StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is what every expansion strives for: more of the same, only better. As the expansion to 2010’s Wings of Liberty, HotS delves into the ickier, slimy side of the Zerg-Terran-Protoss conflict. But regardless of your affinity for those revolting Zerg critters, HotS is the complete RTS package. Whether you’re invested in the overarching single-player story or you’re determined to climb the ladders of the online arena, HotS renews a well of deep gameplay that could easily entertain you for years.
HotS spins an engrossing tale of vengeance and the price one must pay to attain it. The one-time queen of the Zerg, Sarah Kerrigan, is a total boss; you’ll be far more engaged by her vehement seething, especially when held up against the blue-collar musings of Jim Raynor and company (who make appreciated cameos without overstaying their welcome). The StarCraft II writers still seem to struggle with believable dialogue between humans, leaning too heavily on cheesy one-liners--but the conversations amongst alien races are much more interesting, offering a look at just how the Zerg think.
Playing as the Zerg for the majority of single-player supercharges the campaign’s pacing, thanks to the race’s fundamental qualities of speed and aggression. Whereas the Terran battalions in Wings of Liberty built up slowly and methodically, having a mass of larvae at your disposal lets you spawn an army in moments or adapt to changes in the blink of an eye. This makes missions feel much more streamlined and exciting, letting you continuously churn out units instead of waiting around for your production facilities to pump out soldiers. There’s also plenty of refreshing variety to the missions, which can task you with base-building in one skirmish and launching a small-scale tactical assault in the next.
The other major improvement to the story missions comes in the form of Kerrigan herself, who now acts as an almighty spell-casting hero unit that imbues a sense of continuity into the overall campaign. Taking the time to complete bonus objectives will level Kerrigan up, giving you access to an ever-increasing suite of cool abilities and offering you a satisfying, permanent reward for exploring each mission. Also of note are the achievements, which actually feel like worthwhile, attainable goals to extend the campaign's lifespan.
But StarCraft would be meaningless without multiplayer, and when it comes to online play, HotS delivers. The new units create space for innovative builds and strategies without overhauling how any of the races play. For instance, Protoss get early air harassment in the Oracle, Zerg can now siege with Swarm Hosts, and Terran land attrition is even easier using the Widow Mine. It won’t take you long to grasp how these units function, and how best to utilize and counter them, giving you more strategic choices without burying you under a mountain of new information. Of course, given StarCraft II's prominence within the pro eSports community, expect those strategies to evolve faster than a six-pool Zerg rush.
For those of you that aren’t top-level players (and if you're reading this instead of finishing your 50th match of the day, we're guessing you're not), HotS offers the best user experience yet. Years of iteration have developed the menu-based online interface from a confusing mess to a clean and comprehensible layout, letting you search for custom games or hop into matchmaking with ease. There are plenty of small-scale changes that will improve your SC2 quality-of-life, the niftiest of which is the ability to assume control during the middle of a replay (though you’ll need two or more players for this to actually function).
If you’re feeling a bit rusty or you’ve always wanted to conquer your ladder anxiety, HotS does a fine job of preparing you for the killers you’ll encounter in the online jungle. The fine-tuned training progression coaxes you into a comfortable familiarity with your race of choice, where you’ll gradually get a sense of the timings and build orders that will lead you to victory. This is far preferable to Wings of Liberty, which dumped you into the online lion’s den and wished you good luck. That said, the matchmaking is still a bit iffy at times, and it’s neither fun nor enlightening to square off against a superior player who crushes you with ease. Thankfully, these mismatched battles are few and far between, and will likely become increasingly rare as the ranked ladders sort themselves out.
Heart of the Swarm transforms the StarCraft II landscape in all the right ways--enough to surprise and excite you, while still being amiably familiar at its core. As with its predecessors, it offers fast-paced real-time strategy with a great amount of accessibility and no skill ceiling in sight. Rather than feeling like an ugly middle child between Wings of Liberty and Legacy of the Void, Heart of the Swarm is a star in its own right.