StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is easily one of the most highly anticipated RTS titles of the year. With its launch date nearing to a close, the multiplayer beta as it is now is the closest it’s ever been to the final product.

This preview details the new elements in Heart of the Swarm multiplayer as of patch 2.0.3 incuding the new units, how strategy is affect by the new units, interface and gameplay changes as well as a look into the improved social features.

terran

The Terran has acquired two new units, both of which are created in the factory.

Widow Mines

Widow Mines are a cheap unit available at the factory without the need of upgrading to a tech lab. From what I’ve seen in 1v1s, they are primarily used as a defensive unit. It does not have an auto-attack and is pretty much useless when mobile. However, when it burrows it gains the Unstable Payload auto-cast ability which can target both ground and air units. It does 125dmg to the targeted unit within its 5 radius as well as dealing 40 splash damage to surrounding enemy units.

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The Widow Mine costs 75 minerals, 25 gas and 2 supply which gives the player a major boost in defense during early game. They are rendered invisible when burrowed so they’re perfect for fending off early game light unit harassments. Widow Mines are designed from the Spider Mine in StarCraft. However, unlike the Spider Mines, they are re-usable so they’re not really mines, they’re more like burrowable turrets. Their Unstable Payload ability has a 40 second cooldown so creating the right amount and placing them in the right places is essential.

I had quite a bit of fun with Widow Mines. Despite the fact that they are supposed to be mostly a defensive unit, I went ahead anyway and tried to used them as traps. I placed them right at the entrance of the enemy base then pretended to harass and retreat with a few quick hellions causing the enemy army to try to chase me down to their demise. They also proved quite useful for locking the Zerg into their own base making it harder for them to expand.

I also found the Widow Mines extremely useful for controlling Xel’Naga towers. Not only can they defend for control of the tower but they are also invisible when doing so.

Hellbat

Designed from StarCraft‘s Fire Bats, Hellbats are technically an upgrade for the Hellion. They require an armory to be built and are produced in the factory for 100 minerals and 2 supply. I’m not quite sure why Blizzard decided to showcase them as a completely new unit. On the factory tab, there are two separate shortcuts for the Hellion and the Hellbat even though creating either one from the factory will allow you either unit to transform into the other.

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The Hellbat is essentially a Firebat in a mech suit. Its attack differs from the Hellion in that it shoots fire in a cone as opposed to a line. The Infernal Pre-Igniter upgrade, or more commonly called Blue Flame, does not extend to the Hellbat which I am quite glad as that would make them absolutely over-powered.

Despite the fact that the Hellbat is a mech unit, it can be healed by a Medivac.

Discontinued units

The Terran originally had three new units, the third being the War Hound. It was used as an anti-mech melee unit which made the unit used primarily against the Protoss, specifically in order to give the Terran a different option rather than resort to Bio-based builds. However, as of June 2012, the Warhound was removed from the game. Blizzard didn’t clearly state why they removed it but it seems like players felt the unit was too overpowered when it came to its anti-air splash damage.

Existing units

The Medivac now has the Ignite Afterburners ability which increases its movement speed by 70% for 8 seconds. It is readily available upon creation of the Medivac, it doesn’t cost any energy and its cooldown is only 20 seconds. This ability makes for some incredibly quick drops and escapes. This upgrade somewhat balances the Medivac against Protoss’ and Zerg’s new air units.

The Reaper has been nerfed significantly in that it no longer deals bonus damage against buildings as well as light units. Not only that but the speed upgrade is no longer available so early game Reaper harassment is significantly harder to achieve. It’s HP is now 60 instead of 50 and they can heal while out of combat so it really depends on the player’s micro-management skills.This makes up for the fact that a tech lab upgrade is no longer required.

Siege Tanks are even more incredibly useful in Heart of the Swarm. Their Siege ability no longer comes as a purchasable upgrade but is now available after creation. This makes the Siege Tanks available earlier in the game and it also saves gas for creating more mech units.

Thors no longer have the Strike Cannon ability. Instead, it now has High Impact Payload which switches the Thor’s anti-air attack into a stronger single shot attack. This makes engaging against heavy air units significantly easier.

