I vividly remember a discussion on a gaming podcast a few years ago about how the overabundance of collector’s editions has gotten ridiculous, and that it makes absolutely no sense for the first game in a series to get a special edition release. According to the hosts of the podcast, a franchise should have to prove itself before it can be deemed worthy of a collector’s edition release. Well, if any series is more than deserving, it’s StarCraft. Personally, I love collector’s editions, albeit only when they’re done well. Since they’ve become the norm, it isn’t uncommon for publishers to make a quick cash grab by releasing a sub-par package with a bloated price. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Collector’s Edition. Unlike many recent special editions that feature unique but forgettable trinkets, HotS plays it safe by including the standard special edition fare. Specifically, you get a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray combo, a soundtrack, an art book, a mouse pad, and a few exclusive digital avatars. As far as I’m concerned, the art book and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. HotS also has a digital special edition: the Digital Deluxe edition. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, I recommend the collector’s edition. The digital deluxe edition is nearly the same price, but only includes the digital avatars. This review will make frequent mention of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, so if you haven’t done so, I recommend reading my review of it here.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: March 12, 2013
If you still haven’t played StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, you might want to avoid this spoiler heavy paragraph. WoL ended with Jim Raynor teaming up with Valerian Mengsk, and then successfully using an ancient artifact to turn Sarah Kerrigan back into a human. HotS starts shortly after the events of WoL. Raynor and Kerrigan are still on Char, and Valerian Mengsk is testing whether Kerrigan still has the ability to control the swarm (hint: she can). Soon enough Arturus Mengsk crashes the party with a battalion of troops intent on killing Raynor and Kerrigan. Kerrigan escapes and manages to meet up with the Hyperion, only to find out that Raynor has supposedly been killed. Devastated, she summons the zerg swarm to destroy Arcturus Mengsk.
It isn’t exactly a secret that HotS has you playing the bad guy (or more accurately, the bad girl). Mengsk might be an evil dictator, but Kerrigan goes to extreme lengths to see him dead. To amass an army large enough to kill Mengsk, Kerrigan must unleash the zerg on countless planets, at the expense of millions of civilian lives. Although I’ve never seen this scenario explored in a video game, the original Dune books had a protagonist who was responsible for at least as much bloodshed. I find this angle more interesting than your standard good vs. bad scenario, but I’m still unsure of how I feel about Kerrigan as a character. I don’t tend to like the “badass chick” archetype who’s always in a bad mood and scowling, and Kerrigan definitely fits this mold. On the flip side, Kerrigan is about as strong a female lead as they come, and to be fair, she has a reason to be pissed. Every once in a while, we see a hint of her soft side; it was these scenes that made me feel sympathetic towards her struggle, and did the best job of developing her as a multidimensional character. Unfortunately, these scenes were too few and far between, and I feel like Blizzard fell just short of creating a truly unique video game protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, Kerrigan is still one of the deeper video game protagonists, but I feel like she wasn’t explored to her full potential. Like it or not, Kerrigan appears as a playable character in nearly every mission, so prepare to spend a lot of time with her.
Like in WoL, you spend downtime between missions hanging out on your ship. This time around, your ship is a massive living organism called the Leviathan, and your crew is a hodgepodge of alien misfits. Your crewmates show up one by one throughout the game, meaning that the ship is a fairly boring place for the first dozen missions. Initially, I found the ship sections much less interesting than in WoL, but as time wore on, and more characters appeared, it became nearly, but not quite, as interesting as WoL’s Hyperion. The Hyperion had more rooms to explore, and more objects and people to interact with, but HotS’s alien freak show has its moments. Among the new cast is a creature called Abathur who creates new zerg mutations. Abathur quickly became not only my favorite new character in StarCraft, but one of my favorites in all of video games. He’s basically an unwittingly sinister version of Data from Star Trek: Next Generation. Although he’s essentially emotionless, he often becomes jealous of foreign zerg mutations that he’s incapable of creating himself. As always, Blizzard‘s character have superbly written dialogue, which is well delivered by their voice actors. Perhaps by biggest complaint is that spending so much time with the zerg really diminishes their mysteriousness, and the fear factor. The zerg are no longer scary, which I guess was inevitable.
For fans of violent alien swarms, no other game puts you in the hot seat quite as nicely HotS. Nearly every one of HotS’s 27 missions has you amassing at least a hundred units and then wreaking havoc, which is as satisfying as it sounds. Like in WoL, Blizzard does an awesome job of providing unique mission scenarios, most of which subtly introduce you to a new zerg unit. Overall, the difficulty felt more challenging than in WoL, which seemed appropriate given that many gamers have been playing StarCraft II for over two years now. One mission in particular does an excellent job of showing off just how skilled Blizzard are at their craft. The mission is essentially a boss rush; giving you control of Kerrigan and a small band of zerg as she tackles three massive bosses. The bosses are super challenging; forcing you to memorize attack patterns and utilize every ability in Kerrigan’s arsenal. This mission does a great job of showing off just how well individual units control; in fact, you feel like you’re fighting a boss in World of Warcraft.
