Does Starcraft II really need Heart of the Swarm?

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Heart of the Swarm consists of seven units. Well, six and a half, since one of the units is the nascent form of an already existing unit. Actually, maybe six and a quarter since one of the units is an alternate form for another already existing unit. However you do the math, a few new units is pretty much what you’re getting with this add-on. Unless you count the campaign, but why on earth would you do that?

After the jump, meet the new units

Right off the bat, I can tell that some of these new units aren’t for me. The two zerg support units are for players who can handle micro way better than I can. The protoss get a support unit and a long range standoff aircraft in case you’re getting bored of void rays. Their mothership core lets them halfway build a mothership before they actually build a mothership. It’s kind of cute to see the halfmothership scooting around the field doing what it can to earn its keep. It’s a sort of mothership coming of age scenario. I enjoy the way terran hellions can unpack into heartier firebat forms, which lets the terrans scoot units quickly across the map and then unpack them into something else. You know, like they could already do with vikings. And if you can get your opponent to stumble into the scuttling terran mine drones when they’re not scuttling uselessly, the fireworks are a sight to behold.

I shouldn’t be dismissive of these new units. I don’t play Starcraft II skillfully enough to know what they accomplish in the overall picture. I get the sense that if I wanted to, here are a few new tricks I could master. And, oh, look, the guy I’m playing online is actually putting the protoss oracle to work because now my zerglings have slowed to a crawl and they’re getting mowed down by stalkers. The indignity.

Part of what I admired about Starcraft II was the elegance of its asymmetry, with simple precise strokes defining each faction in sharp relief against the other factions, and furthermore the amount of choice within the confines of that simplicity and precision. Do the new units compromise that or add to it? I trust Blizzard’s commitment to the integrity of their game. And in the case of at least one faction, Blizzard applied some streamlining. A friend of mine claims I beat him because he wasted too much time trying to remember where to research the tech that lets you deploy terran tanks into their siege form. He later realized that tech is gone.

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. Perhaps I’m recalling Brood Wars too fondly, but 15 years ago, that expansion felt like it improved the game. It felt like something Starcraft needed. Heart of the Swarm feels obligatory, as if it was done for Activision’s shareholders instead of Blizzard’s fans.

The campaign doesn’t help matters, especially if you go in with the sort of open mind that requires forgetting the original game’s campaign, or at least some optimism that Blizzard is going to try to do it less awful this time around. Once again, Blizzard unfurls a set of units in a set of missions that barely relate to the actual game (what does it say about me that I consider the skirmish and multiplayer the “actual game”, but I’m not dedicated enough to make any sort of meaningful judgment about how the new units affect balance?). And once again, the campaign is poorly written, poorly acted, erratically paced, full of pointless upgrades and meaningless choices, crammed full of overproduced cutscenes that fail to relate to the gameplay, and without a shred of creative insight into how to use a real time strategy game to tell a story, much less how to get me to click “next mission” without heaving a tired sigh. For all their incomparable game design smarts, Blizzard remains one of the worst storytellers in the business, partly for how hard they try and mostly for how spectacularly they fail.

2 stars