Starcraft 2:Heart of the Swarm

I am a hardcore fan of Starcraft.  It and the original Warcraft III are games that I herald, quite often, as examples of “art” in the gaming universe.  Not every game can claim to be art, but these games can.  They featured motifs, allusions, and dynamic characters that stuck with me over the years.  I still remember the Queen of Blades’ last monologue where she proudly pronounces herself as the “Queen Bitch of the Universe” and shrugs off three armies at once.  That stuff still gives me chills.

And unlike Raynor from Wings of Liberty, I was really hoping Kerrigan, the ultimate in both Zerg evolution and a powerhouse of feminine authority, wouldn’t be gouged out and left dead inside for the sake of “player choice.”  Don’t get me wrong, being able to choose whether or not I won’t to bury a colony in psionic Protoss energy or spare it and win points with the cute science chick is a fun, albeit gimmicky, choice.  In order do it, though, you’ve got to leave Jim Raynor kind of causeless.  He sits, like a flan in a cupboard, until he gets that twenty-five second monologue after you’ve made your decision.  He was stupid and empty.  Maybe the game developers were going for that; sure seems it when a sun increases its size by five hundred percent and the great spacefaring captain Jim Raynor looks at his CO in shock and says, “But what does it mean, Matt?”  What do you think it means, Jim?  How long have you been doing this?

Point is, though, this doesn’t happen with Kerrigan.  She’s all the glory and revelation that I’ve come to love.  The ending scene of WoL left a lot in doubt, with the Queen of Blades declawed and left as a whimpering, half-asleep woman in the arms of her formerly estranged lover.  Any doubt anyone had, if you could have any after the trailers preceding HoS, were completely blown away along with the Terran Dominion’s Bravo squad, the troops that first encounter Kerrigan in HoS.  Don’t get me wrong, though, Kerrigan’s transformation definitely limits her power, but the Queen of Blades is still in there, and she reassumes her role as the game goes on.  Even better, however, is that Kerrigan is no longer just an imbalanced, ridiculously OP bitch that left her heart in the freezer on Char.  Au contraire, her transformation adds the human layers of emotional complexity and relatability back into her persona.  I, for one, was a huge fan of this.  The Queen of Blades made us stand in awe of her cunning in power, but in HoS, we get a sense of what was truly lost.  Like Nerud says, “I’m everything you lost.”    I ate up the numerous cinematics in the game; they were done well, and each one felt like a reward.  I remember playing the original Starcraft years ago and feeling like each time a cut scene came on I could rest assured that my hard earned victories would be rewarded with something fun and interesting.  Back in the day, they weren’t bad.  Now, I’ve obviously improved my standards, but HoS still delivered.  Not a single cinematic was wasted, and most contributed to the experience  significantly.   In “Transmission,” we see Kerrigan turn away from redemption and embrace her dark side.  Even better, the cinematic left me with a crunchy bit of storytelling—the little odd things that happen that might not be the focus of the piece, but add to it in unique and interpretive ways.  The Zergling that walks into her dropship acts almost like a dog or a lost child might, really adding into the idea that Kerrigan’s mantle as Queen of the Swarm is more than just a bloody, murderous terror.  She’s a mom.  These creatures are lost without her.  Sure, they’re terrifying creatures, but so can dogs when treated cruelly or mismanaged toward a dark purpose.  The Zergling was an unnecessary gesture, but it was subtly brilliant and very much appreciated.

