It begins with a stunning cinematic (and even if you’ve no desire to play this expansion, you should certainly watch it, as it’s one of the finest sequences of cinematography I’ve ever seen in a game), but sadly one that makes a promise the game itself is never able to keep. The opening sequence is epic and emotionally-charged, and makes you expect something along the lines of Mass Effect in drama and scale, but really this is just more StarCraft. More looking at units harvesting minerals and other units swiping at each other, rather than overcoming impossible odds or anything approaching the feeling of inter-galactic war.
That’s OK though, because here the single-player campaign is a marked improvement over the one in Wings of Liberty. Heart of the Swarm loosely follows the same campaign structure as Liberty, with units being drip-fed to you through a variety of traditional and more DOTA-style gameplay. The story picks up right where Liberty leaves off, and sees you playing as former Queen of Blades Sarah Kerrigan.
Kerrigan’s tale is one of power and revenge, and it’s much better told than Jim Raynor’s story. The characters in this chapter are more interesting and the dialogue and writing are much more competent this time around. Kerrigan’s (of course) given a softer side, but it doesn’t feel contrived, and you’re able to sympathise more with her than with Raynor, which is doubly impressive considering that for the most part, she’s something of a monster. Probably one of the reasons for this is that you control her directly in almost every level.
Indeed, she starts off as a rather powerful unit, and will level up as you progress through the levels, meaning that she’s more useful on the front line than hero characters in the series traditionally are. Part of that of course is the nature of the Zerg race, to swarm, and indeed one of my favourite moments in the campaign was early on, when you’re instructed to press F2 to select the entire army, and then just overrun the enemy’s forces; foreshadowing the preferred Zerg playstyle. Between missions you’re given the opportunity to choose between three traits for key units (which are unlocked automatically), and more interestingly, can do “evolution missions” for some unit types.
These evolution missions, though perhaps a little too long (and you can’t “lose” them), give you the opportunity to test out two variations of a unit, after which you’ll pick one to stick with. It’s a nice way of letting you “field-test” units before committing to a choice, but on the other hand it’s strange that Blizzard don’t let you change this later on (which you’re able to do with all other upgrades as often as you like). Often I felt that I hadn’t really played with the unit enough (or seen them alongside other units) to make the best choice, and it just felt like an unnecessary limitation.
There’s more mission variety this time around too, with aforementioned DOTA-light missions, whereby you’ll be accompanied by a steady flow of units; some “boss” battles, where you’ll have to use abilities to dodge attacks and time killing blows; as well as a mission set in space, which to be honest felt a little bit odd. With rare exceptions, you always play as the swarm here, usually against the dominion, occasionally against the Protoss (but there aren’t really any missions where you go head-to-head with your own kind).
Beyond the trimmings, the most important thing to be said about the new campaign is that the difficulty is much more consistent. If playing on “normal” feels too easy, then it will likely feel that way for the duration of the campaign, as opposed to Wings of Liberty’s peaks and troughs. It’s more linear that Liberty as well, with less convoluted mission branching and meta-game resource spending. Here you’ll never have to choose between more than two different missions, and none of them are optional, so on completion you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer. Even the achievement system makes more sense this time around, with 3 achievements available at each difficulty setting (and they aren’t revealed until after you complete the level).
Ultimately, it’s still StarCraft, and as such it’s not going to win over anyone who wasn’t partial to any of the previous instalments, but for those who found Wings of Liberty to be lacking as a campaign, Heart of the Swarm is most certainly worth a second look. It’s tighter in the right places (Kerrigan’s outfit notwithstanding) and a lot more enjoyable. After all, who doesn’t like being bad, especially when there are humans to destroy.
I do feel that those people who will be getting the expansion purely for the new multiplayer units are going to feel somewhat cheated by the price tag. The handful of new units, new maps, and couple of new Battle.net features probably do not justify the price tag, but on the other hand, if you are playing StarCraft just for the multiplayer, you are probably more than getting your money’s-worth in any case.