Featuring a propaganda trailer opening that feels like it was lifted out of the classic movie Starship Troopers, Helldivers spins a tale of a somewhat dystopian-feeling "Super Earth," where "managed democracy" has ensured freedom and liberty for all.
However, before you have time to read between the lines and wonder exactly what kind of a future this particular 2084 really is, the narrative swiftly moves on to the threats that are putting it in jeopardy. And that's three alien races that are essentially creating a tri-front war, with Super Earth beset on all sides by the tyranny and evil of the Cyborgs, Bugs and Illuminate - each a major threat to Super Earth's way of life.
That's where you come in, as a newly-recruited Helldiver, the soldiers and defenders of Super Earth who are the stars of this top-down, twin-stick shooter. However, when I say shooter, you're probably thinking of a simple arcade game. Helldivers is anything but. The action certainly is straightforward, but mapped on top of it is a leveling system, weapons and armor upgrades, perks, and a huge, procedurally generated campaign that maps into a global meta-war, in which all players essentially participate. The overall game feels almost like a simplified Destiny meets a top-down arcade shooter. Indeed, my Helldivers character, currently dressed in Ranger gear, looks like she could have just strolled out of Bungie's game and into this one.
Since the game is quite complex and takes about 40 hours to reach maximum level, I'm going to break this review up into a series of impressions, rather than provide a more structured review:
The action starts with a series of short training missions that essentially give you the lay of the land. It's not particularly difficult, but gives you a good sense of how tricky Helldivers can sometimes be. Not necessarily in the conceptual sense - it's pretty much a straightforward twin-stick shooter - but more in the controls feeling quite fiddly for what is ostensibly an arcade game. Early missions are simple: travel to a planet, find a specific piece of armament and activate it by standing next to it and pressing a combo of joypad inputs (such as up, up, left, right, left, up), and then head to the extraction point and summon a shuttle using another combo. I'm not quite sure what benefits this combo activation adds to the game, but I found it a little annoying. I get that it adds some odd kind of urgency under pressure when you have aliens chasing you around, but it just seems a little unnecessary. Yet it's something that seems to be a theme in this game.
There are also stratagems that you can use - essentially power-ups/reinforcements that you can call in or summon whenever things start getting a little hot. These are again summoned with a combo, and again it feels a little clumsy as a solution to this mechanic. It seems that it would have been much more convenient and straightforward to simply activate the stratagem menu and then select one by highlighting it. The game is plenty challenging enough without making it even harder by giving you power-ups that are difficult to use in the heat of battle. Perhaps the designers added this kind of extra pressure in difficult circumstances to up the feeling of stress under fire, but I just don't particularly enjoy it. I'd prefer the challenge to be all about blasting aliens in the face, rather than frantically trying to enter a series of commands to activate the stratagem I want.
I'm jumping straight into this criticism as it's one of the first issues I had with this game. As you progress and begin to learn the combos, it does get easier to use them, but even so, I just don't feel they add much to the game, other than frustration as you learn them - and stress in the heat of battle when you're surrounded by enemies and you just want to activate something.
The second immediate impression of Helldivers is that it's pretty damn challenging. It's first and foremost a multiplayer game, and it seems that it's expected that you'll almost always be playing with somebody else. I made my way through the early levels on my own, but it was quite a struggle. Sometimes in a good way, where I felt really under the gun, and managed to just about get on the shuttle by kiting swarms of enemies around and leaping on board at the last moment. However, I felt like I was getting away with it more by using an exploit than skill here. I then had another player join me for a few missions, and things felt a lot more like they're meant to be, with both of us gunning down waves of aliens and covering each other while we took precious moments to reload (which happens a lot more than you'd like). You can also run out of ammo fairly quickly, so you have to be judicious with your shots. It's possible to call in more ammo via a stratagem, but you need to think ahead, as it's another combo-item that can sometimes be tricky to cast in the heat of battle.
