Arrowhead’s HELLDIVERS touched down on Sony platforms as a digital release back in March, and was generally regarded as one of the better shooters of the year. The Super-Earth Ultimate Edition is now available for the first time as a physical copy, and includes with it all of the game’s DLC offerings released up to this point. If you haven’t picked the game up yet, now is probably the best time to get in on the action.
For those not in the know, HELLDIVERS is a top-down shooter where up to four caped commandos, the titular Helldivers, are shot out of a cannon from orbit and attempt to complete objectives on procedurally generated planets while surviving an endless tide of alien foes.
HELLDIVERS takes place in a future where humanity is ruled by an Orwellian government using a form of “enhanced democracy” to control the populace. As a citizen of Super Earth, it’s your duty to conquer and exploit the planets of the Bugs, Cyborgs, and Illuminate, the game’s enemy factions. Why fight the aliens? Who cares?! The game doesn’t pretend that you’re buying it for its lore, but HELLDIVERS is full of satirical charm that apes the military-industrial complex as well as the shooter genre as a whole. It’s not as biting as SPEC OPS: THE LINE nor does it hit you over the head like MATT HAZARD, but it certainly does have enough of a voice to stand out.
Fairly creative as far as shooter lobbies go
From space, players can plan their moves and upgrade equipment on the host player’s starship bridge, which acts as a lobby of sorts for the game. From there, the host can select a planet to invade and choose the team’s landing zone from orbit. This is where the larger multiplayer metagame takes place.
There are three sectors from the galaxy to choose from, divided into various regions that contain mission planets. These sectors effectively decide which enemy the team will face on the ground, while each planet in a region represents the difficulty level of the mission. Successfully completing missions in a region will net influence points. When the online community generates enough influence, that region will be secured and the warfront will move closer to the enemy homeworld. On the flip side, if pressure is reduced on a particular front, the enemy will push back. If any of the factions move close enough to Super-Earth, all players are recalled to protect the motherland. It’s a nice dynamic that promotes diversifying foes, but I couldn’t help but feel that the developers were sometimes pulling strings behind the scenes in the alien’s favor on some fronts. I guess some wars just aren’t meant to be won.
The planetscapes themselves are probably the weakest link of HELLDIVERS. Being procedurally generated, there is an infinite amount of possible maps that players will have to navigate. The system draws from a very limited pool, however. You’re more or less guaranteed to either end up in a swamp, tundra, or desert, sometimes with volcanoes sprinkled in for a little spice. The objectives also get a bit repetitive, as you’ll easily experience all the goal types with your first ten missions.
Get used to seeing that bar fill up
Once you get past the repetitive nature of the set pieces, it’s all clear skies (bombs and bullets aside). The game itself never stagnates, and I was always unlocking new gear. In addition to earning cosmetics, weapons, and perks for leveling up, you also are rewarded with new gear for each planet you conquer. It can cause quite a dilemma when choosing which planet to invade next when one offers a shiny new mech suit pending completion, while another may offer double experience, letting you unlock that rifle you’ve been saving up for. The sense of progression in this game never really wears off.
“DICK CHENEY SIMULATOR 2084” was a bit clunky
HELLDIVERS core gameplay mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who played ALIEN STORM (and if you didn’t, it’s free on Steam). Though it swaps the linear, ALIENS-themed corridors of for randomized, STARSHIP TROOPERS-vibing locales, HELLDIVERS is every bit as punishing as its spiritual predecessor. Ammo conservation is vital, as reloading will discard unused rounds. Most enemies are capable of downing a player in one or two attacks, if not outright killing them.
While the game can be played solo, it is best enjoyed cooperatively, which is supported both online and (gasp!) locally. Many objectives, like defusing bombs and lugging suitcases, leave players defenseless, encouraging teamwork. It becomes necessary on harder planets, where I’ve experienced even a full squad of veterans getting massacred a few seconds after planetfall.
Much like real war, bringing friends along contributes to a more fun time
In keeping with Arrowhead’s previous co-op adventure, MAGICKA, friendly fire is prominently featured in HELLDIVERS. It’s difficult to avoid on top of dodging enemy fire, and it cannot be deactivated. ALIEN SWARM comparisons aside, the havoc caused by unintentional (or not) blue-on-blue incidents is what ultimately sets HELLDIVERS apart from other co-op shooters.
You see, in place of the spell system available to the wizards of MAGICKA, your Helldivers utilize a stratagem system where they can radio in support. After pulling out your radio and entering a button prompt, you can call for ammo, weapons, vehicles, and replacements for fallen teammates, which functions as the game’s respawn system. All of these, however, are delivered via cannon from your ship in orbit, and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing at the impact point can expect to be decorating the floor in the vein of a smashed tomato.
Each one of those beacons is an accident waiting to happen
There is fair warning given to where the package will arrive, but when you and your teammates are calling in multiple stratagems, all while dodging enemy fire and environmental hazards, it becomes very easy to become a skidmark. I’ve been killed by my fellow man just as many times as I have been by the aliens.
This trend of fratricide might sound like a problem, but it’s easily one of my favorite parts about HELLDIVERS. Instead of becoming a mindless free-for-all for who can gib the most monsters, the user-unfriendly logistics system you utilize turns HELLDIVERS into an exercise of coordination, where players have to work just as hard to keep each other alive as they do to defeat the enemy.
HELLDIVERS originated as a downloadable, cross-generational PSN title, and is a top down game at that. It should be no surprise that the graphics look like they could belong on a mobile device. Like the story, you’re not buying the game for how it looks. The models are pretty basic and a lot of enemies are more-or-less recolors of each other. The simplistic art style works, however, and the game’s charm carries over into the animations, with Helldivers banging their heads on consoles when activating them. The cape physics also never cease to amuse.
A missed opportunity to have you meet the requirement of “only 17”
The main draw of the Super-Earth Ultimate Edition over the base HELLDIVERS game is the inclusion of all of the game’s DLC packages. This amounts to a few dozen guns and cosmetic items, several strategems, and a handful of vehicles. Some of these, especially the vehicles and heavy weapons, are fun enough to use, but I felt that the base games weapons always outperformed their direct DLC counterparts. Still, I appreciate variety and I’m a sucker for new capes. It’s really dependent on the value you place on DLC which version you pick up. This latest package is the best value for acquiring all of the game’s add-ons, but for those who don’t care for downloadable content, it’s much cheaper to just download the original.
Arrowhead has clearly found their niche, as I’ve never played a game from another developer that can quite match the experience I had while playing HELLDIVERS. It’s a blue moon where I can be as entertained by a game when I fail as when I win. If you can look past the uniformity of HELLDIVERS’ sorties, you’ll find a surprisingly dependable shooter that will easily suck hours of your life away from you.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita