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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
Heart of the Swarm is among Blizzard’s strongest single player experiences to date. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the shortest. I completed all of its 27 missions and side missions in under 10 hours without skipping a single conversation. Ultimately, though, the $40 pricetag is well worth it. The game picks up where Wings of Liberty left off, but quickly takes steps to get away from all things Terran. This is a good thing because the real fun doesn’t start until you get into the nitty-gritty Zergy bits of tailoring your own custom Swarm. I won’t waste time describing the mechanics to you, I’m just going to talk about what works and what doesn’t.
Like most Blizzard games, HOTS isn’t about re-inventing the wheel. It’s about polishing an existing formula to surpass all previous attempts. In this case, the existing formulas can be found in Blizzard’s two other major franchises, Warcraft and Diablo. There are RPG elements galore in Kerrigan’s development. Her skill permutations can be adjusted at any time between missions, almost identically to building a Diablo III character. Likewise multiple scenarios break out of the typical RTS formula, much like many of the Warcraft campaign missions. Many of these center around controlling just Kerrigan and a small cadre of Zerg. As such, it was extremely important that Blizzard make her into a unit with the lasting power to keep your interest. Here, they delivered. Despite using Kerrigan on a consistent basis throughout most of the missions, I never got tired of experimenting with her different abilities. She was always useful and, more importantly, always fun.
Blizzard also took steps to actively reduce the importance of macro mechanics. Spawn Larva, for instance, is not present in the campaign. Likewise specific upgrades allow you to simply supply management, produce drones more rapidly, and automate gas mining altogether. While multiplayer advocates may react with horror, this was the right call. Macro is part of the competitive tapestry of online play, but dull, repetitive mechanics like spawn larva only become exciting and engaging when you are attempting to perform them better than another person. This dynamic does not translate well into an immersive, single player experience. Competing at injecting with a computer isn’t dynamic because your opponent is inherently monotonous and repetitive, and it’s far more interesting to focus on micro when playing through a story-based mission. Honestly, why would you want to macro when you could be beating people up with Kerrigan?
There are some issues, though. In particular, Blizzard gives us a massive array of extremely powerful permutations for the unit tech tree. Each of the main units you unlock can be modified at any time to possess one of three major upgrades. Likewise, you must choose between two mutations that fully overhaul the unit, giving them a host of new traits and abilities. This looks awesome on the surface, and in a lot of ways it is. The problem is that the options given to you are all too ubiquitously powerful given the basic formula for each mission. I think I can explain it a little better with the following analogy:
Your goal is to build a cube-shaped treehouse. You may choose between a dozen types of high quality wood, and any number of high quality hammers, nails, screws, drills, saws, and paints. While it’s fun to pick and choose, at the end of the day all you’re doing is building a cubic treehouse. It doesn’t matter if you have 3 great saws, because all of them will get the job done regardless of their individual traits.
If you haven’t already figured it out, the treehouse is the campaign missions. The challenges before you are so general that your massive arsenal of units and upgrades doesn’t really matter. You could pick at random and still effectively meet every challenge thrown your way. While this critique is small potatoes, it would’ve been great to see a few scenarios built in that required you to really think about the Swarm you were making. The Zerg’s adaptive nature is central to the race, why not use it to challenge the player in a unique way? Instead, HOTS just throws mixed waves of enemy units at you in semi-predictable patterns. I could go roach/hydra in every single mission and win. I could also go muta/ling/bane in every single mission and still win. Don’t get me wrong, the massive unit upgrade tree is amazing, but it’s wasted without fights that take advantage of its diversity. A few missions come close, but none really do it.
Going to start this segment off with a bit of a rant, just so I can get it out of my system.
One of the biggest problems with Starcraft 2′s story is the handling of the Raynor/Kerrigan relationship. In the original game, the two of them were flirtatious portraits who spoke to one and other via the straightforward RTS interface. You could definitely tell there was something between them, but the game didn’t bludgeon you over the head with it. Kerrigan’s transformation leaves Jim conflicted, originally setting out to save her, then vowing to destroy her because of what she’s become.
Given the graphical sophistication of the modern games, we now get to see them interact on screen for the first time as a fully rendered Raynor and Kerrigan. Unfortunately, the interaction abandons all subtlety for melodrama. Jim lightly touches the containment cell, appealing to Sarah to chose a life with him over vengeance. Kerrigan turns away and closes her eyes, her pouty lips purse as she mulls the obviously forced conflict. This is the easiest type of behavior to write, and some of the least rewarding to watch. When the inevitable Dominion attack occurs and Raynor and Kerrigan get to team up again, the dialogue between the two is summed up when they repeat “like riding a bike” to each other.
She spent ~5 years as a bloodthirsty psycho-bitch, guys! The reconstruction of their relationship would not be like hopping on your old Huffy for a spin around the goddamn block.
This issue is further complicated when the primarily re-infested Kerrigan rescues Raynor from prison near the end of the story. He chooses that moment to re-introduce the baggage the conflict between them, ranting about Fenix and the other atrocities. While it’s great that this is finally being revisited, it should’ve happened from the start of Wings of Liberty. Instead of making Jim’s quest about some doe-eyed attempt to save Sarah, his goal should’ve always been Mengsk. His interactions with Kerrigan, when they occurred, should’ve always shown a conflict of emotions, love for the woman he once knew, hatred for what she’d done. That was the story I was hoping for. What we got instead was a confusing mess that doesn’t live up to the potential of either character and feels a bit like a soap opera.
That out of the way, let’s talk about the good stuff, which consists of pretty much every other aspect of the storytelling. The characters who join you on the Leviathan are very well crafted. Abathur, for instance, has one of the best-constructed voices I’ve ever heard in a video game. He’s consistent in his bizarre speech patterns and extremely distinct in his personality. Likewise, the reintroduction of infested Stukov and the conflict with Nerud are excellent. They drive us away from the poorly designed Raynor relationship and into the coming conflict with Amon. After dethroning Mengsk, I was left with excitement and anticipation for Legacy of the Void, as it should be.