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Hell Hath No Fury: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Date: Mar 25, 2013
Author: Joel Hruska
Playing Offline, The Story So Far
When Blizzard announced that they were splitting Starcraft II into three titles, Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm, and Legacy of the Void, the general reaction from fans was controversial. The fear was that Blizzard would pad out the contents of each game with busywork missions and red-herring plot devices, while charging full price for each. The company later clarified that the second campaigns would be priced like expansion packs. Heart of the Swarm is the first chance we've had to see if Blizzard's expansion strategy would result in the same quality of game play. Wings of Liberty (WoL) launched at $59, while Heart of the Storm (HotS) is $39.

That $39 buys you 20 main missions and 7 "Evolutionary" missions, plus the multiplayer maps and Arcade. All in all, it's a pretty good deal but of course, we had questions.

Can You Play Offline?

The question of offline play has been a sore spot for gamers of late, thanks to Maxis' disastrous SimCity launch. Diablo III, of course, had its own significant problems in this area.

The good news is that Starcraft II can be played offline, provided that you log in once to register the game. The bad news is that Blizzard doesn't exactly make this easy. Starcraft used to have a "Play As Guest" button for offline mode. Click it, no login required, there you go.

That button is gone. The new login screen looks like so:

So how do you play offline? You disable your Internet connection inside Windows. Do that, and you first get a warning telling you Battle.net is down, followed by account information for playing offline.

This is what it looks like when a company really wants to take away functionality but doesn't think it can quite get away with it yet. Even screenshots are saved in a different location, as though by virtue of not being online, you're not actually the player the game thinks you are. There's zero reason for the difference, save that Blizzard wants people to be online when playing its games, all the time, no matter what.

The Story Thus Far...

Wings of Liberty told the story of Jim Raynor's struggle against the Terran Dominion, its emperor, Arcturus Mengsk, and his search for a way to cure his one-time lover, Sarah Kerrigan, from the corruption of the Zerg. It was Mengsk's decision to deliberately abandon Kerrigan that led to her transformation and rebirth as a half-Terran, half-Zerg hybrid known as the Queen of Blades. As the supreme leader of the Zerg Swarm, Kerrigan slaughtered billions of innocents and led a galaxy-spanning rampage against both humans and the game's third race, the Protoss.

Heart of the Swarm picks up several months after Wings of Liberty. The now de-infested Kerrigan has been undergoing treatment and tests on a neutral planet when Terran Dominion forces attack. In the tumult, Kerrigan and Raynor are separated. We see a news report (with no accompanying footage) that Raynor was captured and executed by the Terran Dominion. Kerrigan -- a woman who could only loosely be considered sane to begin with -- reacts poorly.

Sanity has a certain look. This isn't it.

Believing Raynor dead, Kerrigan sets a course for Zerg space, determined to rebuild the Swarm -- and make Mengsk pay for what he's done.

Evaluated logically, this was an utterly shameless trope. Kerrigan knew and worked with Mengsk for years before he left her for dead. He's extremely intelligent, ruthless, and has a flair for grand ceremonies and staged dramatics. Had Raynor actually been executed, Mengsk would've trotted the body out for the entire galaxy to see, preferably with a live execution and final confession. It's ridiculous to cast Kerrigan as falling for such a stupid ploy... if Kerrigan was thinking clearly. And she isn't.

This is explored in more detail in the book Starcraft II: Flashpoint, which takes place in the intervening weeks between the end of Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm. In it, Kerrigan struggles to come to terms with her actions as the Queen of Blades. As the leader of the Swarm, she delighted in slaughter, cruelty, and betrayal. The Xel'Naga artifact Raynor uses at the end of WoL restores her physical humanity in an eye-blink, but coming to terms with her own actions and the ensuing guilt nearly drives her mad. Raynor was her touchstone and guide throughout this process. He was the man who believed in her worth.

From this perspective, Sarah's decision to go on a hyper-violent vengeance rampage makes a lot more sense. And boy, does she ever rampage.

The single-player campaign of Starcraft II: HotS consists of 20 storyline missions and 7 "Evolution" missions. Unlike Wings of Liberty, which allowed players to make decisions that influenced how later events played out, Heart of the Swarm is a straight path. You can choose which order to play planets in but you get no say in how the storyline evolves, even at minor points.

Dehaka, one of Kerrigan's new advisors

Blizzard compensates for this with "Evolution" missions and RPG elements that give you a great deal of control over how Kerrigan and the Zerg themselves evolve. Kerrigan's abilities are customizable and expand as she gains levels and progresses through the game. Optional side missions offer the ability to gain additional levels and thereby increase her power and damage.

In between missions, you can explore the Zerg space-going Leviathan or speak to the Evolution Master (Abathur), your chief advisor (Izsha) or some of the other characters who turn up along the way. According to Blizzard, Rage, fury, and revenge are the major themes of HotS, but that's not what drives the game. The big question of Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is whether or not Kerrigan can retain any part of her humanity while simultaneously reunifying the Zerg and attempting to destroy the Terran Dominion. Blizzard does an excellent job of guiding Kerrigan's evolution (pun intended) and sets up the third game, Legacy of the Void, deftly.