Extraction following the completion of mission objectives is never a straightforward affair: there's always a 90-second wait for the shuttle, and this essentially provides a finale to the proceedings - you're attacked by swarms of aliens the whole time (unless you get very lucky), which pretty much feels like a boss fight without the bosses.
The game definitely gets easier as you begin to level up. Basically you can keep grinding the early levels to boost your character and at around level 7, I seem to be in a nice sweet spot where I can grind easy planets with fairly low stress, and still make enough xp to keep me progressing forward.
So far, my missions have been adding a few points to the Galactic Campaign - the overall global meta-campaign that everyone's actions ultimately contribute to. Apparently, from time to time the enemy counterattacks, spawning events where you need to defend specific locales from attack by the enemy. So far I haven't seen one of these, but it sounds interesting. If the community doesn't get involved in the attack and help repel the menace, that particular region will be lost to Super Earth and gained by the invaders.
If this loss continues, the aliens will continue to gain ground to a point where they can capture Super Earth, resulting in a Campaign Defeat. Pushing the enemies back and taking their homeworld results in a Campaign Victory. This ebb-and-flow takes place over a four to six week cycle, and victory or defeat essentially resets the campaign and it starts over again. With three different alien campaigns to manage, that ensures that there are always Campaign missions available as well as normal missions.
While I wait for Global Campaign special missions to kick off, I've been working my way through the regular missions, and so far it's been a bit of a mixed bag. Early on at least, the proceedings feel just a little repetitive. Graphically, the game looks gorgeous, with exquisite attention to detail on the characters and backdrops, but there's a certain repetitiveness to the way missions have been working. So far, there are three kinds of basic objectives – keep an area clear of aliens for a specific period of time, pick something up and drop it off somewhere else, and find and activate a piece of machinery – and then head to the extraction point.
That's it so far, and it feels a little on the rote side. Making things worse is the fact that the aliens are not particularly interesting or varied so far in terms of behavior. They look different, but generally speaking I'm using the same tactics to fight them, whether they're Bugs, Cyborgs or the Illuminate. I guess the same could be said of a game like Diablo III, but there's a feeling of progression and adventure there. In Helldivers, it feels more like a point-to-point affair where exploration is largely pointless because there's nothing on the map other than the objectives: just follow the same routine over and over again.
One thing I quickly realized when I finally got into some multiplayer missions is that this game has friendly fire. Indeed, I discovered that when a player jumped into my game, literally on top of me, which killed me outright. Considering I was running towards a shuttle to be extracted, that was extremely frustrating. It was an accident, but needless to say, the opportunities for griefing are rife in this game. To help with that, there's a system that enables you to commend other players for good play, or report them for bad. The matchmaking system basically places like with like, so those who don't respect their comrades, or are simply a little too trigger happy for their own good will end up getting matched with players of a similar temperament. Those who are high on commendations will get matched with others of the same type.
Things definitely begin to get more interesting at higher levels. I now have a mech that I can jump inside and drive around. That's really good fun, and basically lets me waste every alien that runs at me. Great fun – until the ammo runs out, of course. There are other vehicles at higher levels you can also use, and I'm looking forward to checking those out.
In the meantime, the grind to level up is beginning to feel like a grind. Despite the planets and missions being procedurally generated, they tend to feel like much of a muchness. The missions ultimately boil down to the same basic routines, and there isn't much in the way of variety within certain levels. I'm hoping the game begins to pick up at higher levels with different objectives mixed together to help break up the… I hate to say it… feeling of repetitiveness.
I played the first Global Campaign levels today, and discovered that they're very similar to regular missions. I was hoping that perhaps there might be more unique objectives in terms of gameplay and play mechanics, but that wasn't the case.
The thing is, the action is actually really good. Multiplayer firefights can be really intense affairs, with a high level of stress because you have to be careful about shooting each other, while also making sure you don't get shot by your own stratagem like autoguns (which can waste you if you stand between them and an alien swarm). I particularly like the frantic 90 seconds where you have to camp an evac point and await the shuttle – and that's amongst the most exciting action in the game. Just make sure the shuttle doesn't land on you, because if it does, you're dead.
