In some ways, reviewing only the multiplayer aspect of a game is a daunting challenge in itself because so much relies of the game relies on how well your opponents play it as well. This is doubly true for StarCraft, where everything is finely crafted to complement everything else in the game without being obviously out of place. Even heavyweights like the Dawn of War and Blizzard’s own WarCraft 3 had their own problems with game balance, with the Necrons and Orks taking clear advantages over the other races.
The downside to fine balance means that newer players will be at something of a loss because of a lack of knowledge. How would one know how to deal with a huge group marines that come barging in the door at the five minute mark unless they’ve lost to it multiple times before realizing that simply putting down a few forcefields or Banelings is enough to deal with it? It’s a game of experience as much as it is really fast fingers, shredding the keyboard like a Petrucci solo.
And luckily, that’s one of the biggest improvements in Heart of the Swarm. The in-game tutorial support can be considered extensive by pessimistic standards. The original nine micro-management challenges remain but are helped out by a fleshed out Vs. AI mode which acts as a sort of multiplayer league simulator, where the game constantly matches you up against adequate AI until you’ve graduated to facing the most advanced it offers. It basically simulates the online experience without the daunting knowledge that somewhere across the continent someone has evidence that they’re better than you.
The AI settings are more intricate than before as well, featuring unique rush and unit builds that one would find in multiplayer games. The offering is significantly better than the “RUSH!” philosophy the AI seemed to always use before. It has the side effect of also helping prepare new players better than any challenge ever could.
So for new players, Heart of the Swarm is a godsend for not just learning how to play StarCraft 2, but learning how to play RTS games in general. As a traditional RTS, StarCraft has always been a great gateway game into the genre and Heart of the Swarm just makes it even easier.
For the experienced player, Heart of the Swarm offers so much more to the multiplayer than just AI. There is now the Unranked Multiplayer, where one can off-race and practice builds without any fear of tarnishing their official standings. Cross-regional play is now allowed, though one has to log into the other continent’s servers to access it. On top of that, the Rewards are now more fleshed out with portraits, a levelling system, and skins for units.
In terms of the game itself, everything is much faster in Heart of the Swarm compared to Wings of Liberty. Small unit-specific upgrades like the Siege Tank’s Siege Mode and the Raven’s Seeker Missile are gone, the Reapers have been completely changed up in terms of function, and the Ultralisk damage output has been increased. This has already resulted in a heavier use of all these units, which (apart from the Siege Tank) were barely ever used in Wings of Liberty.
The new units also serve to push the game along faster. Where before the Terran and Protoss armies were susceptible to the Brood Lord/Infestor combination that Zergs were putting out, units like the Tempest and even smaller ones like the Widow Mine are introduced to keep the other races in the game. The new Oracle and Mothership Core units help the Protoss to finally harass the other races where before it would have been mid-game at earliest for most players, and the Hellbat helps the Terran deal with clumps of light units that would otherwise pick apart their front lines. The Zerg are not left forgotten, their new Swarm Hosts give them great amounts of zone control, and the new healing ability for the Mutalisks helps keep their harassment from being more than just a small phase in the game. The Viper adds some interesting new spellcasting abilities for the Zerg as well, with its (hilarious) pulling mechanic and Blinding Cloud ability.
As an experience, Heart of the Swarm feels more rewarding and complete than Wings of Liberty. While crushing feeble humans online with the superior evolutionary prowess of the Zerg has always felt suitably satisfying, the levelling system brings with it a sentiment of progress along with the sense of achievement. Even new players will find themselves more engrossed with a more palatable experiencing fighting off AI that feel like people instead of just preset timings for early rushes.
As an expansion, Heart of the Swarm does everything one could possibly expect out of it and more. Blizzard took many of the complaints to heart and put out a product that should be held as an example of a proper expansion. The $40 price point may be steep for some, but the expansion offers extensive amounts of improvements both in its campaign and its multiplayer.