"I am the Swarm." These are the first words in the massively impressive opening sequence for Heart of the Swarm, the first of two planned expansions for StarCraft II. The words are Kerrigan's, ruler of the Zerg and the Queen of Blades.
But it's all posture. Sarah Kerrigan is no longer the leader of the swarm. In fact, she is not the leader of anything. For as you know, we saved her from Zerg influence at the end of Wings of Liberty, so she is now once again human. Free of blood lust and desire for destruction, but also plagued by the guilt over the millions of deaths she was responsible for.
But since there isn't much entertainment in sitting in a cell and being depressed, Kerrigan soon gets her thirst for vengeance back. Arcturus Mengsk, Emperor of the Terran Dominion needs to have his skull impaled, and to do that, there is only one way forward for Kerrigan: She must turn her back on her saviours and reunite the now shattered Zerg horde.
We have waited nearly three years for Heart of the Swarm to be finished, and finally it has arrived. So, what are we in for? A new campaign with 20-26 missions, depending on how you count them up, as well as a lovely fuel injection into the game's terrific multiplayer. If you are among those who play Starcraft II online, you probably already know what the latter brings with it, so I'll focus on the campaign to start with.
And what a glorious campaign it is. Blizzard have carried on the concept from Wings of Liberty, where every mission has some kind of unique gimmick. It is rare for a level to just be about building a base, raising an army and then going and killing the enemy. As a rule, there's much more going on. In one mission, for example, you stop Protoss spaceships from reaching some large warp gates, in another you must revive huge Zerg guns so they can shoot steroid-pumped Battlecruisers down before they reach your base.
A handful of missions almost completely drop the traditional model, and are more reminiscent of action games. There's a mission where you start on board a spaceship as a small parasite that has to collect biomass, and from there develop into a so-called Brood mother that can hatch new units, and thus destroy all enemies on the ship. In another, Kerrigan must lead a small group of units around the planet Zerus, the original homeworld of the Zerg, and find and destroy three pack leaders in some pretty well-crafted boss battles. Yes, there are boss battles in this RTS game - complete with healthbars at the top of the screen.
On the surface it may seem a drastic change of direction, but in my opinion it fits excellently with both mechanics and story, and helps ensure a high degree of variation.
Unlike in Wings of Liberty, Kerrigan finds herself on the battlefield in most missions, and in the few where she isn't, you have other hero units with special abilities. It is a model that is clearly inspired by Warcraft III, and helps to separate Heart of the Swarm even further from Wings of Liberty.
Kerrigan gains levels between missions, and regularly receives new abilities. These are sorted in groups, and you must choose one from each group. But much like World of Warcraft and Diablo III, you are free to make adjustments in between missions. That means you'll never be stuck with an ability you don't particularly like, and if you have a little foresight, you can even tailor your ability choices to the needs of the upcoming mission.
You continuously unlock small mutations for all the basic units, with options such as making them run faster, move while buried, do more damage against certain unit types, and so on. As with Kerrigan's abilities, these choices are not permanent, but rather perks which can be switched freely between missions.
But there are also permanent evolutions. At regular intervals, you will be asked to choose between two evolutionary developments for a given unit. With the basic Zerglings, for instance, the choice is either giving them small wings so they can jump up and down cliffs and skip over other units in combat, or making them hatch almost immediately and with three units per egg instead of the usual two. To demonstrate the possibilities in action, each of these choices are accompanied by a short mission where you get to try each alternative, and thus you are able to make an informed choice.
It is a clear improvement over Wings of Liberty, where you often had to choose between two new units, but didn't have much more than a little text description and a small animation to go on. These choices of evoltution are always interesting, and it is easy to see how each variation can be beneficial. Ergo it provides additional replay value.
Another point where Heart of the Swarm improves upon Wings of Liberty is the story. This is Kerrigan's story - it is all about her and her vengeance. It adds a more personal layer and focused narrative, and compared to what Blizzard have delivered when it comes to story in recent years, I think this is a clear step in the right direction. Less talk about millennia-old dark forces and visions of doom, and more character development and personal relationships.
That doesn't make Heart of the Swarm something Shakespeare might have written. It's still cheesy as hell, and the dialogue especially smells of cheese, but it is somewhat easier to live with this time around. Kerrigan is perhaps the most interesting character in the StarCraft universe, and it suits the game that she is at the center.
The remainder of the cast she runs into during the game, however, are more generic. The exception is Abathur, a rather disgusting caterpillar/slug-like thing, who is in charge of all mutation and evolution of your units. He has an odd speech pattern, and almost exclusively talks of genes and DNA sequences, and it all serves to make him pretty entertaining. Lets hope he returns in the next game in one shape or another.
Some players may miss the more "pure" and traditional missions, but personally I think the Heart of the Swarm campaign is a highly entertaining game with a high degree of variation, and one that boldly chooses to ignore the conventions of the genre every now and then.
And once it is completed, you open the so-called Master Archive, where you can replay all the missions and choose between all the devices, mutations, evolutions, abilities and so on that you could potentially have at your disposal the first time you played it. That means there still won't be any massive Ultralisks in the early missions, but since the campaign is not entirely linear, there are potentially units and abilities that you could have access to, but didn't first time. Difficulty and so on can also be adjusted, so you can really chase after those achievements.
Let us move on to multiplayer. Heart of the Swarm adds seven new units across the three races, and it may not sound like much, but with the wide range of changes to game balance the expansion also brings with it, this amounts to a massive shake up. The result is a game that in many ways has become faster, with more focus on early action, and where players aren't able to bet exclusively on a long-term strategy built around the units at the top of the technology tree to the same extent.
Wings of Liberty was in some ways stuck in a rut, and matches often were played with the goal of reaching the so-called late-game. Now there is action almost from the outset, and that means more varied and entertaining matches, and there is more of an impact when the really heavy units enter into battle.
In addition, there are numerous improvements in the interface itself, which in usual Blizzard style was launched with a patch earlier this year, so you do not actually need to buy Heart of the Swarm to get them. The enhancements include better training missions and more extensive opportunities to practice against the computer, all of which have the effect that StarCraft II is now easier to go to for the beginner. An improved statistics screens also means that there is now more focus on personal development as opposed to just winning or losing, so there may still be small victories to find in a defeat.
For those who add Heart of the Swarm, there is also a progression system that allows access to the cosmetic rewards such as new skins for some units and new portraits. It's a small thing, but it does not make you feel that you have gotten something out of a match, even if you've been at the receiving end of a proper beatdown.
It's almost a given that all Starcraft II fans should go out and buy Heart of the Swarm. For those that only play RTS games for the single player experience, there are also plenty of reasons to buy this expansion, as the campaign is rock solid and in some areas clearly superior to Wings of Liberty.
Why is my score not higher, you might wonder? Back in 2010, we awarded Wings of Liberty 9 out of 10, and it totally deserved it. Starcraft II is still one of the best multiplayer games that money can buy. Heart of the Swarm is not quite as groundbreaking an achievement - it is more a refinement, a further development, or a new wing to the mansion if you will. But let there be no doubt: if you like Starcraft II, there is no reason not to buy Heart of the Swarm as soon as you possibly can.