With the StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Beta coming to an end, this gives players and enthusiasts alike a good chance to reflect and channel their enthusiasm in anticipation for the release of the expansion. My own personal experiences within the Heart of the Swarm Beta have been fairly enjoyable overall. As an avid player of StarCraft II, it would be pretty hard to deny that towards the final months of Wings of Liberty, the game began to become fairly stale and two dimensional. However I personally feel that Blizzard has done a good job in terms of implementing new units, abilities, social features and interface changes to Heart of the Swarm which will hopefully revive the passion and enjoyment for StarCraft II as the leading title in the Real Time Strategy genre, among professional and casual players alike.
If we look at the additions to StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, the changes can mostly be grouped into 3 different categories. Design changes, Interface changes and Social-feature changes. Let's first take a look at the fundamental design changes.
Terran perhaps feels like the most changed of the three races in terms of the multiplayer. The other races might have had more units and abilities introduced, however Terran has gotten something completely different in the form of a completely "new" play style. Mechanical play is now is mobile, versatile, and more viable than it ever was in Wings of Liberty.
One of the most important units introduced to bolster and encourage "Mech" style play in Heart of the Swarm is the "Hellbat". The Hellbat is an adaption of the traditional Terran Hellion. The Hellbat can either be made straight out of the factory, or alternatively can be acquired by transforming into by an existing Hellion once the necessary technology has been researched. The Hellbat primarily acts as a meat-shield within the Terran army, although it should be noted the unit can also have very potent harassment potential.
The next big introduction to the Terran arsenal is the "Widow Mine". Like the Hellbat, the Widow mine is also accessible out of the Factory. However the Widow mine serves a completely different role. As the name implies, this unit is able to burrow under the ground and dish out considerable amounts of damage until being detected and disarmed by the enemy. The Widow mine introduces a whole new strategic and positional aspect to Terran army in terms of defense and map control. It is worth noting that changes have also been made to existing Wings of Liberty units, such as the Medivac, Siege tank and Reaper.
The changes made to the Protoss race have been mostly "Air-centric", and by that I mean attempting to improve and diversify the Protoss air army. A total of 3 new air units have been introduced to the Protoss race at varying branches of the technology tree. One of the most prominent introductions is the "Mothership Core". The Mothership Core aims to replace the existing "Mothership" from Wings of Liberty. The Mothership Core is a new spell-caster type unit helping the Protoss to scout, defend as well launch less risky attacks on their opponents. One of the most exciting abilities of the Mothership Core is being able to "Mass recall" all the units surrounding the core back to the Protoss base. This allows for some interesting timing attacks and harassment potential around the map.The Mothership Core assumes a very multipurpose role within the Protoss army and is sure to become a staple within the Protoss arsenal.
The next big change to the Protoss air force is the "Oracle". The Oracle, like the Mothership Core, is a very spell dependent flying unit. However unlike the Mothership Core, the Oracle's role is mostly offensive. The Oracle with its rapid movement speed is able to sneak into an enemies base and wreak havoc in a matter of seconds with its incredible high damage Pulsar Beam ability. The Oracle can be truly devastating in the hands of a fast and cunning player.
The last introduction to the Protoss Air force is the "Tempest". The Tempest serves as a long-range artillery capital ship which is able to pick away at its foes from a safe distance. The Tempest adds an interesting new micro management dynamic to the Protoss air army as when it is controlled correctly it can be used to target down key components of an enemies army composition. In addition to the 3 new Protoss air units, there have also been multiple changes made to existing Wings of Liberty Protoss units such as range and damage increases to the Phoenix and Void-Ray respectively.
Zerg seems to the race that has been least affected in the early stages of the game by the new expansion. However the longer the game goes on and the further down the technology tree the Zerg player travels, the more they are likely to find themselves using the new and innovative Zerg units.
The first addition to the Zerg arsenal I would like to talk about is the "Swarm Host". The Swarm Host is somewhat of a mixture between the "Lurker" from StarCraft: Broodwar and the "Broodlord" from Wings of Liberty. The Swarm Host is able to burrow underground and periodically dispense free units with surprisingly strong attacks known as Locusts. Swarm Hosts can be used tactically to very efficiently control space on the map and force their opponent into a very awkward and defensive position.
The second new unit for the Zerg is the "Viper". It is a late-game supportive spell caster with some interesting abilities that definitely affect the dynamics of the game. The Viper is able to charge up on energy by consuming one of its own friendly structures and in turn convert that energy into either blinding the enemies units to disrupt their attacks, or lassoing units from the enemy and dragging them into the Zerg swarm. The Viper definitely adds a more exciting and dynamical approach to the Zerg late game army and encourages a more heads on approach to combat.
In addition to the new units we see many other small changes such as enhanced Mutalisk regeneration, more accessible Burrow technology, Overlord speed and Infestor changes. In addition to all the unit and balance changes previously mentioned, we also see a brand spanking new user interface, clan system, social system, improved replay functionality and more being implemented into Heart of the Swarm.
