StarCraft 2 has come a long way since the release of Wings of Liberty in 2010.

It is safe to say that the single-player campaign of StarCraft 2 is not the most highly anticipated aspect of the game. The top reason people buy StarCraft 2 is not to find out what Kerrigan and Jim are up to in the Koprulu Sector but to climb that tall and intimidating multiplayer ladder.

As an eSports title, it is natural that StarCraft 2 is constantly being patched and balanced. It never stays the same as new features are constantly being added while existing features are constantly being improved. With Heart of the Swarm comes a revolutionized and highly improved StarCraft 2 that directly caters to a growing community.

Multiplayer

It is important to note that the multiplayer review was written from the perspective of a Terran player. All observations made about the other two races are based on my experience playing against them in the ladder.

The official release of Heart of the Swarm hasn’t seen that many major changes unseen in the beta phase. (Check out our in-depth Heart of the Swarm beta preview for reference)

Aside from some minor balancing tweaks, Heart of the Swarm multiplayer gameplay retains mostly the same dynamic as it had during the beta phase.

In a nutshell, Terran has seen improvements in early game due to the introduction of the Spider mine which makes for a very effective and powerful defensive unit that can also be used in offensive drops. The fact that they are relatively cheap and are available quite early enables the Terran to expand with added safety.

The new units dictate that Terran has more viable bio-mech builds. The Armory upgrade for air and land mech armor has been merged into a single upgrade, there is no more need to upgrade siege mode for Siege Tanks and the Thor now has a new ability that makes it stronger against air (great for mutalisks). Despite the improvements focused on mechs, the Terran bio units have also gained a better advantage due to the Medivacs new Ignite Afterburners build which temporarily gives it a movement speed bonus making for more effective drops and better chances of escape.

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The zerg, as the central race in Heart of the Swarm, underwent the most changes out of all three races. As stated in the HotS preview published last month, the zerg have a far “better positional advantage in full scale and small scale battles.” With the introduction of the Viper, zergs no longer have to be as cautious around Siege Tanks. However, despite being an incredibly useful unit, I haven’t seen many zerg players employ Vipers probably because they are very micro-heavy as full on caster unit.

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My favorite addition to the zerg unit roster so far is the Swarm Host, the first ever zerg siege unit. A massive army of Swarm Hosts parked outside your base, assuming backed up with a supporting army, proves to be one of the most annoying strategies I’ve ever come across. Swarm Hosts force you to turtle into your base aiding in the zerg’s ultimate goal of gaining map control.  However, Swarm Hosts are more of a situational unit; not a unit you would make every match. They are designed to weaken an enemy’s defense but as long as you have a sufficient army to take them down, it is only a matter of pushing forward while the Swarm Host’s locusts are in cooldown.

The Protoss got the best deal out of all the races in Heart of the Swarm. The Mothership core and/or Oracle early game worker harrass, if successful, drastically puts back the enemy and allows the Protoss to opt for a late game win with air units. What I find slightly imbalanced are the Tempests which has an incredibly long range and extremely hard to counter. In my experience, I found that the only way to counter Tempests is to keep the Protoss from creating Tempests in the first place. The Tempest’s range is so insanely long that I can’t even see the full range on my 1920×1080 monitor.

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The Protoss also have better early game defense with the introduction of the Mothership Core’s Photon Overcharge which makes the Nexus into, basically, a Planetary Nexus. However, because of the fact that Photon Overcharge is available, most players will not opt for a rush against the Protoss.

Players are starting to steadily incorporate early worker harassment with the use of Oracles. Oracles are able to two-shot SCVs so slow reaction to crisis can cost you quite a few workers and any minor setbacks to the economy during early game will always hinder progress.

Perhaps the biggest advancement Heart of the Swarm introduced was the advent of Global Play which allows players to hop from server to server. Back in the Wings of Liberty days, regional copies had to be purchased in order to play with people in other regions. As much as I love Global Play, I’m a bit annoyed that I previously purchased a North American and a South-east Asian copy on top of my EU.

