The second part of Blizzard’s StarCraft II trilogy is finally here, but does Kerrigan’s adventure into the Heart of the Swarm do enough to justify splitting up the campaigns, and can it help the game reclaim its eSport dominance?
After fan outrage at the announcement that Blizzard would be splitting the campaign into three separate chapters, and initial resistance from the original StarCraft: Brood War scene, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty managed to silence most of the doubters with a one-two punch of the excellent single-player offering and a richly featured multiplayer that proved the poster boy for the nascent eSport scene. Now, more than two and a half years on, Blizzard have finally released the second instalment, focusing on the game’s slavering biomorphs, the Zerg.
Heart of the Swarm’s storyline picks up where Wings of Liberty left off, with Sarah Kerrigan liberated from her Queen of Blades persona and hiding out with Jim Raynor and Crown Prince Valerian from the forces of Emperor Arcturus Mengsk. A psychic link with the Zerg remains, though, allowing Kerrigan to exert control over their units, and it’s while testing these abilities that Dominion forces burst in, separating the rebel elements and capturing Raynor.
When Mengsk publicly announces Raynor’s summary execution, Kerrigan, burning for revenge, sets off to reunite the scattered remnants of the Swarm and bring a series of recalcitrant Brood Mothers back under her control. Along the way she discovers more about the origins of the Zerg and the shadowy role played in their evolution by the ancient Xel’Naga Amon, visits the Zerg homeworld of Zerus and finds her humanity crumbling once again in the face of her consuming desire for vengeance, culminating in an assault upon the Dominion capital world of Korhal.
Written down like that, Heart of the Swarm’s plot sounds far more epic and exciting than it sadly is in practice. StarCraft’s storyline has always been space opera hokum of the cheesiest kind, but the Blizzard writing staff’s tin ear for dialogue reaches new lows here, exacerbated by – surprisingly for, of all people, this developer – some rather lacklustre presentation throughout the game.
A giant Zerg space blob called the Leviathan acts as Kerrigan’s hub between missions, but whereas Raynor’s Hyperion in Wings of Liberty was decked out with multiple areas, various clickable trinkets and memorabilia and even a full-blown arcade game, Kerrigan’s equivalent consists of a handful of static characters gawping out of the Leviathan’s maw at whichever landmark is next on the attack plan. It’s too spartan a home to maintain interest.
Inbetween the occasional cinematic, the plot is driven forwards by clicking on the Leviathan’s motley crew of Zerg passengers in round robin fashion, and here HotS really struggles. The Zerg, as fascinating a race as they are in terms of RTS mechanics, were never the most original or fleshed out of science fiction creations, and the companions that Kerrigan picks up during her journey – from uppity Brood Mother Zagara to Zurvan, the oldest living Zerg – are all played with so much clichéd serpentine sibilance you half expect sputum to erupt from your speakers.
All of this would be just about bearable if the main character exhibited the level of charisma you associate with someone bordering on god-like cosmic status, but Tricia Helfer, excellent as she was in Battlestar Galactica and despite a long track record in video game voiceover work, brings an emotional range the width of a postage stamp to the role of Kerrigan. This was passable in her appearances in Wings of Liberty when you had Robert Clotworthy throwing himself into Jim Raynor’s ornery space cowboy dialogue with gusto or Neil Kaplan chewing the scenery to bits as Tychus Findlay, but with those characters either dead or missing in action for most of Heart of the Swarm, Helfer is left to carry the show alone, and sounds profoundly bored while doing so.
The problem is, Heart of the Swarm takes itself so bloody seriously. Gone are Wings of Liberty’s wry humour and good ol’ boy southern rock, so that when Valerian, Horner and deliciously bonkers mercenary Mira Han turn up late in the show and start bantering it feels like a jarring ray of sunshine amongst all the po-faced gloom. Swarm desperately wants to be The Empire Strikes Back of StarCraft, but, considering it’s been two years in the making, the overall presentation feels strangely cheap by Blizzard’s lofty standards.
Which is a shame, because as an actual single-player RTS campaign, it’s a corker. Whereas Wings of Liberty’s admittedly excellent campaign took a fair few missions to get going, HotS hits the ground running, with the very first mission introducing the central mechanical difference between Zerg and Terran: the requirement to build out of the Hatchery and constantly morph lava under the guise of Kerrigan flexing what remains of her mind control of the Swarm.
What follows is a deeply satisfying progression across 27 tightly tuned missions, full of varied objectives and directives, alternating between tight starship corridors and wide open alien expanses, between testing time limits and the freedom to crank up the production before unleashing a barrage of units and hammering down the door, all with lashings of optional quests and hidden bonuses to divert your focus from the main flash points.