Mech War

Despite the fact that Terrans don’t get as many units as Protoss or Zerg (Hellbat is technically an upgrade), their existing units have been drastically improved. Reapers no longer need a tech lab to be created, Siege mode no longer needs to be researched, the Raven’s seeker missile costs less energy,  Thors can do more damage against heavy air units and the Ship and Vehicle armor and attack upgrades have been merged into a single upgrade.

Having a mech army is considerably more efficient and stronger in Heart of the Swarm. However, even though mech armies are encouraged, Terrans do still go for bio/mech builds. A full scale mech army may be powerful but that doesn’t remove the fact that they move quite slow and cost a great deal of resources and supply. Medivac plays are also encouraged because of the introduction of the Ignite Afterburners ability.

TvT matches are also even more complicated now due to the introduction of the Widow Mines. There mere fact that Widow Mines are available makes players more cautious or even paranoid when playing against a Terran. It provides the Terran with better early game defense so keeping pressure in order to get ahead is no longer as necessary as it was in Wings of Liberty.

protoss

The Protoss have three new units, all of them produced in the Stargate.

Mothership Core

The Mothership Core is created in the Nexus and can be built after a Cybernetics Core is erected. It’s used primarily for early game scouting and worker harassment and it costs 100 mineral, 100 gas and 2 supply. It has four abilities that are useful early game through late game.

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Photon Overcharge targets a Nexus temporarily making it a long range defensive turret, like a Planetary Nexus. It lasts for 60 seconds and deals 20dmg per hit. It is mostly used for fending off early game harassment and later on, to defend expansions.

Mass Recall enables the Mothership Core to teleport surrounding units to a nearby or targeted Nexus. This makes it easier for the Protoss to be more aggressive without the risk of having to fend off an attack while pushing forward.

Time Warp is an area-of-effect ability that slows down all enemy units by 50% for 30 seconds. It costs 75 energy. It can be useful for being chased down by stimpacked Terran infantry as well as picking off escaping enemies.

There can only be one Mothership Core per Protoss as it can be upgraded later in the game into a Mothership.

The Mothership Core may not seem that expensive but 100 minerals and 100 gas is quite a lot if you’re going to opt for creating one early game. However, its harrassment and scouting capabilities makes up for that by preventing one-basing players from ending the game early. Even if the enemy isn’t a one-basing player, it can still be useful for harassing the workers. However, this is mostly effective against a Terran due to the fact that Zergs will most probably have a Queen by the time the Mothership Core reaches his or her base.

This unit is absolutely useful and highly suggested for Protoss players to incorporate into their strategies.

Oracle

The Oracle is available at the Stargate at 150 minerals, 150 gas and 3 psi. They’re a flying caster unit whose only attack, Pulsar Beam, costs 25 energy to activate and drains 1.4 energy per second it is activated. It only does 15dmg per attack but at an attack speed of .85. While the Oracle doesn’t really fare well in large scale battles, it is quite useful for harassing enemy workers in place of the Mothership Core due to the fact that more than one can be built. It’s also worth mentioning that one Oracle can kill an SCV in two shots with no weapon upgrades.

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It has an ability called Revelation which grants vision to enemy units and structures within a targeted area for a full minute. I found this especially useful as an aid for microing around chasing enemies, especially Speedling flanks.

Envision allows the Oracle to become a detector for 30 seconds. While it can be argued that having an Observer would be more useful in situations that require it, the Oracle is created in the Stargate and does not require an existing Fleet Beacon which costs another 300 minerals and 200 gas.

Tempest

The Tempest is by far my favorite new addition to the Protoss unit roster. Originally introduced as a replacement for the Carrier, the Tempest is also a slow moving, heavy hitting unit that relies on a secondary forward army. They cost 300 minerals, 200 gas and 4 psi which is 50 less for the Carrier (350 mineral, 250 gas) and require a Fleet Beacon to be built. They also take significantly less time to build (60 seconds) compared to the Carrier (140 seconds), the catch is that Tempests can only attack one targeted unit or structure at a time.

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The Tempest is technically built as an anti-air unit with 30dmg dealt to normal air and ground units and 85dmg to major air units including the Colossi. However, even in a situation that does not demand anti-air measures, the Tempest can still be extremely useful for providing supporting fire for a forward army. This is due to the fact that its range (15) is unbelievable long. So far, units with the longest range in StarCraft 2 are Siege Tanks on Siege mode (13) and the Thor’s anti-air attack (10).

