Are you prepared to liberate the galaxy in the name of protecting these most noble of virtues? All across the proud and majestic lands of Super Earth young men and women like you are signing up to do their part in defending our most sacred values. Among your peers are even a select few who will make the cut – displaying courage, honor, and raw combat prowess – to become Super Earth's finest: the Helldivers™.
Do you have what it takes to join them?
Whether or not you do, you're going to want to. Helldivers™ is, hands down, the most fun I've had in a multiplayer game in a long time. I know that a statement like that is saying a lot, and, even so, I'm not afraid to say it; because, this is certainly a title I feel deserves it. Still, I'm not here to provide mindless adulation, and there are a number of qualities that make this a title worthy of the praise I have for it.
To begin, then, it is important to know that Helldivers™ comes from the same people who brought us the Magicka series, and in some respects, shares a few qualities with those games. This is especially noticeable in aesthetics and the way special abilities and equipment are summoned, but aesthetics is what I would like to focus on first. Those who have played Magicka will be aware of the somewhat cartoonish aesthetic the series has, with bright colors, exaggerated proportions, and a generally light-hearted look, and Helldivers™ shares this aesthetic to a point. The title carries over the use of simple, colorful textures and flashy effects, while simultaneously toning down the saturation a bit and shedding some of the exaggeration in anatomical proportion to adopt a somewhat more serious look. However, this tone change is only slight, and feels more like a shift from a joke made with overt, zany silliness to the one in the dryer realm of cynical wit.
That is an important point, too, because by and large Helldivers™ is a game that has a social commentary. It’s mostly in the fluff and cinematics, of course, but there are little bits of it here and there in the game proper: many of the weapons have names that smack of what I can only call militant patriotism, and sometimes, the helldivers will spout action movie one-liners after a particularly good shot or kill, and these are almost always about liberty, freedom, and Super Earth. The whole game is littered with these little propagandisms about the greatness of Super Earth and their efforts in the galaxy, and the barbarity and “wrong-thinking” of the hostile races. That this is all continually proven to be unyieldingly hypocritical was unsurprising for such obvious satire, but got a chuckle from me nonetheless. I do have to call the satire obvious, because it’s so in your face it can’t be missed, but I get the impression that this, itself, is an intentional homage to the heavy-handed satire of Starship Troopers, a film from which Helldivers™ does seem to take a few inspirations (the insectoid enemies are even called Bugs).
Speaking of inspiration, I found it difficult not to draw comparisons to Starcraft as well, and in this there is a good opportunity to talk about how the Helldivers™ works from a gameplay perspective. There are three hostile races to fight against: the human offshoot Cyborgs, the robust and numerous Bugs, and the physically vulnerable, but technologically powerful Illuminate. This trio is an obvious nod to the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss of Starcraft fame, and each adopt a similar style of combat to the race they are modeled after. To meet these foes the player takes the roll of one of the titular helldivers – an elite cadre of orbital drop troopers – who are deployed deep in enemy territory to accomplish difficult or sensitive missions under constant enemy interference.
The actual play experience takes place primarily in this role of being dropped into a hostile environment to accomplish a number of different objectives, but also branches out to include the downtime between missions. This intermission time is spent onboard one of the helldivers’ drop-ships, which functions in-game as an interesting mix of menu and multiplayer lobby. On the ship, each player can manage their character’s weapons, hardware and perks (spending research points to upgrade them in various ways), check an encyclopedia to find backstory lore for the Helldivers™ universe and information on the stats and abilities of previously encountered enemy unit types, join an online game, or select a planet and mission to run.
The mission system is of particular interest. Each hostile race has its own section of the galaxy that it controls and where missions may be run against it, but what makes the experience interesting is the metagame that encapsulates this galaxy. Each race’s section is broken up into individual sub-sectors that each have their own varied set of worlds, which can be conquered by players completing missions on them. As worlds are conquered new worlds can be unlocked and influence points are added to the pool of influence for that sector. When enough influence is achieved in a sector, an assault can be made on a final key world, whereupon success will conquer the whole sector in the name of Super Earth and unlock the next sector for play. If all of a hostile race’s sectors are conquered one final assault can be made on their homeworld, and success there will remove that race from play for the remainder of the war. In other words, Helldivers™ possesses a living, player influenced galaxy.
In addition to advancing the overall metagame in the living galaxy, success on planetary missions will net players unlockable rewards in the form of new hardware, abilities, or experience bonuses with more difficult worlds providing better rewards. Additionally successful missions will provide experience points dependent on the degree of success and difficulty, and leveling up will grant access to research points, new weapons, perks, and cosmetic armor sets, all of which are separate from planetary conquest unlocks. Together, these systems provide a deep and robust architecture for character building, which makes the choice between selecting missions for immediate unlockable rewards and the potential for faster experiential advancement something worth consideration. Saying this, Helldivers™ can be quite difficult, and so sometimes opting for the better payout of a more difficult world can be all but impossible to solo players.
