Helldivers is the finest cooperative game since Left 4 Dead, a frenzied team-based shooter where, if your enemies don’t get you, you’ll be got accidentally by your friends instead. It’s Starship Troopers meets Keystone Cops, a blend of frenetic action, tongue-in-cheek satire and slapstick comedy. It’s also fearsomely challenging and richly rewarding, taking no prisoners but recognising talent and teamwork.
Arrowhead Studios’ sci-fi shenanigans place you in the steelplated boots of a Helldiver, one of thousands of identikit interstellar soldiers tasked with bringing ‘democracy’ to the alien enemies of Super Earth in a vast galactic war. The Helldivers’ approach to spreading government via popular consensus is certainly unique – they land on an alien planet by orbital drop pod, then shoot or explode anything that comes within a hundred feet of their position until the planet is conquered.
In practice, there’s a lot more to playing Helldivers. Alien planets are divided into missions, which in turn comprise several objectives, which are randomly generated each time. To complete a mission, players must drop into it at a point they select, complete all the objectives, then activate an extraction beacon and fend off waves of enemies until a shuttle arrives to collect them.
While up to four players can work together on any given Helldiver mission, they’re always massively outnumbered by the alien presence, be it Starship Trooper-inspired hordes of insects, creepy cyborgs or Protoss-like hyperadvanced beings with smooth curves and energy-based weaponry. To make matters worse, each Helldiver drops into play with only two grenades and a small amount of ammo to combat these overwhelming forces.To stand any chance of survival, the Helldivers must employ their Stratagems – special abilities summoned from orbit by inputting a unique code based on the directional keys. They range from simple ammo drops to automated minigun turrets, devastating artillery barrages, more powerful weapons and even vehicles such as walking mechs or armoured personnel carriers.
The Helldiver arsenal is mightily impressive, with 51 Stratagems and around 20 standard weapons that can be unlocked by conquering planets. But what makes Helldivers such a brilliant, unpredictable cooperative experience isn’t the Stratagems’ strengths, but their weaknesses. The automated turrets are enormously powerful, but they shoot at any enemy that comes into range, whether there’s a Helldiver stood in the way or not. The mech offers fantastic protection, but it’s slow to turn and must be exited to complete objectives. The APC gets you around maps quickly and can run over enemies, but it will run you over as well if you’re not careful when disembarking. Imagine if the US military was supplied by ACME from Looney Tunes, and you have some idea of how the Helldivers operate.
This notion of the Helldivers being their own worst enemy runs through the whole game. Friendly fire is always on, so it’s easy to shoot your teammates, and difficult to get back up unless aided by a friend. If a Helldiver dies, they must be called back into play using a Stratagem, but the descending hellpod then kills anything on which it lands, including the Helldiver who summoned it if they’re not careful. Even the escape shuttle can squash you flat if you’re a little too keen to get off the planet.
Provided the team is organised and doesn’t panic, these accidents are easily avoided but, of course, the game tries to make you panic all the time. Each map is peppered by enemy patrols; if they spot you before you take them out, they call in a much larger assault on your position. Your adversaries don’t simply charge in from the sides either. They emerge from the ground, descend from the sky or teleport into the battlefield, often right in the middle of your ranks. Focusing on these enemies forces players to neglect new patrols, who call in more enemies, so the situation spirals out of control faster than a jet-powered dreidel.
Like the splendid Left 4 Dead, Helldivers doesn’t encourage teamwork by forcing interactions with other players, but by constantly trying to pull the team apart. The bonds of comradeship are forged in the fire of mayhem and combat, which is spectacular. Although it’s a top-down shooter, the game’s weapons carry the heft and force of the very best first person shooters.
The mech in particular is a stomping delight, its underslung minigun shredding opponents like a metal guitarist. Meanwhile, higher-level Stratagems include orbital rail-cannon strikes and devastating cruise missiles – thunderous treats delivered by Helldiver command. Considered as a pure action game, Helldivers is phenomenally entertaining.
There are a few issues though. It’s possible to play the game in single-player mode, and doing so poses a formidable tactical challenge. However, the pacing suffers greatly, and you lose much of the incidental hilarity that’s key to the overall experience. There’s also a meta-game component where your efforts in individual missions contribute to the broader galactic war, with fronts changing dynamically depending on player actions. However, unless you happen to be present when a war is won or lost, the impact of this component barely registers, save as a slightly irksome delay between missions as the game uploads the information to the server.
Yet even this flaw makes sense given Helldivers’ tone and context. What’s perhaps most pleasing about Helldivers is how all its parts play into its tongue-in-cheek send-up of the righteousness of western warfare. The Helldivers present themselves as ferocious, chest-beating purveyors of freedom through force, screaming ‘How about a nice cup of Liber-tea?’ as they unload a stream of bullets into the faces of baffled alien spiders. But the reality is that they’re barely competent cannon fodder fighting a morally outrageous conflict. Most missions are barely averted calamities, in which the Helldivers’ technological bombast is as much a hindrance as a help.
It’s hardly subtle satire, but the way in which it’s conveyed both systemically and aesthetically is ingenious. Helldivers is one of those rare games where everything fits together beautifully, resulting in a thrilling and volatile blend of ideas. RICK LANE
VERDICTWhether played locally with a partner, in a group with friends or online, Helldivers is cooperative heaven, and a snappy satire too.