[pullquote align=”right”]It just felt so perfect to be a powerful character for once, creating change rather than being created by it.[/pullquote]

So, the way the story is told and the way Kerrigan is handled ultimately meets with my approval.  As it concerns the gameplay itself, I enjoyed playing it.  Unlike WoL, it made sense that half the game wasn’t related to the main story arch at all.  That’s right—twenty missions of campaign and only about a quarter of them have anything to do with Sarah Kerrigan’s famed vengeance, just like in the first game where a good three fourths of the missions have nothing to do with Raynor’s rescue of his beloved.  I mean, If that’s not cheating, I don’t know what is.  Now, hold on Eric, Sarah was going back to the Zerg homeworld in search of long lost powers and collecting her various broods from across the stars.  Oh, sure, how could I forget that?  Because I have to play through every painstakingly grueling logistics mission that ever was just so Blizzard can “introduce me” to the units of the game because, as I’m sure you’re well aware, I still don’t know what a Hydralisk is in this universe.   Maybe Blizzard feels like it should coddle its gamers.  Maybe they really are cheating and because they only really have story for four or five missions, they need to artificially lengthen the campaign.  Either way, it’s questionable campaign making at best.  In any case, I digress from my original point.  Yes, it was better than WoL.  I still don’t know why or how Jim Raynor “lost” the plans to making Goliaths, but I can understand how Kerrigan had to reintegrate elements of her Swarm.  The missions made sense, but they were also fun.  Genuinely, heart-stoppingly fun.  Little attachments to the control menu like the “control all units” button made you feel like you were actually swarming.  Let me tell you, it’s awesome to feel your enemy melt before your waves of minions.  It adds a tonality to the game that HoS really needed: the idea that Kerrigan, The Queen of Blades, and her Swarm are not trifling powers, but truly indicative of the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”   When you get to actually feel that in gameplay, I consider it a huge success.

Also, just for the record, the evolution missions were greatly appreciated.  Sure, they were small and weren’t all that fun in and of themselves, but I appreciated being able to play out my choices for how I wanted to evolve the Swarm.   It also made the choices seem more significant, not just upgrades being thrown around idly.

Overall, the real strength of HoS is in its tone.   It tells the story of a monster, a beast character that not only has to come to terms with what she is but also what she is with her lover.  More importantly, you feel the power present in the character of the game.  Finally, we get to play a character that isn’t some lowly street urchin hoping desperately to achieve enough power to maybe topple the super villain.  No, to the contrary, you play the Queen of Blades in all her Nydus Worm riding, psionic shockwave making, Hell-inducing fury.  You and your armies swarm.  This is great.

Now, what kind of critic would I be if I didn’t tell you what had me raving like an angry lunatic my first day of playing the game?  I’d be a bad critic, that’s what I’d be.  So, in the hopes of not being a bad critic, here are few of my larger criticisms.  When you get to the Zerg homeworld, suddenly Kerrigan and all the Primal Zerg are all interested in acquiring essence.  Now, the term had been used by Abether, the Swarm’s bioengineer, to refer to the genetic material used to increase the Swarm.  In that sense, I was ok with it.  But when Kerrigan sucks the essence from the dying Primal Zerg pack leaders on Zaros, I begin to wonder why this game started resembling Highlander.  I mean, really?  Purple essence gets drained from fallen leaders to increase the power of one person?  Not only is there no precedence for this in the universe, but it’s just terrible writing and an unnecessary plot contrivance.  The Swarm improved itself by assimilation of new genetic data.  Turning that into an abstract process by which individual Zerg drain the power of their enemy after combat is taking a perfectly cool science fiction idea, like forced evolution and genetic assimilation, and making it look like something from the movie Hocus Pocus.  And while Hocus Pocus is fantastic, it just looks weird and silly in HoS.  I kept waiting for the cinematic where Kerrigan steals someone’s essence and whispers “There can be only one.”

On the whole, though, Kerrigan’s journey is one that I really enjoyed playing through.  It surpassed WoL and rivaled Brood Wars.  In all fairness, the campaign’s difficulty curve was low.  No problem in the campaign couldn’t be handled with swarms of units, but I chalked that up to a tonality choice and thought it fit well in the game’s overall message.  It was great to play a character that was powerful and significant for a change, even if it made the individual missions a little less harrowing.  It just felt so perfect to be a powerful character for once, creating change rather than being created by it. Besides, the ending was perfect for a monster character, too, but that’s all I’ll say about that.  You’ll have to play it to see!




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