With the release of Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm this past week, a new chapter in the Starcraft world has begun. Heart of the Swarm features a new campaign, new units, and a fresh, streamlined look to the Battle.net Starcraft user interface. For those that do not know, Starcraft II is a real time strategy game that involves managing an economy to build an army. There are three playable races: Terran, Protoss, and Zerg. The Terrans, the balanced (not imbalanced) race, are futuristic humans that possess units created for efficacy and efficiency. The high-tech Protoss are intelligent aliens that are endowed with psionic potential and costly, but powerful, technology. Contrarily, the Zerg swarm uses large numbers of inexpensive biological alien units to overwhelm its opponents. In the Heart of the Swarm expansion, players are able to unleash the Zerg swarm in the campaign game mode.
The campaign centers on Sarah Kerrigan, the half Terran, half Zerg leader of the Zerg, and her quest to rebuild the Zerg army. It features an interactive storyline with amazing cut scenes and unique unit development trees. Throughout the campaign, players are able to control Kerrigan and modify her abilities strategically to destroy her opponents. In addition, units can be upgraded to adapt to certain situations. Abathur, the eccentric head of the evolution pit, gives the player unique missions to acquire DNA essence. This essence is then used to mutate units. For example, the zergling, the bread and butter of the Zerg swarm, can be upgraded to either have increased movement speed or attack speed. But players can also evolve it into either a raptorling or swarmling. Raptorlings have the ability to climb terrain and leap towards opponents. Swarmlings instantly train three at a time (instead of two) and cost less supply, enabling the player to quickly produce an overwhelming army. The choice that one makes can be the deciding factor in hostile engagements.
Multiplayer play in Starcraft II features many game modes. Matchmaking play—laddering, as it is affectionately known—allows players to compete against each other or against the AI in the classic real time strategy fashion, building an economy to mass an army. The matchmaking modes are 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, and 4v4, each with their respective ranking ladders for player-versus-player. The numbers represent the numbers of players on each side. The ladders are tiered by skill level, with the lowest league at Bronze, to the highest at Grandmasters. In addition, Heart of the Swarm features an unranked game mode, which includes all the matchmaking game modes, to remove the stress of losing from the game.
The other mode is the arcade, in which players can play custom maps created by the community. Usually these scenarios are RPG-, adventure-, or MOBA-based. Users can rate and bookmark their favorite games for later. Arcade mode is meant for casual play and demonstrating the power of the Starcraft II map editor. Both the matchmaking and arcade modes have received quite the revitalization with the new Battle.net selection screens.
The Starcraft user interface received a makeover since the initial Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty release. Friends can watch replays of games together and discuss strategies at the same time. Players can also download professional gamer game packs and take control of their favorite player’s army in the middle of a battle and see how they fare. A new clan system with clan tags has been implemented, allowing friends to join together and have their own chat channels. The interface also features a leveling system for players, rewarding active users with unlockable portraits, skins, and animations for units. For example, the marine portrait is unlocked for users that win 10 ranked or unranked games as Terran. The Viking dance animation unlocks for reaching level 15 Terran. The mutant strain for zerglings enables after Zerg level 30. Lastly, Blizzard made the selection screens more community based, with links to current Major League Gaming broadcasts.
Though it may not seem like it, Starcraft enjoys a wide online and offline community. Large-scale MLG tournaments are hosted about four times a year, with Starcraft as one of the main events. They are hosted in large venues where spectators from everywhere come to watch their favorite gamers compete. The atmosphere during games is tense; commentators excitedly describe the match as live footage from games is broadcast online and projected on screens for spectators to watch. In addition, many websites host resources for fans and players alike to share their Starcraft love. One website in particular, TeamLiquid.net, hosts content for a variety of games, including League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2, and Starcraft. Links to popular players that stream are featured, and the site also hosts forums and news for everyone to view and contribute. Though already large, this sense of community is something that the Starcraft scene has been needing all these years. However, with the release of Heart of the Swarm, Blizzard has succeeded in revitalizing its interest.
My belief is that this new release is the perfect opportunity for those that didn’t know anything about Starcraft to get started. In fact, since February, the number of subscribers to the Starcraft subreddit on Reddit has risen about 20,000 from its original 120,000. The game needed a jolt like this to pull prospective players in and experience the joy that is Starcraft. The campaign and storyline are great, but the most fun I’ve had is in the multiplayer aspect. Throughout the times I’ve been playing, many epic battles with my friends stand out. I remember all those times I’ve won games because I’ve learned from past mistakes. I’ve discovered that one has to have quick feet and think accordingly. Should I invest in a strong economy for a better advantage later on, or should I attack early and punish my opponent’s investment? Do I attack from the high cliffs or should I bait my enemy into attacking me? These choices make all the difference in a match. I own many games, whether on Steam or other titles, but I’ve never experienced anything like Starcraft. It’s a real and fun learning experience. There is no feeling quite like outmaneuvering and outthinking your opponent with superior foresight. So to all the new players out there, you are about to embark on loads of fun that will keep you entertained for times to come.