Post by Steve Farrelly @ 01:00pm 31/05/11 | Comments
AusGamers was invited out to Blizzard's Irvine, California campus to take a close look at StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. Read on for our full preview...
Note: If you didn’t complete the story-mode in StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, this article contains spoilers from that, and you should stop reading right about... now.
So we’re four to six missions into the single-player campaign that is StarCraft II’s first expansion, Heart of the Swarm. Thanks to the artifact Jim Raynor collected in Wings of Liberty, the once powerful Queen of Blades, Kerrigan, has been returned to human form and Raynor, romantically, walked off with her in his arms and into the sunset at the close of the first chapter in Blizzard’s planned trilogy. However, for reasons unknown, in the still relatively early goings on of Heart of the Swarm, Kerrigan is very much human, but equally just as driven as her former self. Her goal: to regain control of the Zerg and sit atop her throne once more as the Queen of Blades.
To this end, Heart of the Swarm is also about a heart of darkness. It’s the evil side of the StarCraft universe, and where you were doing all you could to save humans, and the galaxy, in the first game, here you’re going to be conquering planets on the whole, and generally just messing things up for everyone else around you, including select Zerg.
“We’ve been trying to figure out; what is this game, Heart of the Swarm?” says StarCraft II Production Director, Chris Sigaty, to AusGamers during a visit out to the Blizzard campus in Irvine, California. “Because we don’t want to deliver the same experience you had in Wings of Liberty - it needs to be about Kerrigan and evolving the Zerg race, and mutation and the Zerg’s motif in general.”
Indeed, while the game fundamentally played the same as Wings of Liberty, in terms of RTS mechanics, the overall experience was very, very different. It’s important to also point out that if you play as Zerg in multiplayer, Heart of the Swarm is still a very different beast. As Chris pointed out, you’ll be evolving the Zerg race, which means mutating units in different ways to deal with the varying mission mechanics the team have introduced to the campaign to keep it interesting and fresh.
An example of the above is in the second mission that was available to us to play on the icy moon of Kaldir (we only had two missions across two planets). Here your goal is to find the separatist Zerg queen Na’fash and reclaim her brood. Being an ice-planet, however, allowed the team to introduce cold swells; flash freezing moments that stop you in your tracks. But the native Yetis on the moon obviously have an adaptation that prevents them from freezing and so your evolution master, Abathur, tasks you with collecting their DNA so as to infuse your army with the same resilience, thus giving you a tactical advantage when you eventually come across Protoss who are are also on the moon.
It’s not just mission mechanics that will separate Heart of the Swarm from Wings of Liberty though, as the game’s narrative has taken a fundamental shift to reflect the nature of the Zerg and Kerrigan. If Wings of Liberty’s theme was derived from Western movies , then Heart of the Swarm is the team’s “Monster movie”, as described by art director Sam “Samwise” Didier.
“This is the time where you are playing with monsters, devils and demons, basically,” Didier tells us enthusiastically. “Not obviously those, but this is the game where Kerrigan is standing there on the set, you know, the Leviathon [and] this room that you’re in will eventually be... alive. The aperture you’re looking at in the vista will be opening and closing, there’ll be the sound of heartbeats and breathing; it’s going to feel like you’re in the bowels of this beast. All the characters you talk to, they’re not Horner, they’re not Swan, they’re not even Tosh; these guys are monsters; these are things that either you’ve created or that you’ve picked up along the way, or just crazy mutations of something that you had once seen before - these things are just supposed to be horrors.”
Running off the same engine as Wings of Liberty, heart of the Swarm still looks the part, but it is a much darker experience overall. Your UI is essentially alive with creeping tenticals and more. Click on a Zergling unit and its animated picture will hiss and spit at you, leaving droplets of saliva on the camera. It’s all very engaging and immersive for a game that is largely about micro-management, macro and numbers. And Sam tells us they’ve still got a long way to go in how everything is going to look and feel.
“We know we’re going to upgrade Kerrigan, so we’re working on her UI and the abilities she gets with that,” he explains. “We know we’re going to upgrade a certain number of unit types, so now we have to make a Zergling and [then] two different Zerglings...”
Messing around with the game’s DNA fusion system, where you can pick up DNA strands scattered throughout the game to upgrade different units, I had a chance to evolve one of my Zerglings to the new Raptor class, where they’re basically even more vicious; launching at enemies instead of just swarming them - they’re more agile and a lot meaner as raptors, and infinitely more fun to use as a result.
“You know, every world that you go to, there’s a new character that you meet that’s a step-up on the horror level, than from your last one,” Sam continues. “Then every unit that you [upgrade], they’re offshoots are even creepier down that tech-tree, and that doesn’t even count the multiplayer units that we want to do, which are obviously one of the most important [and] that’s why we hold off on doing those until the end, at least the final art for them. But we really just want to push this aspect, that this is a horror show you’re going to; this is your monster movie, you know, dealing with demons (sort of) campaign.”
