Preview: Heart of the Swarm

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December 20, 2012 by solomonlutze

Heart of the SwarmMy roommate’s Christmas present to me this year was to pre-order Heart of the Swarm for me, and since ordering from nets you your very own beta key, I got a chance to try out the game myself for the first time this week.

For those who haven’t been watching closely, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is an expansion to the wildly popular real-time strategy game StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. The beta is currently focusing on the multiplayer changes, which are subtle but, for veteran players, monumental. The three races have received a number of new units, and existing units have seen changes as well; some changes are as slight as minor health adjustments, while others include major speed increases and brand-new upgrades. All the changes fit in with each race’s aesthetic: the Protoss’s Oracle, with the ability to reveal enemy production and research, exemplifies the race’s almost-mystical technology; the Zerg’s Swarm Host, which hides underground and spawns wave after wave of monstrous Locusts, has all the overwhelming, unyielding numbers that typify the swarm.

The game looks beautiful, especially with some of the new ragdoll physics that have been added in for death animations. A running Zergling that gets gunned down by a Marine will continue flying in the direction it was moving, and pieces of a destroyed Mothership Core will bounce off of cliffs and disappear off the edge of the map. The game is incredibly fun to look at at high detail, and for a franchise that’s so popular as a spectator sport, this is critical.

In my experience so far, the new units aren’t stealing the show, or at least, not yet. The game is an add-on to an already established, well-regarded game that has its own incredibly complex (and sometimes indecipherable) metagame. The balance issues at play in StarCraft II, where all of the 3 races must be evenly balanced in any matchup (and  must remain balanced even with teams of several players) mean that even small changes disrupt the style of play immensely. If you play the beta and find that some new units, like the Tempest or the Widow Mine, don’t see play even after a few games, don’t be surprised. Particularly for people who have been playing for awhile, there’s a strong disincentive to try anything new; people will stick with the build orders they know, and by and large, those will work – for awhile, at least.

If you aren’t into StarCraft, these changes might not make much sense to you, especially since the game is so mechanically complicated. The takeaway is this: StarCraft, like chess, has a number of rules that cause identical starting points to unfold in millions of different ways, giving the game a lot of replay value. Like chess, though, there are certain strategies that players who know the game well adopt – certain openings, certain defenses, and so on – because those strategies tend to be the most successful. Watching professional-level players implementing those strategies – trying to balance their own growth with restricting the enemy, trying to scout, assess, and counter the opponent’s strategy – is exciting, especially for players who know the game well enough to know what success depends upon, and what it looks like.

That said, Heart of the Swarm is cool because it offers so much that’s new that the old ways of analyzing and playing the game are starting to shift. Certain strategies that used to dominate, like the Zerg’s combination of the heavy-hitting Brood Lords and the strategically defensive Infestor, are being weakened, and it’s not clear yet what new strategies will arise. Right now, players are still trying to play the game the way it used to be, only occasionally pulling out the new units to see what works with them. But when a new strategy is discovered, the whole game can shift. Complex strategies that took months to evolve are scrapped completely in favor of something more efficient, which in turn will encourage other players to find new ways around those gains. It doesn’t feel like some of those breakthroughs are there yet, but they’re coming. In the meantime, the game is a hell of a lot of fun precisely because of all that uncertainty. There’s a lot of incentive to mess around with those new units because you might discover a way to use them that never occurred to anyone before you, and cause one of those huge shifts.

Conceptually, the changes all feel right at home in the StarCraft II universe. Visually, everything looks spectacular. The balance is still a little shaky, and there will likely be many more changes and updates to come before the game is finally released on March 12, 2013.

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