I'm making serious progress now, and it's clear the game gets much better the more you play it. Higher levels are definitely more exciting, with a better mix of mission objectives. It's also clear that this really is best played with multiple players. While it's perfectly possible to play it as a single player, it's much, much slower to level on your own.
One thing I do wonder about, however, is the ability to jump into another person's mission near the very end and gain full xp. That seems like something that certain players might exploit: look down the list of multiplayer games, jump into one that's been in progress for a good few minutes and simply help out with the final objective or two – and gain xp for everything that's already been done. That doesn't sound right to me. If this feature makes it through to launch, I imagine it'll have to be fixed at some point to stop people from mooching.
I got into an extended session with a group of players who were talking and working together, and that's been the best fun I've had so far: multiplayer is definitely where this game shines. The way you have to work together, dynamically to eliminate immediate threats, and can use stratagem defensively makes it quite strategic. This combined with the fast-action gameplay delivers something that feels stressful, tense and dynamic – in a very good way.
It's tough too. Friendly fire and the relentless nature of the gameplay make it a real challenge to play. You have to bring your A-game otherwise you're more of a liability to your team than an asset. I played last night and I was just a little too tired, and I was getting myself killed in the most stupid ways possible – much to the annoyance of my teammates.
I'm getting used to the combo system now, but it still throws up occasional snafus when you're in the heat of battle. I can see why the designers have put it into the game, but as I've already said, like friendly fire, it's not always conducive to fun: it's something you'll probably either love or loathe.
I've had a lot of fun with Helldivers. It's a complex and deep arcade game that has a lot going for it. I really like the idea that it's cross buy, cross play and cross save across PS4, PS3 and PS Vita. I played it on PS4 and Vita and it works great on both systems, although Vita was a little trickier to play simply because the button layout isn't quite as natural feeling as it is on the Dual Shock 4.
The game works best as a multiplayer game. You can play it single-player, but it does feel more of a grind, plus it's much, much harder to play on your own. With multiple players, the game comes alive in terms of the kind of action it offers, and you can be more aggressive about tackling tougher, more xp-rich missions. It's also possible for a higher-level player to power level low-level players by accompanying them on more challenging difficult missions, which is a cool feature.
The landscaping does become somewhat repetitive in terms of the way it's procedurally laid out, but that said, Helldivers does look outstanding, and the attention to detail – like smoking cartridges flying from your gun, and footprints being left in sand and snow – gives the game a really realistic feel.
That feeling of repetitiveness also extends to the gameplay somewhat. Leveling can sometimes feel like a grind when you have to complete the same sort of missions repeatedly, but fortunately the action is exciting enough to help take your mind off the fact that you're often doing the same sort of things over and over again. It definitely gets a lot more exciting at higher levels, though, especially once you start using vehicles as part of your stratagem, and you're facing off against hordes of very large armored aliens.
Ultimately, Helldivers is a sophisticated arcade game that offers some superb multiplayer action. It's challenging too. Friendly fire and the occasionally fiddly controls can cause frustration at times, but overall it works within the greater context of making a tough shooter where you really have to concentrate to play it well. One feels with a little more work – perhaps with some more interesting and varied objectives – Helldivers could have been an absolute classic. As it stands, it's very good. Just remember to not shoot your friends…
Outstanding attention to detail, and gorgeous backdrops.
The music is stirring, but gets rather repetitive after a while. The sound effects are great, however.
Very well designed and easy to use.
40+ hours of gameplay to reach top level, and a high degree of challenge delivers plenty of long-term play. Assuming you don't mind it occasionally feeling like a grind.
A well designed, challenging and entertaining shooter that's best appreciated as a multiplayer game. More variety in mission types would help it feel less of a grind, however.