2013 is a mystery year for Blizzard. Not much is known about their forthcoming projects after StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm beyond a bit of Diablo 3 love, a potential BlizzCon event and WoW updates. It’s been awhile since they’ve appeared this quiet, but the eerie silence suits the developer, whose poker hands are always pulled very closely to its chest.
Despite this, AusGamers was invited out to Blizzard’s mammoth campus in Irvine, California recently, to see the latest build of Heart of the Swarm (while imagining everyone behind their tightly-locked office doors also swarming away at some awesome... something
). Due to the studio’s focus on getting it right, no matter the development time, what we saw we’d seen some of before. But thankfully it was a good benchmark through which to gauge their progress as it was all the more tighter, and looking and playing spectacularly.
The focus here was definitely more on the single-player campaign, and with the multiplayer beta out and about, it was good to see the team still working hard at continuing their epic space yarn.
We were briefed on a number of things to expect with the campaign side of things by the project lead, Dustin Browder (we have a video interview with him is on its way too, so stay tuned), standouts of which included that we’ll see 20 new missions, six all-new environments and that most of the focus will be on rebuilding Kerrigan’s power and reuniting the Swarm.
In fact, that’s as good a place as any to start, because it’s essentially where our handful of missions kicked off. Clearly Blizzard had jumped us ahead in the campaign just enough to avoid spoiling the obvious bridging moments between the end of Wings of Liberty and the beginning of Heart of the Swarm, and we’re left wondering what to do next aboard a giant Leviathan that can travel through space.
Harbouring Kerrigan, her accrued Swarm, Zagara and an odd fellow named Abathur, the leviathan essentially replaces Raynor’s ship from WoL as your mission launching point, only with a number of zerg differences. There’s initially (at least) less to explore here. Points of interest include Zagara who offers exposition about story components as well as information on missions and various points that raise throughout. Abathur evolves the Swarm with mutations based on specimens you discover out in the field or other strange devices that find their way into Kerrigan’s tale. You can then activate these mutations (unit-specific) before each mission and they’re not permanent, meaning you can switch and change as you see fit.
However, there is a permanent single “evolution” mutation you can activate through “Evolution Missions” which are found in the Evolution Pit. These give you two scenarios to trial both evolution options to see which you’d prefer, and they’ll range from upgrading your zerglings to have wings (so they can jump up ledges and cliffs), or to be able to hatch three zerglings from a single larvae (obviously for quick-building forces). Each path has its pros and cons, and whichever you choose will add a dynamic to the way in which you engage the enemy and missions. One thing’s for sure, there’s nothing quite like seeing a mass of 200 winged zerglings scurrying about to decimate a small Dominion force (this is an in-joke, but when you play the Evolution Mission it’s based on, you’ll know what I mean).
The changeable mutations are essentially buffs you can activate depending on how you’d like to approach each mission and range from the likes of health and healing bonuses to movement and attack speed. You’ll want to play around with these a lot, and even if you’re just a multiplayer player
, it’s worth a look because half of this stuff won’t be in that side of the game -- here it’s clear the team has absolutely let its hair down.
From a story delivery level, the game has also evolved, to maintain a theme. Missions have far more on-the-fly narrative now, and it’s not always clear what will be introduced each time you engage an environment. Ecology plays a part too, as mentioned earlier, with native animals either filling out the background of your asset-building base for life purposes, or giving up their lives so that you can evolve.
One particular mission we played was an excellent nod to the alien infestation factor from Alien(s). We had a larvae that made its way onto a Protoss ship after hijacking the body of a Protoss ambassador. Once aboard her ship, the larvae exploded out (presumably through the chest) leaving a bloody mess. Now the focus was on staying out of sight and unseen, but to also consume the DNA of a number of biological specimens aboard the ship until it was possible to evolve. Each evolution lead to an inevitable ability to build a small army and infest
the Protoss ship, taking it down before it could alert any more Protoss to Kerrigan’s return and her obviously nefarious plan to reclaim her swarm and once again wreak havoc on the galaxy.
Before she can do that though, it’s worth pointing out that Kerrigan herself needs to grow and evolve, and this is done through levelling and choosing one of two abilities in a level skill tree that unlocks new abilities at various level milestones. Initially only a small number of abilities are available, but once you reach level 10, 20, 35, 50 and 60 more and more will be yours to play with. Similarly to the zerg mutations, you’ll be able to click on Kerrigan any time you’re on the leviathan and change her abilities, allowing for different approaches to different missions, environments and enemies.
The game looks to maintain the same visuals, but updates to lighting and physics, as well as animations and abilities help separate it from Wings of Liberty. In fact the physics are actually quite cool, doing away with canned animations in place of more dramatic death and destruction, which is essentially what a large portion of Heart of the Swarm is actually about.
As we had a reasonable amount of time with the game I played through a few missions a couple of times to play with different abilities and tactics, but also ramped up the difficulty from Casual to Normal to see what sort of difficulty spike a StarCraft nub like me would experience. I still cleared my missions, but it was absolutely more hands-on in micro and timing. The beauty of this, obviously, is that the Casual setting was actually a solid entry point for anyone who hasn’t dabbled in either the series or the RTS before, or very much. Couple this with the new Training option outside of the campaign, that gradually introduces newcomers or non-multiplayer types to the differences between the two and you have a game built for both the hardcore and casual/newcomer alike.
The fact the game doesn’t force you to simply deal with the deep-end of what an RTS could usually offer you, and gives you a choice to not only play at your desired skill level, but learn, in a conducive and fun way, how to get better is a massive boon. Browder also pointed out that there have been a lot of changes to UI, especially for casters, where they can place items on-screen where it’s better for them to call matches as well as manage replays better. Even AI communication for matches has been overhauled to make for a more engaging experience, leaving just their second outing in the revamped StarCraft 2 series a massive improvement indeed.
All of this, coupled with one of the best Blizzard intro videos I’ve ever seen, makes Heart of the Swarm a pretty much must-have, despite your multiplayer or single-player leanings. Not only has the team catered to both crowds individually in hugely rewarding ways, they’ve also found ways to bridge the two in an effort to hopefully, finally, bring them together. Onwards to review, Blizzard -- hurry up, I want to get my creep on.