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BlizzCon 2011 – StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Hands-On Impressions

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Kerrigan

The original StarCraft saw its first and only expansion pack, Brood War, released a scant eight months after the release of the initial game. Well over a year after the launch of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, we’re still waiting for the game’s first expansion, Heart of the Swarm.

Luckily, if what was shown off at BlizzCon is any indication, the Zerg-focused add-on is coming along quite nicely. Attendees were treated to a sampling of Heart of the Swarm’s single player missions as well as given a chance to test-drive some of the multiplayer game’s diverse new units. I had a chance to sit down and give both a try, and the demonstrations left me pleased with the direction Blizzard is taking StarCraft… and whetted my appetite for even more.

Hit the break to find out just what’s buzzing within the Swarm.

Heart of the Swarm’s single player campaign seems to pick up right where Wings of Liberty left off. This time, the narrative focus has appropriately shifted from marshal-turned-rebel Jim Raynor to the former Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan. Though the psionically-gifted woman might have been given her humanity back at the end of StarCraft II’s first installment, her heart still thirsts for vengeance, and what better tool to use to quench herself than the now-fractured Zerg Swarm?

Izsha

Much like Wings of Liberty, missions are book-ended with RPG-style character interaction, during which you can talk to NPCs as well as upgrade various parameters regarding your army. One of the major characters you’ll be interacting with is a strange being named Izsha. Serving as your adviser, Izsha represents Kerrigan’s memory as the Queen of Blades, and as such, knows a thing or two about keeping the feral Zerg strains in line.

You’ll also have access to Abathur, a coldly-logical Zerg being who concerns himself principally with overseeing the Swarm’s evolution. In between missions, you can choose units who have been exposed to enough combat and guide their evolution along, taking the form of bonuses for that unit going forward. For instance, the demo showed off three evolutionary paths for the common Zergling: a 30% HP boost, a 20% damage upgrade, or the ability to launch into a movement-and-attack-speed-increasing frenzy when they witness a fellow zergling die.

One interesting way in which Heart of the Swarm deviates from Wings of Liberty is the presence of Kerrigan on the field. A few missions in the Terran campaign featured protagonist Jim Raynor, but Kerrigan is on-site and controllable in each and every Zerg scenario. In addition, she’ll gain levels and increase in power as the campaign progresses, and you can choose a focus for Kerrigan’s development between missions.

Kerrigan Battle Focus - destruction

The demo featured two different “battle focuses” for Kerrigan. The one available by default was called “Destruction.” This gave Kerrigan’s basic attack the “Chain Reaction” ability, which allowed her to hit two units at a time, also let her use “Crushing Grip,” and area-of-effect stun that dealt light damage. Completing one mission unlocked “Swarm,” granting Kerrigan the ability to spawn banelings at will and create a new structure that constantly spawns broodlings. This upgrade screen seemed to suggest that Kerrigan can unlock at least two additional battle focuses, as well as a total of four abilities for each focus, which should grant a nice chunk of customization.

Two missions were available for play at BlizzCon. The first one took you back to the Zerg baseworld of Char. Seeking to bolster the ranks of her newly formed Swarm by collecting the eggs of the now-feral Zerg and accelerating their birthrate, Kerrigan finds herself at odds with the rogue broodmother Za’Gara, who is similarly looking to reign in the Zerg under her own control. The objective here is to move about the acid swamps of Char, attempting to collect 100 zerg eggs before Za’Gara can do the same.

Very similarly to Wings of Liberty, the mission allows you to engage in a side objective. Here, a number of infested Terran command centers are hidden around the map, and taking all of them out will fulfill the sub-quest. These secondary missions will reward Kerrigan with permanent stat increases, toughening up Heart of the Swarm’s leading lady and giving plenty of incentive for you to seek them out.

Char 05 Soooo many banelings

Eventually, after much exploration and a few confrontations with the broodmother herself, the eggs were collected and placed within the spawning pool, rewarding you with literally hundreds of banelings with which to roll through Za’Gara’s base. Unless you’ve been screwing around with the map editor, you have no idea how satisfying it is to see that many banelings detonate at once. After raining gooey-green death upon her, she submits to Kerrigan’s power and once again becomes her loyal minion.

The second mission takes you to the icy planet of Kaldir in pursuit of another rogue broodmother. Here, the culprit is Na’fash, who has taken a sizable number of the Swarm to the bitter cold in order to toughen them up. Unfortunately for Kerrigan, Na’fash was killed by a Protoss colony that had settled on the planet, and your troops must take them out before they can summon the Golden Armada back on Shakuras to reinforce them.

