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StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (PC) Preview

By: on June 28, 2012

With rapidly falling player numbers, continuing frustration over balance issues after nearly two years on the shelves, and a competitive presence which is quickly fading in the wake of more popular titles like League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients 2, can StarCraft rebound into a new market, while still maintaining the one it already has? The upcoming expansion pack Heart of the Swarm seeks to answer these questions, and Blizzard is pinning their entire e-sports future on a game that might end up being too little, just a tad too late.

New Units
Blizzard is introducing a flurry of new units this time around, and every race will get their fair crack at a whole new way to play the game. The Stacraft team has been hard at work addressing some of the biggest issues that currently plague competitors in Wings of Liberty, and from what we’ve seen so far, it’s obvious they’ve taken the community’s complaints to heart.

Zerg
Considering this is a Zerg-themed expansion, it only seems right that we start off with the stars of the show. Many pros who favor this race have complained about the severe lack of siege breaking capability they have during mid and late game, and in kind Blizzard has created an all new entry to the battlefield; the Viper. A spellcasting flyer, this unit carries two main abilities which give it a serious advantage in TvZ, more specifically against those pesky immovable tanks. Blinding cloud restricts the vision of all units caught in the AoE down to 1 (essentially making siege worthless), and Abduct allows them to pull units from a range of 12 across valleys and over cliffs.

The Viper, showing off its brand new ability; “Abduct”

Locust Swarms are easily the most unexpected new unit to grace the Zerg roster, but on the whole most players seem pleasantly surprised by their arrival.  Ejecting free spawns called Locusts every 25 seconds, these units can burrow from the very beginning, and lay waste to stagnant Terran lines from half a world away without sending gas-precious banelings to their doom.

Lastly we have a new ability being added to the Ultralisk; Burrow Charge. This allows for the previously micro-heavy beast to push straight on through to the front lines, stunning anything it hits on the pop-up and decimating marines with its massive swiping claws.

Protoss
First to hit the field in the new lineup is another flying spellcaster; the Oracle. Despite its Matrix-esque title, this unit isn’t “the One” we’ve all been waiting for, but it sure as heck changes the standard Protoss strategy from here on out. Granted two abilities, the first is a mineral deny that places breakable shields on every patch in the opponent’s line. Simply put, this is the harass we’ve needed, without the all the hassle to go along with it. The next is an ability which, despite already being included in the game since launch, has rarely (if ever) been used effectively thus far; Cloak. Wherever your army goes, the Oracle will skip happily along, providing a layer of invisibility to any units fighting underneath its protection.

A new defensive unit called the Mothership Core attaches itself to any Nexus it spawns on, and gives a much needed sense of security to early expanders who never felt like they had enough to survive the first 5 minutes. It comes with three abilities; Mass Recall, Purify, and Teleport. Mass Recall works much the same as it did in Wings of Liberty, except with a twist. Instead of only affecting a small group who fit under the casting radius, it now recalls every piece of your army back to home base in an instant. The cooldown is a gut-wrenching 300 seconds, but for something this powerful it makes sense to only offer the chance to use it a few times per match. Second is Purify, which turns your Nexus into a giant photon cannon, capable of two-shotting most mid-range harasses and providing that extra umph when it comes down to the wire during an early expo. Bringing up the rear, we have Teleport, which only costs 25 energy, and allows you to change up what Nexus your Core rests on. Not a huge deal, but definitely helps with production time you might lose by having to replace one during battle.

The Mothership Core. Seen here using the new Mass Recall ability to save an expansion

And finally, we have an entry which could easily qualify for the next “god-tier”; the Tempest. A formidable flyer which boasts moderate attack speed, high damage, and a range of, get ready for it…twenty-two. Yes, you read that correctly. An attacking unit with nearly twice the range of a tank in siege mode, this air specialist was designed to be a staple in any late game Protoss arsenal, replacing the dusty cobwebs left behind by the Carrier in the Stargate/Fleet Beacon combo. As a Protoss player myself, this is easily the most exciting development we could have hoped for, and gives us the ability to break siege lines without risking our Colossus or Zealots on the approach.

Terran
The Hellion is a favorite of Terran players in any respectable TvZ matchup, and although they provide excellent harassment opportunities for the player in control, they’re also a micro nightmare, and can require far too much attention in order to be cost-effective enough in the long run. The introduction of the Battle Hellion solves this issue completely, by enabling the machine to transform into a slow-moving walker with 50% more health, and ¼ extra damage to go on top. This makes them viable for the mid-game which was nearly impossible before, and allows the Terran to plan out their Factory production to complement a bio army, rather than replacing it entirely.

Next up we have the Warhound, a brand new unit which has long range, and is especially effective against mirrored mech. No special abilities attached, but it does make for a keen alternative to the dreadfully outplayed TvT matches we’ve all come to despise in major tournaments since the top 8 GSL matches early last year.

