A solitary marine looks across a battlefield surrounded by carcasses, both human and alien, shrapnel from fallen tanks embedded in the ground alongside shards of glowing, foreign technology. As a member of the Terran Dominion’s army, his job is to defend his people from any threat: resistance, invasion from a hostile race of technologically advanced religious fanatics (the Protoss) — that sort of thing. No amount of training prepared him for what was to come next. A rumbling in the distance, the sound of thousands of claws steadfastly advancing forward, is his only indication that millions of beings bred and built for universal domination are closing in on him under orders from their queen.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X
Blizzard Entertainment

This is a familiar situation for anyone who has entertained even a passing interest in the “StarCraft” series. One of today’s most popular real-time strategy games and a pillar of eSports, “StarCraft” has evolved over the last 15 years into a worldwide sensation, with hundreds of thousands of fans tuning in to major tournaments where professional players pick their race of choice in one-on-one tests of skill.

“Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm,” the second expansion in the “Starcraft II” trilogy, brings the chaos of total war to single and multiplayer. The campaign follows the series’s epic story of love, loss, betrayal and intrigue. Players control Sarah Kerrigan as she uses a never-ending army of nightmarish extraterrestrial monsters — the Zerg — to exact justice on the people of the Terran Dominion and its leader. Having transformed from a Ghost — the futuristic equivalent of a psychic SWAT member — to the Queen of Blades, Sarah aims to reunite every faction of the Zerg into her hate-fueled regime.

The 27-mission, single-player storyline is expertly crafted, with excitement at every turn. Players find themselves confronting threats, both new and ancient, and have to use every weapon in Kerrigan’s arsenal to come out on top. Brimming with high-quality cutscenes, writing and acting, it’s an enrapturing story with incredible replay value: Four difficulty levels challenge players at every level, and a wealth of achievements are available to those devoted enough to try and complete them all.

With it, “Heart of the Swarm” brings new units and mechanics to multiplayer. Each race is given new units while having old ones tweaked, creating a number of never-before-seen strategies and army compositions. The professional scene has already (for the most part) switched over to the newest expansion, and the matches are more exciting than ever — new Zerg flyers, Vipers, can pull vulnerable units out of position while locust-birthing Swarm Hosts lay siege to enemy bases; Terran mechanical troops are more fearsome than ever, and the Protoss can take to the skies faster and with more firepower than ever.

Time will tell how well the new strategies fare and evolve in the competitive scene, but for now “Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm” is delivering some of the best real-time strategy gameplay both on and offline.

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