WARNING: our coverage contains spoilers concerning both the end of the Wings of Liberty campaign and the beginning of the Heart of the Swarm campaign.
On May 26th, 2011 Blizzard Entertainment held a small, exclusive press event for North American websites and publications at their headquarters in Irvine, CA. The main purpose of the event was to reveal details and two single-player missions from StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm.
"Fate... cannot be changed. The end comes... and when it finds me... I shall embrace it, at last." Old Rivals: The Queen of Blades, speaking to Zeratul in Wings of Liberty
Wings of Liberty, the first chapter of the StarCraft II trilogy, did not end well for the Zerg. Armed with an ancient Xel' Naga artifact and a mysterious prophecy proclaiming Kerrigan to be key to the universe's survival, Jim Raynor and Valerian Mengsk's combined force destroyed a large part of the Hive Cluster and de-infested the Queen of Blades, leaving the Swarm without a leader. Without an overriding will, the former might of the Swarm was broken, the various Broods were left scattered in disarray, and Char was occupied by the Terran Dominion.
In Heart of the Swarm, the former Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan, who is now more human than Zerg, has returned to reclaim her throne. She must reunite the renegade Broods, increase her own power, and escape the justice of both the Protoss and the Terran.
Seeking answers to unanswered questions, we descended upon Blizzard to learn what has befallen the former leader of the Swarm and the Zerg-driven Heart of the Swarm will differ from its predicessor Wings of Liberty. We play tested two levels for several hours and learned that Kerrigan has returned to the Swarm, and she must guide it through its next evolution to reforge its lost power.
It is clear that Heart of the Swarm will play differently than Wings of Liberty. If you recall, after the Overmind's second defeat, Kerrigan systematically destroyed the remaining Cerebrates, leaving her as the sole sentient will of the Swarm. At Blizzard, we learned that sometime between the end of the Brood War and invasion of Char, Kerrigan had overcome her distaste for sentient minions. She had created Brood Mothers - guardians and leaders of the various broods, filling a role previously occupied by the Cerebrates. According to Dustin Browder, the lead designer of StarCraft II, Kerrigan believed the Cerebrates were tainted by their ties to the Overmind and would likely seek to reincarnate it at the first opportunity. Instead, Brood Mothers are unique Queens accorded personality and intelligence, yet imprinted with the overriding directives of the Queen of Blades. But it seems that they are not simply unquestioning minions. In one of the missions we were shown, the Brood Mothers reveal that they were designed to be strong and evolve, and they emphasize that to be Zerg, the strongest are meant to rule.
When Kerrigan's control over the Swarm was broken by the artifact's power, her Brood Mothers took their various Broods and fled to the far reaches of the Koprulu sector. Each Mother was following the instructions that they had been imprinted upon their creation: survive and evolve. Kerrigan had taught them that force of will would rule the Zerg - the most powerful being must be obeyed for the survival of the Swarm. With Kerrigan incapacitated, the Mothers thought themselves equal to the task. Now Kerrigan has returned and she is out to reclaim her Broods, but first she must prove herself more powerful than those she once ruled as the Queen of Blades.
In our interview with Blizzard, Dustin Browder mentioned that in Wings of Liberty the development team felt like the campaign sets, while cool, did not necessarily serve their purpose. He said that much of the player feedback the team had gathered noted that because there were many set pieces on the Hyperion and their content updated at different times, many players who were interested in the depth of the story and easter eggs were forgetting to visit every piece every time. Browder cited the last set piece of Wings of Liberty, the Char forward base, as being the one that made the most sense and was really hitting the vibe the team was looking for. To that end, Heart of the Swarm is likely to have less set pieces, but these features will be richer experiences. While Wings of Liberty's campaign was delivered throughout the Hyperion, Kerrigan will be utilizing a Leviathan, a massive Zerg strain that is capable of housing portions of the Zerg Swarm and deep space travel. As Kerrigan travels around the sector, her Leviathan will land on the planet. Thus, most of the campaign sets will be framed by Zerg carapace and parts of the Leviathan. As she travels from planet to planet, the backdrop will reflect the planet allowing the player to see more of the sector's sights in a slightly more cinematic setting.