User Interface and Clan Features
The user interface has been redesigned from the original Wings of Liberty model to allow for easier accessibility within the game's menus. Perhaps long over-due, the clan system has finally been implemented into Battle.net 2.0. This means you will now be able to create your own clan, invite members, have an easily accessible clan chat channel, and of course proudly wear your clan tag in front of your nickname without having to buy a new copy of the game. The clan system should hopefully promote a more interactive environment amongst clan members within Battle.net itself and in turn perhaps improve the games longevity.
Social Networking and Replay Additions
In terms of creating a more well-rounded and enjoyable social experience, a list of new features have been included in Battle.net. Chat channels are now more easily accessible. Groups have been introduced where people with similar interests can gather to discuss anything from strategies or their favourite team or player.
New snazzy portraits and achievements have also been added, as well as a levelling system based on experience points earned by playing matches. These features don't necessarily make a game awesome, but at the same time it's the small things when added together create a well-rounded and enjoyable gaming experience for all players - from the professionals right down to the completely casual gamer.
Another change aiming to improve the social aspects of the game is the introduction of a more refined replay watching functionality. Players are now able to jump into one of their own, or someone else's replay with a bunch of their friends, or perhaps even their coach and watch the game together. It is also possible to resume the replay at any given point, assuming the position at that given time of any one of the players in the game. This means you and your friend could potentially recreate or re-live an intense battle or moment from one of your favorite World Championship games. Or perhaps just resume from a situation where your PC or Internet connection decided to fail you mid-game.
Ranking System and Training Options
Another change that is worthwhile talking about is the introduction of an unranked match making system. This allows players to battle it out against other players of similar skill levels, without the win or loss affecting their overall rank. Most people that have played StarCraft II before will probably know that it can be a pretty stressful game at times. Having a chunk of your ranking points disappear when you lose a game or two certainly doesn't make that experience any less painful. The unranked match making system should go a long way to encourage players who suffer from what is commonly known as "ladder anxiety" to still keep playing the game on a more casual level. It also allows players to easily test strategies or play with other races without it affecting ranking positions.
In addition to unranked matchmaking, Blizzard has also introduced new training features which will aim to help smooth the transition and reduce the learning curve some players might experience when coming into a complicated game like StarCraft II for the first time.
Overall I feel that the difficulty level in Heart of the Swarm has been both lowered and raised. In some ways the game as been made both easier and less stressful for the more casual or lower skilled players. These include auto worker mining at the start of the game, being able to select your whole army at the click of a single button and being able to clearly see how many workers are at a single base without having to manually count them all contribute to this.
The introduction of more defensive units such as the Mothership Core or Widow mine also makes it easier for players to outright die to early game aggression.On the other hand, with the addition of all the new spell casters, abilities and positionally based advantages, the game suddenly becomes a whole lot harder.
I believe controlling an army to the maximum potential will become a lot more demanding than in Wings of Liberty. Players with higher APM (actions per minute) and better mechanics will be able to fully utilize the potential of new harass and spell caster roles. I believe this is a positive thing for the competitive StarCraft II scene as will make it much more exciting to watch.
Sound and Graphics
In terms of graphics, there have been a few changes. A new physics engine has been introduced which allows for some nifty new death and explosion animations. This makes the game more visually stimulating to play or watch. You will not be able to notice the difference unless you have a beefy enough computer to run the game on the high graphic settings.In terms of sound, very little has changed.
The new units have their own sound effects but nothing too fancy worth mentioning. Blizzard has also promised us a whole new set of in-game music for each race. We can only hope it will not be as disappointing as the Wings of Liberty game music. I do however recognize this is a more subjective topic, so I'll leave it up to you to decide whether you like the music or not.
No one really knows just yet how the release of Heart of the Swarm will influence the eSport community. From watching interviews with professional players, it seems the unanimous consensus is that the expansion will definitely increase both the player and viewer ship base of the game, although not to the extent of when Wings of Liberty was first released.
We recently saw the first Heart of the Swarm competition run at the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Hanover. I personally found the games very exciting, however I feel the viewer ship numbers on the live stream were very disappointing, in comparison to what they have been before or the numbers that other games are able to achieve. I do however think Heart of the Swarm is certain to reignite the passion of previous StarCraft fans who may have lost interest in the game. Its new, it's dynamic, it's more fun to watch. It may never have the numbers of a game like League of Legends, but I do believe that Heart of the Swarm will have a prosperous future in the eSports community.
Closing Thoughts: 8.5/10
As a professional player I am personally very excited about the launch of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. I feel the game has been made drastically better compared to its predecessor, Wings of Liberty. Blizzard are finally taking the communities requests into consideration and actively working to make the game a solid and well-rounded title that will be enjoyable to play for many years to come. I give the expansion a rating of 8.5/10 and would recommend any enthusiasts of the Real Time Strategy genre to give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.