The interesting mechanic in play for this mission is the “flash freeze” timer. Every so often, the planet will be subjected to a period of intense cold, during which non-native species -such as the Protoss and Zerg – will be rendered defenseless. But there’s a solution, naturally. Absorbing enough DNA from some of the native creatures on the planet will reinforce the Swarm’s genetic structure to ignore the effects of the flash freeze.

Expedition 02 Melting the ice to make use of the base

You’ll establish your base, stave off attacks from the Protoss, then move out in order to hunt the yetis that populate the planet. After reinforcing your troops, you’ll be able to weather the weather, giving you a significant advantage over the highly-entrenched Protoss. But be careful – Kaldir shows off some really neat new environmental effects, such as hampered vision and terrain that gives way underneath your troops.

All in all, the campaign looks to be another solid single-player entry much in line with Wings of Liberty, and I personally can’t wait to delve deeper into it (even though Zerg is easily my weakest race). But let’s be honest – the REAL reason you’re still playing StarCraft II is the multiplayer. Thankfully, Heart of the Swarm does not disappoint, offering new units for all three races that vastly expand the number of strategic offerings for each.

StarCraft II’s units are designed with an incredibly careful eye to the current metagame, and are each intended to fulfill a tactical hole in their respective race. For instance, the Zerg Swarm Host gives Zerg players some much-needed siege capability, while Terran Hellions can be transformed into slow-moving but far-tougher battle mechs that gives them a late-game role against swarms of lightly armored units.

Terran Shredder close up

I sat down for a head-to-head round of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm at BlizzCon, ready to see what these new units were capable of. I, naturally, selected Protoss for my race, while my opponent settled for Terran. The match began in more-or-less typical fashion – my (admittedly poor) build order from Wings of Liberty translated over to Heart of the Swarm with little issue. 

I got my robotics facility down and was treated to the Protoss’s first new unit: the Replicant. A strange, robotic unit with no attacks, the Replicant can scan any unit the player has vision on, transforming into a direct copy of that unit… complete with all its upgrades. I made a few Replicants to keep with me should I need their services, and continued to tech along towards the other new units.

It was not long until I was painfully introduced to the first of the Terran army’s new toys: the Shredder. Designed for map control, the Shredder emits radiation in a radius around it, dealing damage to enemies but immediately shutting down if an ally is within range. My play was sloppy, and I never noticed my opponent drop a shredder behind my mineral line until it was too late. A couple of pulses later, and every single one of my probes was dead. It seems as though players are going to have to be extra vigilant about protecting their workers, as this new unit is capable of absolutely decimating your economy if you’re lax.

Oracle

Not to be outdone, I countered with some harassment of my own in the form of the new Protoss Oracle. A flying unit, the oracle doesn’t attack workers in the traditional sense. Instead, it is capable of surrounding mineral patches with a force field, making workers unable to harvest from them until the field dissipates. Static defense is also ineffective, since another of its abilities can render structures useless for a short time. 

After a few successful hits from my Oracle put a damper on my opponent’s economy, it was time for the battles themselves to ensue. He came at me with a strong force of Vikings and another new unit, the Warhound, a mech with a strong anti-air presence and an anti-vehicle ground attack. My own forces were composed of a mix of stalkers and the new Protoss capital ship, the Tempest, which is designed to quickly deal with mass clumps of air units.

Tempest

And deal with air units they did. His Vikings were no match for the intense psionic blasts from my Tempests, and his entire fleet was quickly decimated. For a brief moment, I seemed to have the upper hand, but his Warhounds were eventually able to finish off my Tempests. In the end, it all came down to macro (as games often tend to do), and he simply was able to produce more units than me. An overwhelming attack and a “gg” later, and I had been handed my first loss of Heart of the Swarm.

Still, despite my crushing defeat and the fact that I didn’t get a chance to see any of the new Zerg units in action (I’m particularly excited about the options offered by the attack-range reducing and enemy repositioning capabilities of the Zerg Viper), I was immensely satisfied with what I got to play at the show. StarCraft II’s multiplayer is headed in a fantastic direction with the new expansion pack, and these highly unique new units will be a joy to see in action in the hands of skilled players.

Abathur

All in all, Heart of the Swarm left me with a fantastic outlook for the future of Blizzard’s premier strategy title. The single player looks to continue the engrossing, dynamic experience offered by the game’s initial installment, and the new options for multiplayer battles are sure to keep the metagame fresh and active. Here’s to hoping Heart of the Swarm will be rushing into stores sometime soon.

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