To accomplish her goals, Kerrigan has taken to the field. In Heart of the Swarm, Kerrigan is a hero character that will be playable in many of the campaign's missions. As an in-game unit, she is quite powerful, and she will grow stronger as the Campaign progresses. One of the main aspects of Kerrigan's growth, which ties into the RPG-esque elements Blizzard has hinted at in the past, is "focus". Focus is a new gameplay addition that will allow each player to choose how Kerrigan's powers and skills develop. Before each mission, by clicking on Kerrigan on the campaign screen, the player can select a particular focus, which will allow players to choose the most appropriate skill set for a particular mission as well as their unique playstyle. Each focus contains multiple abilities; some are passive and some are user activated. Currently, there are four different focus aspects, and each has multiple, unlockable skill slots. To be clear, it currently appears that the skills and abilities that unlock within a particular theme are pre-determined. However, as everything in this preview build, that is subject to change. In the build we playtested, only two of the four aspects had been unlocked: Spec Ops and Corruption.
Kerrigan's Battle Focus
Instantly kills spawns 5 broodings from the corpse. Massive and Heoric units are immune.
Energy Cost : 50
Cooldown: 10 seconds
Units in the target area take +3 damage per hit.
Energy Cost: 50
Radius: 2.5 tiles
Duration 15 seconds
Cooldown: 10 seconds
Spec Ops Abilities
Deals light damage to all targets and stuns them for 3 seconds.
Energy Cost: 50
Radius 2.5 tiles
Cooldown: 10 sec.
Kerrigan creates a Psionic Shadow of herself that deals half damage.
Energy Cost: 50
Duration: 60 secs
Cooldown: 30 secs
||Infested Cortex (Unlockable)
Energy Cost: Passive
Description: Grants Kerrigan an additional maximum of 50 energy.
Each theme plays quite differently, and they are obviously meant to complement various combinations of the unit evolutions as well as give an additional dimension of choice for the player. Since Kerrigan's focus can be changed before every mission, it allows players to experiment with the various themes without having to irrevocably commit. Additionally, Kerrigan's actual core unit stats can be upgraded as well. Usually, these upgrades are unlocked by completing bonus objectives and can increase one or all of the following: health, damage, armor, and energy.
Kerrigan isn't alone on her quest to gather the Broods. She is joined by her advisor Izsha, a creature whose personality is derived from Kerrigan's memory as the Queen of Blades.
Kerrigan: I can remember so little from before.
Izsha: I am a memory of you from as the Queen of Blades.
Kerrigan What was I like? I remember doing terrible things. I remember blood and… darkness.
Izsha: You were mighty. You made us strong and smart and we knew we would surrive forever under you.
Kerrigan: And now?
Izsha: Now Za'gara opposes you because she believes herself stronger. If she is, we will serve her when you are dead.
Kerrigan: I'll kill all of you before I let that happen.
This suggests an interesting duality and provides an interesting twist on how the Hivemind operates. Hopefully, this particular being's story and purpose will be explored more fully. Additionally, Kerrigan is joined by Abathur, the Zerg evolution master. He was created by the Overmind, becoming feral when the Overmind was destroyed, until he was once again given purpose by Kerrigan. He is definitely one of the more interesting story aspects that the press build had to offer. He is sentient and unique. Based on his dialogue and mannerisms, Abathur seems to serve as the Swarm's DNA library. When the Zerg assimilate a race, evolve, or adapt, Abathur is the creature that facilitates the change and distributes the necessary mutations to the Swarm. We also learn from him that as a Zerg strain's DNA evolves and mutates, it becomes less flexible and less able to continue to adapt. However, Abathur seems quite able, quickly creating mutations and strains when Kerrigan demands them. He inhabits an evolution chamber that is within Kerrigan's Leviathan. Practically, Abathur fills the role of Egon Stettman from Wings of Liberty, yet he is also likely to provide keys to the Zerg operations and history under the Queen of Blades rule.
Regarding the lore, the development team had their work cut out for them. Until the introduction of the Brood Mothers and the brief life of Ethan Stewart in the First Born trilogy, we were unaware of of the existence of true sentient Zerg characters. Additionally, Dustin Browder made it abundantly clear that Kerrigan has few friends. Both the Dominion and the Protoss want revenge for her actions as the Queen of Blades. It is unclear how much, if any, support Raynor and his raiders will be able to provide. It is quite unlikely she will have access to significant Terran and Protoss technology, so, for much of the campaign, Kerrigan will be creating and finding what she needs to fulfill her aims.
Potentially, the most interesting, new mechanic in Heart of the Swarm is unit evolution. In Wings of Liberty, the Hyperion's Chief Engineer Rory Swann was able to upgrade your units in the Armory using the credits Raynor and his raiders gathered from the various mercenary missions. In Heart of the Swarm, it is clear the Zerg have no use for credits. Instead, Kerrigan must gather Mutagens, which are generally DNA samples from species found on the various worlds she comes to conquer. Using these Mutagens, Abathur is able to craft upgrades for each species of Zerg creature currently under Kerrigan's control.
