James Stephanie Sterling
Helldivers Review – Democratic Dissection
Drink down a warm cup of freedom, we have a way of life to protect!
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Format: PS3, PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita
Released: March 3, 2015
Copy provided by publisher
As I write this review, I’ve had Helldivers‘ victory theme stuck in my head all day. It’s so very glorious, full of patriotic zeal and applause for a job well done, a tune that says Super Earth is proud of me and my accomplishments, that my hard-fought escape from the alien fiends actually meant something, that my inevitable death will not be in vain. It also clouds the fact that I just stomped uninvited all over somebody else’s planet and delivered humanity’s brand of democracy through the barrel of a gun – a democracy my enemies have become too indiscriminately slaughtered to enjoy.
Helldivers does very little to veil its political humor. It takes the paranoid hostility of Warhammer 40,000 and plays it for laughs, draping the exaggerated intergalactic jingoism of Starship Troopers over every little detail. Your leaders at Super Earth have determined that a race of aliens known sneeringly as the Bugs are a threat to everything we hold dear… and deny any interest in the valuable oil these extraterrestrial invertebrates produce. The in-game encyclopedia is full of unsubtle digs at modern western rhetoric – elections determined by computers that decide who we should vote for based on our answers to general questions, peaceful resolutions arbitrarily ignored in the name of war, and the titular Helldivers themselves – overconfident militants who yell about freedom while blasting everything in sight.
As satire, Helldivers is about as subtle as a claw hammer to the pelvic bone. It is funny though, in its own audacious way.
At first glance, Arrowhead’s PS4 debut looks like a factory standard top-down shooter. You run around, armed with your gun of choice, and take out xenos while completing objectives. It only takes a short amount of time, however, to work out that this is not your average arcade affair where running and gunning is the order of the day. In fact, for a game that presents itself as a shooter, it’s notable just how advisable it is to avoid combat unless absolutely necessary, with successful mission progress relying just as much on stealth as military might.
Before beginning a mission, the player in charge can select absolutely anywhere on the map to drop in – you can even land right on a mission objective if you want! However, due to the fact that aliens tend to convene around objectives, it’s advisable to drop elsewhere, giving players time to get their equipment in check, survey the area, and try to take out any patrolling enemies without raising an alarm. Alien scouts wander the environment, and if they spot any Helldivers, they’ll signal for backup unless put down quickly. Those players who decide to stomp around and brainlessly tackle everything they see will soon find themselves outnumbered, drained of ammunition, and too surrounded to fulfill their tasks successfully.
Success in Helldivers requires a team of up to four players working together and acting smart. As well as avoiding patrols, wise Helldivers know how to use their stratagems correctly. Stratagems are called in by opening a menu and inputting a series of password-like codes on the D-pad, granting players extra assistance in battle. They include such useful help as extra ammo cases, automatic gun turrets, vehicles such as the APC and Walker exosuit, or planes that fly overhead and carpet the ground with missile strikes.
There a huge variety of stratagems, unlocked regularly as players rank up, each with their own distinct advantages and problems. You can equip up to four, but whatever you bring will have an effect on the team… especially if used in the wrong situation.
The game’s universe consists of various planets with a number of missions taking place upon their surface. Missions are, in turn, made up of various objectives littered around a moderately sized map, and consist of tasks such as switching on SAM systems (using yet more D-pad inputs – a surprisingly tense prospect when under pressure), escorting stranded humans from one location to another, or calling in a nuclear bomb and arming it in the middle of an enemy stronghold. The greater the threat level on a planet, the more resistance one will face, and it soon becomes clear that harder planets need a full squad of four players, each bringing their own stratagems, helping each other up when knocked down, and calling in respawns as needed.
Here’s something you need to be fully prepared for – Helldivers is utterly, unapologetically lethal. Enemies hit hard and can be relentless when the alarm’s raised, but it’s not just alien threats that can take a player out. Friendly fire is serious business, as it takes only a few misplaced bullets to send allies on their asses, hammering the X button to avoid bleeding out. Careless exosuit pilots risk stomping all over their friends, automatic turrets cannot differentiate between aliens and humans standing in the way. Hell, even calling down stratagems is risky – in the heat of battle, a player might forget that a big crate of weaponry is being beamed down from the sky, and get turned to dogfood when it lands on their head.
I’ve been killed by standing right underneath another player as he was being dropped into my game. It is humiliating. Don’t ever make the same mistake.
What could have been a frustrating mess of instant kills, however, is instead simply hilarious. The cooperative elements are integrated beautifully into the game, and the ability to help each other up and manually respawn murdered comrades means nobody’s stuck out of the fight for long… provided those left alive are skilled enough to get out of harm’s way and call for reinforcements quickly. Much of the inevitable death comes as the result of clear mistakes made by players, meaning few failures ever feel cheap. It’s almost the shoot-em-up equivalent of Dark Souls – it’s tough as hell, but fair with it, rewarding strategic thinkers over headstrong combatants.
