With a name like Helldivers, it’s hard to imagine the game being anything but brutally difficult. But with a developer like Arrow Game Studios (Magicka) on the project, the expectation is that the game will still play well, offer fun co-op, and turn that challenge into a strength. Helldivers succeeds on all three fronts.
There’s no denying that Helldivers was made for a specific type of gamer, those who love coordinated teamwork and tremendous adversity, but it’s still one hell of a time regardless. For an isometric third person shooter with a whole lot of quirks, Helldivers finds a way to be approachable yet dense. There may not be a lot of nuance to its story or set-up, but heading off into battle requires plenty of tactics.
The basic set-up of Helldivers is this: Super Earth is under attack by three enemy races and it is up to the helldivers to protect their new home planet. Players will do so by heading to nearby galaxies and completing mission on their surrounding systems. Some missions are as simple as dropping into the playable area, protecting a specific point, and then extracting, while others require three or four mini-objectives before escaping in the nick of time.
On its face, Helldivers' core gameplay loop of head to planet, complete objectives, and extract isn’t all that engaging - in fact it’s pretty mindless. With only a handful of repeatable objectives available, it gets to a point where each mission feels more like an excuse to enjoy Helldivers’ gameplay or to group with friends (or strangers) and take down hostile alien foes. There is some creativity at play with Helldivers' meta game, which incorporates the entire player base's success rate into whether Super Earth survives or falls, but that's such a small piece. It’s a good thing, then, that Helldivers gameplay is so sublime.
While it may have its quirks, like losing remaining ammo during reloads, the gameplay in Helldivers calls to mind an isometric Diablo or even Destiny. Players can equip their helldiver with a primary weapon of various types (machine gun, shotgun, rifle, laser gun, etc.), a secondary handgun, and a special perk that makes them more viable like increased armor, a laser sight, or unique grenades. Each player’s loadout also includes a set of Strategems, which are like limited use supply drops that can either be defensive, offensive, or support. Players pull up a small screen and input a code to receive a Strategem, kind of like a cheat code, and wait for the item to appear. Every Strategem is effective, from the weapons to the bombing runs, to the turrets, ammo, and even the mech suit, which makes picking just four tough.
Strategems are an essential part of Helldivers both in that they help the 4-player co-op team take out larger groups of enemies and because they must be used with care. Many of the Strategems are either on a recharge timer or limited to a few uses, so activating one at the right moment can be the difference between life and death.
Either way, players should expect to die…a lot. When we say that Helldivers is brutally difficult and unforgiving we mean it. It’s bad enough that the three enemy races (bugs, robots, and organics) are relentless, but that’s only a small part of it. Players will also have to avoid friendly fire, from both player and AI controlled weapons, and avoid incoming supply drops from crushing them into oblivion. The game does have a revive system for picking up downed enemies, but once a player is dead the team must call in a Reinforcement Strategem to get the deceased back into action. That’s easier said than done, though, when the enemy is breathing down the remaining helldivers’ necks.
In the end, missions become a chaotic mess, but in the best way possible. Players are trying to coordinate to ensure they stay safe but also don’t shoot one another, while at the same time managing Strategems when opportunity strikes. It does become a lot to handle, but it’s so satisfying to barely make it onto the evacuation ship mere seconds before the enemy takes the final member of the team. Like the battles in sci-fi cult classic Starship Troopers, it’s not about overcoming insurmountable odds; it’s about living long enough for the next fight.
Luckily, Helldivers makes every completed mission feel worth the effort. Granted, it takes completing several planets within a system to complete a mission, but doing so will unlock some pretty useful loot like new Strategems, XP boosts, or weapons. Experience is key not just because it gives players new unlocks, but it also unlocks research points that can be used to increase weapon and Strategem effectiveness. In the end, completing a mission requires a lot of work but the progress is immediately evident. The flip side is that if the team fails a mission they earn nothing, but that’s to be expected from this type of game.
All that being said, Helldivers is built with co-op in mind, so those who want to fly solo will have a hard time getting the same entertainment. The lower level missions are fine by yourself, but eventually the enemy numbers become too great to tackle alone. That’s not a big knock against the game, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless. Similarly, because matchmaking is what it is, there’s the potential of grouping up with a team that does not coordinate or work together. For every group that entered each scenario with tact and planning, there was a group that shot at anything that moved, including myself. Thankfully, getting out of one team and into another is quick and easy.
Helldivers is another successful cooperative experience from Arrowhead Game Studios. They’ve taken a very simple concept and found a way to introduce challenge and strategy in a way few games have before. Sure, it’s occasionally overwhelming, but that’s what makes Helldivers so much fun. Getting together with a few friends and trying to manage hordes of enemies requires more than just an itchy trigger finger, and there’s no better feeling than escaping in the nick of time. The mechanics do have a few quirks, like the inability to shoot while prone, but the majority of them fit the approach brilliantly. The game’s only real downfall is the repetitive nature of the missions, which will hurt Helldivers longevity. For now, though, the game is a brutally difficult, but very satisfying co-op romp.
Have you played Helldivers? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.
Helldivers is available now for PS4 and Vita. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.