In the grim darkness of the near future…
Mankind has expanded throughout the galaxy, having come together under one government, a “managed” democracy. From the Super Earth homeworld, humanity spreads its message of liberation and freedom to every planet they land upon; the liberation of their natural resources and freedom from human opposition, that is.
And if you don’t like it, expect them to spread a whole lot of ordinance instead.
Helldivers (PS4 [reviewed], PS3, PS Vita)
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Released: March 3, 2015
Helldivers is a squad-based sci-fi shooter, presented from an overhead perspective. Players take the role of a Helldiver, a special forces soldier trained to drop onto enemy planets from orbit as the tip of humanity’s conquering spear. Given command of a ship, Helldivers are directed to venture into star systems controlled by three alien races which threaten Super Earth’s way of life, pressing forward in an effort to conquer alien homeworlds.
While there’s an absence of any real plot, the setting of Helldivers does enough to establish itself as a pointed satire of American exceptionalism, colonialism, and military pride. From propaganda messages promoting the idea that Super Earth is spreading “democracy” through the galaxy (by the totally legitimate means of conquest), to the flavor dialogue spoken by Helldivers in the midst of a firefight (“Have a nice cup of liber-tea!”), it presents a scenario in which it’s made perfectly clear that there are no “good guys” in this war, only conquerors. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the sparse but effective setting material does just enough to allow the player to consider what they’re engaging in without distracting from the action, while delivering wry chuckles here and there.
Gameplay takes the form of planetary assaults, planned from the player’s orbiting ship. Choosing between one of the three fronts of the galactic war, players are presented with a range of incrementally difficult worlds to attack, each with missions which must be completed to deliver it into the control of the Super Earth government. Missions consist of objectives which, while varying based on which race is being fought, boil down to defending control points, activating Super Earth technology already on the planet, escorting people and supplies, and destroying enemy installations.
It’s a decent variety, and missions tend to offer a mix of objectives across the maps, rarely weighing too heavily on any one type of activity once the player is taking on missions with three and four objectives to complete. Escort tasks will probably still be everyone’s least favorite thing to do, whether it’s leading a group of survivors or following a supply train, but there isn’t a whole lot of punishment received for failing objectives on a mission, so long as you can get off the planet. Every mission ends with a last stand scenario where the team must hold out against oncoming enemies for an extraction shuttle to carry them safely away, and at least one Helldiver must extract for the mission to succeed.
On the ground, Helldivers plays with an interesting balance of stealth and combat. Enemy patrols roam the map, looking for your squad. At worst, these are small packs of a few enemies that can be easily dispatched, but they’re a tremendous threat to the mission. If a patrol spots the squad, they have to be killed immediately. Within seconds, patrol units can call in reinforcements to do real damage. And, while those troops are being dealt with, more patrols are moving in and calling their own squads of heavy hitters, snowballing into an massive conflict. Before long, the only options available become retreat or death.
This system allows the game to produce two distinct, potent forms of tension for the player. Combat encounters are exhilarating, with enemies actively working to flank and surround, Helldivers firing madly into hordes. That’s all good stuff. But the system of patrol units makes it equally tense to be out of combat, knowing that an encounter with the potential to escalate into an unsalvageable mess could happen at any moment.
The three enemy races, Bugs, Illuminates, and Cyborgs, are all distinct entities. Illuminate patrols consist of lone scouting robots, while the Cyborgs have a pack of light troopers surrounding a sturdier commander and Bugs use units of four scouts, all able to call reinforcements. Cyborgs focus more on ranged weapons and Bugs take up a hard melee approach to combat. All of the races have their light, medium, and heavy enemy types, but that and a common enemy in humanity is about all they share.
Helldivers can access many implements of destruction to help bring democracy to the galaxy. Players select a primary weapon before missions from a pretty standard selection of assault rifles, shotguns and submachine guns, though more exotic flamethrowers and laser cannons are options too. All of the weapons are fun to play with and there is no weapon with disadvantages that cannot be overcome by skillful use.
In addition to guns, players complete their loadout with four “strategems,” special abilities provided by the Helldiver’s vessel in orbit. Strategems come in many shapes and sizes. Some drop in a pod with extra ammunition, powerful secondary weapons, or even vehicles. Others provide defensive countermeasures, like enemy lures and antipersonnel mines, while more offensive strategems lay down strafing fire or drop explosives. They’re even used to heal and return fallen comrades to the battle. Coordinating with your squad in selecting them further enhances their power, as more squad members means more options.