Kerrigan: What are you?
Abathur: I am Abathur, I serve you just as I served the Queen of Blades.
Kerrigan: I am the Queen of Blades.
Abathur: You appear different to me. But I only see genetic strands. – perhaps I am confused.
Kerrigan: You don't look like you'd much good in a fight. What is your purpose?
Abathur: I weave genetic material to assimilate the strongest traits into the swarm. I will show you the future of the swarm. Whenever you wish to review what I've been working on speak to me.
In the demonstration build, there were three standard upgrades for each unit, and, after at least two of the three standard upgrades had been purchased with Mutagens, an "evolution" choice was unlocked. Similar to the choice in Wings of Liberty that effectively made you choose between Ghosts or Spectres, the evolution choice presents a major upgrade for the unit that is irrevocable. This final evolution choice for each unit will effectively make every player's final Swarm completely different. Each evolution plays different and caters to different play styles. Obviously, Blizzard's daunting task is to create choices that are meaningful and don't have a "right" answer, but rather enhance the gameplay in unique, balanced ways.
Units and Upgrades
Mutagen Cost: 1
Increase speed by 33%.
Mutagen Cost: 1
Zergling has a 20% chance to spawn 2 Broodlings on death.
Mutagen Cost: 2
Zerglings train instantly.
Mutagen Cost 2
The Zergling can evolve into one of the two possible species. Choose the species you prefer
Leaps to close with enemy units
Has 10 additional Life
Raptors have enhanced quadriceps that allow them to leap long distances. Ideal for closing quickly on potential victims.
Hatches in groups of three
Third Zergling comes at no Mineral Cost
Swarmlings perform an additional embryo split while gestating in the egg sac. This mutation provides three swarmlings for the same Mineral cost as two Zerglings.
Mutagen Cost: 1
Baneling acid slows move speed of all units hit for a short period of time.
Mutagen Cost: 1
Speed increased by 25%
Mutagen Cost: 2
Baneling splash radius increased by 25%
Mutagen Cost: 2
The Baneling can evolve into one of the two possible species. Choose the species you prefer
Splits into two smaller Banelings on death
Split occurs twice
Spitterlings are like flatworms in that their nervous system are completely decentralized. Cutting one in half results in each half creating an entirely new (albeit smaller) unit.
Reduces killed units and structures to collectible resources
Gorgelins secrete a sub-atomic acid that reduces anything touched to its most basic elements. Any unit or structure killed is converted to collectible resource pickups equal to one quarter the unit's cost.
Can move while burrowed.
Gains 10 life per kill (up to +60 max Life)
Heals more rapidly while burrowed.
In the demonstration build, two missions were available for play and could be selected in any order. We were told that these missions would likely be somewhere around four to six missions into the campaign, but like all things in this build, they were subject to change. The original home world of the Zerg, Char, plays host to the first available mission. According to the mission selection screen, the second and third available missions unlock later in the game. The first available mission is "War for the Brood," which relates to a stockpile of thousands of eggs that Kerrigan watched over as the Queen of Blades. Since her de-infestation, a renegade Brood Mother named Za'gara has established a Hive cluster in the acid birthing baths they reside in. This is, as Izsha notes, a perfect place for Za'gara's Brood to flourish. The first locale is the planet Char, the former home world of the Zerg. According to the mission selection screen, one mission option is currently available on Char with two others being inaccessible. This first available mission is named "War for the Brood", in which a renegade Brood Mother by the name of Za'gara has claimed a Zerg brood subsequent to Kerrigan's recent transformation. Since the time claim over a brood, Za'gara has But Kerrigan has returned and is going to take back what is hers. The unit introduced in this mission is the Baneling. It is still quite obvious that the mission in which a unit is introduced is meant to be featured and used extensively for the duration of that mission. Banelings are all that is required to easily win this mission. In addition to Za'gara, the Terran Dominion led by General Warfield still inhabits the surface of Char - if she wishes to retake the home world and once again use it as a base of operations, soon enough Kerrigan will have to deal with him as well.
Abathur Conversation on Char
Kerrigan: You look so different from most of the Zerg, Abathur. Did I create you?
Abathur: I was created by the Overmind from several different species. I am the only one of my kind.
Kerrigan: What did you do after the Overmind died?
