Personal update: The good news is that I’ve finally found somewhere to live up here. The bad news is that I can’t move in until the start of April, and while I can bang together a game review in three hours on a train I can’t do science posts without sitting down and doing research — which is kind of impossible when you have no fixed abode. This basically means no posts aside from Monday reviews until after April 1st. Sorry!
This is very disappointing.
I really liked Starcraft II’s Wings of Liberty campaign. The writing and story was the substandard cliched dross I’ve sadly come to expect from Blizzard these days, of course, but as far as the gameplay was concerned it was the first title to actually iterate on traditional RTS design in years1. It recognised that the single-player campaign didn’t have to be identically balanced with its multiplayer component, and by doing so shook itself free of many tired conventions that have held the genre back. It removed research and development from the RTS part of the game and embedded them into the campaign storytelling. And the most surprising thing it did was to come up with a collection of mission designs that were consistently and entertainingly varied. In one level you’d be ambushing enemy trains running on randomised routes; in another you’d be constantly uprooting your buildings to escape from a wall of fire sweeping its way across the map; and in yet another you’d defend your base against zombie swarms during the night and then venture out to destroy their nests during the day.
In short, Wings of Liberty made the moribund old RTS seem fresh and fun again, and I figured that if Blizzard was still capable of delivering a gameplay package that was just so good I’d overlook the horrible things they did to Starcraft’s story in the process. The game ended with the de-Zerged Queen of Blades becoming just plain old Sarah Kerrigan again, and no matter how tacky it was to watch her nuzzle into the shoulder of her literal knight in shining armour Jim Raynor I have to admit this made for an excellent setup for the second campaign – one in which Kerrigan would both come to terms with her Zergy powers and seek revenge against the man responsible for her getting them in the first place. At the time it sounded like it’d have a fairly heavy RPG focus, kind of like Rexxar’s campaign in Frozen Throne2 with additional swarming alien monstrosities, and with the legwork already done on the engine and multiplayer it seemed like the chances were good we’d see this expansion in twelve months or so.
And now here we are three years later, and the first expansion pack for a game released in 2010 has finally been released3. I was looking forward to Heart of the Swarm. I really wish I could tell you that it was worth the wait. Unfortunately HotS is distinctly underwhelming, and that’s when the game is at its best. At its worst it is everything bad about modern Blizzard games wrapped up in one misshapen package, and after last year’s Diablo III turned out to be something of a bust it makes me worry about Blizzard’s future output in general.
Kerrigan has been reunited with Jim Raynor and is holed up on a remote moon while floppy-haired JRPG reject Prince Valerian runs tests to figure out the extent of her control over the Zerg swarm. This functions as the game’s tutorial as Kerrigan demonstrates how the Zerg army functions, but it’s abruptly cut short when the Dominion attacks and she becomes separated from Raynor and Valerian. Raynor disappears and is reported dead in a Dominion news report, and because everyone in a Blizzard game is a barely-functioning IQ-minus idiot she doesn’t dismiss this as blatant propaganda4 and she doesn’t team up with Jim’s buddies on the Hyperion to go find him. Instead she decides to undo the entire previous game by re-Zerging herself and building up the swarm again so that she can go find Arcturus Mengsk and stick a claw through his face.
Now, I’m not saying I liked the way the previous campaign ended, but I have to question a game which plays so freely with prior events in the way that Heart of the Swarm does. I mean sure, it’s a Blizzard game, and I’ve already said their plots are universally terrible these days, but when you bombard the player with (admittedly extremely pretty) in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes every five minutes it does start to become a problem when the story those cutscenes are telling is in incoherent, illogical mess. Despite retaining her humanity this time around Kerrigan still acts like a mass-murdering monster, with no act being too foul in her pursuit of Mengsk – there’s a couple of bits where she orders the swarm to consume entire planets, for crying out loud – and while I do quite like playing the bad guy in video games that’s not how Kerrigan is coming off here. Tonally the game still treats her as a hero, with the player expected to sympathise with her plight and tacitly endorse her actions.
Because Wings of Liberty had bits where you could walk around the ship and engage the crew in conversation Heart of the Swarm feels like it also has to cram these segments into the game, except because Kerrigan is a Zerg and her army is made up of Zerg, everyone she talks to is a Zerg. Not only is this inconsistent with the nature of the Zerg as a hive-mind entity (it’s like having individual Borg oh wait no they already did that as well) but the characters she surrounds herself with are the most awful, one-note cliches possible; after you have played through the Heart of the Swarm campaign you will never want to hear the words POWER or ESSENCE or SPINNING again as long as you live. Finally, while the whole Raynor/Kerrigan thing was an unwelcome presence throughout the WoL campaign Heart of the Swarm is the point where it becomes a malignant tumour that threatens to consume the entire series with its high-school teenage angst. Do you remember when Blizzard’s stories were very hands-off and were far more about generating basic atmosphere than they were relaying huge exposition dumps and trying to elicit emotional responses from the player in the most hamhanded way possible? I miss those days.
