on 13 March 2013
HOTS is the second installment of Starcraft II that focuses on the Zerg story as opposed to the Terran story in SCII. Without dwelling on it for too long, the installation of the game seemed a bit strange, with it seeming to install both from the DVD and as a download simultaneously for me. I have read on other forums that for some people, it downloads the game in its entirety and completely bypassed the DVD altogether, which makes you wonder why they didn't just release it as a digit download only. Anyway, regardless of how you get it on to your hard drive, it's certainly worth the wait.
The 1 player Zerg story is every bit as good as the original. In a nutshell, the story begins at the end of SC2 - Sarah Kerrigan aka Queen of Blades has been captured and continues to enjoy wearing her orange Zerg contact lenses from time to time. The woman is also in desperate need of anti-psychotic medication to treat those anger outbursts that usually results in a burst of psychic energy followed by pain and death of those around her. Emperor Minsk is still that evil dude running the show and Jim Raynor continues to look in desperate need of a shower. Needless to say Kerrigan doesn't stay locked up for long, and the game plays out like a Rentokil nightmare as you build and increase the strength of the Zerg swarm. Kerrigan is playable as a "hero" unit that stronger during the game as you upgrade her abilities. In the 1 player missions, she can be "killed" but is quickly respawned from the hatchery so no lasting damage there. In addition, you can improve Zerg units during the course of the game, increasing speed of units, increase health etc. One thing that impressed me is that the graphics looked better, and the game feels smoother, yet the specs required to play the game are the same as SC2.
There are a variety of new units for multiplayer for the different races. I won't go into detail on those here, there are plenty of other places online that describe it better than I could. Needless to say this will undoubtedly make the game more strategic than it already is.
The only potential criticism is that those familiar with playing as Zerg from SC2 will likely find many of the early missions tedious as these act more as a tutorial on playing with that race. Actually that suited me, because I never got to grips massively with them in SC2 so I found it pretty useful. If you are a pro with Zerg, just enjoy the really good graphics! I previously wrote that an additional criticism was the fact that you needed a constant internet connection to play the game (as stated on the box as a minimum game requirement). As a gentleman helpfully highlighted in the comments, this is not true. You don't need a constant internet connection to play the one player campaign, but any achievements you get will not be saved to your Starcraft account.
Although I've read criticisms about the price considering this is an "expansion", I actually think the game is reasonably priced given the length of the one player story and the additional multiplayer units. It's clear a lot of work went into this game. I should also note that a previous review have said they had problems connecting to Blizzard's servers. I have had no such issues so I would put that down to the first day rush of people logging on. Is it acceptable? Not really. Was it likely they would have problems? After the shambolic Diablo 3 launch by Blizzard it seemed highly likely. Whatever the issues it seems to be sorted now though.
Overall, if you were fan of SC2 and found the story engaging this is a fantastic expansion that is just as gripping as SC2. There are plenty of cinematic cut scenes that look sensational, as well as the smaller cut scenes that help the story along. The improved graphics and smoothness of the gameplay are also impressive. For those of you more interested in the multiplayer side of things, the new units for the factions do spice things up. I look forward to the final expansion with the Protoss called Legacy of the Void. Game director Dustin Browder has said "we will certainly do our best to reduce the time between expansions" so I expect this final installment will be released around 2025. Until then, I would say any fan of SCII should add this expansion. Great fun.
The dreaded Queen of Blades, the leader of the Zerg, is no more. Sarah Kerrigan has been freed from the Swarm and is now human once again...but consumed by the need to avenge herself on Arcturus Mengsk, Emperor of the Terran Dominion, the man who betrayed her and left her for dead. When Mengsk's troops raid the facility Kerrigan is recuperating in, she finds herself alone and without any allies. Kerrigan needs an army to bring down her enemy and the leaderless Zerg Swarms may be the key to victory, if she can resist becoming part of the Swarm once more.
Heart of the Swarm is the rather tardy second instalment of the StarCraft II series of games, arriving an eyebrow-raising three years after its predecessor, Wings of Liberty. Considering the game uses the exact same engine as its predecessor (some minor upgrades aside) and apparently follows a story arc laid down by the guys at Blizzard almost a decade ago, the reason for the delay initially appears puzzling. The answer, of course, lies in the franchise's multiplayer angle. Blizzard have introduced new units with this expansion and have spent months and months painstakingly testing every iteration of the changes, dumping some new units and bringing in others, to make sure they don't upset the multiplayer balance. Given that StarCraft II's multiplayer scene is worth millions of dollars, this is unsurprising, but it does leave those of us primarily interested in the game's single-player storyline hanging in the wind for quite a long time.
