StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm single-player review: killer Kerrigan

By John Keefer, Mar 15, 2013 11:30am PDT

While many StarCraft 2 fans are all about the intense, competitive action of multiplayer, there is a single-player campaign that evolves the story of the ongoing conflict between the Terrans, the Protoss, and the Zerg. The newest Heart of the Swarm expansion focuses on Sarah Kerrigan, the former Queen of Blades, and her ongoing hatred of the Terran Dominion leader Arcturus Mengsk.

Although Blizzard's gorgeous cinematics may suggest a compelling narrative for HotS, the story merely functions as adequate filler between missions. Jim Raynor rescued Kerrigan from her Zerg influence at the end of Wings of Liberty, returning her to her human form. Heart of the Swarm picks up the story with Raynor and Kerrigan trying to rekindle their relationship, only to be interrupted by Mengsk's forces, who still want to see the former Terran Ghost dead.

Even after the pair are eventually separated, Kerrigan's subsequent inner turmoil and return to run the Zerg seems unduly contrived, and not even up to the slightly-above-average story standard set in Wings of Liberty. There are a few entertaining moments but, in the end, the only reason to care about Kerrigan is because she is one kick-ass general on the battlefield. Only in the finale did the story offer any dynamic tension or meaningful impact.

Granted, the story is secondary to gameplay in any RTS, and Heart of the Swarm adds quite a bit to the foundation laid by Wings of Liberty. This time focusing on the Zerg units, early missions give new players the basics on unit functionality and progression and are fairly good at hand-holding you through to victory. Even the evolutionary "missions," which allow you to upgrade your units in a one-off transition, are more tutorials than actual combat excursions. More experienced players may find this tedious, but their inclusion is understandable given the changes and upgrades from WoL.

Kerrigan is a playable unit in most of the 20-mission campaign, and her powers can lay waste to pretty much anything she encounters. As you complete missions, she gains levels and abilities, which is a nice addition to the campaign. The lore has always maintained that she was one of the most powerful Zerg ever created, and her new abilities enforce that. Some of the secondary objectives in the missions reward you with additional levels for Kerrigan, but on certain timed missions, it was easy to get distracted from the mission goal with the desire to see her advance.

Unfortunately, Kerrigan's overwhelming strength is almost a detriment to the game. Playing on normal difficulty, she rarely needed support units, except in more advanced missions. One of her abilities allows her to heal herself and allies, which let me slice through enemy bases quite easily. Experienced players will want to start on harder difficulties to ramp up the challenge.

The AI also struggled with pathfinding in narrow environments, which become common towards the endgame. I'd have Ultralisks stuck behind tiny Roaches in an attack, and they could not find a way to the target. I had to manually direct them around the combat to get to the rear or other targets. Another annoying AI trait was the need to pull units far away from combat if you wanted to withdraw. A few times, I tried to pull Kerrigan back from battle, only to have her turn around and jump back into the fray. She died a few times when I didn't notice she had reentered the fight.

That said, the campaign is solid. It took me about 12 hours to complete the game, with only the occasional reload because of a foolish mistake or a poor build strategy. The missions were challenging when I didn't overuse Kerrigan. There is a good variety as well, from timed missions to hero missions (with just Kerrigan or other Zerg leaders). There was even one mission that allowed you to control Raynor's old ship, the Hyperion, offering a nice change of pace from the constant, build-attack-defend style of play. I also found myself replaying missions occasionally just so I could get a few of the achievements I missed the first time around, giving me a chance to try new strategies as well.

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is a more-than-competent follow-up to Wings of Liberty by introducing new units and an evolution system to the solid RTS basics Blizzard has established. Just don't expect much from the story.


This single-player review of StarCraft 2 was based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher. A multiplayer review will be coming separately.

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