Reviewed on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita
→ March 13, 2015
Helldivers is the rare game that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it with complete confidence and authority. So much more than just another twin-stick shooter, it presents us with incredibly varied mission sandboxes and tactical options, then respects our intelligence enough to let us figure it all out on our own or with three friends. The result is some of the most white-knuckle co-op action I’ve ever experienced.
From the opening cinematic, Helldivers wears its Starship Troopers influences on its sleeve. The tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top way in which it sets up the ongoing war between the aliens and our homeworld, Super Earth, is a clear nod to director Paul Verhoeven’s film, and it lends the action a delicious sense of both humor and danger. It’s mostly superficial in that the themes of radical Nationalism are never really explored, but the jingoistic one-liners your space marine spouts out are chuckle-worthy all the same, effectively drawing me into Helldivers’ persistent online war despite knowing my people probably started it for all the wrong reasons.
This questionable galactic war is fought on three fronts against the tech-heavy Illuminate, the gun-toting Cyborgs, and the Tyranid-esque bugs known simply as…bugs. Each faction brings a diverse set of units to bear, requiring you to either adapt your tactics, or die a horrible death. Cyborgs tote a lot of small caliber firearms, making heavy body armor a great choice to shrug off volleys that might have otherwise put you on the ground. Don’t forget to bring something to punch through armor too, or you’ll spend the better part of your mission running from mixed groups of tanks and hulking mechanized super-soldiers. On the other end of the spectrum, failing to pack some extra ammo for your shotgun against the bugs is usually a fatal mistake, since they love to get up close and personal.
Every online match of Helldivers feeds into this three-pronged war, with each front’s greatest contributors being cleverly immortalized with an ever-present leaderboard. As you and your fellow heroes retake planets by waging successful missions, the war will eventually spill over to the alien homeworld, or to your own if not enough people are fighting the good fight. Either situation leads to a timed special event where all players are called on to make one final push, or a desperate last stand. It’s a smart system that gives each mission a greater sense of purpose, not to mention an urgency to log on every day to do your part.
The real magic though, happens when you start unlocking more of Helldivers’ large arsenal of perks, weapons, upgrades, and equipment calldowns called stratagems. After over 25 hours, I still haven’t gotten everything, and from disposable anti-tank weapons, to gun-covered troop-carriers, every piece of gear feels meaningful, since each ends up being particularly useful for certain objectives or against particular foes. Capture or defend objectives call for sentry turrets, where snow-covered maps might tempt you to bring an exo-suit or a jump-pack to make traversal easier. You can only bring so much though, and adapting your loadout based on what your objectives are and what your teammates are bringing is where Helldivers exhibits much of its depth.
No matter what you bring to the fight though, Helldivers’ meaty sound effects convey the action convincingly, despite its so-so visuals. Whether you’re squeezing the last few rounds out of a heavy machine gun, or obliterating a screen full of enemies with a thundering artillery strike, everything sounds powerful and threatening.
Many of these delightful bits of kit are designed to facilitate cooperative play. The recoilless rifle, for instance, comes with a separate supply pack with extra ammo. You could carry it yourself, but the reload time between shots will make it pretty impractical to use. Have a buddy carry the supply pack though, and they can walk up to you and toss in another shell in the blink of an eye. Touches like this make a full party of four feel like a cohesive fighting unit where every member is more powerful than they would be alone. Helldivers’ drop-in co-op makes forming a party easy from the couch, online, or a mix of both, which is fortunate, because while going solo can be rewarding in its own right, you can only get so far on your own.
The fact that virtually everything is deadly, be it friend or foe, makes every mission tense. Drop pods bringing a fresh supply of ammo might unceremoniously turn a teammate to goo, or a poorly placed airstrike might do more harm than good. There’s just so much nitty gritty to get into, from going prone to let teammates safely fire past you, to using 90-degree angle shots to maximize armor penetration against enemy vehicles, and the cost of learning is almost always paid in blood – be it yours or a teammate’s. But when you and your team fire on all cylinders to turn back the intense waves of enemies coming your way long enough to dramatically hop in a dropship and make a narrow escape, the sense of accomplishment is positively euphoric.