These powerful tools also come with some downsides. Deploying a strategem is a two-step process which begins by using a communication device to input an authorization code, achieved by correctly tapping out an onscreen sequence for the desired strategem with the directional pad. This puts a targeting beacon in the player’s hand, which may be thrown into the field to indicate where the strategem should be deployed. Here’s the hitch: If one wanted to get technical, one could say it’s actually a three-step process, in that the first step is putting down the gun. If you’re tapping away at codes, you are not shooting that horde of cyborgs bearing down on you, and you’re certainly not going to be able to take out that patrol creeping up from behind.
And then there’s gravity. The Helldiver’s requisitions arrive on the planet essentially the same way the Helldivers themselves did; they’re dropped in from orbit. And while it seems obvious that you would avoid the immediate area around a beacon to which a phone booth sized hunk of metal is expected to plummet any second now, that little beacon can be overlooked when the bullets are flying (this is, of course, also a useful tactic for eliminating more troublesome enemies). It’s especially risky when reviving squad members, as there’s always doubt as to exactly where in the proximity of the beacon one to three people are going to suddenly crash on. Losing one Helldiver in the act of reviving another is a common occurence.
There is a certain measure of glee to be taken from Helldivers’ unsympathetic attitude toward its rules of engagement. Friendly fire isn’t a possibility; it’s a certainty, but it’s one the game applies to all living things and can be exploited as a combat strategy. Defensive turrets are able to distinguish friend from foe, but they cannot distinguish between foe and friend standing in front of foe. They’ll just cut down anything in the direction of a target, knocking a hapless Helldiver prone and struggling for life. Death happens so often and so quickly, it becomes a source of constant humor. You will eventually see someone crushed by an extraction shuttle as it lands and you will probably laugh. They will probably laugh too.
Completing missions earns experience points toward increasing rank, with higher ranks gaining access to more powerful weaponry. Weapons and strategems can be upgraded by spending resource points, earned with each rank and by collecting samples scattered throughout mission areas. Finishing all of the missions on a planet provides its own reward, either a new strategem or bonus experience points.
Missions also award influence, representing the player’s contribution to the larger galactic war participated in by all players. Influence is earned by finishing all mission objectives successfully, escaping with the full squad intact, and keeping casualties to a minimum, with higher difficulties multiplying the amount of influence earned. These points are used to determine leaderboard rankings, but also to determine the course of the war. A single war will last four to six weeks, with the results affecting the difficulty of the war to follow.
Each front is represented by a map with sectors separating Super Earth and the enemy homeworlds. Sectors become controlled by Super Earth when enough influence has been earned by all players, eventually extending all the way to the enemy homeworld. Reaching a homeworld triggers an event during which players have a limited amount of time to assault the source of an enemy race in the hope of conquering them completely, a feat which will require far more people than the small group playing in pre-release.
The galactic war doesn’t have a huge impact on the game, other than providing an excuse for event missions to occur. Yet, it does make you feel as though you’re contributing to the accomplishment of a goal, and it’s satisfying to see the rundown of which sectors have been taken and lost since the last time you played. It feels like something’s happening around you, even if that something may just be statistics.
Helldivers is best experienced as a multiplayer game, and joining an online session is about as quick and easy as starting a mission of your own. A couple of quick menu selections and you will, quite literally, drop in on another player’s mission in progress. Local multiplayer is also an option and, in the absence of outside life, it’s still enjoyable solo. Playing alone requires different strategies and offers less flexibility in strategem selection, which does make the already brutal higher difficulties seem even more insurmountable, but the satisfaction of single-handedly conquering a planet cannot be denied.
Unrelenting and brutal, Helldivers delivers fast-paced combat, epic standoffs and a comical approach to death. Its enemies are varied, powerful and a constant threat to the players. While the full impact of the larger multiplayer experience remains to be seen, it still adds a nice little scratch to the progress itch. The strategem system provides great flexibility in squad building with many ways to build out team roles to maximize defensive and offensive capabilities. With procedural map generation and just enough mission and enemy variety to prevent a sense of repetition, the twelve levels of difficulty ought to keep players challenged for a good long time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]