Each of the three races in the game has a few new units and abilities to study (which you can see in the included trailer), and hardcore players will no doubt be combing through them as the expansion goes into beta. But Heart of the Swarm's multiplayer represents an interesting change in Blizzard's original plan for the three-part series that is Starcraft 2.
As lead producer Chris Sigaty (who doubles, by the way, as the lead guitarist for Blizzard's in-house metal band L80ETC) tells Joystiq, the new units are all about adding something to the game without removing what's there. "Wings of Liberty beat our best possible expectations for how the balance ended up being," says Sigaty. The original Starcraft 2 release wasn't perfect, but "it was very good for us. We've been reacting to imbalances as they come up but there have been relatively minor tweaks here and there to get it to what we felt was a good spot."
Players have generally agreed, and so Blizzard has found that its original strategy for the second game in the series won't work. Originally, Blizzard planned to remove as many units and strategies as it put in, in order to really mix up the way the game is played. Both Heart of the Swarm and Wings of Liberty will still be playable separately post-release, so Blizzard's new strategy is to use the expansion to actually expand, instead of creating a new game.
That includes entirely new units like the Protoss' Tempest ships, which have the largest range in the game, and new strategies like the Terran's new Widow Mines, which can be embedded in the ground, and will latch on to any passing air or ground units, guaranteeing both their death and some splash damages a few seconds later.
Units like the Widow Mines add a new level of strategy to an already complex game, and Sigaty worries that it might be too much. "I do think where we land on Heart of the Swarm will kind of be at capacity for what makes sense with this style of game and for what Starcraft 2 is," he says. "We're pushing the limit of what you can track in your head." But all of the new units are targeted at allowing new strategies for players, or new options for strategies they were already trying to use, "things they tactially can't do today that I think will be really interesting and compelling to watch."
One of the game elements not included in the expansion is something Blizzard has teased before: Creep spreading by the Zerg. That was a mechanic director Dustin Browder talked about before, but last Friday he said it was cut from the MLG preview at the last minute. He frankly added, "The art was terrible. It was so bad."
At the same time, however, the Widow Mines actually use temp placeholder art - Blizzard wants them to eventually hook up dynamically to attacked units, rather than just displaying the generic buff art that's there now. Why did Blizzard cancel the creep spreading mechanic due to bad art, but let the Widow Mines (admittedly another interesting mechanic) go through?
"I think it depends on the epicness of the thing," says Sigaty. "It's just how much we want people to buy into how cool it is. So when we talk about the creep spreading, we had some temp stuff in, we really wanted people to be wowed by it, and we chose to pull it out of the build. It's working, it's fun, it's cool, it adds a whole new element that we're not really showcasing here today, where Zerg can kind of almost launch an attack in from outside, almost like a different version of siege into your base. And we decided because we wanted to sell it as this package viscerally, to take it out. It's case by case."
Heart of the Swarm is the next project on tap, obviously, and the Starcraft 2 team that Sigaty is on is also working on Blizzard All-Stars, the DOTA followup that uses characters from all of Blizzard franchises. But once those two products are out, Sigaty says the next step will be Legacy of the Void, the final game in the Starcraft 2 trilogy. And while Heart of the Swarm represents additions to the multiplayer game, that's not necessarily true for the third game.
"What we're doing with Legacy of the Void is totally up in the air right now," he says. "So it may just be that we create something that's totally different and new as a multiplayer experience." Sigaty says that co-op gameplay modes are being considered, possibly to target the big Starcraft audience that finishes the campaign, but isn't ready to go and compete on the multiplayer leaderboards.
"Something that's basically a much more improved version of versus AI. Something where you can go in, and have a fun experience that's not about the competitive environment." Starcraft 2 is getting patched with some UI changes that will be of interest to players that aren't playing at the highest level, says Sigaty, but "it's probably beyond Heart of the Swarm that we would have a specific experience for that audience, however."
Starcraft 2 players will undoubtedly be excited about the new units, and it may be a relief to a lot of them that Blizzard decided to make more additions than cuts. But according to Sigaty, it sounds like any more major shakeups in the multiplayer side of the title may have to wait until the final expansion in Blizzard's Starcraft 2 trilogy.