When I first heard of Helldivers by Arrowhead Studios it was last summer. It looked like a twin stick shooter wrapped in a seeming generic sci-fi shell. Helldivers seems to have as many things about it that get in it’s own way as it does things that it does well, but game’s magic rides on all of those elements working in concert to form something greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Full disclosure: I played Helldivers with a group of friends, all while voice chatting and in a separate party. Though spotty online connectivity during our session seemed to hamper our night more than once — the PS4’s party chat system and Helldivers online connectivity don’t seem to play well together — having friends to play this game with, really helps unlock the magic of the whole experience. So with four headsets on and our downloads at 99% we prepared to walk down the road to hell together.
Starting the game was a generally laborious experience, animated stills of a storyline about “Super Earth” and a “managed democracy” tell the story of an Earth that is under attack by — get this — three types of alien races! Thank god there were only three or else games like this and Star Craft may have to do a hell of a lot more asset building and balancing. The intro scenes are well rendered, but mostly unimportant. I literally had to look up the plot on Wikipedia as I tried my best to skip this content, especially with my friends in wing. After a few fat-thumb presses all over my controller I was ready to begin. Now a tutorial gated me to starting the game, forced me to click through monologues from an actual robot, and a beginning mission that lacked a clear sense of purpose or even guided me through it in a timely or gripping way. Finally I arrive on the bridge of a ship and was told all about selecting missions. Another seeming inscrutable process that left my head spinning. I was worried I had wasted not just my time and money, but the money and time I had coerced my friends into spending with this game. After we had all made it through battling with the on-boarding system of the game, I’m happy to report things changed. Quite a bit actually.
What followed next was something remarkable. A game that actually required four people — Dan, Yannick, Vishal and I — to actively speak, coordinate, direct and help each other to accomplish their goals. We all started to drift into natural positions and eventually felt reasonably expert in our roles. I got to be a free-range damage dealer who threw down turrets to clear an area in a jam. Yannick was diligently checking the map for objectives and leading the group around, Vishal was calling down drones to scan the areas for baddies and treasure, and Dan was calling resurrection pods and picking up resources to help level up our characters. All the while trying to watch each others backs and more than occasionally end up shooting each other right in the face.
When you play as four people, and you complete a mission, everyone gets the exact same amount of experience, everyone gets the same amount of treasure. It’s flat across the board, which means you never get out of sync of your friends while you are together, but ultimately looses out on rewarding individuals for particularly skilled play. Which is a bit odd considering the game will call out who had the most kills, was the most accurate, and even who had the most “accidents”. In the end it didn’t bug me all that much because I was having so much fun and the game kept the experience fair for us all.
That’s right, you can absolutely kill your friends, and it even becomes perhaps the shining mechanic in Helldivers. Everything wants to kill you. The bad guys want to kill you, your own turret will mow you down if you stand in its way, even the resurrection pods I mentioned can drop down and end up crushing you. The end of each demands you defeat a point for a set amount of time, and If you’re not careful, the rescue shuttle that’s there to evacuate you and your crew thinks you make a better landing pad than survivor. It happens so often, but it still managed to make us all burst out laughing or audibly groan with ever floating skull that would appear over our little characters.
As for the individual parts of the game, It’s a give and take. While the mission select structure is convoluted, actually being on a mission feels good. Once you’ve done one mission and navigated the map, you’re a millions times more qualified to handle the rest of the game. Turning off help tips avoids an interface that literally seems to have things overlapping things that are already overlapping your hud. The loading icon sits atop the pop-up-tips that sit on top of anything else the game is throwing at you. Turn it off in settings once you get the gist, you’ll have a better time. The character customization is fine, but missing interesting things like height, meaningful body-type and animation choices, and where the heck can I change my armor accent color? The online system felt spotty in my time with the game, and they don’t do much to make you care about some world-wide community war against the monsters.
The upshot is that upgrading your character is satisfying, and the choices provided for weapon and skill upgrades feel meaningful, and you can perceive the benefit immediately. The levels may feel a bit generic but they’re very well rendered, which nice little touches like footprints, and cloth physics that are so good, twirling around our capes became a primary form of both communication, celebration, and just about any other thing we could use it for. The game difficulty scales well, and never forces you to play anything that is too beyond your skill level. The action is both well paced, and demanding of you all at the same time, and every part of the in-mission events feels like a game, activating objectives and using skills asks you to use the directional pad on your controller to enter codes that harken back to the days of the 8 and16-bit consoles where you were trying to give yourself unlimited lives in Contra or call up the world select screen in Sonic 2. It’s also a fantastic value, coming it at $20 for the game, that works across PS4, Vita and PS3. There’s no reason why you can’t play with a friend if they have a Sony console.
I was fortunate enough to capture the moment thanks to the sharing capabilities of this generation of consoles, where I fell in love with Helldivers. It was a mission where we had completed all of our objectives and had over a minute of trying to fend off the bugs before our shuttle arrived, and things were looking grim. If the entire party dies, the mission ends and you collect a fraction of your experience. First the bugs downed Yannick, and he slowly backed away frantically tapping “X” to get back up and into the fight. A moment later Vishal tried to stop an enemy from advancing on him and Dan and a slightly misplaced shot meant lights-out for Dan. Trying to intervene I turned my sights to the problem to the bottom of the screen and was downed by a bug at my back. Without backup Vishal was eviscerated below all pulling enough attention and I dragged myself away from the landing zone to pull the attention of the bugs, buying enough time for Yannick to get some distance and unload a clip of his pistol, as his primary weapon was out of ammo. We were all shouting over our headsets, each trying to coordinate then after dying trying to help whomever remained. Yannick got far enough away to type in the code for a resurrection pod, hurling it with is last breath before being killed, and sacrificed himself to save the group. In two seconds flat we saw our names appear again, and to our surprise, Yannick was being dropped with us — he must have by chance nailed the timing of the resurrection perfectly — we all cheered loudly, as all four of us returned to the battlefield, mowing down the enemy reinforcements and making it to the extraction we so desperately required.
I wish I could have captured the voice chat for you. The whole sequence felt more like something out of a hollywood blockbuster, with the sounds of beasts screaming as they were torn apart, guns blazing as we unloaded clip after clip, and orchestral music pounding in the background that felt ripped from action movies of decades past. That’s where this fledgling game becomes priceless. Helldivers proved to me that’s it’s something special, go convince all of your buddies to buy it, crack open your favorite drink and cancel your evening plans. It’s worth it.