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Perhaps the most telling observation one can make about Heart of the Swarm is that, despite it being their expansion, Zerg players are the least happy about the changes.
They’re not despondent; they’re just not cheering from the aisles. It’s particularly noticeable in Australia, whose competitive scene has been characterised with an unhealthy degree of Zerg commanders for the last two years. Most of our tournaments were strictly all-Zerg affairs: Jared “PiG” Krensel, for instance, won the Australian leg of the Blizzard World Championship Series purely thanks to his prowess in the Zerg vs Zerg mirror.
Changing the status quo, obviously, can only be a good thing. But it’s not as if the race is at a distinct disadvantage across the board, as Andrew “mOOnGlaDe” Pender showcased at the HotS launch in Federation Square. It’s just that the collective’s knowledge has effectively been reset.
Consider Wings of Liberty. A Zerg player hasn’t seen much from his Protoss opponent beyond the usual forge/expansion play, so he wants to play safely. They know that at around 7 minutes and 30 seconds, they need to build a spore crawler. There’s no guarantee that Dark Templars are on the way, but if they build one now, they know they’ll be safe.
This sort of general understanding of how the races and units interact with each other after the last three years — and more importantly, what interactions are possible and at what times — has become so vast that reactions like these are common even among the lower leagues. (There are obviously more exact examples — overlord scout timings, times to scan as a Terran and so on — but this is just for illustrative purposes.)
It’s particularly crucial for Zerg, which is a reactive race by nature. That’s why the professional Zergs I’ve spoken to are so concerned about the next six months. The chasm of the unknown is incredibly unnerving after enjoying two straight years of knowing every possible counter.
Right now, that comprehensive database of timings and responses, despite the lengthy beta test, does not currently exist. Players of all races are now re-feeling their way through the new units and the new maps. Many will be happy to recycle strategies from Wings of Liberty, play it safe for a week or so and see what changes Blizzard decides to implement.
But one thing is certain: one year from now, the state of Heart of the Swarm will be substantially different from the Heart of the Swarm you see today. This is the essence of StarCraft: change.
If you’re not prepared for that, if you can’t accept or are too flustered to cope with the wildly changing circumstances of the various matchups, Heart of the Swarm is not the game for you. In fact, I’d wager that real-time strategy probably isn’t your genre. Stability, in terms of how players approach the game, has never been par for the course.
This is what playing StarCraft is truly about: throwing yourself into the unknown, over and over again.
A finer analysis
On a more practical level, players are going to play safe, which means a lot of very non-greedy, gas-intensive, delayed expansion builds. This obviously isn’t the case for Zerg; but it’s going to take quite some time until you see Terrans happily expanding off a single Barracks in the first few minutes, for instance.
It’s a necessity, really, considering that most of the new units have an immediate effect within the first five minutes. The widow mine’s zoning ability can be rather handy in delaying marine/zergling-based attacks. The Mothership Core is a great defensive unit of its own, making fast expansions much more versatile in the Protoss mirror match.
Probably the change with the most potential is the new recall ability for Protoss, which could transform matches against Zerg from the current WarCraft 3-esque major-battle centric style to something a little more decentralised, similar to the multi-pronged high intensity battles you see whenever good Terrans and Zergs face off.
And yet the old styles of going for a huge deathball, with or without the power of the Tempest/Oracle/Mothership Core, is still completely viable. But it’s also more vulnerable than ever before too. Terran’s range has been substantially upgraded: Siege Tanks are more readily available with the siege mode upgrade no longer a requirement, while Thors no longer get instantly negated by High Templars.
There isn’t a single match-up where a use can’t be found for every unit. Even Ravens have more utility, although it took at least two years before players could find any role for them at all (beyond building one or two for detection).
Stepping into the swarm
You’ll find most of the best changes have been made outside of the game itself, with the interface and menu system receiving a huge overhaul in the last few months.
The ability to resume from replays will be the lifeblood for tournaments plagued by internet connectivity issues. It works relatively smoothly and will in itself become a massive boon for players looking to practice their late-game. Alternatively, you could get a friend and play out certain battles from major tournament matches to practice your mechanics (or perhaps even find a better way to engage).
