Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm will continue the story of the intergalactic war between three very different factions--the Terrans, the Protoss, and the Zerg. But are the Zerg really that terrible, or do they just get a bad rap? Sure, they may be an intergalactic terror born and bred to consume all life in the universe, but they are ultimately doing only what they were programmed to do. To help get into the minds of these carnivorous critters, we journeyed to developer Blizzard Entertainment and spent some hands-on time with this upcoming expansion. While the team was tight-lipped on anything regarding multiplayer, we did get to see some of the changes coming to the game's single-player experience. [Spoiler Alert: this preview contains minor spoilers from Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty].
At the heart of this expansion is Sarah Kerrigan. Her career in the Starcraft universe has been a bloody one: first as a ghost in the Terran military and then as the deadly Queen of Blades. However, all that changed with the conclusion of Wings of Liberty. Now Kerrigan's hold over most of the Zerg swarm has been shattered, and her memories as their ruler are spotty at best. Her burning hatred for all life in the galaxy has also been boiled down to one man: Arcturus Mengsk. And while we don't know all the details, we do know that she is working to bring the Zerg back under her control and take the fight to the Terran Dominion's ruler. Unlike the previous campaign's hero, Jim Raynor, Kerrigan takes a hands-on approach to warfare and doesn't mind mixing it up on the front lines. When she arrives on a planet it is not to perform some one-shot bit of terrorism; she's there to conquer all.
What all this means is that you will be in control of Kerrigan throughout the majority of Heart of the Swarm. The developers likened her to one of the hero units from Warcraft III--a persistent character whom you will build and customize to fit your play style. Based on what we saw, the majority of this customization came from Kerrigan's different battle focuses--interchangeable skill sets that defined what abilities she could use in battle. Of the two available, we chose the corruption focus before heading down to Char. Our mission here was to kill Za'gara, a Zerg brood mother who refused to acknowledge us as the real Queen of Blades. This mission felt like it was intended to get us acquainted with a specific Zerg unit--the Baneling. Banelings are, of course, the Zerg's explosive infantry who can spray everything they hit with damaging acid. All across the planet there were pockets of Zerg eggs that contained groups of Banelings.
Za'gara was aiming to claim these eggs for herself, and it became a race to see who could collect a certain number of eggs first. Kerrigan's play style was similar to when she was a human ghost. Using an oversized rifle, she could deliver high-damage shots at midrange, though with a low rate of fire. Since we had access only to Zerglings and Banelings, we had to lean heavily on Kerrigan's battle focus abilities to take down more-dangerous foes. The corruption ability would instantly kill a target (provided it wasn't a massive or heroic one) and spawn five broodlings in its place. Corrosive spores was an area-of-effect ability that caused affected enemy units to take additional damage every time they were hit. This ability worked especially well with our quick-hitting Zerglings. The focus also give a small bonus to our armor.
The real fun came when, after collecting the required number of eggs, Kerrigan decided to hatch them all at once. This instantly granted us roughly 200 extra units on the spot. We then rolled this massive force into the heart of Za'gara's base and let our dozens of Banelings make quick work of the place. It was a very appropriate finale, and true to the style of the Zerg. Once we returned from the battlefield, we checked in with our two advisers--Izsha and Abathur--on the planet-side hub screen. An infested adjutant (before adjutants became completely cybernetic), Izsha provided us with details on upcoming missions and helped to fill in the gaps in Kerrigan's broken memory.
The well-mannered Abathur was a bloated creature of Kerrigan's own design while she was still the Queen of Blades. Its function was to evolve and adapt our Zerg army in much the same way Raynor's mechanic did in Wings of Liberty. The currency for upgrading our units was DNA. We collected this resources by attempting missions and completing side-quests within those missions. With the Zergling, for instance, we could evolve it so that it could move faster, be produced instantly in battle, or spawn smaller broodlings upon death. Once we had purchased two of the three possible upgrades, we then had the option to drastically alter our unit in one of two ways. For the Zergling, it was a choice between hatching in groups of three at no additional cost or leaping onto enemies who got too close.
Once our army was in order, we set off for our next mission on the frozen moon of Kaldir. Another of our brood mothers, Na'fash, had taken her Zerg here. According to Izsha, Na'fash was most likely attempting to build up her brood's resilience by exposing them to the moon's harsh environment. Abathur said he could produce this mutation for us, but we would need to collect some DNA from the area's local creatures first. In preparation for the fight ahead, we switched Kerrigan's battle focus over to spec ops. This focus was more reminiscent of her time as a ghost, with psionic shadow, the ability to create a copy of herself that deals half damage, and pulse, an ability that stuns multiple targets in a small area. The focus also provides a bonus to her energy--the charging meter that gets spent by all Starcraft units to perform special attacks or other secondary abilities.
The moon itself posed an interesting problem: its arctic winds would freeze our units in place every few minutes, leaving them vulnerable to enemy attack. As we navigated through an extensive glacial valley, we took every opportunity we could to cut down the local species and collect their DNA for Abathur's research. Once we had collected enough, Abathur was able to apply the mutation to our forces to prevent the freezing from occurring. This upgrade came just in time since we soon encountered the corpse of Na'fash and a Protoss camp not too far away. The Protoss were more than surprised to find the galaxy's number one villainess severely weakened and wasted no effort in trying to contact the rest of their fleet for support. We were now on a time limit to destroy their communication towers and stop their transmission.
In combat, our hero's spec ops battle focus worked wonders against the Protoss' massive Archon units. Even though they could blow us apart in an instant, the Archons were rendered helpless thanks to our pulse ability. Once the battle was over, we checked in one final time with our advisers, Izsha and Abathur, which gave us a bit of insight into what's to come. Speaking with Izsha revealed Kerrigan's apprehension toward indiscriminate violence; Kerrigan even went so far as to express regret for attacking innocent people. When talking with Abathur, Kerrigan stated that she needed a metamorph, a unit that could fuel its own evolution. Could this be a new unit joining the Zerg ranks? Blizzard had no comment on that or on the other particulars of this expansion. Nevertheless, we can't wait to find out what our surprises are in store for Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm.