Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Heart of the Loading Screen

Almost three years, we waited for the first expansion pack for "StarCraft II", a wait than be described as unprecedented, especially taking into account that yet another expansion - "Legacies of the Void" - is anounced for some unspecified date. Regarding that "Brood War", the expansion for the first StarCraft, arrived within a year of the release of its core game, the long wait for a mere expansion seems excessive, as does its pricing tag, which doesn't shy away from the comparison to a full-price game. Accordingly, this is the standard that "Heart of the Swarm" needs to measured on, and I have to say: after the disaster that was Diablo III, "Heart of the Swarm" continues a series of disappointments from a developer that once could do no wrong. 

Trust meeeeeeee!
 Let's get my major ire out of the way right in the beginning. I was so pissed off by it that I even named my post after it. With the recent updates of StarCraft II - one has to say, Blizzard's customer service remains tops - the game has become much more demanding of the hardware. They introduced whole new loading screens (like "Initializing" or "Streaming Data") that weren't there before and later removed them again, letting them seem more than superflous. But with "Heart of the Swarm", this reaches new heights. The performance of the game has suffered drastically. I need at least twice the time to load a game - any game - than in the days of the vanilla game, and in game, the unit and building animations tend to lag as well, a quirk that can be remedied only by using a unit preloader that some helpful fellow players produced. And there really is no reason for this. While some minor improvements were done with the engine, it's still the same graphics that weren't really state-of-the-art in 2010.

You don't get eyecancer, though.
After getting this thing off my chest, let's turn to the other areas. You expect two things from a StarCraft expansion: new units for the races, some alterations (both for multiplayer purposes) and a new campaign, driving on the story. Let's review multiplayer first. Here, Blizzard did exactly the job one would expect of them. The new units are useful additions, carefully crafted into the set of existing units, in parts replacing old ones, while the old units got partially drastic overhauls (an afterburner for the Medivac, the Void Ray does not charge anymore, but goes on the highest damage level with a skill, and so forth). Blizzard clearly has its ear on the community of pro-gamers and invested time and money into months and months and months of betatesting. 

Which allows for some serious monobattles.
They also identified a major problem they have: the skill level required to play StarCraft II is so high that casual gamers have nearly no chance to do anything remotely funny, so they introduced new training modes and "unranked play", where you don't get ranked into an existing league. They also narrowed down the Bronze league, so only the weakest players are there and find more likeminded foes. I'm not sure how much this all helps, since I don't consider myself a beginner and can rarely put myself in a position where I would want to battle the bad AI of the game, so I leave this just as information. What's baffling me, though, is that they on the one hand acknowledged the need for more user-friendlyness, but on the other hand most of the new units require some serious skill to use them. 

Yes, I admit, you're better than me.
Take the new Viper, for example. A flying unit in the Zerg arsenal, its main abilities allow it to drag enemy units to it, therefore allowing concentrated fire (useful against Collossi, for example) or to blind enemy units, preventing ranged attacks. All of this, however, requires dead-on micro, and that's something for the pros. While the new units are fun, I find myself not using some of them (especially the Viper) because they simply demand more skill of me than I possess. This is a common feeling in StarCraft, and I don't particulary mind being overwhelmed sometimes, but yet again, worth mentioning. The multiplayer still is great if you can come around the high demands it makes of your skills. 

The Viper, in all its glory.
Finally, let's get to the singleplayer campaign. "Wings of Liberty" received some fair critizism (from me, among other people) for its rather bad story. Back in 2010, this was new, since Blizzard had delivered fairly well done stories for StarCraft, Diablo II and WarCraft III. In StarCraft II, however, the whole thing was more of a mess, branching out in incoherent subplots that didn't make much sense most of the time, always going for cheesy and campy and simply turning into higher gears of epicness whenever they encountered a dead end for their storytelling (do I need to remind you of various Xex'Naga artifacts and a prophecy for the end of the universe?). 

What became of ye old "wiping out worlds for the swarm"?
"Heart of the Swarm" follows Kerrigan, who was reverted back to a somewhat human form at the end of "Wings of Liberty". Naming the game "Heart of the Swarm" of course gives away that she won't stay that way for long, but the road to her becoming the Queen of Blades again is well done, surprisingly. There are even some emotional high points, especially with the "death" of Raynor. But from there, things go downhill. Kerrigan now needs to get control over the swarm back (sounds familiar? "Brood War" did the exact same thing) and wants to take revenge of Mengsk. On the way, she finds the origin planet of the Zerg and kills the oldest Zerg alive to take his powers, learns of an old and powerful Xel'Naga that is to be awakened and wants to destroy the universe and kills his oldest and most trusted henchmen (Narud, or Duran, whatever you prefer). 

And me wanting to take revenge. How petty I am!
This all happens over something about ten missions, by the way. The sheer epic scale of what they claim to happen is so ridiculously meaningless, it drives me to tears, especially since it's all only a diversion on the way to the petty revenge on Mengsk. In this plot, the storytelling works better, since it has a clear goal, a confined location (Korhal) and a clear beginning and end. The sprawling epic of the Legacy of the Void, however, comes off as pretty cheap. 

And the prepostrous voice acting for Zeratul doesn't help, either.
That is really sad, because the mission design itself is actually pretty great. You get to develop the Zerg swarm in between missions in cool and meaningful ways, the missions are pretty different from one another, provide some really cool ideas (like a psi battle between Kerrigan and Narud, in which their power beams (or something) fight against each other and you have to assist Kerrigan by conquering temples), but the accompaning story simply sucks most of the time, and it sucks badly. Seriously, Blizzard, you make tons of money, so get yourself at least one decent writer, for god's sake!


  1. I agree with you that HotS is the third completely underwhelming game from Blizzard. Seems that the AAA-industry sinks ever deeper in their cesspit of mediocrity.

    What I hate most in HotS is the complete retcon of the origin of the Zerg. And that the cutscenes are now made to show as many "bad-ass" moments (or what 14 year olds consider to be badass, see the fight between Zeratul/Kerrigan) and make no fucking sense in terms of storytelling whatsoever. And what is that bullshit about millennia-old terrible prophecies Chris Metzen is spewing out? I've only heard that for about a million times already, I am bored. SC1/BW with its intrigues and betrayals was fun and interesting, this is trite boring shit.

    For additional critique of HotS, see this (quite long) review on teamliquid:

    1. In my opinion, he misses the point a bit. His critique goes lengths about the inherent logic of the universe, but the main problem is story structure, not so much the story itself. It's like he says in the beginning: it's built to appeal to a demographic of fourteen-year-olds.