StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm review
That multiplayer forms Heart of the Swarm's second half. It shares units with the campaign, but there are hefty differences: it's played at 'faster' speed compared to the campaign's 'normal', and it assumes a familiarity with keyboard shortcuts, expansion timings, map knowledge and unit counters that the singleplayer rarely does.
"HotS doesn't remove any units from Wings of Liberty's online mode, resolving to tweak rather than cull."
It's almost exactly the same as Wings of Liberty's multiplayer. Heart of the Swarm doesn't remove any units from that game's much-loved hyper-competitive online mode, resolving - after threatening to ground the Protoss Carrier spaceship - to tweak rather than cull. Some examples: Terran Reapers still jump up cliffs and carry infantry-shredding pistols, but they no longer require a tech lab attachment on a barracks, and now regenerate a small amount health over time. Medivacs still heal nearby biological units, but now come with turbo-charged boosters that grant them a few seconds of faster flying time.
The Medivac speed upgrade allows Terran players to multi-task with abandon, dropping squads of infantry units in vital places across the map. Before, they would've lost said squad had the enemy reacted fast enough; now, they can simply pack them up and boost off into the sunset. The Terran versus Zerg matchup was once dominated by Siege Tanks - now players, from professional down to the online ladder's bronze league denizens - are using Medivac drops against Zerg opponents.
A few tweaks were more substantial. The Protoss Mothership was little used by the race's players, crowd's often cheering if one was constructed in a professional game. Now it's available earlier, for cheaper, as the Mothership Core. It comes with the same range of abilities, but a drastically reduced health pool, making its application complicated, but rewarding: mass recall allows careful Protoss to surgically strike their opponent's base before flitting back home in an instant to avoid danger.
Tweaked units are joined by downright new ones. Strangely, for a Zerg-focused expansion, it's the Protoss who've earned the most interesting addition: the Oracle is a fragile floating green bulb that can destroy worker units in a few blasts from its lasers. It also comes packaged with a set of spells that careful Oracle drivers can use to aid their army, or provide vision of an enemy base. The professionals are yet to figure out its correct usage, but it's Heart of the Swarm's most interesting new multiplayer unit.
"Tweaks and additions change the complicated metagame in wonderful ways."
Pros have had less trouble figuring out the new Terran Widow Mine. Mines can burrow - in this position they hop out of the ground and latch themselves onto anything that steps within their radius, blowing up and beginning a 40-second cooldown before they can re-explode. Widow Mines were the breakout stars of the most recent Major League Gaming championships, Terran players finding hidden, automatic bombs easier to use than the Protoss's complicated Oracle.
These new units are rounded out by one or two additions per race: the Zerg Viper and Swarm Host, the Protoss Tempest, and the Terran Hellbat. To the untrained eye, these are small, piffly changes that feel like a poor haul given three years of development time. Those untrained eye owners will see the same StarCraft 2 as before, a thimble-full of new units changing very little: the actual mechanics of competitive, base-building, classic RTS are unchanged.
But even to my semi-trained eye - I've logged more than 500 hours of Wings of Liberty 1v1 multiplayer - these tweaks and additions change the complicated metagame that's built up around StarCraft 2 in wonderful ways. The Oracle promotes Protoss harassment and multi-tasking, a first for the race that's relied on sitting back and building up multi-unit 'deathballs' before rolling over the map like a golden fist. The Zerg Viper and Swarm Host finally give the swarm the options to deal with Terran Siege Tank lines, the latter distracting the Tank's guns while the former yanks it out of position with its abduct skill. And the Terrans have already altered fundamentally at the hands of highly skilled players: once the turtler's favoured race, they're now characterised by multi-pronged assaults and fine control.
Heart of the Swarm's success comes in opening Wings of Liberty's superlative multiplayer up, making a variety of strategies viable again, rather than perpetuating the one right way to play a match-up. It also retains that game's fantastic matchmaking system: Wings of Liberty sunk its talons into me on launch when I played my first online game and eked out a win, the game matching me against a player of similarly limited skill. It's StarCraft 2's ability to provide a consistently close, tense match that makes it such a thrilling multiplayer game, and Heart of the Swarm chooses opponents that suit my skill level: after fifty multiplayer games, I've won about half of my games - the ideal percentage.
"It's SC2's ability to provide a close, tense match that makes it such a thrilling game."
But none of Heart of the Swarm's multiplayer additions and tweaks will mean a thing if you're not invested in the process of playing online and increasing your ladder ranking. Those people have a fifteen hour glossy, deep, and - on harder difficulties - strategic campaign to busy themselves with. Those Wings of Liberty veterans for whom the campaign is a distraction from the process of league ranking promotion will find an essential multiplayer mode made all the better for its new faces.
Those who bounced off both of StarCraft 2's halves with Wings of Liberty's launch won't find anything to draw them in here. Beyond balance changes and nods to MOBA design, Blizzard are playing the same classic RTS game as they were in the late 1990s, one that can feel anachronistic and dated against more forward-thinking strategy peers. But both parts of Heart of the Swarm's RTS whole - multiplayer esport and solo campaign - are so finely balanced and so cleverly produced that, to borrow another sports idiom, Blizzard have moved the goalposts.
A traditional RTS essential for anyone interested in competitive strategy games, and highly recommended for anyone who isn't.