Review: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (2013) –  large_5

I am considered to be something of an oddity within the gaming world, and not just because I liked the ending of Mass Effect 3 or think Carth Onasi is a great guy. It is because I am one of those rare gamers who loves Blizzard games for their single-player campaign, rather than for their online multi-player. Don’t get me wrong, I like the multi-player in StarCraft II, but there are only so many times you can get pwned by a Zergling Rush five minutes into a match and still find it that enjoyable.

It always annoys me when I read a review for a game like StarCraft or Call of Duty, and it summaries the single-player in a short sentence, then states “But we know why you’re really here…” and proceeds to dedicate the rest of the entire review to the multi-player. I am always left thinking “Actually, that’s not why I’m here”.

So this review is for people like me, the ones who want to know about the single-player and the storyline, the characters and the cut-scenes, and don’t want to hear about how awesome it is to get Zergling Rushed before you’ve even had time to build a Barracks…

This is my review of Heart of the Swarm’s campaign.

*

The last game, Wings of Liberty, ended with Jim Raynor finally managing to restore the Queen of Blades’ humanity and turn her back into Sarah Kerrigan (albeit with added Zerg head-tails). The two former lovers, finally reunited after years of conflict, walked off happily into the sunset, and millions of gamers worldwide rubbed at their eyes and tried to pretend they weren’t crying. It was the perfect ending to a perfect game, and well worth the 12 year wait since the story of the original StarCraft concluded with Brood War back in 1998.

And now, three years after the release of Wings of Liberty, comes Heart of the Swarm, the second part of the StarCraft II trilogy, and it is a more than worthy follow-up to the series’ brilliant first act. There’s revenge, betrayal, deception, even romance and heartbreak. Each one of these different elements is told so well, and feels so real and compelling, that it is impossible not to get completely drawn in by the story. And it’s all framed by some of the best real-time strategy gameplay you will ever experience.

*

Heart of the Swarm starts shorty after the last game ended, with Kerrigan housed in a testing facility, still getting used to her new/old body and watched over by Raynor. It soon becomes apparent that some of Kerrigan’s Zerg abilities have remained, along with some of the ruthless blood-lust of the Queen of Blades. The opening few levels serve as both an introduction to new players and a refresher for returning fans. Unlike some training levels, these ones actually advance the story rather than hindering it and soon introduce you to the new features of the game.

The biggest new feature is Kerrigan’s role within the missions. StarCraft has always had its protagonists appear in-game as playable units, but aside from a different paint-job and increased damage, they have always been fairly nondescript. Heart of the Swarm changes this. Kerrigan is in every mission, comes with a set of unique abilities, and can gain XP to level up, granting her increased power and new, more powerful abilities. She is very reminiscent of the hero characters from Blizzard’s own WarCraft III, and her constant presence on the battlefield gives the game a distinctly RPG vibe, making it a very different beast to Wings of Liberty.

But like its predecessor, Heart of the Swarm has a necessary variety between the various missions, with differing environments and gameplay shaping the way you can complete the missions. Victory is not always a simple case of destroying all the enemy’s buildings, with some levels featuring unit freezing ice-storms or deadly waves of gas, and others requiring the completion of specific objectives before the level can advance. These variation between the different levels guaranties that the game never becomes repetitive or boring, with players having to take all of these changing factors into account before planning their strategy.

*

One of the most surprising things about the original StarCraft is that, despite the main characters being little more than a pixellated animation loop, you really cared about them. There’s a reason why Raynor was included in the list of the top 10 video game heroes and why Kerrigan, the queen bitch we all love to hate, was recently voted the greatest video game villain of all time. Something about the characters resonated with people, made them invest in their story and form emotional connections. The writing and voice work in the original StarCraft was so sublime that you forgot about the graphical restraints and fell in love with these characters.

StarCraft II continues this tradition of well-written and relatable characters, people you want to get behind and cheer on, and Heart of the Swarm has some of the best character arcs and development of the entire franchise so far. The love between Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan has always been the heart and soul of the series, and forms the emotional backbone of this game. It is a joy to see them together again. Their dialogue, preformed impeccably by Robert Clotworthy and Tricia Helfer, sparkles with real affection and tenderness, and it’s all you can do to stop yourself going all misty-eyed when they’re together.

This is a Blizzard game, though,  and that means the happiness can’t last. And sure enough, it isn’t long before the couple are separated and left with little to no chance of finding each other again. This moment acts as the game’s catalyst, and sends Kerrigan on an explosive character arc, that knocks her down to her very lowest and then builds her back up again, but at a terrible cost. It’s all you can do but watch, your fist clamped in your mouth, as Kerrigan makes sacrifice after sacrifice to get what she wants: the destruction of Arcturus Mengsk, the man who wronged her so many years ago. It’s her drive for revenge that drives the story and makes for a heart-pounding and thrilling game, full of raw emotion and brilliant conflict.

*

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is another brilliant addition to Blizzard’s catalogue. Suitably epic and additively entertaining, it’s a different enough from it’s predecessor to justify its standalone release. Following the age old tradition of the second instalment being a darker affair, Heart of the Swarm pulls no punches with its storytelling. Vengeance is reaped, debts are repaid, hearts are broken, and an ancient evil lurks on the horizon.

It’s another perfect game with another perfect ending, and once again, tears will be shed by millions of gamers worldwide. Like BioWare, Blizzard excel at getting you emotionally attached to their characters, which is rare for a real-time strategy, and it is to their eternal credit that StarCraft II contains one of sci-fi’s greatest love stories.

All we can do now is wait for the third and final act of the series. If the first two instalments are anything to go by, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void should be a game worth waiting for.

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