Global Play will save professional teams a tonne of money, since multiple accounts are no longer required to access different servers. That makes it a little cheaper for professional teams or hardcore players looking to test their mettle in the shark-infested waters of the Korean server.
The opening interface itself is far more functional too. There’s more news, it’s more relevant and more broader in its scope. Patch notes are easily accessible through an in-game link; tournaments now get direct coverage through the opening menu.
Players get far more information through the post-game menu. The build order tab hasn’t changed, although it’s a lot slicker and much cleaner than before. A new tab called Performance gives you an outline of your average performance against the game you just played.
The profile page now has statistics built in for each match-up and race, which is a great boon for newer players looking to analyse their flaws. It’s easy to read and use and is good if you can’t get your head around SC2gears (although the third-party program is still far more comprehensive than Blizzard’s additions).
Still, it’s a step in the right direction for a game as heavily focused on competitive play. There’s even a new Reviews system, akin to something you’d see in DOTA 2 or League of Legends. And the much broader challenge mode, while not as comprehensive as some build-order tutorials you might find on Youtube, provides sufficient instruction for newer players to ease them into ladder matches.
All-rounder of the year
Heart of the Swarm has greatly improved the social facilities as well. Wings of Liberty didn’t even have chat channels or clan support upon launch; those oversights have been rectified. The Arcade section better caters towards the mapmaking community with a better framework for newer maps, instead of the previous system that made it difficult to find anything but the most popular.
It’s a much-needed evolution, given that the strength of the StarCraft and WarCraft 3 communities was their exceptionally deep roster of custom games, the eternally-popular Defence of the Ancients being a shining example.
In just a few seconds, I came across a turn-based card game. Then there’s the Starcraft Universe single-player MMO. There’s even a map that showcases every unit and explosion over the course of a minute, which caches all the assets and improves in-game performance provided you run it once every time you open the game.
SC2’s editor is a powerful, powerful beast, and the capacity for mapmakers to create even more amazing games has just increased exponentially.
Two-thirds of the way there
With Heart of the Swarm’s release, StarCraft 2 is, at least commercially, two-thirds complete. But what direction does the series go from here?
Further upgrades to the back-end, editor and the interface seem the most likely path. A more comprehensive multiplayer tutorial for each of the three races wouldn’t hurt either; while the challenge mode and the campaigns ease you into the mechanics, something to teach players basic build orders would be a clever addition.
The new units in Heart of the Swarm make sense because they filled roles that the races lacked in Wings of Liberty. Terrans needed a better solution to the Infestor/Brood Lord combo that didn’t break the Zerg/Protoss match-up. Protoss needed a way to safely expand against Zerg that wouldn’t ruin games against Terrans, where fast expansions were already common.
So what holes are currently missing in the overall armory? The only immediate one I can see is perhaps a way for Protoss to become much more mobile than before against Zerg, giving them the tools to completely decentralise the match-up away from the deathball-style that has become so prevalent over the last few years.
The inclusions of the Tempest have made late game a much more interesting proposition for Protoss users, but it doesn’t mean massing a huge army isn’t still a safer and more viable plan than multi-pronged attacks.
Conversely, will huge waves of mine-fields bog down the Terran vs Zerg match-up? The most recent Major League Gaming tournament has shown indications that this kind of zonal play will become more popular in the future, particularly when players get a better handle on the exact positioning of the mines.
It’s a new, strange world. Nobody knows exactly where we’ll end up 12 months from now. But there is one thing I can guarantee: if you buy into Heart of the Swarm, you’ll still have a perfectly functional, complex and fascinating game with a vibrant community in a year.
You can’t say that about very many games in this day and age.
- Brand new menu UI injects life into Battle.net 2.0
- Blizzard’s attentive eye for balance means the game will remain in a highly playable state for years
- StarCraft 2 editor is probably a great way to break into the gaming industry, and it just got more powerful
- No more “WE WANT LAN” when you can resume from a replay
- Global Play lets one account play on every server
- Clan support!
- Unranked play makes the game less intimidating for lower leagues and lets more advanced players dabble with the other races without ruining their record
- Coverage of community news in-game has been expanded substantially
- No in-game browser to watch forums or streams, although this is less a downside than it is a luxury
Product for this review supplied by Blizzard.