Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in the future, Earth is at war with a recently discovered alien species, sending fully-armored space marines into various exotic battlegrounds to counter the enemy’s spreading influence. Yes, it’s a common trope in media for future Earthicans to be at war with an overpowering monster race, and Helldivers throws itself into the overpopulated ring with a self-aware “Hoo-Ahh!”
While Helldivers plays out as a standard, repetitive twin-stick shooter in a cliched universe, it makes up for its lack of development with extremely entertaining co-op and a surprising amount of political subtext that has no right existing here, but makes the proceedings all the more engrossing.
Taking place in the year 2084, humanity has been united on Super Earth under a managed democracy, which helps uneducated voters by making their decisions for them. While exploring the galaxy, the government stumbles across three new alien species, and before peaceful talks can commence, the people of Super Earth decide to wage war against the potentially dangerous beings. Enter the Helldivers, a group of soldiers trained to be launched onto planet surfaces, complete objectives and re-enter orbit all in one piece.
Each drop lands you on a different planet, tasked with a variety of missions that can be completed by sneaking, shooting or blowing up anything that stands in your way. Gameplay follows traditional twin-stick conventions, albeit with a few twists. The biggest and most creative shakeup is the addition of Stratagems, offensive or defensive supplements that can be launched from orbit onto the planet surface. This is done by inputting a series of directional button presses to create a beacon before throwing it and waiting for the item to be deployed. Stratagems take precise timing and skill to use without getting yourself killed, but they are essential to complete planets with higher difficulty settings.
As necessary as Stratagems are, Helldivers sees them as both a blessing and a curse. For example, a perfectly launched turret can protect you from just about any enemy. However, it has the chance to mow you down too if you get in its way. Similarly, some of the more useful items take a long time to reach the surface, and even those that land quickly have the chance to crush you if you remain standing on a beacon for too long. A well-placed carpet bomb run can decimate your foes, but can also take you out if you don’t beat feet.
New stratagems are unlocked by completing missions on more difficult planets, as are character perks and additional weapons. There isn’t a huge selection of perks though, and they range from lame stun grenades to the extremely useful ability to run faster and longer. Weapons are nothing special either, presenting the usual options of machine guns, laser guns and powerful rifles with two or three upgrades available for each through the use of research points, gained by either levelling up or gathering samples from planets.
Since missions on each planet only take 5-10 minutes to complete, the single-player experience quickly loses steam. Co-op is the name of the game in Helldivers, and that’s where a majority of the fun is waiting. Groups of up to four Helldivers can take on a planet at the same time, even joining missions while they’re in progress. Since a Helldiver is launched into play near other players, a helping hand comes at the cost of a surprise squash, which happened to me more than once and never failed to make me laugh. Helldivers is full of moments like this, such as when a friend called down a mech suit for me to wear during our final stand as we waited for our extraction shuttle to arrive and it crushed me like a bug.
The community that inhabits Helldivers is given a decent chance to monitor itself, with players able to either commend or report teammates for good or bad behavior. Those who have been reported multiple times are stuck playing either alone or with other reported players, working to earn commendations or wait until their reported status goes away. It’s not revolutionary, but it discourages antagonistic matches between strangers and keeps missions moving smoothly.
As creative as some of the new components introduced are, the three enemy types making up each warzone are hardly groundbreaking. Helldivers are given the choice to fight either alien bugs, alien cyborgs or alien…um…aliens on three different fronts. Because Super Earth finds itself fighting a war on three fronts, it’s up to the Helldivers to travel into each warzone, choose a planet within that region and conquer it. As more of the enemy’s territory falls to the Helldivers, they reach the enemy home planet, waging an all out war in hopes of conquering the species. At other times, you’ll have to fall back and defend Super Earth settlements from attacking creatures.
This Galactic Campaign, which encompasses Super Earth’s fight for domination, can take weeks to complete, with the entire community’s progress working towards the win. It’s a compelling setup to keep Helldivers completing missions, but if the community is small or inactive, as it is at the time of this review, it doesn’t take long for Super Earth to be destroyed, resetting all progress made with hardly a chance to stop it. Although it’s an impressive and ambitious concept, a lack of community support may hinder the developer’s intentions.
That political subtext mentioned earlier can be found in the heavy-handed Encyclopedia entries found in your dropship. The goal of Super Earth is defined as spreading managed democracy to all species, even if by force. The bug aliens are being decimated for their oil, although the government tries to act like their more worried about the threat of violence. Your captain claims that once this war is won, another will begin shortly after because that’s just how things go. Helldivers makes some surprisingly topical comparisons with the alien races and the uber-democratic Super Earth, which makes it a shame that the story is never taken further than the aforementioned Encyclopedia entries.
As much fun as the co-op gameplay is, invigorated with the introduction of Stratagems and the hilarity of accidentally crushing yourself or strangers underneath a resupply, Helldivers is too repetitive to maintain that entertainment for more than a handful of hours. Planetary missions are repeated far too many times, resulting in exhausting escort and defend missions, and aside from a few gameplay tweaks, it never goes beyond its original twin-stick gameplay. A scathing look at the imperialist attitude democracy has taken lately is hinted at, but never fully developed. However, that doesn’t stop this from being a creative co-op experience, and with the right mindset, you could squeeze hours of entertainment out of this war.
This review was based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game given to us for review purposes.
Although the gameplay and mission structure quickly becomes repetitive, Helldivers offers hours of entertaining co-op twin-stick action in a universe that's begging to be further developed.