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Blizzplanet Review: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

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The StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm single-player campaign has shattered all my wild expectations. Even all my predictions based on the “Vengeance” Trailer were utterly wrong.

Wings of Liberty had a great story, but Heart of the Swarm is simply awesome. That on itself is a feat, considering it is the Zerg episode in the StarCraft II trilogy, and zerg do not talk, right?

Kerrigan the Queen of Blades has several supporting characters that assist her throughout her campaign to dispense vengeance upon Emperor Arcturus Mengsk. These zerg are Zagara the broodmother, Dehaka, Izsha, Abathur (Evolution Pit), and another servant I wouldn’t want to spoil.

In Wings of Liberty, Jim Raynor had the Cantina, the Bridge, Engineering and the Lab to move around aboard the Hyperion in terms of UI Navigation for the player. I remember the developers arguing about how to approach this, and it hadn’t been set in stone yet back then. Zerg do not socialize nor drink alcohol, the Engineering and Lab’s purpose is basically one and the same for the Zerg.

The StarCraft II Team narrowed it down to the most important aspects of the Zerg: what qualifies as a Bridge, the Evolution Pit, and Kerrigan’s Talent tree.

The Bridge

The bridge is the mouth of a zerg Leviathan — a massive space-traveling whale (reminds me of the Brood’s Acanti — X-Men). As players progress through the story, more support characters appear at the bridge and players can interact with them. It’s very entertaining to click these characters to access an in-game cutscene between Kerrigan and the support character. Lot of lore to learn from them in each mission.

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The Evolution Pit

After each mission, players usually see a new cutscene at the Evolution Pit between Kerrigan and Abathur. He was created by the Overmind from the genetic pool of different species to oversee the evolution of the zerg into perfect weapons of strength and essence.

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Players should go here to upgrade units like the Zergling, Hydralisk, Roach, Baneling, Ultralisk, Mutalisk and the Swarm Host — as each unit becomes available.

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Upgrade points can be acquired by completing the bonus objectives of each mission. These unlock new evolution missions which allow you to test two different strands of each unit in combat. At the end of these evolution missions, the player is given the option to choose which of the two strands to keep for future missions. Choose wisely. The choice is permanent.

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Kerrigan’s Talent Tree

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm borrows — to some degree — from the Warcraft III Hero system and the World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria talent tree system. I gotta admit it makes sense. Kerrigan is the Heart of the Swarm. She takes center stage in this zerg-centered episode in the trilogy.

Kerrigan is playable in most of the Heart of the Swarm single-player missions. In addition, there are certain missions where support characters become playable heroes when Kerrigan isn’t available. Each support character hero with its own unique abilities.

Players get access to the Kerrigan Talent Tree tab through the zerg Leviathan bridge UI — which is located at the bottom of the screen. Initially, players may choose one out of two talent options, but eventually a new column is added — giving players the ability to choose one out of three options per row.

In each mission, Kerrigan earns experience points, but completing bonus objectives adds a large chunk of experience. Not easy to complete these bonus objectives, but for those who are daring and have lots of time to invest, go for it. Kerrigan can grow up to level 70.

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Some of the talents add a new attack icon to the Kerrigan unit, while other talent options function as a passive adding special traits to Kerrigan (like spawning two Banelings when Kerrigan is hit) or special traits to zerg units or even to zerg structures.

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Personally, I like Kinetic Blast, which one-shots any enemy unit except for Battlecruisers (but those get around 70% damage though). Mend heals Kerrigan for 150 life and friendly biological units nearby get healed for 50 life, plus another 25 life regenerated over 15 sec. My favorite though is accessible near the final missions and helps so much … Apocalypse. With this AOE ability Kerrigan can wipe anything within a large radius including buildings.

That’s like having your own silo and nuke in the palm of your hands. The catch is it has a 3 sec casting time, and Kerrigan is under heavy attack during this cast time in some situations. Apocalypse Deals 300 damage to enemy units and 700 damage to enemy structures in a large area. It has a 300 sec cooldown and costs 100 energy. I wouldn’t be too worried about spending energy. In Heart of the Swarm, Kerrigan has only 100 energy, but the energy regeneration is very fast allowing you to cast different abilities within 2-5 seconds. There are certain situations where you can simply send Kerrigan to wipe a group or raid a base all by her own with some patience (cooldowns), and micro skills.

