Starcraft 2: Heart of The Swarm: Afraid of its own Gameplay

(No spoilers this time, honest!)

Now, I’m a pretty big Blizzard fanboy. Way back when, I used to consider my favorite developers to be the Three B’s: Bioware (for KOTOR and BG2), Bungie (for Marathon and Halo) and Blizzard (for… more or less everything they’ve released).

One of my favorite games back in High School was Diablo II. I played Starcraft like crazy too, although largely sticking to the custom maps with bizarre gameplay styles. Hell, I even created my own campaigns for Starcraft and Warcraft II! Not exactly pinnacles of plotting there, and that I was a gamer with a Mac kinda meant that they (and Bungie) were my only real source for non-console gaming, but there’s a reason why Blizzard is the powerhouse it has been more or less ever since Warcraft I burst onto the scene…

…19 years ago?

*shudder*

…in any case.

Of course, I was one of those that was eagerly awaiting Starcraft 2. Even though my RTS skillz were outright horrific, I still enjoyed the original, and really wanted to see how the story continued to play out, especially given how Starcraft: Brood Wars ended.

So, I picked up Starcraft 2 pretty much on release day and, aside from a little online play, mainly stuck to the single-player campaign.

And… yeah, it was kinda good. Some plot details anyone with half a brain saw coming a mile away. An ending that seemed to sap one of the main characters of the series of their dignity, but the strategy gameplay was quite well done, the missions varied and exciting, a strong cast of characters (especially Matt Horner, who really stood out for me as a needed counterbalance to Raynor’s pessimism), and a massive promise of what was to come in the first of two expansions, Heart of the Swarm, which came out in early March.

Well, of course I picked that up (part of one of the most amazingly awesome spring months for gaming I’ve seen…), and I eagerly played through it. And, like so much else that I’ve seen from Blizzard as of late, the results was…

…eh.

Now, some of the ‘eh’-ness I should have seen coming. The RPG-ness focus on making Kerrigan more powerful was going to shift things away from the RTS action, with some missions focused entirely on that (and it didn’t bother me much anyway). It was the middle-segment of a trilogy, so its rather underwhelming ending wasn’t too surprising (…although it seriously could have been better handled). That you need to buy and read a book in order to know what happened between the Wings of Liberty campaign and Heart of the Swarm is as bloody frustrating as it has been ever since Blizzard started doing that for WoW (expect a rant on THAT in the near future), but the big beats were referenced in the first few missions, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.

Also, it’s a Zerg campaign. I never played the Zerg that great in Starcraft 2, just something about the styles clashed whenever I needed to do something besides Select-All-Attack-Move. And, as the Zerg kinda default to being bad guys (as opposed to the “Assholier-Than-Thou” Protoss or the “Redneck Bastards” Terrans. Starcraft is a universe where everyone is a complete SOB, really), which has always left me a little uncomfortable when we end up committing war crimes on the enemies. It didn’t help that the efforts by HotS makes in getting the protagonist to not seem so horrifically evil just don’t get through properly. And it doesn’t help that all of the Zerg characters are completely unlikable, with the possible exception of Kerrigan, and the occasional bit of dark comedy that manages to work.

But, no, what ended up bugging me most? The gameplay.

…that’s right, bitches. I’m talking about gameplay in this video game blog, and not story. Bring it!

The Core Gameplay of Starcraft 2

So, Starcraft 2, for those of you who don’t know, is a Real-Time Strategy Game. In the case of standard Multiplayer matches, and standard non-campaign vs. AI matches as well, gameplay largely consists of the following:

  • Start with a single building that can make workers, and some workers already made
  • Gather resources with your workers and create new buildings that you can use to create combat units
  • Use the army you’ve built up to destroy the enemy’s army and bases

Granted, there’s more to all that at times. You have to defend, after all, and there are defense-specialty units, and different units fight in different ways, and there’s scouting, expansions, a long-term war over resources, different types of resources, small-scale-tactical movement, etc. Because this is an RTS, and for that matter a good game, there’s plenty of nuances and complications to explore and consider. The interplay between attack and defense becomes quite apparent, as an army is usually strongest when fighting from their base, and a routed attack can cost you the match, but you have to keep attacking expansions to keep the enemy honest, otherwise they will simply outspend you to victory.

