Helldivers is a badass of a co-op game. Arrowhead Game Studios’ tactical twin-stick shooter drops up to four players on to hostile planets with two goals in mind: complete objectives and survive the mission.
As a defender of Super Earth you are tasked with spreading “managed democracy” throughout the galaxy. If you happen to annihilate an alien species or your own teammates along the way, hey, shit happens.
Just what is managed democracy? You’ll have to look that up in the in-game encyclopedia, because as far as I can tell the story of this game consists of the satirical opening cinematic and that’s about it. And you know what? That’s all it needs.
When I first booted up Helldivers I thought the game was pretty slow and rather easy. Not something I expected from the developers of Magicka. After a brief tutorial I was sent off in my Hellship to ride my Hellpod into Hellbattle on one of the procedurally generated worlds of the Bug menace. The early levels are fairly simple, especially with two players, even if one is a four year old.
The beginning missions involve a few enemies and even fewer objectives. Players are tasked with things like capturing points on the map (simply hold your ground and kill anything that comes your way) or activating SAM sites (enter a few d-pad direction presses into a console). Your starting gear is more than enough to get you through each mission, especially if you use stratagems wisely.
Stratagems are supplies, weapons, defenses, and airstrikes dropped from orbit. Things like extra ammo, machine guns, turrets, and strafing runs can be called in by simply pulling up the stratagem menu and inputting a few simple d-pad commands. The in-game menu is accessible and easy to use. Throw out a beacon, wait a few seconds, and BAM, your new toy drops in-- just don’t be standing under it when it lands. It will destroy anything in the drop zone, friend (hilarious) or foe (righteous).
Did I mention friendly fire is on? Because friendly fire is most definitely on. If you’re the kind of player who gets upset when your teammate accidentally cuts you in half with a chain gun, Helldivers is not for you. It’s going to happen occasionally. If it happens a lot then the offending player is not your friend and you can always kick or report them. Part of Helldivers charm is the collateral damage you can do to each other. It’s easy to get back into the game as long as one player is still alive, so it’s not that big of a deal if you get squashed by an ammo drop, stepped on by a mech, or nuked from orbit.
The core gameplay is tight. The starter rifle cuts through bugs with ease, and aiming actually matters. Enemies take more damage from shots to their center mass. Full auto will skew your aim and result in wasted ammo. Short, controlled bursts, people. Unlike many twin-stick shooters, ammunition is limited and guns need to be reloaded. Weapons make a different sound as they run low on ammo, offering a nice audible cue for reloading. The PS4 controller speaker is used very well for this and other mechanical game sounds. If you spray and pray you’ll be out of bullets and then you’ll be relying on your pistol or melee attack.
You might feel like a badass Helldiver while punching out a man-sized bug, but getting into a fistfight with a dozen creepy crawlies while their big brothers and even bigger sisters close in is not my idea of a good time. Helldivers gets harder. Oh boy, does it get harder.
There are 12 difficulty ratings in this game, ranging from “Dive in the Park” to “Helldive.” The bugs get bigger and badder. And they are only one of the three factions you’ll be facing. As it turns out, those easy little bugs in the early missions are simple scouting patrols. If you don’t kill them fast enough in harder missions they call in more scouts, then larger, tougher bugs, then even tankier bugs, and then tank-sized bugs. Which isn’t so bad, assuming you’ve unlocked your tank-killing stratagems.
After powering my way through some mid-level missions it became clear that Helldivers would require a lot more strategy than simply pointing and shooting. You’ll need all four players for the later missions, unless you’re planning on going full ninja.
Co-op is where it’s at in Helldivers. When working right, it’s a sweet experience. There are multiplayer vehicles, different roles to play, and some weapons are designed for co-op. You can reload your recoilless rifle on your own in a few seconds, or your buddy can carry the extra ammo and reload you in an instant. Once the patrolling enemies have called for reinforcements you’ll have to fight, and you’ll want as much firepower as possible.
My favorite moments in Helldivers are the extractions. Each mission has its own finale as players must summon a shuttle for evac after completing all of their objectives. Once you call in a shuttle you have 90 seconds to hold the landing zone. Enemies, be they Bugs, Cyborgs, or Illuminates, will converge on your position. Four players literally call in their big guns and prepare for battle. Rocket launchers, rail-gun turrets, mechs, and APCs rain from the sky. Airstrikes can be summoned in the heat of battle. Only one Helldiver needs to get on the shuttle for a successful mission, so it’s pretty much bombs away. You get more XP if everyone makes it, so do me a favor and try to get everyone on the boat before it lifts off.
I don’t want to make it sound like every mission ends like the evacuation scene from Starship Troopers, but in the later levels every mission ends exactly like the evacuation scene from Starship Troopers. Just replace bugs with cyborgs or psionic energy creatures two thirds of the time. It’s pretty dope.
At the end of the mission players will all earn equal rewards no matter how they performed, as scoring is based off of survival and completing objectives. Kills don’t matter, which is nice because it keeps players focused on the mission instead of trying to go lone wolf on heavy targets. The end mission recap screen is painfully slow, displaying each player’s stats, rewards, and promotions individually. It really kills the flow of what should be a pick-up-and-play game.
I’ve experienced a few minor annoyances with the co-op system, but nothing rage-inducing (so long as the servers are cooperating). Games are easily joined, but you have to join individually, so you’d best make sure everyone you’re playing with is already on each other’s friends list. Figure out who’s hosting then everyone can either meet up on board the ship or on the planet’s surface.
Players can drop into games at will, so long as there’s an open slot. There are two lobbies available from your ship’s bridge, one for random games and one for friends. If you see a buddy in a game you can simply choose your loadout, drop in, and blaze away. There isn’t an in-game invite system, which is a little irritating, seeing as how there are SOS beacons which can give your game priority in the public lobby.
Joining random games is a pain. Finding a group can be a challenging, since most games on display are already full. Once you’re with a team the game rolls right along. As far as getting random players to join your own game, who knows? I’ve played a few dozen solo games to gather research samples for upgrades and I have never had a random player drop into my game. I’ve even solo’d through some challenging missions which offered some pretty good rewards. Nothing. I pop my SOS beacon for kicks at the start of every mission, too. If you have three friends willing to play you will likely never notice these little snafus, as long as you’re on the same system.
Helldivers was advertised as a cross buy, cross save, cross play game. I’ve had no problem with the cross buy and cross save features, having played on my Vita, PS3, and PS4, but I have yet to hear of anyone playing with friends on different systems. Random players seem to be able to cross play, but Arrowhead and Sony have had some difficulty integrating players’ friends lists from all three systems. This is a serious issue for players who thought they’d be able to play with their friends on different systems. The devs are aware of the issue and are working on it.
Personally, I’ve had a few dropped connections, but nothing I haven’t experienced with most online-focused games. If the network is down you can always play with up to four players in a local co-op game. Combo co-op is supported, too, for those of you who have both real friends and online friends.
The planets and missions can get repetitive, but with a $20 price tag ($18 for Plus members) I can’t really complain. There’s also a whole meta-campaign that each victory feeds into, but I don’t know if the game community will be strong enough to feed its planned six week cycles. I feel like I’ve gotten my $18 bucks worth and it’s only been a week. I’ve also read several online comments about progression and network issues, but I haven’t experienced anything glaring myself.
I’ve enjoyed my time with Helldivers. Bring some friends. This game is fun as hell.