Still, the game is here, and to a certain degree it's StarCraft as normal. You have a base, you collect resources, you build units and you fight the enemy for territory (control of additional resources areas where you can establish secondary bases) and ultimately try to destroy them. The gameplay is held together by a storyline, in this case one about vengeance and evolution. Kerrigan is out to kill Mengsk and end a feud between the two that began fifteen years ago in the original StarCraft. Blizzard cleverly raise this story - a subplot in the overall scheme of things - to prominence in Heart of the Swarm and push the big-picture storyline about the return of the alien Xel'Naga firmly into the background for the next game to worry about. Giving Heart of the Swarm its own direction and a storyline that does come to a definitive conclusion helps it avoid the 'middle title' syndrome that trilogies often suffer from. Heart of the Swarm also feels like it might be treading over the same ground as the original title's Brood War expansion, which also focused on Kerrigan uniting the Swarm under her control. Heart of the Swarm contextualises this in a different way, however, to avoid repeating concepts already visited in the series.
The campaign structure is quite interesting. There are five sub-campaigns, four of them taking place on planets and a fifth in deep space, each consisting of several missions. Between missions Kerrigan is based on board her spacecraft, a Zerg Leviathan (replacing the Terran battlecruiser Hyperion from Wings of Liberty), and can seek advice from her underlings, upgrade units and enhance her own powers and abilities through a levelling system. The unit-upgrade section is the most amusing, as Zerg mutation specialist Abathur (the Zerg equivalent of a slightly befuddled scientist) portentously reveals how he's going to improve the Zerg species, usually provoking a sarcastic response from Kerrigan. Given that the Zerg are the most alien and weirdest of StarCraft's three races, Blizzard draw a nice line here between making sure they stay that way whilst also humanising them enough to give them identifiable personalities. The surprise reappearance of a previous major character thought dead also helps give the game some more identifiable personalities.
The writing is as dreadfully cheesy as it was in Wings of Liberty, although the theme of a need for vengeance so powerful it overcomes one's humanity is a bit more interesting than the muddled and overlong campaign of the previous game. Heart of the Swarm is significantly shorter in terms of proper missions than its predecessor (clocking in at 20 compared to 29, almost a third shorter) but makes up for the shortfall with optional training missions showing how potential Zerg mutations will be used on the battlefield. Though entertaining, these mini-missions do feel like an attempt to pad out the length to make players feel they are getting their money's worth, and none will take longer than five minutes to complete.
On the battlefield, things are similar to Wings of Liberty. As with Liberty, the game tries to avoid too many build base-build army-kill everything missions, instead peppering some more creative objectives into the game. This is helped by the deployment of Kerrigan herself, a powerful unit with numerous powers (which are upgraded throughout the game). Kerrigan can turn the tide of a battle single-handed, but can't win everything by herself, so deploying additional troops is always necessary. Heart of the Swarm avoids the dull slog some of Wings of Liberty's missions descended into, but sometimes goes too far the other way by making things too much of a walkover. Certainly Swarm benefits from occasionally being whacked up to 'hard' mode on occasion.
On the minus side, there is obviously going to be another long wait for the conclusion of the story in Legacy of the Void, and certainly in the UK the pricing of this expansion set is off-putting: £30 - the cost of a full-price, complete game - for an expansion with a third less content than the previous game? Heart of the Swarm does just about justify it through monumental production values, a decent length (about 10-11 hours in total) and a more entertaining campaign than Wings of Liberty, not to mention the multiplayer enhancements. Also on the minus side, though for an expansion much less of an issue, the game has still resolutely failed to take on board any of the major RTS innovations of the last fifteen years. Proper 3D line of sight, cover and destructible scenery and battlefields are still nowhere to be seen, and the camera is still suspended uncomfortably close to your units and the battlefield even on the higher resolutions. Given that Wings of Liberty was looking outdated in 2010, Heart of the Swarm is looking positively geriatric in the impending face of Company of Heroes 2 and Total War: Rome 2. For fans of the franchise, however, this will no matter one whit.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (****½) is ultimately a more satisfying and enjoyable game than Wings of Liberty. The writing is still poor on an individual level, but the story is more focused and has a definitive and satisfying ending, compared to Wings of Liberty's cliffhanger. The result is a game that improves on its forebear and makes for a satisfying addition to the franchise, though one that not likely to win over anyone not already a fan.
on 20 April 2013
I enjoyed the first part (Wings of Liberty), and was looking forward to the expansion. Really like this game - note that I play campaign only, and am no expert.
* Loved the story - thought the cinematics told an interesting story
* Engaging gameplay - like the way the Zerg play different tactics to the Terrans
* Good graphics & controls are easy to learn (though not to master)
No so good:
* Normal setting was too easy, I'm no expert but finished most missions first time
* Too easy to adapt a 'select all' .. 'attack!' gameplay style. I didn't bother with the more complex units except in missions when they were required, usually all you need is a zergling rush - which is fine, but I would have liked more challenge.
* Graphics are a bit glitchy - sometimes need to Alt-Tab away & back to recover display (quite rare)
Anyway, now I get to play through on a higher difficulty - and might even try some multi-player. Now where's the next episode!