Abathur: I wandered the tunnels deep inside char, without purpose. I was feral. Other creatures tried to eat me. I ate them instead. Later you found all of us and made us Zerg again.
Kerrigan: You are saying that you aren't Zerg unless you are on someone else's control?
Abathur: Without an overriding will, we are beasts my queen, less than beasts.
Izsha Conversation on Char
Kerrigan: There are so few of my forces in Char.
Izsha: When you were taken from us, most of your forces were abord leviathans, being recalled to char. They died out in the void fighting each other.
Kerrigan: I will rebuild the swarm. I will make it stronger, better. And then I will crush Mengsk under my heal.
The second playable site is the icy moon of Kaldir. Here, the first mission is "Silence Their Cries," in which Izsha tells Kerrigan that the Brood Mother Na'fash and her brood were last seen on the icy moon of Kaldir. Na'fash has gone there in an attempt to create stronger strains. Kerrigan has to reclaim the Na'fash Brood. The player starts with Kerrigan and only a small number of Zerglings. On her path to find and bring Na'fash to justice, she finds a few feral Roaches which help a lot to dispose of the native Yeti beasts in the area. The Roaches are the featured unit in this mission and have the ability to burrow to regenerate their hit points at a faster rate, which comes in handy as there are frequent snow storms. These storms make all living organisms briefly freeze in the flash ice storms. Although they don't take damage from the storm, frozen units are unable to move and attack. The Yeti beasts are immune to the ice effects of the storm. Once Kerrigan realizes this, she gathers some of the Yeti Matriarch's DNA and orders Abathur to create the necessary mutation despite the fact that it will make the Swarm less flexible.
Soon, the player finds the corpse of Na'fash and discovers that there is a Protoss settlement in the area. After discovering that the former Queen of Blades was in the area, the High Templar in charge of the expeditionary force orders his forces to use Psi-Link Spires to contact Shakuras and alert them to her return. Since the Protoss force is so far from Sharkuras, they cannot simply use the Khala to alert their brethren. Instead, they must rely on Psi-Link Spires to supplement their innate power. IIzsha informs Kerrigan that she must destroy the Psi- Spheres to prevent the Protoss from contacting Shakuras. Additionally, as a bonus objective Abathur requests more DNA from the Yeti Matriarchs. Consequently, the Swarm adapts to the cold. In contrast, the Protoss must raise their shields when the storms come, so the player's immunity to the storm allows him or her to make use of timing attacks against the Protoss base.
This mission feels very similar to Wings of Liberty's "Devil's Playground" in which Raynor must gather high-yield minerals for Tosh on Redstone III. During that particular mission, the lava levels would rise, covering the objective for short periods of time and destroying whatever units were caught in the fiery tide.
After the player destroys all of the Psi-Link Spires on the surface of Kaldir, the Protoss are forced to retreat. Kerrigan orders Izsha to destroy all remaining Protoss forces trying to leave the system. This makes way for the next mission called "Shoot the Messenger" in which Kerrigan must destroy all of the fleeing Protoss ships to ensure her return is not heralded to the Protoss command; however, this mission was not playable during our preview.
: Char Planetary Objective
: Defeat Za'gara Mission Reward
: Baneling Mission description
: "Char's Acid Marsh is remote and easily defended; the perfect place for Za'gara to spawn an army." Mission Objectives
Collect 100 Eggs (0/100)
Za'gara Can't Collect 100 Eggs (0/100) Bonus Objectives
Find Baneling Egg Nests (0/6)
Kerrigan: So one of my brood mothers thinks she is too strong to follow my orders? We'll see about that.
Izsha: Za'gara brood is currently huddled among Char's acid marsh, where you stored millions of eggs for future use.
Kerrigan: I can sense the unhatched eggs. Now I just have to get the before Za'gara. These eggs are different from the rest. Some Baneling eggs are ready to hatch immediately. That could be very useful. Za'gara: You are no the Queen of Blades. You are a weak and pathetic Terran creature.
Kerrigan: Kill her.
Za'gara: I only did as you instructed.
Kerrigan: I told you to rebel against me?
Za'gara: You said the Zerg should be lead by force of will.
Za'gara: Your will is strongest and I shall serve you.
Planetary Objective: Reclaim the Na'fash Brood.
Name: Silence their Cries
Mission Reward: Roaches
Mission description: "Na'fash's Brood was last seen entering the Ice Valleys, home to ravenous snow beasts and treacherous cave-ins. They have not been heard from since."
