(Minor spoilers ahead.)
Sarah Kerrigan sits in a high-security research lab, obediently following Prince Valerian’s instructions. To assess how much of the Zerg mutagen is left in her system, he asks her to psionically control a drone in a chamber nearby. This is, of course, the tutorial mission, but there’s more going on here than a lesson in unit control. Kerrigan does as she’s told, but her tone is dangerously apathetic. “You know this is going to end badly, right?” she says. There’s a hint of laughter in her words, condescending and bored. Valerian is not the one in control here.
When will these people ever learn that underestimating Kerrigan is a very stupid idea?
In my review of the tie-in novel StarCraft II: Flashpoint, I expressed concern that the Heart of the Swarm expansion might portray Kerrigan either as a one-note revenge junkie or a lit fuse who needs others to reign her in. Luckily, both of these worries were waylaid early on. Kerrigan is back, and she’s better than ever. The Xel’Naga artifact in Wings of Liberty restored her human body and her free will, but she is not the Sarah Kerrigan she was before. Heading back to the Swarm takes only a nudge, and she enjoys her role as queen far too much to suggest that she would’ve left on her own. But she isn’t going back to being a Zerg puppet, either. She’s her own person, and majorly pissed off to boot, ready to raze nations and salt creep the earth. I was totally down with that.
The combat stilettos and butt-enhancing armor are predictably silly (could there be worse footwear for walking around a squishy living ship?), but thankfully, Kerrigan’s actions speak louder than her wardrobe. As she tears around the galaxy, grabbing control of the splintered broods, she makes it damn clear that they are following her rules this time around. Anyone who argues is sent back in pieces. Few let it come to that. They are in awe of her. They adore her. Zerglings bow their heads when she approaches. A broodmother who longs to seize control of the Swarm for herself tells Kerrigan outright that while she hopes to kill her one day, she still has far too much to learn from her. Kerrigan is better than all of them, and they know it. She knows it. And yet, behind the rage and the ruthless calculus, she has a deep, unabiding love for them. She is monarch and mother both.
This is a Saturday afternoon popcorn movie of a game, the kind of story that is bucketloads of fun if you don’t ask too many questions and can forgive the cheesy dialogue. And, actually, the cheese is part of the charm. Blizzard’s always had a knack for melodrama, and backhanded compliment though this is, there’s something to be said for a game that’s so enjoyable that you stop caring about lines like “I can feel your hatred shining like a star!” It’s fine. It’s StarCraft, just as it has always been. Smile, nod, and accept the space magic.
The weakest points, by far, are whenever Jim Raynor shows up. I confess a bias, in that I’ve never found him to be a compelling character, but there’s more to it than that. I get that Raynor is meant to represent Kerrigan’s ties to humanity, and in principle showing her wrestling with where her allegiances lie makes for some interesting conflict. But she already does that on her own. There are some great moments where Kerrigan shows mercy where the old Queen of Blades would’ve mowed everyone down. The optional conversations with her inner circle present a satisfying array of moral philosophies, and it’s through them that we really see her asserting her own identity. We don’t need Raynor to understand that Kerrigan has her soul back, especially given how their scenes together play out. Kerrigan doesn’t seem conflicted when speaking to Raynor; instead, she seems jarringly out of character. I stopped believing her whenever he was sharing the camera. On her own, Kerrigan is marvelous and terrifying, everything a conquering queen should be. Around Raynor, she’s morose and unfocused. For a character whose primary drive is interplanetary warfare to come undone whenever her ex-boyfriend drops by, that relationship has to be one hell of a love story. It’s not. It was barely hinted at in the original game, and I never bought the way it was tacked on in Wings of Liberty. There is more emotional punch in an early scene between Kerrigan and a stray Zergling than there ever is between her and her supposed best beloved. Though I enjoyed Kerrigan throughout the rest of the game, she would’ve been stronger without Raynor.
However, there is a Raynor scene that makes me think of something Heart of the Swarm does rather well. There was an article by Jim Sterling at Destructoid earlier this week that tore into the publishers who balked at the female protagonist in the upcoming game Remember Me. In the article, Sterling points out that it’s rare for playable female characters to be shown kissing men, which implies that they’re not granted full agency. But Kerrigan does! Kerrigan kisses Raynor, and it’s one of the many little moments in which we see that this game isn’t even remotely afraid to cast the player in a female role. Above all else, the game wants you to know that you are Kerrigan, and she is a badass. The player is constantly addressed during combat as “my queen,” and it’s mindboggling to imagine getting so hung up on pronouns or smooches that such things would prevent you from feeling like an absolute boss when strolling through smoldering city gates with a cadre of ultralisks at your back.
As is no surprise for a Blizzard game, the mechanics do an excellent job of complementing the story. Kerrigan is just the right amount of overpowered—brutal enough to make you cackle maniacally, but never to the point of making things a cakewalk. Just like the upgrades in Wings of Liberty, the Zerg all have mutually exclusive evolution paths, which allow you to customize your units to suit your own playstyle (the Raptors-vs-Swarmlings debate will outlive us all, I’m sure). Whether you prefer meticulous strategizing or brute force, Heart of the Swarm will give you all the toys you need. While I can’t speak to the multiplayer, the single-player campaign is crazy good fun, and I say that as someone who generally doesn’t enjoy real-time strategy (that is perhaps the highest praise I can give the StarCraft franchise—it is the only title in its genre that I enthusiastically make an exception for). Each mission keeps you on your toes, always mixing it up just enough to keep things feeling fresh, but letting you build upon what you’ve already learned. It’s the same old StarCraft formula, but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It’s not a game for everybody, but having grown up with the franchise, this is the expansion I’ve wanted ever since Brood War ended. Kerrigan has returned to her rightful place. The Terrans fled in panic. I sat laughing at them. Everything is as it should be.