If you’re a fan of RTS games, chances are you’ve played StarCraft, or at least heard of it. The 2010 sequel Wings of Liberty has finally received its first expansion pack, Heart of the Swarm, and only two years behind schedule! Was it worth the wait? You betcha.
The single-player campaign is fantastic and well worth it even if you have no interest in multiplayer. While various elements of it are sure to spark controversy with fans, I feel Blizzard did a fantastic job of humanising Sarah Kerrigan who, all nostalgia-tinted glasses aside, has only really existed to be melodramatically evil up until this point. We also get a much deeper look into the zerg than we’ve ever had before, meaning that the game actually delivers on the promise that its name implies (unlike Wings of Liberty, wherein most of your army was on the ground, and the oppressive government regime was NOT overthrown).
The gameplay is much tighter than Wings, with each mission being unique and interesting without being overly gimmicky. However one can’t help but notice an abundance of “installation missions” – missions where you don’t actually have a base or an economy, and instead control a set amount of units – compared to the previous games. Some missions feel more like an RPG than an RTS.
But even that has a satisfying pay-off; see, as you progress through the story Kerrigan gets stronger and you can pick and choose new abilities that she gains; one particular mission near the end had me playing my Kerrigan, just as I’d designed her to be. It was incredibly satisfying having her tear armies to shreds with the abilities that I had given her.
The visuals are stunning, too, both during cut-scenes and just the game itself, everything feels more vibrant and dynamic than Wings.
The multiplayer has also received a whole bunch of upgrades. New units have been added to the terran, protoss and zerg races and pretty much all of them have significant aggressive potential, helping to shake up the somewhat stagnant no-rush 20 minute macro-fests that a lot of Wings matches tended to end up as. The balance still needs work here or there but that’s to be expected – it’s certainly a damn sight better than Wings was at its release.
In addition to the units, though, there are several new functions added to help tempt you into multiplayer. A practise mode has been added. The AI has been improved, and you can even set up custom games and tell the AI what kind of strategy to use, in order to help players practise against strategies they have trouble with online.
Also, Unranked play has been added. Unranked play is essentially just an online match against a human player as normal, but with absolutely no tracks of wins and losses, no points, no leagues, no nothing. It’s such a simple concept that looks superfluous at first glance but as many StarCraft players will tell you, the prospect of having a league, rank and win:loss ratio for all to see can be a very daunting one, and having a mode with a psychological safety net has already done wonders for the online scene.
Battle.net has also been improving its social aspects recently, with chat channels, groups, clans and more besides. In my opinion they still have a touch more tweaking to go before these features are truly user-friendly though. I recently joined a group and have no idea how to actually find the group that I joined. Sure, I could google it or just take a look around, but that takes patience and an attention span which is something neither I or the average gamer has to spare, so until these features are slap-in-the-face obvious, I consider them incomplete.
All in all, Heart of the Swarm is an improvement over Wings of Liberty in just about every way. My only real concern now is its price tag; £32.99 for Wings of Liberty and £32.99 for Heart of the Swarm amounting to a whopping £65.98 just to get the complete (so far) StarCraft 2 experience.
My rampant fanboyism makes the purchase a no-brainer but to the average consumer a price tag like that is like an electric fence, and in a world where free-to-play alternatives are getting to be damn good quality it might be prudent for Blizzard to stop clinging to the comfort blanket of a price of admission and take the free-to-play plunge (Or at LEAST drop the price of Wings, ye gads). Valve and Runic have been hawking some of their hottest titles for free, and they’ve made a mint off it. That’s just the world we’re living in.
To wrap it up, if you’ve got the cash and have any interest at all in RTSes, this is the one to go for, no question.