Note: This article spoils the end of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. You've been warned.
"Now at last, on this world, vengeance shall be mine. For I am the Queen of Blades."
The lines that opened Heart of the Swarm could have come from Blizzard. After so many years spent as the kings of the proverbial mountain in eSports, they had found themselves unceremoniously dethroned by League of Legends and DotA 2. Heart of the Swarm was to be StarCraft II's comeback; an opportunity to right some of the wrongs with the Wings of Liberty metagame and revive its fortunes in the eSports scene.
More than a year later, StarCraft II's competitive game is indeed arguably more interesting than before, especially when broken down into individual matchups. Previously moribund fights like Protoss vs. Protoss, which really only boiled down to one build order, became far more interesting in Heart of the Swarm. But like Kerrigan herself following Heart of the Swarm's rousing opening cinematic, StarCraft II is largely a spent force in the eSports scene. The best players have moved on or retired, and the fresh blood that should have taken their place has instead flowed into MOBAs. StarCraft's pro scene lives on, but the community consists of a much smaller group of diehard holdouts.
In revisiting Heart of the Swarm though, it's not entirely my intention to harp on StarCraft's place in eSports, which has already been discussed ad nauseum in other places. Instead, I'm more interested in discussing how I feel about it as a complete package. And having now wrapped up the campaign and spent some time with the multiplayer, I have to say that I'm feeling better than I expected.
My own experience with StarCraft stretches back to the launch of the original game in 1998, back when it was being somewhat derisively referred to as "Orcs in Space." I was never very good at the multiplayer, so I mainly focused on the single-player, which I found appealing because it was really the story of a woman who is abused and left for dead by a handful of power hungry men and ultimately returns to become the "Queen Bitch of the Universe."
Depending on your point of view, Brood War's ending is a bit of a downer (Zerg win, Earth fleet destroyed, Raynor on the run), leaving the door open for a sequel. In that context, I was incredibly excited for StarCraft II. When Wings of Liberty finally arrived in 2010 though, I found myself... slightly disappointed. Much as I enjoyed the campaign, which represents some of the best single-player mission design in an RTS ever, I really didn't like where Blizzard took the story.* In the end, they decided to take the WarCraft III route, in effect turning the Zerg into noble savages as they did the Orcs. Learning that the Overmind was not in fact a malevolent and supremely powerful intelligence, but a creature enslaved to the will of another, was more than a little disappointing.
Part of me wonders if Blizzard didn't regret the direction they took with Wings of Liberty—particularly Kerrigan's return to humanity—since they end up backtracking a bit with Heart of the Swarm. Kerrigan goes back to being the Queen of Blades in relatively short order and sets off to take revenge on Arcturus Mengsk, who left her to the mercy of the Zerg way back in StarCraft's first campaign. It's not much of a spoiler to say that she succeeds in her quest, though she ultimately needs Raynor's help to actually finish him off. If anything, I'm surprised it didn't happen in Brood War. It was a moment destined to take place the second that Mengsk betrayed everyone and became the Terran Emperor.
As they say though, it's not the ending but the journey, and in my opinion Blizzard really outdid themselves with Heart of the Swarm's campaign. It does away with many of the false choices presented in Wings of Liberty (Nova or Tosh? Just kidding, they're both evil!) and introduces a good number of elements unique to the Swarm. For instance, the Evolution Missions, which feel appropriately "Zergy" while showcasing each unit's unique mutation. Kerrigan's return to power, meanwhile, is depicted via an RPG-like skill tree system that grows as she steadily levels up by completing various bonus objectives, reaching its apex in the final few missions.
The bonus objectives and achievements, for their part, are much less onerous than the ones in Wings of Liberty, typically fitting in nicely with the story at large. Going out of your way to knock out an evil Zerg/Protoss Hybrid before it can escape containment, for instance, or fighting through additional Terran units to open the way for the Swarm into the capital city make for enjoyable optional challenges. By contrast, I never finished most of Wings of Liberty's achievements and secondary objectives because many of them required me to start over and play through on a higher difficulty level.