Interestingly, Kerrigan looks completely human barring her hair, so there’s a great juxtaposition for players and a real sense of connection. It’s alien, but Kerrigan’s regained mortality is definitely a human bridge. The team revealed that you’ll always be taking her out into the field with you as something of a Hero unit. There’s even a light RPG element to her that comes in the form of being able to choose “tool kits” for here as they’re unlocked. These follow two paths: Corruption and Spec Ops, allowing for you to choose how you want her to play each mission and with what special abilities and buffs. She also can’t die, though she can be struck down where you need to wait for a cool-down before respawning her in -camp.
The first planet and mission we had access to happened on Char where Kerrigan’s own personal brood when she was the Queen of Blades live. However, another queen, Za’gara, refuses to acknowledge that Kerrigan is the Queen of Blades and has taken her brood for herself. Here we had to build an army, pick up rogue Zerglings to join our army and collect 100 eggs before Za’gar did. Thankfully Za’gara suffered from the same cool-down effect when she was struck down, which gave me time to build a pretty invincible army to head out egg-hunting. It was essentially a two-part mission; upon collection of 100 eggs, Kerrigan spawns an absolutely massive force of Roaches to just go in and smash Za’gara and her camp. Once defeated, Za’gara believes Kerrigan is actually the Queen of Blades, and in response, Kerrigan spares her life.
The second mission on Kaldir, which I mentioned earlier, involved fighting Protoss through the cold-snaps in less than 20-minutes, as they’re attempting to E.T. it to their home-planet and call in reinforcements. Here it was simply a case of attacking each Protoss base scattered around the level harboring a communications tower. The secondary objective was to hunt down Yeti matriarchs and steal their DNA for Abathur and your evolution chamber.
Both missions felt like StarCraft, but had such a creatively different flair in the aesthetic department. But I also felt like we could have seen more. Both were good examples of some of the new units, and using Kerrigan in battle, but more mission mechanic variation wouldn’t have gone astray to show us how creative the team are being in the Campaign gameplay department. We didn’t get any information about multiplayer, which I know many of you care a lot more about than single-player, but Chris Sigaty certainly didn’t shy away from telling us it’s definitely coming along.
“Multiplayer was another interesting challenge,” he tells us. “It’s coming later but not because single-player is dictating what multiplayer needs to to, but rather because... it’s this interesting conundrum with Wings of Liberty and how Heart of the Swarm is intended to fit; they’re separate games, but Wings of Liberty is achieving this really good balance right now; we’re finding that it’s in a great place and we want to make Wings of Liberty add additional options and units, but they need to fill niches that need to be filled, and because the balance is strong there it’s harder to find those niches and go, like, “oh that’s the spot, we should clearly put that in”, because it has such an impact any direction it goes, on its own race, against the other races, how impactful is that versus Protoss or versus Terran of vice-versa... so it [multiplayer] needs to wait a little bit just until the dust settles so we know what we’ve got for multi.”
For the story junkies out there who want to know what happens between the end of the last game and where we were given control of a power-hungry Kerrigan, the team are being unsurprisingly tight-lipped, despite my probing questions regarding the set-up.
“It’s difficult to do this, and it’s kind of messy with you guys because we aren’t saying everything, purposely, because those hooks are there and those were the compelling part of it and we don’t want to ruin the story aspect,” Chris concludes. “But yeah we see her [Kerrigan] but we don’t really know, we never confirm what actually happened at the end except that Raynor is walking off into the sunset with a very different looking Kerrigan; she doesn’t have her carapace, she doesn’t appear to have wings anymore and you know... is she totally human? I don’t know, her hair looked kind of funky. And then we have this cool teaser, it’s very short but it shows... oh! There’s some stuff going on... Nova’s in there, what’s going on with the... we see Kerrigan, she’s just did some crazy shit; blowing stuff up and then next thing you know here you guys are now in the level and she’s talking about getting the Swarm together and asking about the Swarm and talking to a bunch of weird creatures.
“So what’s going on there? I’d love to answer all of your questions, but I think cliffhangers are kind of important, right? And we want the player to experience it rather than say “here’s what it is”. But yeah, there’s definitely some stuff going on there and there’s some changes going on, and I won’t confirm what the ultimate theme is, but imagine what’s happened: she was the Queen of Blades moments ago, Raynor’s walking off, a lot of people were interested in getting this artifact together to make all of this happen, and it’s gonna pick up and [we’ll] explain what happened.”
So there you have it. As far as any confirmation on a release period... well this is Blizzard, so we got zilch. The fact that we’re seeing the game though is an indication that they’re at least on-track to get this out soonish, and what we saw really was just a teaser. It plays familiarly, but there’s a marked difference in its tone and narrative, as well as how you grow your army and advance your play-style, but beyond most of what we have for you today in the juicy comments above or the latest media, we’re left with a massive cliffhanger, so stay tuned.