The Kerrigan Talent Tree feature is more simple and straightforward than the Mists of Pandaria talent tree. You can view the stats of each talent and when you are ready to choose one, simply click that talent and hit the [back] button. No need to click buttons to confirm you want that talent and there is no such thing as respec limitations. Simply choose another option.

All your talent choices will be active once you start your next mission. Whoever designed this Talent Tree, did an amazing job. I might actually try other talents when I run the entire single-player campaign to hunt for achievements.

Archives

In Wings of Liberty, the Archives is accessed by clicking the computer console in the back of the bridge room. The Archive UI is kinda too crammed in and compact for my taste. It looks great, make no mistake, but in terms of flexibility and comodity the missions list is too small and narrow forcing you to scroll down a lot to find your desired mission or cinematic.

In Heart of the Swarm, the Archive can be found at the bottom of the Leviathan bridge alongside other navigation UI options. Now when you click the Archive and the page opens up — wow! Blizzard uses a large chunk of the page height to display all the missions and cinematics. Much better: the right pane is wider and gives you an image preview of what the mission or cinematic contains. It helps you understand and/or remember what that mission was about. I can’t say the same for the Wings of Liberty’s Archive where I sometimes wondered where to find a specific mission or cinematic because the title didn’t help much.

Just a sign that the StarCraft II Team nailed every possible setback in the prior system, and polished the Heart of the Swarm UI thoroughly thinking about the player.

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Creative Team – Heart of the Swarm Storyline

I am speechless. Brian Kindregan, Chris Metzen and anyone else involved in the storyline — you guys blew away all my expectations, conspiracy theories and predictions. To set the record straight, my “Vengeance” trailer predictions were completely smashed into oblivion. Utterly wrong in all predictions.

As revealed in the final pages of StarCraft II: Flashpoint, Kerrigan is taken to a secret lab within the Umojan Protectorate. The StarCraft II: Kerrigan – Hope and Vengeance # 0 Free Comics launched a week before the expansion release date revealed a scene between Kerrigan and Valerian Mengsk in said lab.

Heart of the Swarm starts where the comics left off. Kerrigan is undergoing her last tests. Jim Raynor enters the lab and asks Kerrigan to forget her path of vengeance, and to not give up on their relationship. Shortly after, Terran Dominion battlecruisers show up on the sky and deploy pods which penetrate the hull to infiltrate the lab. What happens next is for you to find out.

I don’t think I wish to spoil the storyline here. At least not yet. Kerrigan has a powerful reason to seek out the rampant zerg broods and to get them back under her control. One of her two motivations is to fulfill her vengeance against Emperor Arcturus Mengsk.

I was pleased to see Zeratul, though briefly, with Kerrigan. I don’t think this is a spoiler because we have seen Zeratul and Kerrigan in the Vengeance Trailer. Zeratul doesn’t even defend himself when Kerrigan (human form) assaults him. As seen in our Protoss Campaign transcript, Tassadar showed Zeratul a vision of the future the Overmind foresaw. In this future, Kerrigan had been slain at planet Char. The hybrids and their master had set the universe ablaze, and only one distant world remained as the last bastion of what remained of the Protoss civilization. In those desperate final moments, Zeratul, Hierarch Artanis and High Executor Selendris fought to the bitter end. The Fallen One revealed only one could have stopped his plans: Kerrigan. In their arrogance, the Protoss thought her to be the real threat.

It is no surprise that Zeratul would want to swallow his pride and to seek Kerrigan. As with Wings of Liberty, Zeratul appeared briefly in Heart of the Swarm. His wish: to show Kerrigan her next path. A path she most focus on in order to fulfill her role in altering the Overmind’s prophecy.

At first, Kerrigan is reluctant in chasing this path suggested by Zeratul. She doesn’t believe in the prophecy and she doesn’t wish to be a toy in its schemes. Zeratul is very convincing anyhow. Chasing down the path laid by Zeratul will allow her to fulfill her vengeance against Emperor Arcturus Mengsk. That’s enough for Kerrigan. Thus, she embarks into deep space to seek what Zeratul suggested. A planet many fans have no doubt wished to one day visit, or at least to learn more lore of.

Somewhere in their minds, Fans are going to scream like 5-age girls in excitement when this mission pops in their Heart of the Swarm single-player campaign.

I did never ever expect to see any of this lore happening. Blizzard Entertainment surprised me, and the reason Kerrigan must go there meshed so very well with the prophecy and how she might be able to beat the Hybrids’ master. I loved this twist.

There are two aspects of the lore in Heart of the Swarm I want to briefly mention without blowing Spoilers directly. Those who read StarCraft II: Flashpoint, concerning Narud and the Moebius Factor, that’s going to be wrapped up in Heart of the Swarm. I’m not going to say anything further. That’s for you to find out and unravel.

Another non-spoiler sort of spoilerish thing I want to share — did that make sense? — is another continuity nod. This one hails from a secret mission only found in the StarCraft 64 (Nintendo). Yup! It is canon, fanboys. You will see … you will see. Bet some fans are gonna do some homework to find out.

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Voice Over

I really have to thank Chris Metzen a million more times for bringing back Robert Clotworthy to voice Jim Raynor. This iconic character represents the potential hero within all of us. No matter how hard life is, and how injustice crushes us to a pulp. One draws strength from anything that’s important to us. We stand up, clear the dust, and We fight for our dreams — and dispense indiscriminate justice.

Robert Clotworthy is the heart of Jim Raynor. His voice. Robert isn’t replaceable. Robert is the soul of Jim Raynor, and the soul of all the millions of fans who love StarCraft. Thank you, Chris for listening to the fans.

Jim Raynor doesn’t have a lot of screen time in Heart of the Swarm, considering this is the Zerg campaign and Kerrigan is the main character and the driving force of this second episode. Yet, I feel Robert’s voice drew out the right tinges to set Kerrigan’s humanity and essence afloat. There’s care and love in his tone. Just because he sounds soft, doesn’t mean he isn’t the usual Jim Raynor. We get to see his dark humor and sarcasm the way only Robert can do it.

Real people out there have real-life difficulties and regrets in their lives. Those in the military — far away from home. Far away from family. Those who are unemployed like me. Those who have disabilities. Those who are socially or politically oppressed (name your applicable country here). I can mention many others who fit the bill. I fall into the unemployed and disabled categories (without the benefits of one at the moment). Add to that homeless. It’s been nigh two years.

It’s been a very mean and hard year and a half. Other person would be deeply frustrated and depressed. I gotta admit I have tasted some of that. Yet, gaming and daily updating a fansite keeps my mind soothed, and busy.

I live and experience sci-fi and fantasy worlds with characters that breath and shine hope and feelings that I have felt before, and feelings I have never experienced before, but my heart feels theirs as my own. I assimilate and evolve through living these experiences and emotions that story writers share with readers.

I played through Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, and got deeply inspired by the iconic Jim Raynor character. He taught me that no matter how problems rain and pour down on you like acid, your heart and soul shall not be broken by nothing nor by anyone. That you shall always have hope that one day things will be better. You don’t need to be a religious person to learn that from Jim Raynor — from Robert Clotworthy — the soul of Jim Raynor. You are both a true hero. In our hearts. The players’ hearts. A hero to the real-life human beings behind the screen. Behind the keyboards. You teach us how to fight. A fight worth fighting for.

Back to the Voice Over topic, the entire expansion was mostly Tricia Helfer (Sarah Kerrigan). I will always have to bring it up, I can’t help it. I regret not hearing Glynnis Talken in her role as Kerrigan.I grew fond of Glynnis as much as I did Robert. Yet, I can’t deny Tricia Helfer has done an amazing job voicing Kerrigan, giving her certain tinges to the character that sound attractive and compelling.

There are scenes that demand that she is sweet and girly. Sometimes she has to cry and regret her actions or the fate of others she cares for. She got to be even manlier than Xena the Warrior Princess when she goes rage-mode during a fight. Tricia dominates all those shades of the emotional spectrum. I dig her.

Emperor Arcturus Mengsk (James Harper), Valerian Mengsk (Josh Keaton), Matt Horner (Brian Bloom) and Zeratul (Fred Tatasciore) do not appear often in Heart of the Swarm, but I admire their voices and personalities. I wouldn’t want any other actor replacing them ever. Hopefully, we see them in StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void more often.

