So Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty was a fabulous non-starter, a bit of a “damp squib” as they say in the business. They promised a thirty-mission epic story, and instead we got a slightly-above-standard fifteenish-mission main story with a huge pile of fairly disposable side quests. It’s pretty and plays fairly well, but seems somehow unsatisfying.
Even so, I’ve been suckered into purchasing the expansion pack Heart of the Swarm because I hate to leave a narrative unfinished (no matter how questionable its quality may be). So let’s see where this takes us…
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Of course, I’m not very good at body-horror (while the entire rest of the game industry seems to be obsessed with it — System Shock 2‘s mutant enemies and the Body of the Many, Baldur’s Gate 2‘s Beholder tunnels, the Strogg of Quake II & 4…), so the Zerg are naturally my least favourite piece of the Starcraft menagerie.
Alas, in order to reach the mythical heights of dem Protoss, whose expansion will no doubt take another two years (at least) to materialise, we’ve got to wade through the dross.
Not that it is exactly dross, just not very aesthetically pleasing. I don’t like blood or needles either, okay?
The campaign is luckily far better presented than Wings of Liberty, in that the side quests don’t feel so much like disposable extras, but rather story-relevant missions that can be tackled in a variable order. Kerrigan’s revenge story is gently intertwed with a few bits of the Overmind-was-just-misunderstood-and-Archimonde-is-going-to-eat-the-universe prophecy story, but that doesn’t have much impact in the long run — Zeratul shows up for five minutes to say “keep doin’ what’chu doin’, sista” before disappearing again. (Seriously, where does he keep running off to that he can’t stick around long enough to just explain himself?)
For each section, you get to choose between two or three planets, each planet having a straight sequence of two or three missions before you can move on again (rather than jumping back and forward across the universe between chains in WoL).
Each mission reintroduces a new unit into the Swarm, taking you up from the el cheapo Zerglings up to the heavy hitters (it takes far too many missions to get the iconic Hydralisks, though) — since the main plot objective is to grow the swarm so you can get REVENGE, the trickle of new units feels appropriate, rather than Raynor’s Raiders helping random people and just happening to pick up a new unit each time.
Kerrigan is a central hero unit in most missions, giving the game a nice RPG edge to it too (especially the occasional pure dungeon crawl scenarios). She doesn’t level up by experience points, but rather gains one level for doing each odd bonus objective, eventually unlocking new ability slots after some defined thresholds. Her abilities are pretty bro, including jumps and dashes later on; plus, their hotkeys are handily mapped to QWE so I feel right at home.
What gets me about the campaign, however, is that the missions are so short. It is also absolutely obsessed with tutorialling and hand-holding — the game defaults to “simplified command card” and other bluster that makes the interface look weird (and let’s not go into that hateful little social tab in the corner). You also can’t go five minutes with only one worker on a Vespene geyser without Izsha complaining about your sub-optimal strategy.
There was a mission which showed some promise, where you have to infest a Protoss ship and kill everyone but start with only one vulnerable larva. However, no sooner has it explained a given mechanic (e.g. hide in a creature by infesting it, hide behind the steam vents to avoid patrolling enemies) than you’re past that section — there is no rinse and repeat, no thinking for yourself, no puzzling; just click here, do that, job done.
Yes, some of my favourite RPGs are perhaps a little guilty of over-filling places with repeated combat elements, but this is the complete opposite: there is one set-piece, through which you are guided, and that’s it. No chance to grow, no escalation and eventual subversion of the mechanic to test your mettle.
A particularly shameful example of a scenario, which counts towards the 27-map total, is the Zergling Evolution mission. You get to choose between jumping Zerglings or spammed Zerglings, so fair enough, you’d like an opportunity to try them both out. Except the trial mission is barely two minutes of attack-move-to-win. It’s actually shocking. I’m still spitting about it. The rest of the evolution missions are little better; you can’t even fail any of them as any losses are replenished.
I honestly don’t get it. If I can make a total conversion by myself in two years (around having a real job), how the fuck can Blizzard — with all the money in the god damn universe — not make a few missions just a little bit richer?
Maybe the game is just too easy on Normal. Maybe the Zerg are just easier to play because overwhelming numbers don’t need much micromanagement.
Either way, something is a little rotten. It was relaxing and enjoyable enough, but I basically swam through the campaign on auto-pilot and I suck at strategy games. It may be worth trying again on Hard; then again, I’ve started a WoL campaign again on Normal and it’s already much tougher (not impossibru, but not auto-pilot either). The Zerg are definitely a much quicker race to work with — maybe now I begin to understand the whole Zerg Rush phenomenon.
Though it is a beautiful game (squeamish mutants aside), I think SC2‘s polish is in fact its downfall. It’s so streamlined and so achingly smooth that it seems to have lost any vestige of being an interesting thing to interact with. Yes, it is lovingly crafted, lathered with detail, but it also seems completely soulless, devoid of actual character. The hollowness remains.
Is it good? Well, I’m going to have to reach the same conclusion that I did for System Shock 2 and say that it is fine — nothing more, nothing less. The difference here is that HotS retails for a shocking £30, and to be honest, while it may be full of lovely things I really don’t think it’s worth that price.
Even so, it does make me want to mod it all over again — but I still can’t get over the insidious always-online social elements, like the way achievements are denied (but the game makes damn sure it tells you they’ve been denied on all the scorescreens) and the way the game pretends to crash if you even try to run it offline (you have to hit “Cancel” on that “Trying to connect to streaming service” dialogue and sit tight).
It’s a damn shame. In another world, without all that stuff, without the eSports design-by-committee smooth blandness… If we could play offline without the game shouting at us… You know, the way WC3 did it more than ten years ago? Hell, the way the original Starcraft did it even further back. Is that glittering simplicity really not possible anymore?
Then again, if I had moved on to SC2 back then, I wouldn’t have made Project Y4. I don’t know how you might feel about that — you’d most definitely have got that Nova + Protoss RPG by now instead.