Review

Starcraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

The Great Pretender

In StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm, the queen is dead. Long live the queen.

By Samantha Nelson • March 22, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night tells the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who became a Nazi propagandist as a way to sneak messages out of Germany during World War II. Campbell’s broadcasts helped inspire American white supremacists to join the Nazi cause, and at the beginning of the book, he finds himself awaiting his trial for war crimes. As he sits in jail, he wonders if his motivation actually matters when weighed against the results of his action and concludes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

It’s a moral that StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm seems to share. This expansion picks up just a few weeks after the end of StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty proper, the story starts with Sarah Kerrigan—once the Zerg Queen Of Blades—in a laboratory after being restored to human form by the hero Jim Raynor. Just as they’re rekindling their romance, things go bad. The forces of a prominent human warlord still want Kerrigan dead, so she goes on the offensive. Finding that many of the genocidal monsters she once ruled still recognize her as the Queen Of Blades, Kerrigan reclaims that mantle and unleashes terror across the galaxy. This time, the swarm’s motive is revenge rather than conquest, but the result is still a lot of death. Kerrigan might not be Zerg anymore, but she acts like she is, and that is even more horrifying.

Starcraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

It’s a dark tale, but taking control of the StarCraft series’ signature villain is still a blast. As Kerrigan wrestles with her identity, Heart Of The Swarm plays with StarCraft’s identity by constructing twists on the strategic formula the game has defined. The key to the Zerg’s success is adaptability, and players will need to share that attribute to succeed. In one mission, Kerrigan’s forces must use hit-and-run tactics, using hostile weather to their advantage to root out a superior force. One phenomenal level turns the game into space horror as you control a larva that stowed away on a enemy ship by invading the body of a crewmember. You have to rely upon stealth until you’re strong enough to take on the ship’s defenders directly. Many levels incorporate timers, which aren’t too onerous if you’re used to playing with the Zerg’s signature strategy of quick strikes. But time limits can prove frustrating if you enjoy a more methodical pace.

Not content to manipulate her armies from a distance, Kerrigan appears in most battles as a hero unit, a touch that’s reminiscent of Warcraft III. Refreshingly, most missions don’t end if Kerrigan dies—she just reappears back at your base—meaning you don’t have to be so worried about her safety. The upshot is that you can fearlessly put her devastating abilities to use. Kerrigan gains new powers as you complete missions and bonus objectives, making side quests feel almost mandatory.

Starcraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

Heart Of The Swarm introduces plenty of new Zerg characters for Kerrigan to chat with in the game’s beautiful cutscenes, but the add-on fails to overcome what has been a complaint since the beginning of the series: The Zerg just aren’t as interesting as the game’s other races. Kerrigan’s ship especially pales when compared to the one that Raynor helmed in Wings Of Liberty. You’ve got some weird, sycophantic minions onboard the Leviathan, but the characters on the Raynor’s ship were more nuanced. Plus, that ship had a TV, an arcade, and a jukebox to play with.

The real driving force in Heart Of The Swarm is Kerrigan’s story, but StarCraft’s player-vs.-player combat gets plenty of love here, too. The expansion adds new unit types, new levels, and features that make it easier to analyze your games and improve your skills. These are welcome improvement for anyone serious about player-vs.-player matches, but they can also freshen up the game for more casual players. And fighting battles in Heart Of The Swarm will at least make the wait for the next chapter, Legacy Of The Void, a bit more bearable.

StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $40
Rating: T

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33 Responses to “The Great Pretender”

  1. Roswulf says:

    In my early teens, I remember finding the original Starcraft narrative absolutely gripping in its operatic grandeur. Mengnsk betraying Kerrigan, Zeratul’s grumpy wounded basassness, Tassadar’s grand sacrifice, these moments still stick with me. I still get a little choked up even thinking the words “En Taro Tassader.”

    I’ve always been reluctant to return to the series, for fear the characters and narrative wouldn’t hold up and would thereby tarnish my fond memories. Also I’ve learned since then that I don’t particularly like RTS games, but that’s a separate can of worms. Any thoughts from the quorum on whether someone who loved StarCraft for its single player campaign should return to the series in its current form (presumably by finding Wings of Liberty on the cheap some day?). As playable space opera, how does it compare to Mass Effect in the cold non-nostalgic light of day?

    • CrabNaga says:

      The narrative for StarCraft 2 is far removed from the style and tone of the original and its expansion. Starting with about WarCraft III, Blizzard realized that the vast majority of their fanbase cared more about flashiness and grandeur than anything that makes for a compelling narrative, good characterization, or a believable setting. It’s gotten to the point where StarCraft is practically a fantasy game rather than sci-fi (although it was never hard sci-fi). The dialogue feels like it was written with pre-teens in mind and most of the voice actors over-emphasize everything as if every line of dialogue was somehow critical to the player’s understanding of the story (the guy they got voicing Zeratul now is a particularly bad offender in this regard).

