There are games with longevity, and then there is "StarCraft."
Few titles have the staying power and reach of Blizzard's real-time strategy game. It was released in 1998 and has gone on to sell millions of copies in the U.S. But the popularity of "StarCraft" transcends borders -- it's a hit around the globe and has become a national sport in South Korea. Even today, despite showing its age, the original still holds up.
In 2010, Blizzard launched the long-anticipated sequel, and the developer plans for it to have just as long of a shelf life. To do that, the team is releasing the saga in three parts. The first, "StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty," introduced players to an updated world where everything was in polygons instead of the '90s-era sprites of the original. And now, Blizzard has released the second part of this space opera -- "StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm." Whereas the original focused on Jim Raynor, this sequel follows the exploits of his love interest, Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades. The infested soldier used to be the bloodthirsty leader of the aliens known as the Zerg, but a turn of events brought her humanity back.
"Heart of the Swarm" pushes the refinements of its predecessor and firmly adds the concept of hero units to the series. Players mostly control Kerrigan as she figures out what happened in her past (she has no recollection of being the Zerg leader) and seeks revenge against the leader of the Dominion government, Arcturus Mengsk.
Although fans may grumble at buying three separate campaigns, Blizzard fills the entries with almost enough content to satisfy players. "Heart of the Swarm" has 20 story-based missions, where Kerrigan planet hops, trying to gather her minions, and evolution missions, which are in-depth tutorials letting players test an upgrade before picking one.
The developer did the smart thing and refrained from changing perfection. The three types of armies -- Terran, Protoss and Zerg -- are exquisitely balanced and have their own strengths, weaknesses and play styles. I'm thankful the game is still focused on building an army and outmaneuvering rivals.
While that's the same, the improvements come in the presentation and polish. The interface is streamlined so novices can pick it up quickly. New hot keys let players manage large armies more easily. The mission selection and structure is cleaner and easier to understand.
Like "Wings of Liberty," "Heart of the Swarm" allows players to add specialized minions in their campaign, but there's a twist that lets gamers choose zerg power-ups before a quest. That adds more strategy before heading into battle. All of this makes the game feel tailored for Kerrigan and her army and not just a reskinned version of the previous game.
But as good as the single-player campaign is, you can't talk about "Heart of the Swarm" without mentioning the multiplayer. That's what gives the "StarCraft" franchise its longevity, and this expansion gives players more reasons to keep gaming.
Blizzard refines the system and gears it to more competitive play. Battles are still hectic and depend on how well players build a base, scout competitors and work with teammates. Players have to furiously click and tap hot keys to raise armies in minutes and send them out. Meanwhile, new units such as the Oracle and tweaks to older ones open new tactics.
After battle, players can pore over oodles of performance data. They can save a replay, watch it, and go over stats that track everything from resources used to actions per minute. It's nerdy stuff like this that will delight old-school fans and hook novices.
Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.
'StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm'
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