The best PC games of 2013: Heart of the Swarm


There’s something very strange about looking forward to a game primarily because you’re interesting in watching it rather than playing it. In fact, it’s never happened to me before, and that’s both the strength and weakness of StarCraft 2 at this moment in its development.

StarCraft 2 is an eminently watchable game, the breakthrough eSports title that one can enjoy watching as much as playing, and quite possibly more. While League of Legends posts bigger numbers these days, I still suspect that the people watching competitive League of Legends are LoL players, not just spectators looking for great competition. StarCraft 2 is game where I know friends who watch it with their kids despite neither parent nor child being StarCraft players. It’s an interesting and important phenomenon for eSports.

On the other hand, Blizzard probably make games with the intention that people actually buy them and play them, not just watch them. My fear with Heart of the Swarm is that while there’s a lot to look forward to for how it will change and re-balance the competitive game, StarCraft 2 will remain the RTS I watch, but not the one I usually play.

Fortunately, that’s one thing Blizzard aim to address with HotS, via an interesting set of teaching tools that can help StarCraft 2’s struggling casual players come to grips with the multiplayer game. In an interview at IPL 5, he explained how the “resume from replay” feature (crucial for making sure tournament matches can survive a connection drop) has the unintended side effect of allowing players access to scenarios they can use to train and practice.

Things that have been hard to practice, simply because they tend to happen organically in Wings of Liberty, should be instantly accessible in HotS. For instance, if you resume a game just as a baneling ball goes rolling toward a line of Terran infantry and siege tanks, you have a place you can go to practice your spread technique again and again until you get it right.

With an entire cottage-industry having built up around StarCraft 2 coaching and training, it will be interesting to see what kind of preset scenarios we might see popping up from instructors like Shaun “Apollo” Clark. But Blizzard isn’t just leaving training to the community: HotS will also feature a new, improved training area where you’ll complete sets of challenges that teach you how to play your faction and units.

If you’re still not ready for ladder success after all that, HotS has mercifully given us unranked servers and more social options so we can play StarCraft 2 stress-free, for fun and with more friends. Personally, I’m probably happiest about the addition of cross-server play: about half my gaming friends reside in the UK or Europe, and it will be great to finally be able to play with them free of hassle.

As for the new units in Heart of the Swarm, I’ve probably been most impressed by additions like the Zerg Swarm Host, a mobile spawning center for Locusts (sort of like a ranged broodling) that operates as a ground siege unit. Parking a few of these guys near an enemy’s ramp is a good way to sustain pressure and soak up damage for your main combat units. I’ve also enjoyed the Terran Widow Mine, a slowly recharging buried mine that fires a powerful missile. If you can lure the enemy into fighting on a minefield, you can change the odds in a fight within just a few seconds.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I can make effective use out of many of these units. Widow Mines are cool, but fussy, requiring another bit of micro when my hands already feel too clumsy to keep up. I’m probably more excited to see how pros use them than to use them myself.

Still, as someone who looked forward to major StarCraft tournaments in 2012 more than most NFL football games, excitement for the competitive scene is a perfectly valid reason to be excited for a game. After at least six months of watching Zerg bury their opponents under tidal waves of Infestor fungals and Broodlings, I’m ready for something different when Heart of the Swarm comes out on March 12. It’s been a great two years with Wings of Liberty, and I’m hoping for many more with Heart of the Swarm.