The voices of the zerg support characters that accompany Kerrigan in the Leviathan bio-vessel and those in other zerg planets impressed me. Each has their unique personality and manner of speech. It’s not easy to talk like an alien zerg, or heck — it’s not easy to read a script that while it’s in english, the grammar is so messed up — bordering into non-sense, it would be hard to read and catch it on the first go. I imagine it took them hours of recording time and several attempts to get it right. Especially, Abathur and Dehaka who are the hardest ones, but Zagara and Izsha sound lovely, too. My respects. Great voices. Kudos to the VO Team.

Cinematics

Senior VP Art & Cinematic Development Nick Carpenter and his Team nailed Heart to the Swarm’s soul with these cinematics. There are sad moments. There are intense adrenaline-driven battles. There are romantic/nostalgic scenes between Jim Raynor and Kerrigan. Moments of blind rage suddenly shifting into regret and then into mercy. Those moments are captured in the cinematics and in-game cutscenes and transmitted into the fans’ brain and down their spine with a thrill. The Cinematics Team and the Voice Over Team captured all the real-life emotion spectrums of what is to be a human being.

The story and the visual animation and facial gestures boost the overall experience fans demand and expect from Blizzard Entertainment and its Cinematic Team. Though we always take it for granted, the Cinematic Team always surprise us with the “ohhhhh!!!’s”, “OMG!!!’s””, “Holy @#%!!!’s”, and “Wowww!!!’s”.

There are three Cinematics where Kerrigan uses her telekinetic and psionic powers to render her opponents into smithereens: The cinematic showing a mega-beat up Kerrigan gives Zeratul, the “Shifting Perspectives” cinematic, and the final cinematic are simply mind-blowing. Those three definitely need a BAFTA Award nomination. I really wish I could describe them in detail, but I’d be spoiling critical elements of the story.

The “Get it Together” Cinematic, where Jim and Kerrigan kiss. It’s such a powerful and special scene. The Terran Dominion Battlecruisers launch pods to infiltrate and raid the Umojan Protectorate lab in search of Kerrigan. She’s found, Jim Raynor comes to the rescue, but it turns out she took care of the invaders all by herself. This is not a damsel in distress. She takes care of business. In her anger, she mouths out she’s bringing payback to Emperor Mengsk, but Raynor comes from behind and grabs her by the arm pulling her and forcing her to turn around 180 degrees to face him. She looks into his eyes. Her rage is soothed, and she melts into his eyes. Raynor asks her to get it together. She softens up. That scene was kinda cute and sexy.

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Jim Raynor wants to escort her to the dropship, and opens up the gate like a gentleman to let her exit the room. This is a very human Kerrigan. One who is deeply in love. They kiss. I felt a thrill through my spine. One who acknowledges and respects all the sacrifices Jim Raynor went through to rescue her and to bring her back. There is humor and sexual innuendo to boot. That cinematic is definitely among my favorite ones in Heart of the Swarm.

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One cinematic that made me angered was the “Conscience” Cinematic, but that had nothing to do with the quality of the cinematics. The outcome of what happens at Planet Char is what bothers me. Such a waste. Yet, there is a shift of three mood-states happening within seconds apart that really touches the player’s heart to the core. First anger for what happens. Then, Kerrigan’s face turns from one of rage to one of regret. She looks fragile and human as she closes her eyes and her brows frown after what she did — displaying regret. Then a glow on her face shows her determination. One only realizes what just happened after hearing the radio transmission. Something one might never have imagined the Queen of Blades feeling ever again: Mercy. One can quickly feel portrayed in that scene. That reflects our daily life. That was a powerful scene. I loved it.

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To wrap up, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is an awesome gameplay experience with new and exciting lore to match. If you haven’t upgraded to the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (Standard Edition) yet, I encourage you to do so. The Collector’s Edition is still available while supplies last– by the way, and both are elegible for FREE Super Saver Shipping.

Tomas Hernandez is owner of Blizzplanet.com since 2003 posting news about World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III, Hearthstone, Next-Gen MMO, Blizzard Careers, and the Warcraft film.

Blizzplanet is a leading fansite covering news about upcoming Blizzard Entertainment licensed products. I also post previews and reviews. I have interviewed book writers and Blizzard game developers.

I was previously an employee of the OGaming Network (2003), and IncGamers (2008-2010). I was a guest newsposter for GosuGamers (World of Warcraft) a few years ago and for Diablofans.com (formerly Diablo3.com)

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