Single-Player Gameplay

Single-player gameplay is pretty great. Kerrigan is a regular battlefield presence and can respawn if killed in most missions, freeing you up to use her in an offensive capacity. As with Wings of Liberty, Blizzard splits gameplay between single-player and multiplayer; there are a number of units available in the campaign missions that can't be used for multiplayer.

You can choose between one of three mutations to apply on each mission

This is where the Evolution missions come in. As you play through the campaign, Abathur will periodically offer Kerrigan the chance to upgrade a Zerg unit into one of two distinct types. Which type you choose has an impact on how you use that particular unit afterwards; Roaches can evolve into Corpsers (Move while burrowed) or Viles (debilitating attack slows enemy movement and attack rate). That's in addition to the evolution options you can pick for each species on a mission-by-mission basis.

The problem with the Evolution missions is that they aren't much fun. They're designed to give you a look at the particular capabilities of each of the two optional Zerg strains, and while they do that well enough, it's boring to walk through a pair of missions with extremely simple goals -- particularly if you've already chosen which of the two strains you prefer to use. It's a great idea that would've worked much better if the evaluation had been baked into other side-quest missions or optional plot explorations.

Missions and Plot Lines

The strength of Starcraft was always the way the three races felt different, and the single-player campaign of HotS retains  that characteristic. The Zerg remain a ferocious, organic, rolling ball of danger, but the new evolution options let you customize the Swarm and Kerrigan to your own liking. Missions are also broken into multiple different stages and types. Some missions alternate between hero control and base building, while others center around different Heroes or enemy infiltrations. The game encourages you to use Kerrigan as an offensive asset and there are multiple ways to fine-tune her abilities for faster base building or better personal firepower.

The battle against Mengsk and Terran Dominion forces is a bit too easy on normal difficulty, but the payoff and setup for the next game are satisfying. After Diablo III's disappointing story, Starcraft II proves that Blizzard is still capable of a decent popcorn movie plot line. The cut scenes, as always, are amazing.

Starcraft II's multiplayer options have evolved enormously since Wings of Liberty launched. There are no LAN play options -- we dislike that fact as much now as we did then -- but there's a giant repository of user-created maps known as the Arcade. Since I started multiplayer, I've spent more time in the Arcade than in conventional ladder play, and for good reason -- the amount of variety available is enormous.

Want a Survival-oriented zombie map? Check Left 2 Die. Favor a 6v6 space battle theme with no respawns, where each player commands a powerful warship? Star Battle has you covered. Interested in tower defense maps, survival themed Hero games with a Dead Space flair, or a straight-out fantasy RPG? They're all online.

And some of them are good. Arcade has been in beta since the middle of 2012, but I suspect a lot of players returning to Heart of the Swarm for the single-player game will discover it for the first time. It's worth discovering. I've played far more arcade games than other types, simply because there's such a wealth of experiences available.

A Star Battle round underway

This neatly addresses one of my concerns with Starcraft II: HotS, which was that the relentless E-Sports focus of the ladder tournaments would ruin the multiplayer game for more casual players. I enjoy playing conventional SC2 against other people, but I'm not very good at it. SC2 itself, meanwhile, is a more complicated game than its predecessor. This drives home with particular force if you were a Zerg player in SC1, when Hydralisks were one of the best all-around units in the entire game. In SC2, their iconic role has been diminished by the advent of Roaches and the decision to limit movement speed when off Zerg Creep.

This last change shifts them from an all-around offensive powerhouse to a support unit with specific uses that requires careful micro to exploit. Many of Blizzard's patch notes and balance posts make repeated reference to E-Sports play as the deciding factor in how units are changed. Is that bad? Not necessarily -- but Starcraft's multiplayer was much easier to dive into. For casual players, the ladder can be intimidating -- and that's why the Arcade shines.
If you've enjoyed Starcraft in the past, HotS is absolutely worth a pick-up. The Arcade Mode adds a lot of great replay value to the game, the price is low compared to other full-sized games (and this is a full-sized product, even if the number of missions isn't quite as high as WoL.). The graphics engine has been tweaked with some new effects and it still looks great.

We're not crazy about the way Blizzard continues to de-emphasize offline play, but can't deny that the option remains available. If you actually can't get online, the game will start in offline mode. You can play through the campaign with no trouble, though apparently the machine needs to go online once a month to re-validate the account. That's not a thrilling restriction, but again, it's workable.

Overall opinion? A worthy follow-up to Wings of Liberty that should dispel fears that Blizzard would low ball the second and third chapters of Starcraft II in a shameless money grab. If Legacy of the Void is as good, there will be few complaints and even applause perhaps.

  • Arcade games in multiplayer
  • A worthy story update
  • Missions introduce RPG elements, varied gameplay
  • Blizz further edges towards always-online requirements
  • Evolution missions don't quite work

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