Reclaim the Na'fash Brood
Collect Yeti DNA (10/100)
Destroy Psi-Link Spheres (0/3)
Kill the Yeti Matriachs (0/2)
Abathur Conversation on Kaldir
Abathur: Your swarm does not thrive in the cold of this moon.
Kerrigan: You're in charge of adapting my army. I thought they were stronger than that.
Abathur: The swarm is hardy but temperatures here are as cold as space.
Abathur: Only certain troops such as leviathans can operate in that environment. I had no reason to adapt the rest.
Kerrigan: You should have given them that adaptation anyway.
Kerrigan: Well they need it now, your Queen commands it.
Abathur I will begin work on this immediately. I may require samples from some indigenous organisms.
Kerrigan: Well they need it now.
Izsha Conversation on Kaldir
Kerrigan: Why would Na'fash bring her brood here?
Izsha: It is one of the most inhospitable places in the Korpulu sector.
Kerrigan: So she wanted to avoid notice. A sign of weakness.
Izsha: I do not think so, my Queen. She hoped to create a stronger swarm in this environment.
Kerrigan: Of course. That's how Zerg think. That's how I have to think.
Kerrigan: Na'fash is going to learn the hard way that I am queen. Where is she?
Izsha: She took her brood into these ice valleys to create her own Swarm. She has not been heard from since.
Kerrigan: Perfect, I can handle it from here.
Izsha: There is…another problem. There are flash freeze storms on Kaldir which drop the temperature so fast that almost all thermal energy is lost.
Abathur: The species is adapted to the cold. If you amass enough of its DNA, I can adapt your troops for the flash freeze.
Izsha: The Zerg is feral.
It is not under the control of any higher entity.
Kerrigan: Where is Na'Fash? Why isn't she commanding her brood?
Izsha: When roaches are injured, they can burrow to regain health quickly.
Izsha: Another feral Zerg.
Kerrigan: Something is very wrong.
Izsha: The flash freeze is near.
Abathur: Once you fully assimilated the local DNA, your troops will not freeze during storms.
Izsha:The flash freeze has arrived.
Izsha:Your troops are frozen.
Izsha:Flash freeze storm is fading.
Abathur: Assimilating DNA. The Swarm is now immune to the flash freeze. The matriarch's DNA was fascinating. If you find more, it will help with my mutations!
Kerrigan: Now to find Na'fash!
Kerrigan : Someone killed you before I could. I wonder who?
Protoss Templar: The Queen of Blades! But you are so weakened! What has happened to you? Protoss! We must inform Shakuras. They will send the Golden Armada – they will destroy you!
From our time spent at Blizzard talking with the developers and playing the available missions, we are cautiously optimistic. The Wings of Liberty campaign had strokes of brilliance, but it still felt like it was just the beginning. The development team has its work cut out for it. Many of the mechanics and polish that worked for the Terran campaign won't necessarily be successful in a Zerg setting. Much of what must be written and shown has never been shown in the StarCraft universe. Lore must be written and fit into existing canon for much of how the Swarm operates, how it thinks, and how it will feel to the player. The Wings of Liberty story took several different directions and radically changed our understanding of the Koprulu sector, and not all of the lore choices were necessarily universally acclaimed. However, Blizzard has admitted that there is still a significant amount of work to be done and knowing Blizzard, that means a significant amount of iterations and scrapped ideas.
Despite any misgivings we have, the game plays and feels like a true extension of Wings of Liberty. While for many people the multiplayer portions for the expansion are more interesting, the single-player looks a bit more interesting than Wings of Liberty and will hopefully draw fans back into the lore. Yet, after leaving Blizzard's campus and spending a full day with Heart of the Swarm, we were left with more questions than answers. What are Kerrigan's true motivations? What is the purpose of the Zerg? The only thing that we truly know for sure is Kerrigan is back.
Clicking on Warfields HQ (Before finishing War for the Brood
) Kerrigan: Soon, the Terrans will be gone from Char. One less barrier between me and Arcturus Mengsk.
Clicking on Warfields HQ (After finishing War for the Brood
) Kerrigan: Do you feel safe in there Warfield? It's nothing personal but you are standing between me and Arcturus Mengsk. And that's a very bad place to be.
New Protoss doodad building: "Protoss Psi Link Spires".
Za'gara is a modified Zerg Queen.
is a Zerg unit that is not under the control of any brood.
"Char was home to Kerrigan's personal brood when she was the Queen of Blades. Now the planet is being purged by General Warfield's expeditionary force."
This is a StarCraft: Legacy (http://sclegacy.com/) feature event article.