StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm preview

By Jeff Mattas, May 31, 2011 9:01am PDT

Kerrigan is "the monster goddess of the Zerg," explained game director Dustin Browder during a pre-demo presentation for StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. “She has problems Jim Raynor could never even dream of. [She] controls this huge swarm of monsters-maybe more than one-third the power of the Koprulu sector. They will do her every whim, sacrificing themselves, absolutely. She says 'Die,' and they say, ‘How many of us?’ We want to give you that sense of power.”

Following the briefing at Blizzard’s offices last week, I dove into a couple of single-player missions from the StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm campaign to get a taste of the follow-up to last year’s StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. In 'Wings,' players inhabited the role of Terran tough guy and bounty hunter Jim Raynor, but Heart of the Swarm centers on Kerrigan, a formerly human assassin infested by the Zerg against her will. Known as the Queen of Blades, she’s already responsible for billions of deaths. The pre-mission banter I experienced did a good job of presenting Kerrigan as the head of the Zerg monarchy.

Before each mission, Kerrigan can chat with two members of her brood hierarchy (Izsha, her advisor, and Abathur, the evolution master). However, based on the contentious and tenuous tenor to the conversations I saw, it seemed that even Kerrigan's closest allies might have their own ulterior motives. The chain of command is evident though, with Kerrigan obviously perched at the top.

Two planets-Char and Kaldir-each had one mission to sample. It’s a bit different than Wings of Liberty, where Raynor would often bounce to a new planet for each mission. Kerrigan is more interested in subjugating entire worlds, making many planetary destinations multi-mission affairs. Selecting one of the planets brings up a gorgeous interactive pre-mission prep screen themed around the chosen planet-the functional equivalent of the bridge of Raynor’s starship in Wings of Liberty.

Players periodically got to take Raynor out into the battlefield in Wings of Liberty, but Heart of the Swarm promises to thrust Kerrigan into the fray as a playable unit more often. To help compliment Kerrigan's more active role in combat, Blizzard is introducing some "light-RPG" elements for the Queen of Blades. Prior to each battle, the player will be able to choose a group of special abilities that can be changed on a per-mission basis. Presumably, these ability trees (and associated powers) can be unlocked as the campaign progresses, though the total number of categories and abilities has yet to be determined. In the demo, 'Spec Ops' and ‘Corruption’ categories were available for Kerrigan. The 'Corruption' vein was my particular favorite: one of its powers allowed me to instantly kill one foe by having tiny broodlings burst out of it. In practice, having Kerrigan on the battlefield is empowering, and the deft use of her abilities can help bring a swifter end to skirmishes.

The Zerg also have an 'Evolution Chamber,' which is basically a clever twist on an armory. Though a basic zergling was the only unit in the chamber during the demo, it could be upgraded, and even ‘evolved’ using accrued experience. Much testing, balancing, and tweaking is yet to be done, but I was told that ‘evolving’ a unit would ultimately change its strategic impact in meaningful ways. The zergling, for example, could either be evolved into a 'Swarming' variety that would hatch in 3's instead of 2's, or into a 'Raptor,' which could leap to close with enemies more quickly. It was tough to get a sense how differently evolving armies will play out in the grand scheme of things, but it seems like a good way to let players personalize their forces, based on individual play style.

On the planet of Char, I guided Kerrigan's squad in a Zerg egg-gathering, army-building competition against a renegade brood mother. On the ice-planet of Kaldir, I slaughtered indigenous yeti-like wildlife to collect their DNA so I could make my units immune to intermittent flash-freezing, and then destroyed a handful of Protoss communication beacons before they could be used to call for reinforcements. Even at such an early stage, the two missions both kept me on my toes, with objectives often changing midstream.

As great as StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm already looks and feels, it does present some particularly interesting design challenges. Wings of Liberty-which focused on the Terran (human) campaign-was able to easily educate players about different units, based on instantly recognizable unit-types. Zerg, on the other hand, are all shapes and sizes of bug-like aliens. The size of a unit can still help give clues as to things like its relative power and speed, but the (understandably) alien appearance of Zerg structures and units make them a bit more difficult to comprehend just by looking at them. After mentioning my concern to Browder, he assured me that he and the team were very aware of the innate challenges of accessibility the Zerg pose, and that exhaustive testing and tweaking will help ensure that learning to identify and command each aspect of the swarm will be as fun and painless as possible.

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm does not have a release date; however, Activision has repeatedly promised the game would arrive at least by 2012.

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