Is Starcraft II’s add-on Heart of the Swarm, or More of the Same?

, | Games

Last week, I got to play a couple of missions from the upcoming Heart of the Swarm add-on for Starcraft II. Read the coverage here.

There are three different ways to play a real time strategy game: multiplayer, skirmish, and campaign modes, which I prefer in that order. To Blizzard’s credit, they’re putting more-or-less equal emphasis on all three ways to play. However, the traditional scripted scenarios that go into a campaign mode couldn’t be less interesting to me because they’re more about the mission designer than the gameplay.

Both missions from Heart of the Swarm were typical puzzle scenarios in which you build up an army and then scrape the map clean, but with some sort of twist to supposedly make it interesting. But there’s a fine line between a “twist” and an “annoyance”. In Starcraft II, consider the day/night zombie mission and the lava mission. In the former, you had to decide when to move out against zombie lairs and how many resources to spend on defense vs. offense. The mission progressed with a sense of pulses and a delicious “here they come again!” dread. But in the lava mission, you just had to get your workers out of the way of rising lava every so often. The former offered interesting decisions and a sense of place. The latter was just busywork. I’m not convinced Blizzard has quite figured out the difference yet.

If you liked the campaign in Starcraft II, I’m sure Heart of the Swarm will light your fire as well. And although I can groove on the RPG trappings between missions, the actual missions felt like the usual scripted single-player drill: train units, drag select them, attack move, win. Furthermore, the clot of earnest storytelling is so leaden. At one point, Kerrigan delivers the following line:

Izsha, can they commune with Shakura through the Kala?

That line is so heavy with inscrutable proper nouns that I have no idea what to do with it. The who with the what in the where? A game like The Witcher 2, which I’m on the verge of finishing, can get away with that, because it takes its time laying out the players, and developing the story based on your choices, and putting you into the plot as befits an up-close-and-personal RPG. In The Witcher 2, I care about Saskia and the Pontar Valley and Phillipa’s agenda. But when an RTS tries to get me to care about Izsha and Shakura and Kala, all I can think about is whether I have the number of zerglings the designer wanted me to train to get past this mission.