Released earlier this month the first StarCraft 2 expansion, Heart of the Swarm, focuses on the Zerg race. We follow the story of Sarah Kerrigan, picking up where the plot in Wings of Liberty left off. Wings of Liberty was of course the initial release of StarCraft 2 and focused on the Terran race or more specifically, Jim Raynor and this split race approach was well known in advance of launch as Blizzard announced that the story they had to tell was so epic that it could not be contained within a single game. So in July 2010 Wings of Liberty was released, providing the first part of the storyline. Now HOTS follows on and the trilogy will be complete when the final expansion pack, Legacy of the Void, is released... though there is no date for that yet.
Gameplay - Campaign Mode (Note: Some spoilers for those who have not completed the campaign in Wings of Liberty)
The campaign mode is the single player game within Heart of the Swarm. The story focuses on Sarah Kerrigan, the erstwhile Queen of Blades and leader of the Zerg. Sarah was returned to her human form at the end of the Wings of Liberty campaign, and rescued from the clutches of Arcturus Mengsk by Jim Raynor.
Now on a remote planet with Jim and Crown Prince Valerian Mengsk, who rebelled against his father to help Jim, Sarah comes to terms with her new position. Arcturus is unwilling to let Kerrigan live through and sets out to destroy her.
The campaign takes us through a series of custom missions, which tells the story of Kerrigan, how she escapes the clutches of Arcturus and sets out on a path of bloody vengeance and revenge. Story telling has always been one of Blizzards strong points, and the story laid out in Heart of the Swarm builds well on the StarCraft lore.
That said, ultimately we must remember that this is the second in a trilogy and therefore the storyline will leave us with more to be discovered. This has led to some negative feelings about the storyline in Heart of the Swarm, however this reviewer enjoyed the journey and is very much looking forward to see how Blizzard complete the tale in Legacy of the Void.
Being focused on Sarah the campaign lets us get to know the Zerg race extremely well. In Wings of Liberty we had a technical upgrade tree that allowed us to improve our Terran units and make them more effective in combat. In Heart of Swarm we get to use the Zerg mutation and evolution pits to improve the units available to us. At any time we can alter these mutations, suiting the mission we are currently involved in.
We are also able to enhance Sarah as she levels through the storyline as well. During the missions we can complete the primary objective to gain Sarah levels, however we can also complete the bonus objectives to gain addition levels and enhance Sarah more quickly.
Gameplay - Multiplayer mode
StarCraft 2 is a big name in the eSports space and as such is constantly being balanced and updated to ensure that no one race has the upper hand. With Heart of the Swarm, Blizzard has added new units for players to utilise in the online game, opening up new tactics and opportunities for players.
As well as new units for each of the three races Blizzard has taken the opportunity in the expansion pack to enhance the community features available in StarCraft 2. Groups and Clans allow like-minded players to band together and get the most out of the game, either talking about it or playing against each other.
The Arcade section now brings the best of the player made content together and allows us to try out the newest custom maps and games available in Battle.net. The replay function has also been improved, allowing us to access replays of some famous games from tournaments and to take control and play out against computer AI.
Graphics & Audio
The graphics in Heart of the Swarm haven't changed dramatically from Wings of Liberty. The new units that have been introduced have their own animations and weapon effects, and of course the new missions in the campaign have custom units.
The graphics still have a fresh feel about them and are more than adequate for a real time strategy game. As ever Blizzard have numerous cut scenes included in Heart of the Swarm. Some of these are created using the in-game graphics, while some are fully rendered video. The fully rendered video cut scenes are up to the usual very high standard that Blizzard is known for and these are really beautiful to view. So much so that after seeing them, it again raises the question as to why Blizzard doesn't create a full movie if they have this type of talent on staff.
The audio and music used throughout the expansion pack is also very good. The audio snippets for the units are excellent, and contain the Blizzard sense of humour. This reviewer still laughs when he hears the Arnold impression used for the Thor units.
Finally for audio, the voice acting used throughout the game is excellent and performed to a very high standard. These include some well-known names for the world of television, such as Tricia Helfer who provides the voice of Sarah Kerrigan as well as highly respected Blizzard stalwart Chris Metzen who provides most of the voice work for the Terran units.
Heart of the Swarm is an excellent expansion pack for StarCraft 2. It moves the story along nicely and provides a strong single player campaign and enhances the multiplayer modes.
Note: The expansion is available to purchase as a digital download or from a brick and mortar store. The digital versions are available as a standard upgrade or a deluxe edition. These options are also available in traditional retailers with a collector's edition also offering bonus items.