In the review I wrote for WoL, I mentioned that although I thought the art design was mostly really good, the cartooniness was a little bit much at times. In HotS, the design is as cartoony as ever, but I think I’ve started to embrace it. HotS’s colorful pallete is actually fairly refreshing compared to the muted greys of many modern military sci-fi games. Actually, HotS’s pre-rendered cut-scenes (which are as excellent as always) are much darker and grittier than the in-game engine, and look a lot more like the aforementioned games. Maybe it’s because the game features fewer humans, but there are a lot less soul patches and cycling shades this time around. That being said, Zeratul still looks like a reject from a kids fantasy cartoon.
Included with the collector’s edition is a really impressive 140-page hardcover art book. I say it’s really impressive because I’ve never seen such a high quality art book included with a game. The cover has an embossed design, and the paper is nice and glossy. A grand total of 25 artists are featured, and surprisingly, the editors actually took the time to list which artists were responsible for each piece! As I’ve mentioned in previous art book reviews, it’s fairly rare for gaming art books to give proper credit to their artists.
There are three sections in the art book: one for each race. As expected, Blizzard can afford to hire excellent concept artists, so the quality of each piece is top-notch. Because the game is centered around the zerg, they get the most attention. Since their inception, the zerg have really taken on a look that sets them apart from the creatures they were inspired by (xenomorphs and tyrannids). Increasingly, the zerg design has become less about organic goo, and more about armor plating, jagged teeth, spines, and claws. Essentially, the zerg have started to look more like dinosaurs, which isn’t a bad thing. My favorite part of HotS takes place on ancient world, where the zerg predecessors, called the primal zerg, roam free. The primal zerg are even closer in appearance to dinosaurs, and their world is composed of lush, prehistoric tropical environments. Artist Peter Lee’s illustrations of these environments are my favorite concepts within the book. Even his “rough sketches”, as they’re labeled within the book, look incredible.
Also included with the collector’s edition is the soundtrack to HotS. As I mentioned in my WoL review, StarCraft‘s soundtracks have always been excellent, and this is no exception. The soundtrack is composed of equal parts orchestrated segments, and equal parts moody electronic sections. I’ve never been a fan of big, bombastic orchestrated soundtracks, but as video games have gotten bigger, they’ve increasingly becomes the norm. Personally I prefer the ambient electronic portions, but I might be in the minority with that opinion. Either way, the soundtrack is really well done, and it’s gotten a fair degree of airtime in my car.
In addition to the soundtrack, the collector’s edition also comes with a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray. If you’re expecting a full making-of HotS, you’ll be disappointed, but as a bonus it still has a certain degree of entertainment value. There are two featurettes that give you a glimpse of the making of the game: a section on the cinematics, and a section on the recording of the audio voice-overs. Both of these sections are of the same quality as any of the best making-of documentaries, which is too bad, because they left me yearning for more! Also included is a section on the eSports legacy of StarCraft, which is basically a fan-made swansong to the community, and an in-depth explanation of how to use the in-game map editor. Both of these segments were well done, but I would’ve easily traded them for more making-of. The video also includes your typical extras like trailers and production stills.
Like I said in my WoL review, I’m a pretty average online player, so I can’t comment with any authority on the balance of HotS’s new online units. The protoss get three new air units: the Mothership and Oracle, which are both support units, and the Tempest, which is a long range attack ship. Terrans see the return of hellbats: flamethrower wielding mechs that deal splash damage, and the new widow mines, which are fast moving, mobile mines that are cloaked when set in the ground. Zerg get vipers, which are air attack units with support abilities, and swarm hosts, which are units that spawn multiple, zergling-like units from crevasses on their back. Apart from the new units, the online experience hasn’t changed a whole lot since WoL. There are a bunch of new unlockable portraits and achievements, but other than that you’re looking at the same multiplayer options and interface from WoL. Some of these rewards are incredibly hardcore to achieve compared to the standards of other games; for example, the Queen of Blades character portrait requires that you win 1000 1v1 online matches. Also, a word of warning: although the online matchmaking is supposed to pit you against players who match your level of experience, everyone playing HotS had to start back at level 1, so expect to get your ass handed to you by scores of StarCraft II veterans.
Although HotS is an expansion, had this not been a Blizzard game, this could easily have been a numbered sequel. Blizzard likes to make massive leap forwards between numbered releases in their series, but the jump from WoL to HotS isn’t far removed from something like Gears of War 2 to Gears of War 3. In fact, this is almost a bigger jump, because you’re in control of an entirely different race and cast of characters than in the previous game. If you enjoyed WoL, you probably already own this game, but if you’re on the fence, I recommend it highly. Furthermore, the collector’s edition is worth the extra cash. The art book and soundtrack could easily have been stand-alone-releases. Like I said with my WoL review, if you’re into military sci-fi and you haven’t given StarCraft a chance, you’re really missing out. Even if you don’t care for the competetive experience, the single-player campaign is excellent, and provides plenty of replay value.
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