There’s a moment in Heart Of The Swarm’s campaign when its star, Sarah Kerrigan, asks her Zerg chief scientist whether he is aiming for perfection with his genetic experimentation. No, he replies, he isn’t. Perfection is never possible, because it’s forever a moving goal, and so he’s consigned to merely follow it. Sure, it’s spoken by a dripping sexual organ of a character in one of the most deliriously schlocky games in recent memory, but it’s an idea that gets to the heart of StarCraft’s multiplayer. Broadly, it hasn’t changed in 15 years, and yet it still hasn’t lost any of its capacity to entrap players and spectators within its dizzyingly complex interplay of unit abilities and human skill. As time passes, strategies are revised and meld, new tactics become standard plays, and rediscoveries of past successes undercut those of today and in turn become popular again. StarCraft, for its players, is a constantly shifting battleground where perfection always lies tantalisingly out of reach.
But our oozing friend doesn’t speak for StarCraft’s core game design, which is, more or less, perfection. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t still be at the peak of the RTS genre. And this is Blizzard’s boon and its bane. How can it build on what’s fundamentally already finished? HOTS, which follows 2010′s Wings Of Liberty as the second part of a trilogy of games under the StarCraft II banner, answers this question by adding seven new units across its three races’ multiplayer rosters, 26 new maps and a redesigned front-end interface. That’s enough to remake the game for its hardcore players, perhaps, who will be eager to discover the new strategies these enable, but what about the rest of us?
The obvious attraction for those without a vested interest in multiplayer is the campaign, which picks up directly after Wings Of Liberty. Rich and entertaining, it builds on WOL’s playful approach to the strictures of the RTS genre with a varied set of 20 main missions divided across five short storylines. Each tale takes you to a different location, documents Kerrigan’s efforts to bring the Zerg swarm together, and as a group they offer excuses for you to be piloting battlecruisers in space one moment, taking on boss battles the next, and then directing intimate single-unit engagements and partaking in light stealth soon after. Sometimes you’ll encounter multiple styles in the same mission. The campaign is generous, too, with almost every level introducing a new unit or plaything for you to get your head around as well as giving you choices over your army’s abilities and what set of missions to tackle next.
The campaign’s strength lies in the fact that it doesn’t feel the need to live up to the formality of multiplayer. For a start, it offers an expanded set of unit types, and for each you can select one of three augmentations that buff certain abilities. Seven units can be further improved in Evolution missions, in which you get to try out two strains and then choose the one to keep. These often transform their roles for the rest of the campaign. Your flying Mutalisk can become either a Brood Lord, which despatches powerful Locusts at ground targets from long range, or a Viper, which can pull enemy units from their positions to disrupt their formations. Zerglings, meanwhile, can be strengthened and given the ability to jump up cliffs and leap on enemies, or multiplied, with three birthed at a time.
And on top of all this is the almost constant and battle-turning presence of one of the story’s lead characters, usually Kerrigan. Here HOTS seems to look back to Warcraft III (perhaps through the lens of the popularity of the MOBAs that game inspired), packing in abilities that add direct control to the tactics: single-target blasts, healing, stun attacks, area damage and much more. Kerrigan herself levels as you complete missions, unlocking tiers of new abilities, including passive powers such as Zerglings automatically restocking at no cost at your home base when they’re killed, or Vespene gas extractors not requiring drones to operate. Some players might feel that such abilities take away from StarCraft’s tactical purity, given you can often muddle through with these powerful units, which even get resurrected after a short cooldown period if they die. But they make for dynamic confrontations that are less at the mercy of inexperience or poor planning than the scenarios found in many singleplayer RTSes.