Platform reviewed – PS4
In the past couple of years I’ve played more twin-stick shooters and shoot ‘em ups than I ever did in twenty six years of gaming, yet so many in recent memory have lacked something or other to truly make them essential purchases. If it’s not a game that steadfastly refuses to budge out of the ‘90s then it’s a title that manages to mess up the mechanics badly enough to undo any innovations. There are exceptions of course, most of them from one studio (Hint: they made a rather good shoot em’ up with Res and Gun in the title). Helldivers is the latest to attempt to make this seemingly difficult balance of old and new work, and work it certainly does.
Plot summary out of the way early on: In Helldivers, you play as a soldier in the military group known as the Helldivers, fighting on the front line in an interplanetary war between humans, cyborgs, aliens and giant bugs (each race is rolled out after a set amount of time). The general feel of Helldivers is evocative of schlock Sci-Fi flick Starship Troopers with its rolling news, campy and unsubtle satire on war and wartime jingoism. It’s a tone that suits it well, but that’s just the window dressing. The more intriguing aspect of this story is in what it means for the gameplay.
At bare bones level, Helldivers is pretty similar to games like Dead Nation and the recent #killallzombies, but with space bugs instead of the undead. Played from an almost isometric viewpoint and utilizing the analogue sticks to move, aim and fire while mapping various specials to the triggers, this is twin-stick 101. So what does Helldivers bring to the table to make it distinctive? Well, firstly (and most importantly) it brings strategy.
Yes, that’s right, while many in this genre are happy to let you survive endless swarms of enemies based on reflexes alone, Helldivers gives you options. Granted, we aren’t talking XCOM or even Total War levels of strategic battle, but there is a refreshing amount of variety in tactics for a twin-stick shooter. For example, you choose where to insert your soldier on the map, often throwing up the conundrum of going closer and potentially leaving yourself a long way from the extraction site. Also of note is that you can evade a fair few skirmishes with careful map-checking and swift elimination of enemy scout units. It seems odd to say it, but there is an immense satisfaction to be had by completing a mission with as little gunfire as possible.
Even if you do get overwhelmed, you can call in various drops to aid you, including gun turrets, air strikes and extra ammo. Each request has a limited amount of uses and there is a window of time between punching in the code (inputted by four or more d-pad presses, a system also used for triggering bigger strikes and reactivating SAM sites) and getting what you requested. This can lead to some genuinely intense moments as you zig-zag between enemies while waiting for ammo. These drops are completely optional yet it’s amazing how quickly a routine mission can turn into chaos as you get a little trigger-happy and find your guns depleted because the available ammo is also limited. Setting up turrets near an objective is a sound tactic in practice and would render them over-powered if used wrong, but happily, Helldivers isn’t going to go that easy on you. You see, friendly fire is a thing in Helldivers, and that includes your turrets.
You can go prone to avoid getting shot to pieces, but that leaves you unable to do anything noteworthy like shoot or reload. This makes teamwork and communication all the more important when there is up to four of you spraying bullets and deploying air strikes. If just one squadmate gets too sloppy it can end up decimating your squad in a flash on higher difficulty missions, leaving you all hammering the X button to stop yourselves bleeding out. That’s if you’re lucky and a swarm of bugs isn’t continuing to eviscerate your prone body.
Thankfully this system never feels unfair or frustrating and it is often a source of hilarity when one of your team wanders lazily underneath the exact spot you chose to place an ammo drop or someone forgets to duck your turret. Even if strangers attempt to deliberately screw you over, a quick report is all it takes to ensure you don’t play with that person again as the game lumps bad sports together to go and play badly against each other.
It’s fair to say Helldivers is at its best in co-op. One of the options when low on numbers is to send out an S.O.S beacon that is basically an ‘’invite all’’ trigger to allow anyone to join your game, especially useful in later missions where it really does rest on teaming up with others as things get increasingly more frantic and brutal. Doing any of those missions solo is suicide, doable for anyone looking for a challenge, but missing the point of what makes Helldivers so much fun. Whichever way you tackle it, there are triumphant fist-pumps to be had every time you survive a final onslaught and board the jump ship to safety while the splendid victory theme plays out in the background.
The bigger minus points with Helldivers are merely cosmetic ones. It looks decent for the genre, if not dazzling and the environments are sometimes bland and repetitive, but it shouldn’t sour the experience for anyone bar graphical snobs. The design of the different races is fairly generic sci-fi stuff, but again it’s hardly an issue for all bar the fussiest gamers. The only other potential snag is that the game is quite unforgiving. There will be plenty that will savour that as it is fair and hugely rewarding, but it could come across as a bit of a daunting uphill struggle.
Helldivers genuinely surprised me with how ruddy good it is. The balance of difficulty, strategy, fun and teamwork is near-perfectly executed. The missions are just the right size to instill that ‘’one more time’’ mantra in you and remain challenging enough to keep you on your toes even as you seemingly get wise to them. Throw in your standard upgrading of equipment and feeling of camaraderie as everyone works towards eliminating the various threats around the galaxy and you have a superb shoot ‘em up that manages to keep it wholly relevant in the present gaming world without sacrificing the retro roots that makes such titles so satisfying to begin with.