After playing a few months of Heart of the Swarm beta, it is safe to say that playing after launch is definitely a lot easier. Now that there are more players in the ladder, the skill level relative to the rankings have changed completely.

Ladder Anxiety

Blizzard has addressed the issue of ladder anxiety amongst beginner players. In Wings of Liberty, the only way to practice a real 1v1 match without the pressure of losing MMR was through custom games. Heart of the Swarm offers the new unranked matchmaking feature that lets players find a quick game without having to go through the custom game lobby.

Unranked Matches feel a lot more relaxed than the usual Ranked game and it lets you brush up on your tactics without any pressure or risk of falling down the leaderboard.

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It’s never enough for beginners to simply attempt to refine their multiplayer skills by practicing with unranked matches. Most of the time, most lower league matches are lost due to bad macro skills and/or unfamiliarity with popular builds. While there is no substitute other than solid practice when it comes to improving macro, countering widely used builds is something you can choose to practice as there is no guarantee exactly which build the opponent will execute.

The latest patch to the Heart of the Swarm introduced a highly customizable AI paving the way for better practice in a more controlled environment. Custom game AIs can now be ordered to execute a specific build order that enable the player to polish his or her build counters.

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Perhaps the greatest addition to the solution to keep ladder anxiety to a minimum is the Take Command function in replays. Heart of the Swarm has taken watching replays as research to a new level by allowing players to resume control at any point during the replay. Not only does this help ease ladder anxiety by helping players improve their skills but it can also be used to settle prematurely ended tournament matches. It is especially useful in making things more fair for tournaments where plenty of cash is at stake.

Heart of the Swarm‘s move to minimize ladder anxiety will ultimately bring in more players to the ladder which, in turn, will most probably introduce new builds thereby improving the overall multiplayer experience.

Rewards and levels

Heart of the Swarm introduced a new multiplayer race specific leveling system that just makes climbing the ladder so much more satisfying and rewarding. You gain XP by basically doing anything at all, even losing a match. Of course, a win yields more XP than a loss does but the fact that the game rewards you by simply playing makes multiplayer a more enjoyable experience. XP is earned even by just making a unit or building a structure. Late games are also encouraged by granting XP to those who play longer games regardless of the outcome. You also gain +25% XP if you play with a friend.

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Back during Wings of Liberty, collecting portraits was tough business. The wins needed in between each portrait reward grew so if you’re having a bad playthrough, you get stuck with the low level portraits. Heart of the Swarm, on the other hand, rewards you with a new portrait every three levels for each race. Of course, these portraits are just for show and don’t give you any positive or negative perks whatsoever but I feel that it is another step closer to solving the ladder anxiety problem. Players need constant positive reinforcement in order for them to be more confident in their skills. At least with Heart of the Swarm, players can keep track of their progress and at the same time see how far they’ve surpassed themselves since they started.

Aside from portraits, there are also several new decals as well as unit animations and skins. The skin rewards are few and require a minimum race level of 20 to unlock. Again, they’re purely superficial but I cannot deny that special feeling whenever the enemy scouts and sees my pimped out supply depots.

The score summary sheet has also undergone a massive change. It is far more informative now as it shows your average unspent resources, time spend supply capped, number of workers created and actions-per-minute. This is useful for improving your macro skills by constantly attempting to break your previous record.

Arcade

Arcade mode lets players browse through user-created games made through the StarCraft 2 Map Editor. Battle.net custom game mods have always garnered some really strange games.

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There are of course, an ever growing number of different tower defense games but there are also some strange ones like StarDodgeBall, a micro-heavy dodgeball game and BarCraft, a turn-based card game. The quality of the games vary with some seemingly created half-assed. However, there are games like SC Universe: Chronicles of Fate, the highly anticipated user-created MMO, that are just so massive it’s hard to believe they were created with a mere map editor.

Heart of the Swarm‘s new additions to the unit roster and the new single-player campaign are not the most significant improvements to StarCraft. Solutions to ladder anxiety and a more connected community are what made the newest expansion worth getting.

Check out our review of the single-player campaign of StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm here.