As the final few shells fall away from your rifle, the magazine begins to rattle loudly, letting you know that you’re running low on ammo. Hurling a grenade towards the ceaseless onslaught of insectoid scum in front of you, you drop back and duck behind some trees to reload. As soon as you’ve jammed a new mag into your rifle the bugs are upon you again, and you’re forced back into the fray. You’ve already exhausted your stratagems for this mission, and your squad mates bugged out after the first objective was failed. Just as you feel as though you’re about to be overwhelmed, a signal cuts through the atmosphere: “Lt. CrunkKing96 Joins the Fight!” Super Earth be praised, reinforcements! With renewed vigour, you scramble backwards to put some space between you and the bugs, turning back periodically to fire off a defensive volley. You reach a clear plateau ready to greet CrunkKing69, your comrade in arms, as your saviour from this hell hole – and then his drop pod crushes you to death.
Helldivers isn’t a narrative-driven game, its story is mostly just a framing device for the action, like decoration that’s been thrown across the gore and rifle fire. It’s funny decoration though, and the fact that it isn’t a heavily relied on element means that the devs weren’t at all concerned with being serious about things. I love the twisted world of Helldivers, which is best described as Orwell teaming up with Paul Verhoeven to create Starship Troopers DX: Turbo Xenophobe Edition. Humans have perfected space travel, begun exploring the universe, encountered intelligent alien life and swiftly decided that it needs to die. Moreover, this man’s army is ready to throw as many bodies to the grinder as it will take to steamroll every living thing in sight!
While never largely explored, the story is presented in a number of small ways and each one provides a little insight into the narrative as a whole. While on board your ship, the in-game hub for joining missions and customising your character, a reel will run across the bottom of the screen with “news highlights.” These could be stats like the number of global monster kills or player deaths. They could also be lines like: “In the coming years, Super Earth will become even more safe through the usage of thought control devices in public areas.” NPC dialogue is incredibly jingoistic and aggressive towards the other intelligent life in the universe. Even your character will shout things like “HOW ABOUT A NICE CUP OF LIBERTY!?” The story never tries to override the gameplay at all, and never gets in the way, but still provides a sense of direction in the game’s design and maintains some great humor throughout.
Like having your one means of rescue also be able to crush you to death. Hilarious!
Helldivers throws you into a war being fought on three fronts, each one with a different race and all of which is explained via spurious news transmissions from Super Earth. You can then embark upon missions across planets within a region that humanity has declared war on, descending upon them to carry out various crimes against… Aliens. While there isn’t a huge range of mission objectives, there’s a nice diversity depending on the alien race you’re fighting against. Enemies that are introduced over time are more than so much pretty, new cannon fodder. They’re often much more powerful and have unique abilities that force players to change the way they approach missions, but only to a point. Upgrading your arsenal and gaining new stratagems takes over as the major motivation from there.
Stratagems, which are both your saving grace and a major source of frustration in the heat of battle, are arguably the main mechanic of the game. Called down over a satellite link using a d-pad button combo, they’re kind of an implied quick time event you have to perform in order to receive supplies, equipment and reinforcements. You’re not on any specific time limit to punch in the required code, but the cyborg lumbering towards you isn’t going to hang around and wait either. What you can call down through the stratagems is pure fantasy fulfillment, arriving in drop pods and landing right on your face. Tactical Nukes are among the standard items that you’re given at the beginning of the game, and it only escalates from there: Orbital death lasers, mech suits, and heavily armed armored cars.
“We’ll send you down at terminal velocity in metal boxes first and your equipment immediately after – we use the same cannon to save money. Good luck, meat bags!”
The game also provides a seemingly inexhaustible list of weapons for you to unlock; I still haven’t unlocked everything at the time of writing this, and I’m not sure it actually can be done. Each one can also be upgraded further with research points that you pick up throughout missions, making them more powerful and effective. With every level up, you’re also given a passive ability that you can equip to assist you during gameplay. The aforementioned stratagems can also be upgraded with research points to lower their cooldown rate, increase their capabilities and make them stronger too. It’s one thing to know you can steamroll your enemy; it’s something else entirely to be presented a Matrix-eqsue gallery of weapons with which to do it and be told to “go nuts.”