Existing units

Void Rays suffered a massive change in Heart of the Swarm, both positive and negative. Their charging feature has been completely removed and has been replaced by an activated ability called Prismatic Alignment which has a 60 second cooldown. This causes the Void Ray to fully charge its rays for 20 seconds. This new ability can either be an advantage or disadvantage depending on how you look at it. With Prismatic Alignment, you no longer need to charge your Void Rays via attacking nearby neutral structures or your own army’s shields. On the other hand, they will only be fully powered during an attack for 20 seconds then you’ll have to wait another full minute to charge them up again.

Sky Toss

With a highly improved Stargate, all-in strategies become more viable. The Void Ray’s Prismatic Alignment removes some risk in committing into an all-in attack. In a full scale battle against an army that includes Void Rays, its either you retreat for 20 seconds while Prismatic Alignment is activated and suffer losses to your army or you die.

The Mothership Core’s Mass Recall also enables the Protoss to have better map control as well as giving the option of retreating from an attack.

As for the Tempest, it is basically a massive flying siege unit and even though it does take up quite a lot of supply, as long as it is supported by a sufficient army it can do incredible amounts of damage.

Early game defense for the Protoss has been given a massive boost with the Mothership Core’s Photon Overcharge ability which essentially turns the the Nexus into a Planetary Nexus for a certain amount of time.

It can be argued that the Protoss got the better end of the stick in Heart of the Swarm.

zeg

Swarm Host

The Swarm Host is a burrowable unit that spawns slow moving melee units called Locust Minions at no cost. They require an Intestation Pit to be built and cost 200 minerals, 100 gas, 3 control. Like the Widow Mine, they are absolutely useless when mobile. When burrowed, each Swarm Host spawns 2 Locust Minions that only live for 15 seconds (25 seconds with upgrade) every 25 seconds which do 12dmg at 3 range with .8 attack speed.

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Swarm Hosts is incredibly useful as an offensive siege unit. Positioning them right outside the enemy base can keep them locked in provided that they are accompanied by a supporting army. This buys more time for the Zerg to gain map control all the while forcing the enemy to turtle.

Viper

The Viper is an armored flying caster unit with absolutely no native attack. They cost 100 minerals, 200 minerals, 3 control and require a Hive to be evolved in order to be spawned. They have absolutely no native attack so their usage comes from their three abilities, all of which have no cooldown.

Consume allows the Viper to convert the health of friendly structures into energy. It deals 200dmg to the target structure over 20 seconds and restores 50 energy to the Viper. This ability is very  useful for defending the base as well as expansions.

Abduct is by far the most useful ability the Viper has. When activated, the targeted enemy unit gets pulled towards the Viper’s position. It has a range of 9, costs 75 energy and can pull in Siege Tanks or even massive units like the Colossi. Though it does absolutely no damage, it gives the Zerg army the option of gaining better positional advantage during a battle.

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The last ability is an AoE ability called Blinding Cloud. The Viper creates a cloud for 14 seconds that reduces enemy attack range significantly. However, it affects both enemy as well as friendly units.

Existing units

Seeing as Heart of the Swarm is centered on the Zerg race, it only makes sense that Blizzard should revamp them. The Zerg underwent plenty of changes, most of which are positive, to their existing units, structures and upgrades. The Burrow ability no longer needs a Lair to be researched and Spore Crawlers no longer need an Evolution Chamber to be spawned. This is due to the Protoss’ improved Stargate as well as the Terran Medivac’s Ignite Afterburners ability.

Hydralisks now has an upgrade called Muscular Augments which increases their movement speed by 25% when off creep.

Mutalisks got significantly buffed as they now regenerate HP at 1 per second. Their movement speed has also been increased to 4. This makes worker harassment more effective and less time consuming.

The Infestor’s Fungal Growth ability is now a skill-shot, meaning the enemy player can now micro to avoid it instead of just being doomed from the start. However, the actual speed of the skill shot is quite fast so it’s actually really hard to dodge it.

The most changed of the Zerg’s existing units is the Ultralisks. They are insanely strong now with 35dmg per swing regardless whether the enemy unit is armored or light. This completely changes the dynamic when going against a mass army of light units like Marines or Zealots. In Wings of Liberty, Ultralisks only dealt 15dmg to light units and 35 to armored.