Perhaps the exception to this rule is the heavily armored tank-like bug that charges into players and one-hit kills them, the one that can only be destroyed with heavy weapon stratagems. You’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll hate it.
The best part of Helldivers is just how exhilarating it can be. There’s a reason the aforementioned victory theme is so memorable – it’s because it caps off an intense last stand at the end of every mission as the squad calls in an escape shuttle and has to wait for it to arrive, holding out against waves of slavering insects or gibbering cybernetic soldiers. Finally getting on board that shuttle and lifting off is a thrill that’s yet to wear off no matter how many times I experience it, providing the perfect amount of relief from the perfect amount of tension. Whether the mission went smoothly or the squad bitterly escaped after getting their asses handed to them, finally leaving the planet’s surface is an immense and unique joy every time.
Oh, and in case you were wondering – yes, the escape shuttle can also kill you if you’re standing under it when it lands. It is humiliating. Don’t ever make the same mistake.
All this on its own makes Helldivers a hugely entertaining experience, but Arrowhead went one step further by making the entire game a vast collaborative community effort. See, every mission you successfully undertake earns Influence, and Influence is pooled by every player online. The more players complete their goals, the more this Influence grows and the more territories are secured on the galactic map. The overall objective is to take territory over, sector by sector, and forge a path to the three alien homeworlds belonging to the Bugs, Illuminate, and Cyborgs. Once the homeworld is reached, players are advised to attack that key planet by undertaking tough missions on its surface, all in a bid to earn enough Influence needed to completely take it over and remove that race from the galaxy.
Conversely, the enemies can take back territory, and attempt to create their own path to Super Earth itself, in which case every player will have to defend it or risk losing it to the opposition.
Naturally, the long-term impact of this system will need time in the wild before we can see just how successful it is. During the review period, however, we did a get to fight our way to the Bug home planet before failing the invasion attempt. In my experience, the overall effect is a passive one, but like the cult classic Noby Noby Boy, it’s a wonderful idea that makes every little action feel connected and important. I’m curious to see how Arrowhead keeps this going, and how the game responds to the size of the online community, but it’s a solid premise that lends an extra level of involvement to the action.
Finding three other competent players is essential to getting the most out of it, a fact that cannot be emphasized enough. It’s not impossible to play solo, but it’s a quieter and less engaging experience, while fighting alongside reckless allies who charge into battle and constantly knock you out with their poorly aimed beam weapons (I’ll mention no usernames, but goddamn you [redacted]) can prove quite frustrating. Players who troll can be reported and end up forced to play only alongside other jerkholes, while good partners can be commended for their efforts and serve as an example to others. It’s simply not much fun to play alone, a problem if you lack shooter-loving friends or don’t fancy teaming up with randoms.
There is plenty of personal reason to keep playing, though. As players level up, they get to equip new weapons, stratagems, and aesthetic armor pieces. By collecting alien samples in each map, research points can also be hoarded and spent to unlock further enhancements to weapons and gear, adding new passive qualities to one’s favorite arsenal. There’s a ton of stuff to unlock in exchange for gaining ranks or conquering planets, and everything’s worth experimenting with at least once… even if the extent of that experiment is accidentally calling in an airstrike on your entire squad because you didn’t realize that’s what would happen.
It is humiliating. Don’t ever make the same mistake.
Helldivers keeps its artistic style simple and familiar. The Bugs look like standard alien insects, the Cyborgs could be from any number of sci-fi tablestop games, and the Illuminate are your standard “mystical alien” race. By far, the unoriginal designs are Helldivers‘ weakest element, as the game itself is so bursting with character that a less generic looking universe would have served it greatly. The graphic quality itself isn’t bad, and the cheesy dialog and music make for some delightful ear candy, though nothing really stands out in the presentation department. It looks solid, and that’s about it – not exactly a horrible problem in a game that’s so much fun, but it’s the one millstone to everso slightly holds the whole thing back.
With its sledgehammer humor and clever blend of stealth and action, Helldivers is a lot smarter than a passing glance might have you believe. It’s a game in which life is cheap but the deaths aren’t, where carelessness gets you turned into kibble, and sustained battle will leave you with an empty gun and a horde of pissed off monsters. The life of a Helldiver is nasty, brutish, and short… but it’s a heck of a lot of fun, it’s hard not to laugh even when you’re getting torn to shreds, and that final shuttle flight makes all the horrors worthwhile.
This is what freedom tastes like.