This massive arsenal is probably the one thing that keeps the game from becoming very stale very quickly and stratagems. As far as twin-stick shooters go, its control scheme and camera control is what I would call “fairly standard.” The range of objectives isn’t enormous either, as previously mentioned, and you’ll find that you’ve seen pretty much all the game has to offer in this regard after only a few hours. Stratagems actually require some thought while choosing as to how they’ll work together, if they’re appropriate for the planets/species, and if they’re sufficiently upgraded for the mission you’re about to undertake. Most importantly, there’s enough of a difference in how each stratagem is used, and what they all do, that they don’t feel like so many filler clones masquerading as a main mechanic.
You’re pretty boned without them.
Even though it can be done, this isn’t the kind of game that you want to play alone – the difficulty curve is enormous, and half the fun comes from the chaos of having multiple players. That being said, online can always be a bit of a crap-shoot, so this is definitely a title I’d recommend playing with friends. Friendly fire is perpetually enabled, and that includes incoming machine, aerial, and orbital fire called in through stratagems; the drop pods everything arrives in are just as deadly. Respawns are practically unlimited as long as there’s someone to call for reinforcements though it only takes a second of bad luck or inattention for the entire squad to wipe out.
This is the part of the game that could draw the most criticism, depending on your perspective because a sense of humor about constantly dying is a basic requirement for enjoying Helldivers. Drop pod beacons are sometimes more of a rough guideline, and the things can land a few meters off the mark to crush you, which can include the reinforcement Helldiver you just called in. Friendly fire is permanently enabled and the only real way around it, aside from some serious equipment co-ordination before the mission starts, is straight up player skill. Dying is inevitable, and chances are that Dark Souls holds less frustration in this regard, but it can make for some hilarious gameplay if you’ll let it.
There is no guarantee at this moment that they’re still going to successfully finish the mission, the shuttle’s presence alone devastates their chances.
On the other hand, it’s very easy for your sense of humor to completely evaporate when you’re caught in a perpetual cycle of death and rebirth at the hands of useless squad mates. The same old issues of online multiplayer plague this game like any other; however, those issues are exacerbated when your entire team can be killed by a single mistake. You should just have a laugh when it happens now and again but if you’re still laughing after the fifth attempt of the same planet then you’ve clearly gone mad. It does happen and too many failures in a row while playing this game is enough to make you rage quit, if not just deciding to stop before reaching that point. Like I said folks, play with friends – you at least know where they live and can deliver righteous, physical justice to them.
The music in this game makes me feel uncomfortably patriotic for a world that doesn’t exist and for things I probably shouldn’t be proud of doing. It makes every moment of action feel epic and especially significant to this conflict; every last stand I make before the shuttle arrives to rescue me is my greatest. NPC’s are mostly unvoiced, with only the first line of their dialogue being read out by a voice actor; at least, an approximation of that line is read out. Nothing irks me more about voice acting when what’s being said doesn’t match what’s written on the screen, and there is a lot of that going on in Helldivers. Fortunately, in this case, the dialogue is mostly inconsequential, and so it’s a minor issue at best. Regardless of the dissonance between the written text and spoken dialogue, both are still very much in sync with the game’s overall theme.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE THE TASTE OF FREEDOM!?.”
I like to imagine that the devs were giggling away to themselves while making this game, just as I was while playing it. The entire game is tongue-in-cheek and has a refreshingly heavy focus on making some solid gameplay, even if that gameplay leads to smashed controllers and incoherently raging at online strangers. I would have liked for there to be a bit more in-game exploration of the story that surrounds Super Earth, but its absence doesn’t negatively impact the game. While the visuals aren’t particularly amazing, the music is definitely spot-on for the ultra-jingoistic atmosphere that they’re trying to create. Whether you love or hate this game rests entirely in how much patience you have for dying over and over, and whether you can get in on the joke. For me, that wasn’t a huge ask and I’ll happily throw myself to the grinder for the glory of Super Earth!
Author’s Note: As an aside, Arrowhead have also done an amazing job of making the game as accessible as possible for Sony gamers. Helldivers is also cross-save, buy, and play across PS3, PS4 and Vita, setting a fantastic example in the industry for consumer advocacy. Well done, Arrowhead – nice work on being decent people.