By Alec Meer on April 11th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
It probably won’t come as any shock to learn that none of the current RPS team have gone the distance in StarCraft II’s incomparable multiplayer, but I can at least tell you what I made of the expansive singleplayer campaign in its first expansion, Heart of the Swarm. No throwaway side-dish, this is a vast, bubbling, consciously epic, setpiece-filled cauldron of scifi RTS-RPG. This time around, the stars are hiveminded alien nasties the Zerg and their sometime ruler Sarah Kerrigan, seeking a comeback and revenge after the events of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Scuttle this way and I’ll tell you more.
The phrase ‘power fantasy’ gets bandied around this place often, but really it’s shorthand for ‘being a faceless man who’s allowed to shoot any and everyone with a large selection of automatic weaponry.’ That’s nothing compared to StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. Here, power fantasy means commanding an immense, innumerable army of uncommonly destructive aliens as it tears apart anything that isn’t nailed down. It means what StarCraft lore tells us the Zerg are like, that indefatigable tidal wave of chitinous, chittering horror, and not the infinitely more tactical, vulnerable experience of fielding them as a multiplayer force.
With a shrug, Heart of the Swarm’s campaign repeatedly says “sure, have it your way” and bestows ultimate power upon you, offered under a thin veneer of actual strategy. This is less real-time strategy game, and more a game about roleplaying as the Zerg, as the Aliens, as the Tyranids, as the Flood, as every implacable hivemind menace there ever was, unbound. It is, in the here and now at least, very much what I wanted from a formula which can so often seem exhausted.
I have put limited hours into StarCraft II multiplayer, but (after initial cynicism towards it) I can see the appeal even if I don’t have the time/resolve at present. The adrenaline, the ego-boost of apparent mastery of that finely-tuned machine: I want that. I just don’t know if I want to or can put the hours in. HOTS’ singleplayer gives me a welcome, indulgent pretence of it, a chance to roleplay as a lord of StarCraft. It is to competitive play what casual Guitar Hero play is to being in a band – all the thrill, none of the skill. All artifice. And I am fine with that. After long, now-ended years of real-time strategy games taking me through the same slow ropes again and again, I’m so happy to find something that gives me the keys to the Lamborghini almost straight from the off.
That said, HOTS rarely repeats itself, but I’ll get to its impressive variety shortly (as will I to its lousy writing and characterisation). On Normal at least, it’s a friend to the All Units button, F2 in this case, to setting your entire horde loose on some poor schmoes with a single click and a single plan. So many of its 27 levels freely allow the creation of a vast, unchallenged army which subsumes enemies and their buildings to the extent that you can only really see what happened after it’s moved on.
The animation department have done great things, making a swarm of several dozen Zerglings move as one undulating entity, a flock of murderous starlings throwing sinister shapes across the landscape. It’s so different from the usual RTS loose collective of stumblers, trundlers and stragglers: to see it is to fear it, even if you know full well that none of its denizens are individually much of a threat. It brings out the worst strategies in me, has me waiting and pooling and doing nothing until I’ve amassed a vast army of nothing but offence which I then order to the other side of the map. And it allows it.
I will be penalised for it, of course – losses will be enormous, I might well lose a base or two while I’m doing it, because I’ve left no-one to defend my holdings, and I certainly won’t bag all of that level’s Achievements – but I will win. Fantasy fulfilled. (Brief experimentation with harder difficulty settings revealed this was not a fixed state of affairs if one didn’t wish it do be so. I suspect I will revisit some maps in order to experiment with some of the strategies I picked up). The only tragedy in this was StarCraft II’s ongoing refusal to allow its camera elevation above ceiling level. While I appreciate this is a limitation built for the sake of multiplayer balance, I can’t see why the singleplayer game couldn’t let the scroll wheel go a little higher. How I yearned to watch the beautiful carnage at a map-wide scale.
The campaign’s also very smart at conveying understanding of the RTS-unusual methods of the Zerg, without anything so prescriptive as a tutorial. I gradually grasped what role each of the initially confusing, visually homogeneous units played without having the game grab my chin and look in a certain direction. Instead, it made each unit the star of a setpiece level, their effects and abilities overclocked for maximum effect.
For instance, the level starring the new Swarm Host unit, a sort of mobile organic turret which can root into the ground and regularly spray out tiny, nagging Locusts, eventually offers a magic button. This magic button immediately summons an innumerable horde of Locusts for a short period, fired across the map in a spreading circle, and which then hone in on and chew to death the multiple enemy armies approaching from every angle. Nothing on this scale is possible in multiplayer, but it’s a big, brash statement on what Swarm Hosts can do. It gets the message across in a way a text box or video introduction never could. If I ever do go back to SC2 multiplayer, while still being totally out of my depth I will at least have a working knowledge of what each Zerg unit does.
Throughout the campaign, I’d get to choose between two game-changing upgrades for each unit, introduced in optional Evolution side-missions and augmented by the abilities I chose for hero unit Kerrigan as she gradually levelled up. The game’s headed in just one direction, and the choices I made and I used them would probably have made me a laughing stock in multiplayer, but they did make the missions feel even more as though I was in ultimate control of my army’s unassailable fury.
