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.