Modern day RTS (real time strategy) games live dual lives – on one hand they are a central pillar of the e-sports community, the Starcraft franchise easily one of the most prominent thanks to a devoted following in Korea. On the other hand, they feature quirky, often exceptionally clichéd campaigns focusing on outlandish characters in soap-opera situations. Once again Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm leads the pack with Blizzard’s trademark blend of armchair tactics and movie quality cinematics. Continuing on the story started in Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm changes perspective to Sarah Kerrigan, once leader of the Zerg forces and previously known as the Queen of Blades. A change of character also sees a shift in the forces under the player’s control – what was once the cold, military efficiency of Jim Raynor’s rebel army is replaced by the slimy tentacles and oozing pustules of the Zerg. Over twenty-seven missions you’ll control a force so iconic that the term ‘Zerg rush’ has entered the general gaming lexicon, only this time you’ll be the one initiating the Swarm.
First things first: this is an expansion. You’re going to need Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty to actually access Heart of the Swarm. Given the critical acclaim garnered by Blizzard’s original sequel this shouldn’t be too difficult a decision to make and it’s one that eases you into the Starcraft method of RTS gameplay. Construct a base, create units based on the task at hand, wipe out the enemy. If you’re familiar with these tenets then you’ll do fine when controlling the slimy masses. The Zerg are an aesthetically unappealing bunch – wherever they spawn a rotten pool of black slime called the Creep blossoms, recalling War of the Worlds’ putrid Red Weed. Any command structures resemble tropical diseases left to fester for a month or two and the units themselves are an unlovable assortment of flailing tentacles and chitinous armour.
First impressions aren’t pleasant – controlling the Swarm initially feels less like commanding an army and more like toying with an ant farm. Given time the teeming masses become less alien and feel more cohesive, especially once specialised units are introduced. Once Ultralisks join the fray Kerrigan’s army becomes more than a ragtag band of slimy misfits – it becomes an organised, nigh unstoppable force. Despite their unlovable demeanour, Blizzard inject enough personality into the animation of every single unit that they soon become relatable. That the gross looking Zergling that’s gurning at you from the Evolution Pit (more on that later) has all the qualities of an Andrex puppy after a few successful missions is testament to the artistic touches applied.
As the focus of Heart of the Swarm, Kerrigan (Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer reprising her voice role) is tried, tested and her motives explored over the course of the campaign. Beginning where Wings of Liberty left off, with Kerrigan - reverted to human form - under lock and key, missions rapidly escalate with more than a few twists and turns to keep things interesting. If there’s one thing that undermines Blizzard’s jaw-dropping cutscenes it’s the trite dialogue. Any RTS with a story often falls back on B-movie influences – the Command and Conquer series revelled in the low-budget cheesiness of its live-action interludes – but Starcraft takes itself far too seriously. Kerrigan stands out amidst a cast of stereotypes who speak in predictable dialogue but even she isn’t immune to melodrama that’s been seen so many times before. The gameplay more than makes up for any dramatic shortcomings but it might be time for Blizzard to put as much effort into the script as it does the CGI.
Story aside, the missions form a compelling and varied campaign across disparate worlds. A high amount of detail can be found everywhere, from the smallest unit to the plains of battle themselves with each crystallising Blizzard’s recognisably chunky art style. A brief foray into space battles invigorates the middle part of the campaign, while other locations are too spoilerific to mention but equally as intriguing. Seven levels are dubbed ‘Evolution Missions’ and are more along the lines of tutorial missions. Cropping up periodically, these missions are optional but invaluable as they allow you to upgrade certain units with additional skills. With two evolutionary choices from which to select these missions are more like tutorials, but could quite easily have been served by the same video snippets that accompany any skill upgrades. It’s almost impossible to fail them as well, making the point clearer that they are more of a training tool than a full-fledged battle.
Kerrigan is a fully upgradeable hero-unit, with ‘Kerrigan Levels’ gathered through completion of main and secondary objectives during the campaign. The home menu, situated mostly aboard a Zerg Leviathan, features an assortment of clickable conversations that expand Zerg mythos and deepen the plot. The previously mentioned Evolution Pit allows the upgrade of specific units that can be changed at any time, while the Evolution Missions are a permanent binary choice that will encourage limited replayability to try out both options. Once through the campaign, however, it’s more likely that multiplayer will be the next step forward and rightly so, given the wealth of options on offer. Tweaks have seen seven new units added to the fray while three have been removed, with additional abilities and skills rebalanced, offering seasoned pros a new moveset to master. With little experience of RTS games the multiplayer can be overwhelming to begin with and it is definitely recommended to play the campaign beforehand, if only to lay the foundations needed for a chance to win. The matchmaking system has a canny knack of picking just the right opponents but it will still take a lot of practice to win your first game. Even so, commanding forces against a human mind is unbeatable and the Starcraft community are one of the more open to join. There’s little chance of a twelve-year-old screaming obscenities down a headset; instead you’re most likely to have a comparatively polite opponent, albeit one with significantly more talent at the game.
Evolution and the icky, squeamish process surrounding it seems to be the buzzword for Heart of the Swarm. Once you’ve recovered from the general unpleasant aesthetics of spewing pustules and writhing tentacles it’s very easy to engage with Kerrigan’s plight – her inner debate between humanity and the power of the Swarm. Jim Raynor was a little hard to sympathise with, perhaps because of his semi-gruff, goody-two-shoes nature. Playing as the ‘enemy’ has a distinct allure; wiping everything out on the map is tried-and-tested mission objective for once. There’s little care for civilians or protecting colonies – it’s about overwhelming your foe. Outside of the Total War franchise, Heart of the Swarm has to be one of the most populous RTS games – the insectoid Zerg are nothing if not creepy. Hundreds of them descending on a base resembles Starship Troopers on fast-forward – being the dominating force behind that power gives players a frisson of morbid enjoyment to this expansion.
Kerrigan’s journey is one that should not be missed, by seasoned players and newcomers alike. Quality pervades Heart of the Swarm like the creeping black tendrils that rot every world the Zerg invade. Fans of the series will appreciate the inverse look at one of the most ubiquitous enemies in gaming and, although the campaign could be seen as a mere precursor to multiplayer, both are infectiously inventive and addictive. Blizzard have excelled once again at combining drama, eye-opening art design and finely honed gameplay to create another unmissable experience. You’ll never look at a cockroach the same way again.