There’s something weird about satires on the military, I think. Usually, at least when done by an edgy teenager who confuses satire for just creating a strawman home with strawman, straw-partner, and straw-children, you’ll get one side yelling with gritted teeth “YEAH, THOSE GUYS FAIL AT LIFE ITSELF!” and the other yelling “OH YEAH?! GO DRINK BLEACH!” Military though, no one feels the target oddly. The anti-military considers it a satire on warmongering patriotic people, and the pro-military either thinks of it as not a satire but just straight comedy, or targeted on people somehow more military-minded (as well as less intelligent and informed) than they are. Perhaps Helldivers is just merely having fun with a Starship Troopers (as well as a bit of Warhammer 40k) guise? I have to say, no matter its intentions, it is very much co-op fun without messy things like an actual narrative.
Helldivers is a PS4 [reviewed on], PS3, and Vita (fortunately with cross-buy and cross-saves!) top-down co-op shooter for up to four players by Arrowhead Games Studios. You play as
space marines Helldivers who are sent to various planets to combat either cyborgs, bugs, or enlightened aliens, hopefully pushing the xenos back to their home planet and wiping out their homeland because they are heretical.
There isn’t much of a narrative beyond what’s talked about above. There’s bits here and there that emerge, like a news feed saying someone has been executed for sympathizing with The Illuminate, but most of the story comes more in the form of watching the multiplayer mode progress. Slowly, piece by piece, the collaborative work of thousands upon thousands of players doing missions will slowly bring the fighting to the enemy’s planet, with a final shove to wipe them out.
Alternatively, failing to defend against attacks by the enemy on your own planets will lead to losing land until they take the fight to you, potentially crushing Super Earth (seriously) under their claw/boot/fantastical-energy technology. After Super Earth or all the enemies have been crushed, the board is swiped clean and everyone starts again (well, the individual characters stay the same, the war simply starts anew).
While there is this meta-narrative that persists over the course of the game, it is fortunately loose and light-hearted enough that players can just pick up and play. There are minor impactful things dotted around (e.g. sometimes a place will be attacked that perhaps you should go help defend), but these feel more like an extension of gameplay rather instead of a chore.
Each level asks you to do a collection of objectives; usually you trigger X thing on the field while fending off creatures. Fortunately, it strays from that formula sometimes (e.g. collect macguffin and deliver to the macguffin-factory). These concepts are all simple to understand and they — at their most complex — just ask you to press buttons in an order. This adds to an arcade-y pick-up-and-play system that is easy to understand.
Where the difficulty comes in and leaps on your head for sport is the enemies. Each faction has their own enemies that function very differently that, if you’re under-prepared, can leave you drowning in your own liquefied internal organs. These vary from bugs with thick armour that requires flanking, to Illuminates that can sniper your head off from a long distance away.
With this difficulty in mind, I guess now is a good time to mention that while you CAN try to play this game solo, this will likely lead you to being dragged into a dark hole and having a nest vomited into your lungs. You will die — a lot. You’ll die even with teammates, and humorously, sometimes you’ll die by teammates because of friendly fire.
With that said, it is fortunate that you have a large amount of equipment that includes being able to call things in like a respawner, so your death doesn’t lead to you watching everyone else have fun for the next half an hour. You can also call in other things such as bombing runs, weapons, and turrets. This means that even if you’re not equipped to deal with an enemy that suddenly makes an appearance, you can call in a fix (including just dropping your reinforcing squad onto its head).
How do you get such wonderfully nefarious things to wipe out an entire race with? Not only through normal levelling, but also by completing some missions you can unlock guns, passive perks, costumes (which sadly doesn’t include colour changes, making it a bit more difficult to find yourself on the battlefield) and things to call in. Each of these can be upgraded by finding samples on the field, ten of which will get you a research point that often makes more of a difference to something than a flat stat increase. The large amount of variation allows you to pick what draws your attention rather than a winning combination and adds another dimension to what could have been basic XP grinding.
The main part of Helldivers that can feel like hell with the player is the camera. The screen limits all up-to-four players to a single screen. If communication is poor, this can lead to the team being stuck at a place as 2+ groups of players keep trying to go in different directions. It can also mean the screen can get incredibly messy, as you get killed by something you can’t even seen (if it even is on screen, as you can be pinged off by something off-screen). If there was not unlimited respawns as long as someone can call in the respawner, the messy nature of the camera would have been a death-knell to the game. Instead, it makes death more likely and a bit more frustrating than it could have been.
There is also the other problem that comes in the form of “OH GOD, ALL THAT DLC.” If, like me, you were too eager or too dim to not get the Super Ultimate Edition (seriously) that comes with everything, expect to pay for 12 pieces of DLC that can be bought in small groups or even as a singular “Mega Bundle” that costs more than the game. After all, some of the DLC weaponry could help you an incredible amount (e.g. a particularly nice sniper rifle, or the option for a heavy-hitting revolver instead of the normal side-arm). I am surprised there is this much DLC for a game released earlier this year.
Although despite those grumbles, Helldivers is a great game. It is silly, light-hearted, and yet it’s surprisingly tactical and intense. Despite the lack of couch co-op, I’d still easily recommend it as a title to kill time with friends or even just alone, as even if a player doesn’t know which end of their gun is the shooty end, you can usually get through the mission alive. Underneath its simplistic presentation is a game with a surprising amount of personal tactics and unlocking, if you should bring a one-handed weapon so you can help carry the case while hitting like a train, or a sniper rifle so you can ping off heavy-hitting xenos.
Plus it is another addition to the somewhat-lacking Vita library — especially in the field of Western multiplayer — that can transfer to your PS3 or PS4 when you want. Just try not to be that guy who holds the group up by not following or leading them; movement is key when you can hear the twisted malformed blood-curdling screams of the aliens.
“Join the Army” they said…
“Meet interesting people they said…
“See the Galaxy” they said…
- Light-hearted enough to be pick-up-and-play
- Easy to understand
- Large enemy variation
- Multiplayer contributes to an over-arching, progressing, simplistic narrative
- Funny in a Starship Troopers/Warhammer 40k kind of way without being cheesier/hammier than a sandwich factory
- OH GOD, SO MUCH DLC. SEND HELP.
- Not for solo players.
- Sharing screen with all players leads to messy chaos and being shot off-screen