StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Preview Part 1 -- Getting to Know the SwarmBy Leah Jackson - Posted May 31, 2011
In the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm's opening cinematic, shots are being fired. Everything is in chaos. There’s no indication where we might be other than it looks like a high-tech Terran facility. Just when we begin to get our bearings, Nova, the female Ghost from StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty comes on screen and frantically yells “Find Kerrigan!” Jim Raynor, the hero marine comes into view, shooting his way through the facility. He blasts open a huge door and finally comes upon a room where he meets up with Kerrigan. She looks human and is wearing her staple Ghost outfit, but her hair is still distinctly Zerg, and she looks to be summoning some sort of force.
This is how our demo of the first StarCraft 2 expansion, StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, campaign began. If you didn’t get a chance to play through the SC2:WoL campaign, beware, as spoilers lay ahead. And by ahead I mean right now, so turn away if need be and come back when you've finished the game.
So WoL ended with Raynor saving Kerrigan and supposedly ridding his love of her Zerg infestation, yet it’s unclear from the video why, once again, Kerrigan might be fighting with the Zerg; many other story-related questions still remain unanswered as well. What we do know is that Kerrigan’s Zerg powers have returned, and that she’s ready to kick some ass.
Right from the start, Heart of the Swarm feels different than Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan is basically a monster goddess who can control millions of Zerg units (a.k.a. Swarm) unlike in WoL where you control Jim Raynor who, on his best day, has a chance at maybe annoying his adversary Arcturus Mengsk with a measly force. This time around Blizzard wanted to give players that sense of absolute power. If Kerrigan tells her Zerg to die for her, they don’t get upset, they say “How many?” Now players will feel that responsibility of being the Queen of Blades.
To give off the sense that Kerrigan is truly a Supreme Being, players will be able to upgrade her using the newly introduced Battle Focus system. Battle Focus adds a role-playing game aspect to Heart of the Swarm, as it allows players to choose the style in which Kerrigan will fight. For the demo, only two focuses were unlocked, Corruption and Spec Ops, but there was space on the screen for up to four. Each focus seemed to come with a passive stat increase and a few abilities. Kerrigan can only have one battle focus equipped at a time, and she gains new abilities for each focus as she levels up. Here’s how the two focuses we saw worked (keep in mind the first bullet is a passive stat increase and the next bullets are general abilities unless stated otherwise):
- Spec Ops Kerrigan:
- Gains passive +50 Energy
- Pulse: Deals light damage and stuns an area of enemies for three seconds
- Psionic Shadow: Kerrigan clones herself and the hallucination deals half damage to enemies
- Infested Cortex: Another +50 Passive Energy
- Corruption Kerrigan:
- Gains passive +3 Armor
- Spawn Broodling: Instantly kills enemy unit and spawns five Broodlings (Massive and Hero units are immune)
- Corrosive Spores: Area of effect ability, units in the area take +3 damage
What’s nice is that the focuses can be switched at any time between missions, and you're encouraged to do so. Kerrigan can also gain more health and energy through resources found while exploring various areas of missions, adding even more role-playing elements. It truly feels like you’re making a hero out of Kerrigan this time around as you upgrade her and play her as you choose. You check out and change Kerrigan’s stats and focus by clicking on her before missions start in the newly redesigned sets.
For HotS, Blizzard wanted to design a new way to built sets before you head in to missions. In HotS, Kerrigan will travel in style in her Leviathan, a massive jellyfish looking ship, and yes, you get to explore the insides of it. For each planet Kerrigan wants to conquer, the Leviathan will “land,” and between missions and upgrading and evolving units, the background of the Leviathan set will change. In WoL, players would continuously return to the Cantina, which got repetitive. For HotS, as you progress through the campaign and conquer more planets, the background will always be changing. For example, we landed on Char, a planet that is at first overrun with Terran units who have built new structures, which we can see in the background. After completing two or three missions on Char, the Terran structures in the background burn and crumble, giving you an immediate, “Wow, I did that!” feeling directly after each mission.
The sets also come equipped with two of Kerrigan’s trusty advisors: Abathur and Izsha. Abathur is the advisor in charge of the Evolution Chamber, while Izsha is the memory of Kerrigan as the Queen of Blades. She seemed to be more of the point person (Swarmling?) for the missions than anything. They both offer helpful advice and insight for the missions, but I found Abathur to be more interesting.
Abathur runs the Evolution Chamber in Heart of the Swarm, the equivalent to Wings of Liberty’s Armory. In Heart of the Swarm, unit upgrades are treated a bit differently, this time offering fundamentally different units based on how you choose to upgrade them. Each Zerg unit in Heart of the Swarm will come with three available upgrades and the option to evolve them into a whole new unit that will change its appearance and abilities (like in Pokemon). Upgrades and Evolutions can be purchased with DNA Mutagen that is found on planets while completing missions. The idea is that by the end of the campaign my Swarm will not only look different from my friend’s, but they will act different as well. Here’s a full breakdown for the three units we played as: Zergling, Baneling, and Roach:
Zerglings are the staple Zerg unit. Aside from worker Drones, they are the first unit that you use, and they can eventually morph into Banelings. They are melee units that hatch in a pair and can be upgraded the following ways:
- Zergling Upgrades:
- Metabolic Boost (1 DNA): Increases Zerling speed by 33%
- Posthumous Mitosis (1 DNA): 20% chance to instantly spawn Zergling upon another ling’s death
- Rapid Genesis (2 DNA): Zerglings instantly hatch
- Zergling Evolutions:
- Swarmling: Zerglings now spawn in groups of three (instead of two) at no extra cost
- Raptor: Zerglings will now leap to enemies and gain 10 extra health
Banelings are explosive Zerg units that have no melee attack. When they come into contact with either other units or structures, they explode into adorable Zerg goo and deal massive damage. They can be upgraded in the following ways:
- Baneling Upgrades:
- Viscous Discharge (1 DNA): Upon explosion Banelings will cover their target in goo that slows their movement speed by 25%
- Centrifugal Hooks (1 DNA): Increases the movement speed of Banelings by 25%
- Rupture (2 DNA): Baneling splash radius increased by 25%
- Baneling Evolutions:
- Splitterling: Upon explosion Banelings will split into two smaller units, this effect happens twice.
- Gorgeling: Reduces killed structures in to resources
Roaches are heavily armored Zerg units that can only attack other ground units. The staple of a Roach is that, if it uses its burrow ability, it can hide underground and regain its health rather quickly.
- Roach Upgrades:
- Chitnous Plating (1 DNA): Adds +1 armor to Roaches
- Bile Ducts (1 DNA): Adds +2 damage to Roaches
- Organic Carapace (2 DNA): Adds +2 life regen to Roaches
- Roach Evolutions:
- Prowler: Roaches can now move while burrowed
- Leech: Roaches now gain 10 life per kill (up to 60) and they heal more rapidly while burrowed
While there were only three available units to play with in the demo, there is plenty of space in the Evolution Chamber to house a variety of others. The same can be said for the bridge, as only Kerrigan, Abathur, and Izsha were showcased in this build. However, there’s plenty of space for more characters, and I’m sure even more areas of the Leviathan will be utilized in the final version.
We only saw two missions and three new units in our StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm hands-on preview, but it’s evident that a lot is changing this time around. The sets have an entirely new feel, Kerrigan seems more like a hero unit than Jim Raynor ever did with the Battle Focus mechanic, and unit upgrades, while similar to unit upgrades from Wings of Liberty, do feel more personalized this time around, especially with the evolution aspect. It will be interesting to see the direction that HotS goes from here. As someone who loved the first StarCraft 2 campaign, I’d say so far so good.