Incredibly effective vs. mech, Warhounds will be the next must-have for Terran players

And although you’ll never find me praising Terran for anything else besides being the easiest race to play, even I have to admit to some drooling envy of the Widow Mine. This new hotness is a response to lacking map control, and will very likely change the paths Protoss and Zerg choose when they approach bio-balls from now on. Once deployed, the mine can burrow almost anywhere on the field (and become invisible), waiting for the perfect moment to strike. When an enemy comes into range, it will automatically select the highest health/most threatening unit, latch on, and explode outward with huge amounts of force. The unlucky soul it picked is instantly destroyed, and anything caught in the radius will either be injured, or wiped out completely depending on health. This is definitely one of the biggest changes to the Terran strategy, and we’re all excited to see how players will start using it once more Battle Reports are released in the coming months.

A Future in E-Sports?

No one could have predicted it, but here we are. In theory, there’s not any single department which could be blamed for StarCraft’s rapidly decreasing viewer numbers on the pro-circuit, but this fact alone doesn’t necessarily make the hard truth of it any less depressing. There was once a time (read; 6 months ago), when this was a game that could easily pull in over 100,000 online viewers, with another 10,000 in the stadium spectating live. When every sweeping camera shot of the crowd showed packed arenas, filled with screaming fans shaking their homemade signs for their favorite players and casting duos. Now, it’s merely a shell of its former glory, doing everything it can to hang on to barely half of its old turnout over the course of one tournament weekend.

The reason it’s so difficult to pinpoint what caused this sudden drop in interest is because it seems like there were a lot of factors all in play at once, even though none of them originally set out with the intention of stealing viewers. First up, there’s just the matter of age. With the game hitting the two year mark this month, less and less people are finding themselves interested in the same mechanics being played out over and over again in slightly different variations. This means lower involvement from the general base of players, and even less time spent on the part of the pros, whose livelihood depends on the number of people watching them stream at any given time.

Will these units be enough to save StarCraft in the long run?

Second, you have the League of Legends/DoTA 2 phenomenon, which to be perfectly frank, no one could have seen coming even with the clearest of lenses. Riot Games noticed early on the game they had developed was not only massively appealing to a wide variety of people, but that those huge numbers were also willing to watch it being played from their couches at home. The same way StarCraft enthusiasts liked to take tips from their favorite casters and matches back into the 1v1 ladders after broadcasts, ranked LoL teams are carefully studying how things are played at the highest level, using similar techniques in order to gain a much-needed edge over their opponents.

Because Riot has the ability to stream the games straight from in the in-game client rather than a third-party such as Twitch.tv, this means people who didn’t even know they could enjoy watching streams will fall into it unexpectedly, and become a die-hard sign-waving fan by the next major event. If Blizzard wants to put a dent in the kinds of numbers that League is pulling from their most recent tourneys (it’s estimated there were somewhere around 250,000 concurrent viewers at the Dreamhack qualifier), they’re going to need to focus more effort on creating methods to bring in new players, while maintaining interest in the ones they already have.

All the Right Moves

It’s clear to both the community that plays, and those who only watch, that this game is in dire need of some fresh blood in order to maintain the fanfare it once had. If Blizzard wants to present a realistically competitive alternative to the increasing popularity of 5v5 team events, they’ll need to recognize what gamers are looking for, and learn how to cater to a market that is dwindling faster than they’re able to keep up.

Thankfully, with all the information we’ve been given over the past few weeks regarding new maps, upgraded units, and a fresh campaign waiting in the wings, this may not be as big of a hurdle to clear as it’s been in the past few months. StarCraft has always stood one of the most dominant forces in PC gaming, and an undisputed king when it comes to the RTS genre, but it isn’t 1998 anymore. Now there are plenty of competitors around who are ready to grab the crown at the first sign of a slip-up, and both Activision and Blizzard need to be aware of what this means for the next few years ahead.

Heart of the Swarm looks to be an amazing, feature-packed expansion to a game I can honestly call one of my top 5 of all time. After playing the original StarCraft, I remember the huge changes that were made after Brood War was released, and how the game really came into its own from then on. As long as they can replicate that same attention to detail, while respecting the playstyle of some of the favorite pros in tournaments, it should strike a perfect balance between the casual and advanced market which has been handled so well up to this point. With enough focus paid to the meta-game, this might be the next generation’s first glimpse at a new favorite sport, and I for one could not be more excited for its release.

About Chris Stobing

Chris Stobing is technology and video game writer from San Jose. Living in Silicon Valley for almost 25 years has given him a passion for anything with a power button, and when he's not playing Battlefield or Starcraft, you'll find him hitting the slopes in Tahoe, or cooking up a storm for friends.