Spoiler alert: This review assumes that you have played SC2: Wings of Liberty (WoL) and attempts to avoid spoilers for Heart of the Swarm (HotS) unless related to a content advisory.
StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty was a story ending in redemption, but Heart of the Swarm, the expansion, starts with revenge. After being restored partially from her Queen of Blades form, Kerrigan struggles with her identity as both human and Zerg. This identity crisis shows itself when Kerrigan reassumes her role as the leader of the Swarm and cannot act as cold-heartedly as her fully Zerg advisors would suggest. By almost any metric, however, Kerrigan remains the bloodthirsty commander she was supposedly redeemed from in the previous game.
Gameplay wise, little has changed from SC2 WoL except for the primary race you control: Zerg. Many missions require the base building and micromanagement that the series is known for. Thankfully, the single player game provides a wide variety of mission types; one mission involves sneaking around an enemy ship while another involves building up a base and throwing every available unit against the enemy. This gameplay variety greatly adds to the pacing of the game. In some missions, I even saw the influence of the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre as continuously spawning allies help you to progress forward. Additionally, most missions have secondary goals and achievements that could greatly affect the approach you take to complete the mission, such as making you complete the mission's goals really fast or not taking damage as Kerrigan. Since completing the secondary goals increases Kerrigan’s power, they are seldom missed because of the huge benefit they provide.
Outside of the traditional StarCraft missions, HotS adopted a similar single player campaign structure as WoL: Kerrigan flies around the galaxy aboard her Leviathan (a huge, flying Zerg airship) and speaks with her advisors between missions. Besides conversing with your Zerg crew, you can also evolve your units to become more powerful in between missions. While some of the evolutions are unoriginal damage and health increases, some are far more substantial and can completely change how a unit is used. These larger evolutions have their own tutorial-like missions that showcase the power of the mutations. Once a decision is made on which substantial evolution to take, it is irreversible. Additionally, Kerrigan’s powers can also be chosen in between levels and can be activated abilities or passive boosts (like overlords, which usually take a while to create, can be built instantly). Even though many choices can be made, only a few are irreversible and so many players will be satisfied with a single play through of the single player campaign.
However, most players will be buying HotS for the multiplayer. Many features of the multiplayer are carried over from WoL: three distinct races, macro-management through base building and resource allocation, and micromanagement through unit control in and out of battles. A few highlights of the changes from this time tested formula in HotS are as follows: new units have been added to each race, experience is gained from each match played that unlocks rewards, custom game finding has been enhanced, and replays can be interrupted and resumed from any point. Also, I found a bunch of really convenient little tweaks have been made to make it easier to see how many drones are mining minerals for a given hatchery or vespene gas from a geyser.
The best of the aforementioned multiplayer features is the inclusion of new units. From Protoss’ new mothership core to Terran’s widow mine, Blizzard added compelling units that add a great deal of new tactics to the game. Even in my relatively few matches played, I noticed how the new units refreshed the traditional SC2 experience for me. While the new units don’t shake up the SC2 formula too much, they didn’t have to. The other features may or may not be important to players. For example, the new experience system will be fun for those that love to get rewards (like new unit skins or dances) as they play more games, but meaningless for those that don’t care about purely aesthetic unlockables. Even though the “take-command” feature is innovative and cool, I feel that it will only be used in certain circumstances that many players will never encounter unless they deliberately try to. Therefore, SC2 HotS definitely iterates rather than revolutionizes the SC2 formula, but that is what many would argue an expansion should do.
I found the story of HotS to be really entertaining as long as I didn't take it too seriously. Even in my first playthrough of the campaign, I noticed a dozen plot holes and discrepancies but they don't really matter. While the story hits the note of revenge a bit too much for my taste, it does a good job of showing Kerrigan's progression as a character. It also manages to set the game up nicely for the 2nd expansion, Legacy of the Void, without feeling like it ended on a horrible cliffhanger.
Graphically, the game looks marginally better than WoL, but Blizzard’s legendary level of polish is evident in every small animation, cool psionic ability effect, and outrageously overproduced cutscenes (that's a good thing!). On the highest graphical settings, the game looks good for a real time strategy game, but is definitely not meant to directly compete with graphical powerhouses like the Crysis series. In fact, after seeing characters aboard the leviathan or in the CGI cutscenes, the graphics on the actual battlefield are a substantial let down. That being said, animations across the board are fluid and believable. I also found myself noticing the many subtle movements of the characters and creatures that really added to the immersion of the game. Finally, the CGI cutscenes were amazing and gave a great sense of scale to the game’s intergalactic conflict.
In the sound department, HotS is hit or miss. Some of the voice acting is over the top, but I personally enjoyed it. The voice work done for both Protoss and Zerg characters (not including Kerrigan) can feel a bit stereotypical and gimmicky. I would have liked to see more Protoss and Zerg characters that have compelling personalities or backstories to flesh out more of the vast SC2 universe. The lack of depth for the Zerg and Protoss characters was highlighted when any of the human characters showed up. The voice acting for the human characters was leagues better than the others. While I enjoyed Abathur’s evolve-and-optimize-to-the-extreme personality, his voice acting kept him at a shallow character and this sentiment carried over to most of the alien cast.
Kerrigan states early in the game that “there is no moral highground,” which perfectly describes her moral descent as she pursues her quest for revenge. As the queen of the Zerg army, the player directs an army that destroys Terran and Protoss settlements in order to evolve and progress in the game. While Kerrigan provides some “heart” and moral conscience to the otherwise vicious swarm, she can’t prevent them from capturing and experimenting on a Protoss woman. Additionally, some of the Protoss and Terran killed are colonists that were not directly posing a threat to Kerrigan. Abathur, one of Kerrigan’s allies, experiments on other living creatures with cold detachment. Cutscenes depict a variety of violence; one depicts a marine with metal pipes sticking through his body and is killed by Kerrigan’s psionic powers. Blood effects can be turned off in the options menu, but the CGI cutscenes are not affected. Magic-like psyonic powers are used by many characters in the game. Some dialogue is suggestive and contains phrases like “I thought you liked it rough.” Characters do say curse words like d*** and s**t, but do not say the f word. Lastly, Kerrigan wears a form-fitting ghost suit that greatly accentuates her curves. Another ghost, Nova, wears a similar outfit. Later in the game, Kerrigan transforms and has a new outfit that is made out of Zerg flesh and is very form fitting and could be considered partial nudity.
In the end, HotS was a greatly enjoyable ride with a lot of questionable content. The story of revenge was really dark, but it did a great job of showing how the Zerg think and gave them more personality than you would think they could have. Unfortunately, HotS has a large price tag for those that aren't that interested in the single player campaign. For those that can accept the moral content, I would recommend this game to real-time strategy fans.