Anyway, the storytelling is especially malodorous this time around, and since we’ve established that I’m perfectly willing to forgive this if the gameplay is good enough you can probably guess what I’m about to say: the gameplay really isn’t good enough. In order to justify Heart of the Swarm’s hefty pricetag there’s 27 missions crammed into the campaign, but in light of how imaginative WoL’s mission design was I was actually shocked at how derivative most of them were. Seven of them are “evolution missions” which function as extended tutorial segments that basically waste the player’s time (having video sequences embedded into the UI that demonstrated key unit features was a significant innovation for WoL, and I don’t understand why they couldn’t have done the same thing here), and fully half of the remaining twenty are direct repeats of concepts already covered in Wings of Liberty. The ambushing trains mission reappears, except this time you’re shooting down Protoss shuttles. The gas harvesting mission reappears, except this time you’re gathering biomass. The scrap collecting mission reappears, except this time you’re collecting eggs. There’s even (amusingly) a point where Heart of the Swarm steals from Diablo III instead, with a boss fight that is identical to the fight with Belial. When so many missions are retreads of content I already played in previous Blizzard games with only a minor twist to liven them up it doesn’t exactly endear a game to me, and when combined with the story it did much to sour me on Heart of the Swarm from the outset.
That’s not to say that the entire campaign is a waste of time. There are new and original missions in here, and when they crop up they’re usually enjoyable at the very least (I especially liked the one where you take control of the Hyperion in a space battle), it’s just that they’re rather bizarrely concentrated towards the end of the game, and by that time the damage had already been done. It doesn’t help that on most missions you’re given control of Kerrigan herself, who is often capable of eliminating the entire enemy army singlehandedly; this cuts down on the variety by making every mission where you get her virtually identical in terms of what you have to do to win. In fairness this is an unintended consequence of the RPG elements that actually did make it into Heart of the Swarm – instead of research points you now gather XP for Kerrigan which gives her better stats and new abilities as she levels up, and this mechanic is of little use if you don’t get to use those abilities in a fight – but I do think there are ways of doing this that wouldn’t have rendered the strategy side of the gameplay so cookie-cutter in nature. Perhaps a little more exploration of the Zerg swarm’s ability to mutate and adapt; this is represented in-game by a selection of three mutation bonuses for each major strain that can be chopped and changed at any time, as well as permanent mutations into one of two substrains that change the basic behaviour and appearance of the unit. This is fine, and I did enjoy making all my zerglings look even more horrifying and insect-like by giving them a pair of wings, but it would have been nice if they’d integrated it with Kerrigan’s progress a little more instead of just handing you the evolution missions as part of the story. As it is there’s little to separate Kerrigan’s levelling up from Wings of Liberty’s research mechanic, and I feel this drastically diminishes what was (for me) the game’s key selling point.
Still, I wouldn’t describe Heart of the Swarm’s campaign as bad. It’s simply shockingly average and derivative, with little sign of the good ideas that drove Wings of Liberty past its self-imposed storytelling limitations (or rather, too much sign of those good ideas because it’s shamelessly stolen them). However, I would describe the rest of the game as bad, and no matter how you mix bad and average you’re never going to end up with something good. Perhaps Heart of the Swarm will be of interest to you if you’re involved in Starcraft’s multiplayer scene, but then let’s face it – if you do Starcraft multiplayer in any way at all you already went out and bought it. If you haven’t, then I’d recommend staying away for now. Despite its theft of the better missions Heart of the Swarm doesn’t come anywhere near close to the high standard set by Wings of Liberty, and so unless you really want to see just how low Blizzard’s writers can sink it isn’t worth your time or your money.
- An accomplishment only slightly diminished by the fact that Starcraft II was the first traditional RTS to be released in years. ↩
- For those who never played it, the Orc campaign in Frozen Throne was basically Diablo done in the Warcraft III engine. ↩
- I don’t know about you, but it does seem like the only people who are really taking episodic design seriously are the guys at Telltale. Everyone else uses it as an excuse to dilute content. ↩
- It’s especially ironic as her own death has featured on these news reports several times. ↩