30 Days After StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
While StarCraft II may never achieve the longevity of its legendary predecessor, Blizzard continues to expand and refine the series through the sequel’s unconventional tripartite release. 2010′s StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty took the landmark strategy classic into a more up-to-date style with 3D graphics and revamped mechanics, yet it didn’t stray from the core tenets of the original StarCraft.
Much of the series’ deeply devoted fanbase initially resisted the move to the sequel, but over time it’s found traction in regular tournament play. When the second chapter, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, arrived last month, a still-active StarCraft II player base was there to greet it.
More than an expansion pack but less than a full sequel, Heart of the Swarm brings modest changes to the game’s sandbox (inevitably forcing the competitive community to adapt and learn new strategies). Perhaps more importantly, it also features a story focused heavily on the series’ pivotal character, Sarah Kerrigan, the on-again/off-again human-turned-”Borg Queen” of the insectile Zerg race.
The Critical Response
Heart of the Swarm netted nearly universal praise from game critics, with only a tiny handful of outliers at the low end of the scale. Equally universal are the particulars of the professional reviews, with strong praise for the lean, diverse single-player campaign, relative ambivalence toward its mechanical additions, and collective disdain for its story.
IGN reviews editor Dan Stapleton particularly appreciated the breadth of Heart’s content, calling it “a great reminder of why a big, 20-mission expansion can be more rewarding than a drip-feed of small DLC add-ons.”
Stapleton noted the design evolution on display in Heart through its emphasis on “hero” units (particularly Kerrigan). The “mission design shows quite a bit of influence from the MOBA genre (which is built on Defense of the Ancients, a mod for Warcraft III… so fair play),” he wrote. He also remarked on the tradeoffs that result from this change in design. “To allow us to spend time controlling Kerrigan, much of the zerg’s signature micromanagement has been toned down for the single-player campaign…. I can’t say I missed [it]… but it does take away something that makes the zerg unique.”
Kotaku’s Jason Schreier similarly criticized some of the changes to the campaign amidst his praise, finding it too straightforward at times for more dedicated fans. “Every single mission gives you very specific instructions about what to do and where to do it,” he wrote. “When you’re not building and recruiting, you’re following arrows and doing what the game tells you to do.”
Digital Spy’s Mark Langshaw stated that Heart lacked innovation but offered “enough tweaks and refinements… to improve the overall experience…. The single-player campaign is linear and predictable at times, yet hits most of the right notes where the fanbase is concerned,” Langshaw wrote, echoing a general sentiment that Heart of the Swarm caters predominantly to the existing StarCraft fanbase.
Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker concisely described the dual strengths of the game: “StarCraft II might as well be two separate products in one box,” he wrote. “The story-driven single-player RTS campaign, which is self-explanatory enough that anyone can play it, and a multiplayer mode so wildly fast-paced and complex that it’s arguably the hardest video game, if not one of the hardest competitive activities period, to excel at on the planet.”
The single sharply negative critical reaction came from Quarter To Three’s traditionally contrarian Tom Chick, whose review — titled “Does StarCraft II really need Heart of the Swarm?” — decried what he saw as more of a cynical cash grab than a true expansion. “But I can’t help but feel that growing each faction’s toolbox is primarily a business decision along the lines of selling expensive maps for Call of Duty; they do it not because it’s the best thing for the game, but because they can,” Chick wrote. “Heart of the Swarm feels obligatory, as if it was done for Activision’s shareholders instead of Blizzard’s fans.”
The Community Reaction
The most striking thing about the community response to Heart of the Swarm is the fact that it’s been so remarkably quiet. After the sound drubbing that Diablo III took a year ago for practically every facet of its design, the general lack of discussion surrounding Blizzard’s newest release suggests that not everything the company alienates fans after all. (The fact that SimCity’s troubled launch happened around the same time likely soaked up much of the potential ill will, too.)
And the relative silence is no simple matter of no one buying the game; while its 1.1 million combined digital and retail sales in the 48 hours following its debut falls short of the 1.5 million its predecessor Wings of Liberty achieved in the same time frame, 1.1 million is nevertheless a solid number for what amounts to an add-on expansion for a platform-exclusive title in a fairly niche genre.
By and large, the community reaction seems to have been less about complaining and more about diving into the game and get a feel for the new tools. Online discussions in major forums like Something Awful, NeoGAF, GameFAQs, and Blizzard’s own boards generally revolve around the expansion’s additions and how they’re affecting the competitive scene. Compared to the venomous arguments surrounding Blizzard’s past few sequels — specifically Diablo III and Wings of Liberty — the calm acceptance surrounding Heart of the Swarm must be sweet music to Blizzard’s ears.
By no means has the game steered clear of all criticism. Yet the bulk of online anger directed toward Heart of the Swarm echoes the critical reception seen across pro sites, focusing almost entirely on the failings of its single-player story. Fans seem particularly disappointed with Kerrigan’s development — the central figure in the single-player plot.
“Kerrigan’s continuing irrationality only serves to weaken the player’s emotional connection with her,” complains a writer for International Digital Times. Other fans, such as VentureBeat community member Han Lung, echo these opinions as well. While such complaints tend to be both anecdotal and subjective, the frequency with which criticism of StarCraft II’s story appear appear across forums definitely constitutes a trend — especially compared to the general acceptance for the play mechanics. Yet even these complaints are hardly unanimous, with a number of online fans sticking up for both the game’s plot and the work of writer Chris Metzen.
Heart of the Swarm has also drifted into the crosshairs of the larger “game tropes versus women” discussion currently working its way through the industry. Most notably, RockPaperShotgun posted an ironic photoessay called “The Buttocks of StarCraft II” to draw attention to the inherent sexism of the male-gaze-oriented character design — hardly unusual for a video game, but nevertheless something of a letdown in light of the fact that Kerrigan (whose design is definitely the worst offender in this regard) so often shows up at the top of lists of great female characters in games.
On the other hand, the fan community seems to have embraced the game’s new mechanics. And given that the audience for this format provides StarCraft with its real legs, this bodes well for Heart of the Swarm’s overall legacy. While fans may reject its plot twists and characterization, StarCraft II’s multiplayer remains an international favorite.
As the second part of a trilogy of releases announced back in 2008, Heart of the Swarm marks only the midpoint of StarCraft II. The final entry of the game, Legacy of the Void, will focus primarily on the franchise’s third alien race, the advanced Protoss. Blizzard has said very little about this concluding chapter to date beyond Metzen’s claim that its campaign design — pitting the sophisticated but scarce Protoss against the vast swarms of the Zerg — will draw considerable inspiration from Frank Miller’s 300.
The unique nature of the Protoss among StarCraft races also opens the door for Blizzard to develop more MOBA-style hero units, further pushing StarCraft into the lucrative competitive space dominated by League of Legends in a faithful, organic manner. Whatever the case, Blizzard has indicated its intention (via a Reddit AMA) to “reduce the time between expansions” — though given the company’s track record we probably won’t see how Legacy of the Void addresses the criticism directed toward Heart of the Swarm until sometime in 2015.