Blizzard showed off the first three missions of Heart of the Swarm this past week (and the studio has been running multiplayer beta additions and features for quite some time), and from our experience it's becoming clear the second release in this trilogy isn't a simple expansion pack. With the Zerg-focused Heart of the Swarm, the Irvine-based company has crafted something new within the renowned Starcraft tradition; a game intensely focused on the Zerg, their units and abilities, and of course the story of their Queen, Kerrigan. Blizzard's lead designer for Starcraft, Dustin Browder, says that when the announcement of the trilogy first happened, even he thought Starcraft 2 could just be one game. "I was definitely like we can do it," he says. "Let's put all three in one! And then as we got about halfway through the process, and saw what a battle it was to get those missions to the quality that we wanted and to get that story where we wanted it to be, there was no way. We'd still be working on it today. You wouldn't even have the first chapter in your hands, let alone the second chapter."
One benefit of working on a second game still called Starcraft 2, according to Browder, is that his team has learned a lot in the past few years about how modern players play Starcraft. In the Wings of Liberty campaign, he says, "some of the decisions you had to make, you didn't really have a lot of information for those decisions." Blizzard tried to innovate by allowing players to upgrade and change units in between the campaign missions, but Browder admits that especially on a first playthrough, it wasn't always clear why and how those units should be changed.
Upon the completion of these mini-missions, players are given a choice to permanently upgrade their campaign units: Raptor or Swarmling? Each Zerg unit has its own Evolution Mission, and Browder says the missions do a few great things for the devs. "We get to tell that part of the story of the Zerg which is hugely useful for setting the tone and the feeling of the game," he says. "And [Evolution Missions] also let us demo the units to you in a very real and meaningful way."
Blizzard's also filled out the zerg campaign by including much more of a very familiar face. Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, played a nice big role the last time we got to play Heart of the Swarm, but here, she's even more front and center. The game's 'flash freeze' mission has been tweaked, and now, Kerrigan is essentially the star, fighting among her own zerg troops as essentially a hero unit. Outside of missions, she even gets her own evolutionary abilities, which you can switch up at any time, allowing her to level up and earn you things like strong lightning attacks, improved Overlords, more Drones, or even, at the top of her unlockable tree, the ability to spawn a Leviathan unit.
"It became more and more obvious as we were playing through that she was a big part of the story, even more so than Raynor was," says Browder, "that she can and should be on every map and be out there and leading from the front. So we've been doing everything we possibly can think of to push her agenda, her presence."
Kerrigan plays a large part in the second level as well, where she and her zerg are tasked with trying to destroy a series of Protoss ships, taking them down as quickly as possible before they can exit the level. In addition to introducing the Hydralisk as a ranged attacker, the level also steadily grows in complexity – at first, you're simply trying to destroy one shipping lane heading to a portal, but as the level progresses and your troop numbers increase, multiple armed ships start heading out to more exits, with the game requiring you to destroy them all before they escape.
Browder says that's another way the team has made this game unique: Almost every mission has extra elements that try to get the player to do more than the standard 'build up your base, destroy the enemy team' real-time strategy trope. "We have a few in here where it's fairly safe, you can kind of take your time, do what you want," he says. But "the campaign missions frequently push you out of your comfort zone. The clock is ticking in some way, something needs to be done right now or things are going to get worse or you're going to lose or something. Get out of your base, go do something!"
The final playable mission was perhaps the most interesting, though Kerrigan doesn't appear in it in person at all. Instead, she sends a parasitic larva into a Protoss ship, commanding it first to stealth around among Protoss units, and then try to kill a zoo of creatures to gain biomass, growing first into a Broodmother, and then eventually growing enough to lead a whole zerg army and conquer the ship. The level is a great twist on the zerg's 'feed and destroy' philosophy, and it ends with a nice tease towards the eventual Protoss campaign: A whole Protoss ship, full of angry zerg, separated on their own from Kerrigan and her brood.
In multiplayer there are a host of new ways to play matches, from a 'players near me' feature to unranked play, global play, and (long-awaited) support for clans and groups. The replay system has new features like resuming replays or starting from a certain point, and players will be able to roll their own custom UI for observing matches.
Players can now actually communicate with the AI during matches, but more importantly, Blizzard has put together a new AI challenge mode, and a full training mode, in an attempt to carry campaign players over to the complicated multiplayer game. With Wings of Liberty's challenge modes, says Browder, the team "thought we'd done enough" to get beginners ready for online matches. "Or we hoped we had," he adds.
But what they found was that while 1v1 may be the most popular way for hardcore players to play each other, it's hardly ideal for more casual gamers. So the new training mode goes back to basics, and instead just aims to teach the game, moving up step by step to more difficult forms of play. "If it's a little dry, it's a little dry, that's OK," says Browder. "I have more confidence in this solution than I did [with Wings of Liberty's] Challenge Mode. But I also know a lot more about the problem than I did with Challenge Mode."
With all of those features, both single-player and multiplayer, it might be easy to forget that Browder and his team have to do all of this over again when the final entry in the Starcraft 2 trilogy is due. But he says that the goal with Heart of the Swarm is simply to do the best it can with the current game, to release a product that meets players' expectations. "If you ask me at the end of Wings, is it state of the art? Yes, this is state of the art, this is the best Starcraft that could ever have been. And now we're at Heart of the Swarm, and we're like, this is the best Starcraft that could ever have been, right?"
Won't Legacy of the Void, the upcoming Protoss campaign, have to be better? Browder thinks for a second, then shrugs. "Who knows? We'll learn so much. That's the beauty of having a great team, a great company that supports us." After having worked on these games for all of these years now, there's always more ideas. "We get a little bit of time to look at it and go, you know what, I have a better idea."
Heart of the Swarm is due in March, and if these first few missions are any indication, Blizzard is hoping to prove to its rabid fanbase just why the decision was made to do break the long-awaited sequel into three separate entries. But is there anything, right now, that Browder didn't get in this game he'd like to do in the next one?
He thinks. "I'd like to do automated tournaments. I'd really like to do that. But we really crammed a lot in this one."