But, again, at its core, Starcraft 2’s combat is about those three bullet points. And it’s a shame that the actual Campaign forgot about that.

Side-Quest-Itis and ‘Exciting’ Complications

Looking back at Heart of the Swarm’s campaign, I can think of only a handful of “Use a base to make an army and kill their dudes” missions. Now, a base, an army and killing dudes is frequently required in the campaign, but once you get past the first few missions that are still tutorial-y, all of the missions fall into the following categories:

  • No base, you just have to use the minions you’ve got and what additional ones you get through the level to beat it (the “RPG-Style” missions that I generally like, honestly)
  • Base, Army and Dudes, on both sides, but you have a restrictive time limit on the mission, where if you take too long you automatically lose.
  • Base, Army and Dudes, but there’s something or somethings super-critical that you have to focus on defending, otherwise you lose.
  • Base, Army and Dudes, on both sides, but periodically you’ll be prevented from attacking and have to go on the defensive

There’s a few here and there where the complications aren’t quite as restrictive, of course, which are honestly quite refreshing to encounter.

And this is only talking about the MAIN objective, because one of the things Blizzard did to spice things up in the missions was to add side-quests in almost every mission, whereby completing them would level-up Kerrigan, making her more powerful and giving her access to new abilities. Eventually, doing these would make her able to destroy whole armies, which means that these ‘optional’ missions quickly become anything but. If you don’t do them, you run the risk of falling behind on the leveling curve, which is not a nice place to be in the later stages of the game.

So, not only are you having to deal with the normal, Core Gameplay complications that come with just playing Starcraft normally, you also have to deal with the added mission requirements that normally would be there to shake things up, and THEN have to make sure to get the Side-quests done. On higher difficulty levels, it becomes downright obnoxious that you’re constantly having to keep moving  to attack a specific position right now or defend a fragile thing, instead of doing what you came there to do: Build up an army and kill their dudes.

There’s another problem with this: These ‘exciting complications’ that get thrown your way stop being exciting rather quickly. You’re spending all of your time dealing with one twist after another after another for the gameplay that you can never really settle into things. One mission will require you to move your army around quickly on short notice, while another favors hardened defense (or at least as hard as Zerg defense can get). Other missions give you time to build up your army by preventing you from attacking for a while, while another will keep shouting at you to keep attacking, or you’ll immediately lose. It all just becomes routine, a matter of trying to figure out what this new twist is that’s dominating the normal gameplay this time.

There never becomes time to figure things out and experiment with what will and won’t work, unless you feel like endangering the mission. The pressure is kept up so continuously, that there’s really never any time to breathe. This is especially notable in the final mission, where you have two secondary objectives, protect a VIP from periodical attacks and eliminate non-critical bases to supply yourself with reinforcements.

Compare this to the Brood War Campaigns. While each one is smaller, 8-10 missions instead of 25 or so, they still had the occasional “gimmick” mission, where you needed to overcome some significant obstacle here or there. But regardless, for the final mission of the Zerg and Terran campaign, as well as the second to last mission of the Protoss campaign, it’s a straight-up “Use a base to make an army and kill their dudes” mission, with the lone gimmick being that the Terran campaign doesn’t even require you to kill all the enemy forces, just get certain units into the right place (which is behind the enemy lines, of course).

None of those missions have an Instant Lose gimmick holding you back. The only way you’ll lose those missions is if your entire base is destroyed, and possibly because you’ve run out of resources needed to keep on the offensive. The final mission of the entire Brood War campaign is quite simple in its brilliance: You’re surrounded by enemy forces and need to kill them all to win.

That’s why it’s the final mission: It’s the final exam after all the smaller tests that came before, the peak of the Real Time Combat you’ve been working with the whole time, and a shining example of what will be needed for you in multiplayer.

You’ve got a base. You need to expand, build up your forces and crush your enemies.

That’s it, and it made for a grander finale than throwing a few gimmicks at the screen to finish things off.

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