      Long story short, the StarCraft 2 story is closer to World of Warcraft’s than the original StarCraft’s.

      That being said, Blizzard did a very good job making the campaign enthralling despite this. Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm are the most fun I’ve ever had playing an RTS campaign.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        I honestly don’t think writing was ever Blizz’s strong suit. They were always about the polish.

    • Boko_Fittleworth says:

      As narrative the Wings of Liberty campaign (I haven’t played Heart of the Swarm) never really rises above the level of frothy pulp absurdity. It doesn’t really stand on its own but as context for the actual missions it’s good fun.

      Side note: Between Mass Effect, Starcraft, and Battlestar Galactica, Tricia Helfer is really doing a good job of cornering the market on beloved sci-fi properties. If she did a high-concept genre project with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart they could rule the galaxy.

      • His_Space_Holiness says:

        I’d be perfectly fine with a McKellen-Stewart-Helfer galactic triumvirate. At the very least, the speeches would be a blast.

      • George_Liquor says:

        No kidding! When did everyone in that universe become ‘roid-raged mini-Hulks?

      • Boko_Fittleworth says:

        It’s interesting to me that Helfer is now regularly cast (at least in the three properties I mention above) as a semi-human cipher with abilities beyond those of mere mortals. I wonder what that says about her?

    • Mistah Chrysoprase says:

      Story-wise, absolutely fucking awful, generic, lazy pap; gameplay-wise, it’s still pretty great.

    • beema says:

      I’m the same way. I keep wanting to check out SC2, but the part of me knows that I’m terrible at RTS games and will have to resort to cheats holds me back. (are there even cheats anymore?)

      I would also only be doing it for single player. I can’t even begin to play competitively online.

      • 2StoryOuthouse says:

        The best thing, in my opinion, about SC2 is that it does a much better job training you for competitive play and, once you’re there, matching you against comparable opponents. This is partially just because the computer AI is better, but there are also a number of challenges and tutorials that help refine your skills well enough that you can wade into multiplayer.

        I was terrified of SC’s multiplayer, but I’ve eased my way into SC2’s.

  2. I found the Zerg campaign in Brood War, especially, to be a bit of a slog near the end. I finally just burned through the last two missions with cheat codes.

  3. From Kurt Vonnegut to Starcraft in one paragraph.  This is why I like you Gameological.

  4. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I saw the teaser trailer for this expansion and, as usual, was blown away.  I really wish Blizzard’s cinematic department would just do freaking feature films already.  I know it takes a ton of money to make something feature length as opposed to five minutes long, but the cinematics are always so much more awe-inspiring than the games they’re attached to.

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      Trouble is, there’s precisely zero market in this country for animated films aimed at anyone over the age of ten. Hell, David Fincher had to set up a Kickstarter just to put together a demo reel for the Goon movie he wants to make.

      • Girard says:

        Apparently the media/audience-age hierarchy for giant media companies who want to play it safe goes:
        -if you want to make something for the elementary-school set, make an animated film -if you want to make something for the middle school set, make a video game-if you want to make something for grown-ups, make a live-action show or film

        Which is stupid. I know we have the Disney factory to thank for animation’s ghettoization as “kids’ stuff” in US culture, but I don’t know if there’s as obvious a culprit when it comes the video games.

      • Someone like James Cameron can afford to take a risk on a project as expensive as Avatar, but few others can.

    • rvb1023 says:

       I might actually care about Starcraft if it was just a pretty film rather than another Starcraft intro.

  5. George_Liquor says:

    Whoops. Shouldn’t have read this review before finishing Wings of Liberty.

    • Mercadier says:

      Ouch. Though I think the spoiler statute of limitations ran out six months ago. Or maybe it’s automatically invalidated upon the release of a sequel? I forget the rules exactly.

      • George_Liquor says:

         Oh well, no biggie. If I really was invested in WoL’s story, I would have finished it by now.

    • Mistah Chrysoprase says:

      Trust me, you missed out on NOTHING, Wings’ story is just an endless string of half-baked cliches culminating in the biggest, dumbest, most overplayed trope in all of gaming: Let’s Save The stupid shitty Princess.
      Makes me want to throw up just thinking about it.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        So… you liked it?

      • Boko_Fittleworth says:

        I suppose one could make the argument that SC’s “defeat-the-all-powerful-princess-in-order-to-save-her” denouement is a departure from mere “save-the-princess” but I haven’t quite decided if that’s regressive, progressive, or a lateral move. Perhaps a bit of all three.

  6. zhirzzh says:

    While the story of SC2 is obviously a huge step down, I like the actual game-play much more. Instead of about 6 interesting missions, followed by a series of standard build a base and kill things missions, SC2 actually does something interesting with every level.