A solid middle entry for the series
It appears Blizzard's learned quite a bit from Diablo III's launch, as Heart of the Swarm was instantly playable on release with virtually no server problems -- a bit of a rarity, it seems, with recent PC releases.
It's a good thing, too, since as soon as I logged in at midnight, I got hooked on StarCraft again. Heart of the Swarm brings engaging RTS gameplay, sets up a story I found to be more interesting than what was presented in Wings of Liberty, and serves as an excellent middle entry in the StarCraft II trilogy.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (PC)
Heart of the Swarm picks up right where Wings of Liberty left off -- Kerrigan has been saved and returned to a mostly-human form (shame about the hair), the Zerg threat has been diminished, and she and Raynor are free to run about curbstomping the Dominion.
Or, that's the initial plan. Since Heart of the Swarm is, of course, about the Zerg, within an hour of starting the game Raynor promptly finds himself in trouble and Kerrigan once again takes control of the Swarm. This time around, the story focuses much more on Kerrigan herself -- while Raynor was the hero of Wings of Liberty, that game's story tended to focus more on the Terran army as a whole and the various mercenaries you dealt with. Heart of the Swarm shines the spotlight directly on Kerrigan.
While Kerrigan can still control the Zerg, Raynor's artifact essentially restored her soul. The antagonism between Kerrigan and Arcturus Mengsk may seem like the central plot line, but in my opinion Heart of the Swarm is really about how Kerrigan comes to terms with what she did as the Queen of Blades, and the internal struggle she faces to cling to her newfound humanity as she slips deeper and deeper into the power of the Zerg. I found the story this time around to be far more engaging than the fairly standard war story of Wings of Liberty, and a huge part of that is because Heart of the Swarm feels more personal and intimate than the previous installment.
When it comes to gameplay, the new missions in Heart of the Swarm don't deviate too much from the style seen in Wings of Liberty, but are unique enough that they don't come across as a simple rehash of Wings, just with the Zerg. The only real notable difference is the introduction of Kerrigan as a persistent hero unit, reminiscent of Warcraft III. In most missions Kerrigan is present on the battlefield and directly controllable, and she gets stronger and develops more powers as you level her up by completing mission objectives. Base building is still the focus of the game, but Kerrigan usually plays a major role in fights as her abilities tend to be profoundly useful.
Much like Wings of Liberty, a majority of the missions generally focus on one or two types of units, and the mission is designed to teach you how to use that unit and its abilities. Sprinkled throughout the game, however, are missions that tend to focus on Kerrigan and her abilities, much like the first Zeratul mission back in Wings. I actually found these to be the most interesting, simply because of the variety they provided. My favorite mission involves Kerrigan essentially fighting three "boss monsters" as she moves through the map, with the fights feeling like a combination between playing a MOBA and battling a World of Warcraft raid boss. I like base building as much as the next StarCraft fan, but it's always nice to mix things up.
As you progress through the single-player campaign, you have the opportunity to select minor and major evolutions for your units. Minor evolutions unlock as soon as you acquire the unit, and tend to be small stat boosts or a passive ability. Major evolutions see you decide between one of two new forms, and require you to complete a short "Evolution Mission" that shows you the abilities of each new form before making your selection. These missions naturally unlock as you progress through the story -- you no longer have to find out-of-the-way collectables scattered around the maps like you did in Wings. Instead, optional mission objectives provide additional levels to Kerrigan.
Multiplayer has remained essentially unchanged outside of balance tweaks and the introduction of a few new units, and it's still great if you're into competitive real time strategy games. Players who haven't hopped online since Wings of Liberty may be surprised to see how much the general skill level has risen, and can expect quite a few frustrating games if they jump into ranked, especially since this season just began and the matchmaking system is still sorting people where they belong. Don't be surprised if you run into highly skilled players in the lower tiers of play during these first few weeks.
The multiplayer replay system has a couple new fun additions. You can now watch replays with your friends and, even better, pause a replay at any time and have you and your friends take control of the game at the point you paused. It's a solid tool for practicing matchups if you have friends willing to work with you, but I think the most interesting aspect will be the ability to download and mess around with pro-level tournament games, assuming they put replays up.
Heart of the Swarm is a fantastic addition to the StarCraft series, and quite frankly feels on par with a $60 game. It brings almost nothing new to the table, but there's nothing wrong with sticking to a formula you know works well. If you enjoyed Wings of Liberty, or just like RTS games in general, there's no reason not to pick this one up.
THE VERDICT - StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Reviewed by Aerox