Micro-heavy

The new units give the Zerg better positional advantage in full scale and small scale battles. With the introduction of the Viper and its Abduct ability, Zergs no longer have to be that cautious against Siege Tanks. The only catch here is that the Viper is built like a caster unit. This means that the Zerg player will have to raise his or her APM to compensate for the Zerg’s new unit abilities. On top of controlling the forward army, you need to make sure the Vipers are microed properly else the Siege Tanks are yanked towards the wrong position at the wrong time.

Swarm Hosts make mid-game pushes significantly better for the Zerg. I found that as soon if the Zerg happens to park a couple of Swarm Hosts outside your base, its damn near impossible to break through and win the game at the same time. The longer you spend locked in the base, the bigger the Zerg’s inactive army will be. Even if you manage to amass a sufficient enough army to bust through the Swarm Hosts, there will be too many casualties to take on the main army.

The new units as well as the changes to existing units offer the Zerg even more strategic options and unit compositions. There have already been a number of new strategies that are widely used in 1v1 multiplayer. For example, the combination of Brood Lords and Swarm Host can give the Zerg superior ground control. That, coupled with some anti-air support, can obliterate most army compositions in any race.

Interface and gameplay

There are a few very noticeable changes in the gameplay of Heart of the Swarm.

When the game starts in multiplayer, the workers automatically start gathering minerals. This is a great new feature as it compensates for lag. It also somewhat helps balance the game in the sense that players no longer need to split their gatherers in the hopes of getting ahead by at least a second.

Instead of having to highlight your whole workforce to make sure you’re up to par with your economy, there is now a small HUD showing how many gatherers you have for both resources. This saves plenty of time and makes keeping track of your economic growth far more efficient.

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There are also two new tabs with shortcuts that comprise your idle workforce and another that covers your whole active army. While most players will still find the use of control groups more convenient, its still a handy feature to have in game.

Social and Ladder improvements

Ladder anxiety is a very common thing amongst StarCraft 2 players, especially when it comes to 1v1. Many feel  that there is too much pressure that comes with going against a player with absolutely no teammates to fall back on. From personal experience, losing a 1v1 match in such a competetive atmosphere such as StarCraft 2 really does takes its toll on the ego.

Blizzard has addressed this situation by introducing several new modes in the hopes of helping people get over their ladder anxiety and ultimately bring in more players into the ladder.

There is now Training Mode which is split between three stages that help the beginner player be more familiar with multiplayer-style playing.

Unranked ladder has also been introduced which feels a lot more effective in terms of improving your playstyle without the worry of losses affecting your ranking.

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What I found quite strange was the “Leave League” option in ranked matches. This enables you to leave the current league you are in then let you redo all your placement matches. However, leaving your league doesn’t reset your MMR so even if you do slightly better in your placement matches, you’ll likely still be placed in the same league. The only difference is that you’ll be placed in a different division so your ranking within that division will probably change. This may sound like an absolutely useless option but if, for example, a player is on the edge of getting promoted but cannot seem to advance due to his or her current division then perhaps doing all five placement matches again will do the trick. Of course, there is still a higher risk of getting demoted once again if the player’s MMR decreases in the next league.

Another huge improvement is the fact that you can now resume a prematurely ended game from its replay. This is great for tournaments where there is often prize money at stake. Replays can also be viewed by more than one person at a time which can be used as an effective way for clans to re-evaluate their strategies or just a way to enjoy watching a previous match with your friends.

Clan tags are also available now for players which means that you will no longer need to use up or pay for a name change if you happen to leave a clan.

Perhaps the biggest change in StarCraft 2‘s social features is the move to Global Play. This basically strips away any sort of region restrictions in the servers allowing players to hop from server to server. This is absolutely essential to the growth of StarCraft 2 in the e-Sports community if they want to compete with other massive e-Sports titles like League of Legends or DotA2.

Launch

With the release coming on March 12th, Blizzard has announced that the multiplayer beta of Heart of the Swarm will be closing two weeks before launch on March 1st.

Blizzard has already unveiled the Heart of the Swarm launch event site. There will be several launch events across the world sponsored by Blizzard themselves which all include meeting members of the StarCraft 2 development team.

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is available for pre-order for £30 here.