The story takes Kerrigan through the birthplace of the Swarm, back to Char, and finally to Korhal to face down Mengsk. Along the way she gathers a curious menagerie of critters, including Dehaka the Primal Zerg ("Must... claim... essence"), Stuhkov the Infested Terran (whom you might remember from Brood War), and Abathur the genetic specialist. Most are fairly one-note characterizations, there to convey the otherness of the Zerg and not much else, but they are generally successful in that they aren't really sympathetic. They're willing to follow Kerrigan, but only because she's powerful, and only because she offers them something to consume. In that sense, at least, the Zerg are still an interesting force within StarCraft, even if they aren't quite as menacing as they were in the original game.
Ultimately, the campaign culminates in a final battle that proves to be far more enjoyable than the one found in Wings of Liberty, which was really just a variant on the tower defense-like stage that concluded WarCraft III. It's a mission that puts you on the offenseive rather than the defensive, requiring to use all of your power to slug your way through Mengsk's defenses to quite literally kick in the gates to his city. Complicating matters is the CPU-controlled Jim Raynor, who is subject to increasingly brutal battles from Mengsk's forces. It's a distraction in some ways, but it does serve to hammer home the fact that Mengsk is throwing the kitchen sink at you. The battle reaches its crescendo when the Odin—a massive variant of the Thor—takes the field and proceeds to sow fire among your army. Breaking through the Odin and getting to the gate, where Mengsk sends in last round of drop pods, took pretty much everything I had. By the end, my army was down to Kerrigan and a handful of Hydralisks, who finally broke down Mengsk's door and finished the game.
The final cutscene—more than a decade making—proves to be a brief but cathartic. Kerrigan strides into Mengsk's chamber to find the Dominion Emperor calmly smoking a cigar. After some quick banter, Mengsk springs one last trap on Kerrigan, trapping her in a lightning field. As he revels in his victory though, Raynor appears to punch him in the mouth, freeing Kerrigan long enough to turn his head into a bomb. As she strides out of Mengsk's now decimated office, all seems to be forgiven between Kerrigan and Raynor, setting up a final battle in Legacy of the Void in which Raynor and Kerrigan team up with the Protoss to defeat a rogue Xel'Naga. I'll confess that I don't relish seeing the Zerg tamed in this fashion; but after more than 15 years, I'm happy to ride this story out to its conclusion.
Having now caught up on the story, I've dabbled a bit in the multiplayer, which has made me think, "Oh yeah, this is why everyone is playing League of Legends now." Simply put, StarCraft is really hard. I would even go so far as to say that StarCraft is the hardest competitive game to master. It's like speed chess, only with three factions instead of one, and no turns. Top StarCraft players have an almost supernatural ability to multitask, predict enemy movements, and calculate an optimal response. It's no wonder that so many of them have gone on to be successsful in competitive poker.
Getting back into StarCraft II has required me to spend a great deal of time studying up on the various races, memorizing new build orders, and getting a feel for the various unit combinations. Predictably, when I tried to play a random game, I got clobbered. First it was a cannon rush, then it was a Terran harrassing my mineral line with Reapers, then it was a Zerg snowing me under with Roaches and Zerglings. Before the match, all three said, "Whoa, are you new to StarCraft II?" I was apparently quite the unusual sight around those parts.
I don't want to say that my multiplayer experience in StarCraft II was discouraging—I'm going to keep working on playing my way into shape—but I do think it's my least favorite part of the game now. I'm actually much happier playing through the single-player campaign or teaming up with friends to beat the computer. For as much as people talk about StarCraft in the context of eSports, it's only one way to play. If anything, it seems like the majority of online StarCraft players are off in the custom maps playing the equivalent of a shoot 'em up, Mario Party, or the omnipresent Big Game Hunters.
In that sense, Heart of the Swarm's mission to revive the online community is a failure. The competitive game is more balanced and interesting than before thanks to new units like the Mothership Core, but there's no fighting the tidal shift toward MOBAs. It needn't be entirely judged on its competitive viability though. Heart of the Swarm's handomely produced campaign and the strong suite of online options are absolutely worth checking out, especially now that Blizzard has cut the price to less than $20.
I would enjoy while it lasts. In all likelihood, StarCraft II is the last gasp of a dying genre. With Supreme Commander, Command & Conquer, and all the rest now long gone, and Blizzard now focusing on smaller experiences like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, StarCraft II will probably be it for real-time strategy. If it does prove to be the genre's FreeSpace 2 though, then I suppose it's not a bad not to go out on.
* I know that Blizzard set all this up way back in Brood War with Samir Duran and the secret mission. That doesn't make it any less disappointing that Blizzard opted to tame the Zerg.