, believable, and gradual – and aside from one or two minor ‘dips’ that feel slightly out-of-place – truly an achievement to be proud of. Last, but certainly not least… the soundtrack is amazing from start to finish – I cannot think of a highlight but that is simply because every single track is so well done that it’s hard for any one of them to stand out against the others. What else do you expect from the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra though? They do good work.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of interesting threads of side stories left untold in this game’s wake, which isn’t unexpected since it is mostly about Kerrigan, but this leaves Blizzard with an interesting opportunity and one I sincerely hope they capitalize on. Nothing would make me happier than to see small little mini-campaigns(2-3 missions) telling some of these side stories released helping to give us a bit further buildup to Legacy of the Void. These wouldn’t have fit in the core of Heart of the Swarm since they’re largely unrelated to the overarching goal of developing Kerrigan into what she must be, but they would be fantastic as either miniature dlc or patch updates down the line – and I would truly love to see these stories told in a playable format.

Overall

I think that, much like Wings of Liberty, expectations got too high as a result of the long wait. People let themselves expect something that just wasn’t realistic for the genre. They expected something beyond perfection. And even ‘mere’ perfection is unattainable… so a lot of people are feeling a pang of disappointment. Fortunately, after years as a gamer, I’ve realized to try not to let expectations get too high, even when something has a long buildup. As a result, I was blown away by Heart of the Swarm. The characters and writing were some of the best I’ve seen in an RTS – and miles ahead of what previous entries into the series contained, the presentation was beyond my wildest dreams – it’s truly amazing what an improvement to the physics engine and some upgraded tilesets and animations can do for the way a rts looks. But more important than anything, I have to say the mission design was of an unparalleled quality, if it wasn’t for me getting the flu I can say with all honesty I wouldn’t have put the game down until I finished and you’d have been reading this 3 days ago.

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