Speaking of solo play, it’s safe to say that, with the living galaxy and overall ease of hopping in to a multiplayer run, Helldivers™ is an unapologetically multiplayer centric experience.
This is not necessarily bad, but working with other players ramps up the hectic nature of play rapidly, as friendly fire is always a concern, and it’s surprisingly easy to kill an ally with an orbital supply drop, as their landing coordinates are not always predictable, and the camera forces the squad to stay relatively near each other at all times. Still, there’s surprisingly little room for abusing friendly fire, because player reputation is actually tracked in game, and a player that causes too much grief will soon find themselves with a slew of reports against them that bar them from playing with anyone but other disreputable players. Additionally, a good team player or helpful individual can be given a commendation, which will raise their reputation, and (to my understanding) it is possible for a player with a bad reputation to raise their rating out of being flagged.
I mentioned how the camera forces the team to stay together, and this is something that will be almost immediately noticed on joining a multiplayer run, because while solo play keeps the camera focused squarely on the player, co-op keeps everyone on screen at the same time, not allowing players to move more than a short distance apart from each other. I found this irritating, at times, and there were a few instances that being forced to stay within the bounds of the team absolutely got me killed in a situation I would have survived in solo. Overall, however, I found that the shared view was surprisingly smooth and well done, and accomplished its goal of ensuring the team worked in unison, and not a series of one-man-armies running around independently on the same map without seeing each other.
This cooperation is especially important, actually, because the player is fundamentally limited by the fact that they can only have one primary weapon and a pistol by default, with limited ammunition. Additionally, some perks seem specifically designed to function in a support role better than a solo role, though even the support perks seemed useful in solo, which impressed me, from a game balancing perspective. Further enticement towards cooperation comes in the form of stratagems. Taking another page from Magicka’s book, these are special abilities and hardware that can be summoned to the battlefield via entering a special key combo and designating a drop point. Each player can select four stratagems before the drop onto the planet, and these can all be different or the same, depending on the player’s plans or anticipated needs. There seem to be many more stratagems than primary weapons or perks, and they run the gamut from simple ammo resupply drops and heavy weapons, to drivable tank and APC deployment, to powerful orbital bombardments. Effective use of stratagems can turn the tide in surprising, often awesome ways, but the catch is that requesting them can leave a helldiver incredibly vulnerable as they try to enter the appropriate key combo, and on harder difficulties this can make their use almost impossible without friendly cover.
Providing that cover is fairly fun, however, because a primary focus of a game like this is absolutely the weaponry and Helldivers™ delivers in spades. All the weapons I was able to get my hands on (again, they have to be earned by leveling up) had great feel to them, and really gave the impression of powerful weaponry being used where it was absolutely needed. Furthermore, while there are many more stratagems than weapons, the weapon selection is nothing to shake a stick at, and they all feel fairly unique, which is only accentuated by the upgrades that can be added to each, effectively letting the player kit them out as they like in order to suite their play style. On top of this the weapons feel well balanced, and in ways I was legitimately surprised had been considered. For instance, the Breaker shotgun is incredibly powerful and satisfying on a visceral level, even having a fair range (for a shotgun), but this also makes it incredibly dangerous to allies, and more than once while using it I accidentally delivered a one hit kill to a player that moved in an unexpected direction.
Something entirely expected, however, is the music choice for Helldivers™, which consists of marches and anthems filled with the kind of over-the-top pomp and circumstance expected from the hyper-nationalistic Super Earth. It’s good, but not much to write home about, and definitely plays a minor role versus the sound design of the enemies and the weaponry, which is much more prevalent and satisfying. Heavy weapons sound appropriately dangerous and powerful, enemies sound alien and fierce, and explosions pack just the right kind of oomph. Sound design definitely isn’t the selling point of Helldivers™, but it’s a nice cherry on top of an already great experience, and really brought me into proper immersion.
I believe I can safely say that Helldivers™ might be the most enthralling game I have had the joy to play since Space Engineers (for very different reasons, of course). To put it shortly, this is a very strong title with incredible, innovative gameplay elements, solid multiplayer, and a smooth yet visceral game-feel to rival the best in the business. Arrowhead Game Studios have outdone themselves with a sometimes funny, always fun tactical team-based shooter that, in my opinion, just might be a must play. Even at its weakest, Helldivers™ is a force to be reckoned with.