Between such opuses of wanton, delicious, alien destruction, HOTS offers canny gimmick-led levels which play with the stereotypes of RTS campaigns, and show off how SC2 can be modded to be many new things. The traditional lone unit level quickly switches from hiding and waiting into infesting and growing, 20 condensed, unashamedly sillier minutes of Alien from the antagonist’s point of view. Later, a one-level switch back to playing as Terrans rather than Zerg offers a tiny slice of space strategy. Set in a flat universe, sure, but it’s still got hyperspace jumps, launching attack fighters and pummelling space stations with death-rays. The levels are playful, unpredictable and gently experimental where the achingly self-important cutscenes between them most certainly are not.
Narrative, then. Oh, must I? I’d rather ignore it, pretend it’s not there, try to hold up HOTS as confidently ludicrous stream of cartoon carnage and indulgence. But Blizzard are Blizzard, and infesting their games with hollow, glossy cutscenes and enough lore to fuel a hundred thousand Peter Jackson movies is what they do in addition to undying perfectionism for mechanics, balance and presentation. Unsurprisingly after Wings of Liberty, it’s a load of old cobblers and, while it might perhaps know it, it certainly doesn’t admit to it. There’s a very thin line between Starship Troopers and Battlefield Earth, and HOTS very much falls on the wrong side of it. Characters, usually wheeled on from nowhere speak sternly about anything-goes spacemagic, delivered as a constant stream of exposition in pantomime accents. Meanwhile, initially laudable attempts to make female star Kerrigan be a strong figure and leader, not reliant on men, are repeatedly undone by men being the only ones who can talk silly old her out of her silly old massacres of innocents, and by the denouement having her performing an act of colossal stupidity which requires rescue by a man. It’s all so basic.
I know Blizzard have argued in the past that it sticks to very brash, simple character archetypes in order to help players sympathise with them. That’s also what Hollyoaks does. I get it, and I get how that’s a very deliberate commercial decision to pander to a large audience who don’t want to have to think about who’s good, who’s bad, who’s in the middle and why that might be, but Hollyoaks isn’t interspersed with battle scenes from Zulu or Ben Hur. It’s the discordance between those playful levels and the pompous shallowness of the FMV that grates, not to mention the plot’s reliance on theose same tired, abused concepts of prophecy and ancestor races which underpin so much mainstream science-fiction now.
Then there is Kerrigan. Sarah Kerrigan, former Terran Ghost, later Zerg Queen of Blades, more recently restored to humanity, but wasting little time in HOTS to reclaim her former abilities and appearance even if her agenda may have changed. In the past she’s been held up as an all-too-rare example of a strong female game character, and certainly it’s refreshing in concept to have her be the star of this campaign, but in practice she turns out to be a disasterpiece of exploitation. Whether a human sniper in a catsuit which would require a razorblade to remove or a mutated Zerg ruler covered in chitin everywhere that isn’t orifices and curves, Realdoll buttocks and breasts are forever on show, body language is forever come hither, feet sprout organic stiletto heels, a botoxed face is covered in porn star make-up that her claw-hands couldn’t possibly have applied, and every inch of her is a cynical attempt to make teenage boys purchase this videogame. The camera incessantly drifts to find her arse, and she obliges by incessantly standing with her back to us. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the scourge of the galaxy.
Kerrigan’s presentation entirely undermines the already shallow, cheerless attempts of the narrative to make her a character with strength, to make her someone we might want to be, not someone we want to drool over. Yes, I’ve already read every pathetic apologism from “maybe she just prefers to look like a stripper while she’s trying to end galactic tyranny and battle ancient gods” to “it stands to reason that her bum wouldn’t be covered in the spikes like the rest of her, otherwise she couldn’t use the toilet”. When a game’s internal logic includes the likes of instant evolution, alien woodlice with the face of Christina Aguilera circa 2003, waking up an alien god by giving him a snack and armies built out of gas and crystals, these are not winning arguments. Make no mistake: the game is doing whatever it wants to because it can, not because it has carefully thought-out justifications for it. It could equally have chosen to not be so juvenile and exploitative in its depiction of its lead character, but it didn’t, because it wanted to sell more copies and more merchandise to a certain demographic. So it goes.
This is, though, a game with money in its blood. The list of names in the credits is unending, and on production values alone the vast expenditure is obvious. As well as the typically high-budget pre-rendered videos, the in-engine cutscenes are gorgeously rendered, approaching CGI levels of detail and polish, making a joke out of so many other games’ attempts to do similar with their blurry marionettes, but God, shut up. I dearly wish I’d just pressed Escape as every cutscene began, never even had to think about them and their nonsense and their braying stag night attitudes, because the game in-between them is absolutely Blizzard at its singleplayer best, and a real return to form, purpose and invention after the clinical churn of Diablo III. The campaign’s a substantial, spectacular one too, even before the replays with different between-mission upgrade choices or on harder difficulty, or to nab those last few, largely thoughtfully challenging Achievements.
Most of all, it’s a game about triumphantly being the Zerg, that massed menace which has become a byword for overwhelming threat – and that’s a hugely different thing to simply playing as the alien faction in an RTS. Heart is something it’s lacking, but this is definitely a game which understands the art of the Swarm.