StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Campaign preview

T.J. Hafer

When we last left psychic-sniper/assassin-turned-Zerg-empress Sarah Kerrigan at the end of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, she had been restored to her human self by the efforts of good ol' Jimmy Raynor. Well, sort of. She still has those tentacle things instead of hair, and apparently retains the loyalty of at least some portion of the ravening Zerg swarm. I got to join the conflicted Kerrigan aboard her organic Zerg flagship recently and see a handful of new missions in StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, from about the middle of the campaign.

The Leviathan, a gigantic Zerg creature that serves as the swarm's mobile base of operations in the campaign, bears some resemblance to Raynor's Hyperion from Wings of Liberty. It does feel a little more claustrophobic and less... alive (ironically, considering the entire thing is actually alive ). While the Hyperion had a handful of different ship areas to visit, all populated with ambient conversations and the like, the Leviathan offers a mere two (as of this build), that have less going on in them overall. It may just be a glorified framework for menu screens, but I'm hoping it will feel a little more fleshed out in the final release. (Get it? Flesh? Oh shut up, I'm hilarious.)

Aside from the bridge, which is some kind of toothed orifice (I hope it's a mouth; please let it just be a mouth...) where you will interact with your advisers (and, occasionally, prisoners), I was able to skitter over to a couple other areas. The evolution pit is where you will evolve your units (more on this later) to create a custom Zerg army. There's also the Kerrigan upgrade screen, which will let you select talents once you've earned enough levels in the campaign missions. This, oddly, is not modeled as an organic part of the ship, but rather a more traditional menu display.

Speaking of levels, Heart of the Swarm is doing things a little differently than, say, Warcraft III. Kerrigan is your persistent hero unit throughout the campaign, and she gains "Levels" (as opposed to experience) for completing mission objectives. Typically, the objective required to finish the mission gave me a nice chunk of Levels, and optional objectives were available for smaller, bite-sized bonuses. Once you pass certain thresholds (10/20/35/50/60 out of a cap of 70), you will get to select one of two talents.

Talents can be swapped freely between missions. A few of the more interesting ones included a chain lightning type spell, an automated hatchery ability that resurrects 10 killed Zerglings on a countdown timer for free, and the ability to hatch Drones in pairs for the same cost.

Kerrigan isn't the only thing you can customize, however. Each of your core units will be able to select one of three mutations, which can be swapped freely between missions for no cost. In addition, as the campaign progresses, you will unlock Evolution missions, which will let you choose between one of two variants for a given unit. Unlike mutations, evolution choices are permanent. Mutations continue to be available (and your options seem to largely stay the same) after you have evolved a unit, totaling six possible versions of each beast in the swarm.

Here's a unit-by-unit breakdown:

Zerglings

Evolution lets you pick between:

  • The Raptor, a Zergling that does more damage, and can leap up cliffs and into combat, or...
  • The Swarmling, which spawns in groups of three instead of two, and only costs 1/3 food instead of the usual 1/2. Yes, this means you could create an army of 600 Swarmlings.

Mutation lets you select one of the following on a mission-by-mission basis:

  • Increased life
  • Increased attack speed
  • Increased movement speed

Banelings

Evolution lets you pick between:

  • A new, Raptor-like variant called the Hunter that can leap up cliffs and into the middle of unit formations, or...
  • The previously demoed Splitterling, which spawns two, smaller Banelings upon detonation.

Mutation lets you select one of the following on a mission-by-mission basis:

  • Increased damage to primary target
  • Increased splash damage radius
  • Acid splash heals friendly units in the blast radius

Roaches

Evolution mission was not shown.

Mutation lets you select one of the following on a mission-by-mission basis:

  • Increased damage vs light targets
  • Armor increases when below 1/2 life
  • Full speed movement while burrowed

Hydralisks

Evolution mission was not shown.

Mutation lets you select one of the following on a mission-by-mission basis:

  • Activated ability that increases attack speed on a cooldown. Great, we have to micro Hydras now?
  • Increased life
  • Increased attack range

Up Next: The missions themselves

Aside from the evolution missions (which are very hard to lose, and seem more like tutorials to help you choose which unit evolution you want), I got to try my hand at three scenarios that put my admittedly awful, Aluminum League Zerg skills to the test. First off was a mission to an ice planet, where periodic flash freezes would lock all units aside from the hostile, native beasts in place. By killing their leaders and assimilating their DNA, I was able to adapt my chittering forces to the cold. Going out of my way to do this multiple times gave extra benefits, like increased vision and damage in the frigid environ. This felt very "Zergy," for lack of a better term, and I hope it shows up often in the campaign.

The Protoss I faced off against on the ice world weren't so lucky. Each time a flash freeze came, I would have a very brief window to tear apart their heavily-fortified positions with no risk, while they looked on in horror from within their frosty cocoons. This created a sort of rhythm to the mission. When the protoss were unfrozen, I would go hunting more natives to secure the bonus objectives for a power boost and some extra Kerrigan levels. When the flash freeze hit, it became a race to dismantle as much Protoss infrastructure as I could before their units and base defenses came back online.

Next up was a more traditional mission where I had to make sure no Protoss shuttles made it through any of three spaced-out warpgates to warn the larger fleet of my presence. It was the least imaginative of the new missions, and also bordering on fall-asleep-on-keyboard easy on the Normal difficulty. Even as someone who is absolutely terrible at Zerg in multiplayer, I was able to more than lock down the primary objectives with a few Hydralisks and spore crawlers on each gate, leaving most of my army to handily secure all of the bonus objectives, and even go as far as to nearly wipe the Protoss off the map well before the mission ended.

In the final mission, I was given control of a mostly defenseless larval Zerg queen, smuggled cleverly onto a Protoss ship that held a menagerie of captive creatures. Dodging my way around patrolling zealots initially, I had to infest and burst forth, Alien-style, from increasingly larger beasts to evolve my unimposing hero and birth an entire Zerg brood within the bowels of the vessel. It was an interesting take on the sorts of stealth missions we've seen in RTS campaigns before, allowing me to transition from skittering around in the shadows to stomping through defenses with impunity.

What remained to be seen, for the most part, was where the story arc of Heart of the Swarm will take us. The new, re-humanized Kerrigan's relationship with the Zerg remains somewhat cloudy, as do her ultimate goals. Chances are she's still not a big Arcturus Mengsk fan. With any luck, we will finally get to flay his face from his skull and use it as a doily. Whatever the case, Blizzard's imaginative mission design and commitment to high production values are still in evidence. I look forward to assuming control of the swarm once again when the expansion launches in March.

Looking for multiplayer details? Check out our hulking interview with Dustin Browder .

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