One of the best things about this job besides the whiskey, has to be the trips the little details that come up while doing game research. Did you know that power armor, bug hunts, and a critical view of the soldier-citizen is all a part of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers?It’s impressive how many science fiction works have been influenced by his novels, from Warhammer 40,000 to Aliens.
An opening cinematic lays down the thick Veerhoven (director of Starship Troopers, the film that misinterpreted Heinlein’s book), inspired propaganda for military action in favor of Super Earth. You are a Helldiver. A single unit trained for orbital insertion into hostile territories. Your space getup is more akin to an ancient Roman Centurion; fancy cape, distinguished helm, and heavy metallic plates. As pimp as that might sound, its not enough armor. If you’re lucky, you will only be outnumbered 250 to 1 on your next sortie.
Helldivers are just a number, they don’t matter. The war matters, lives are replaceable. Helldivers die, another will take your place. Forget to duck out of the way soldier? Sentry guns will mow down enemies, but if you are in that line of fire, well that’s a damn shame. Someone more alert with proper ducking skills, will fill in the ranks. Get the picture?
Cyborgs, insectoid alien “bugs” and psionic powered beings have given humanity’s “managed democracy” the proverbial middle finger. So now they have to contend with the Helldivers. Your fight is a persistent online war, presented in top down shooter fashion. Each victory (or defeat) helps sway control of a sector. Each win may not seem like much, a drop of water in a bucket. Over time with thousands of player wins, then perhaps the Helldivers” will prevail.
It’s hell being a helldiver, and that’s not an exaggeration. So enjoy your warm cup of cocoa, your fuzzy Littlest Pet Shop full body pajama, and sucking your thumb one last time, because in the morning your Helldivers mission is going to make your little boy parts drop (caution, if your boy parts have dropped, they’ll be swaying below your patellas by lunch).
Everything is out to kill you soldier! Burrowing aliens! Swarming cyborgs! Shielded white golf ball monstrosities overrun you! Friendly turrets can shoot you in the back while engaging enemies. Aerial support teams can blow you up while strafing bugs. Grenades can take an unlucky bounce – meaning you’ll be referred to as Mr. Stumpy at the next Super Earth New Year’s party. There are no guardrails by the lava pits, easy to fall over in the heat of the action. One space trooper versus such odds might seem like fighting against the wind. However Helldivers have one powerful ability that could give them above all of these obstacles: teamwork.
Helldivers is an intense coop experience. The game is meticulously crafted to force patient, intelligent, and deliberate teamwork to survive. Yes, you can play solo missions, they are tedious one player can overcome the odds, and complete one or two objectives and manage to survive extraction. Harder missions and difficult worlds, that yield the most XP and rewards, are impossible to do without a team. You’ll need comrades to lift you up when knocked over, reinforcements when being overrun. This may put off lone wolf types. But there’s a whole other group of game fans that want the kind of brutal non-forgiving experience that feels like ripping coarse chest hairs off with rusty Epiladies with a splash of sexy iodine.
Helldivers have several customization options, most revolve around defense and support functions. Leveling up and/or completing all the missions on a world earns you a new weapons, perks, or skills. These new boosts are upgraded further in the armory terminal, located to the left of the bridge viewing panels. In the middle, the mission selection table, and around it are the four drop tubes to launch to the surface below.
Basic movement and aiming is familiar for twin stick shooter games. Left stick moves, right stick aims (good luck keyboard and mouse users, in this game its the control scheme of choice for masochists). Left trigger fires, right trigger tosses one of two grenades from your arsenal. Keep in mind that reloading your weapon forfeits the remaining bullets in the clip, which you need to manage. Reloading at the wrong time could mean getting tossed on your armored anus by an enemy. Getting tossed on your armored anus happens often, explosions, enemy fire, aliens that melee you; and before you know it your picking pebbles out of your keister while enemies close in.
Without a partner readily available to help, you are forced to smack the A button repeatedly to stand back up. In this predicament you are extremely vulnerable. It takes a good amount of time to stand up. Swarming enemies will show no mercy, and continue to damage you if they are close. It is deliberately frustrating, but one that encourages comrades to stay close while discouraging solo play.
Turrets, strafing runs, supply drops, and other abilities are selected before you head down to the planet from the mission options screen. By holding down a button on your controller and entering in the patterns indicated you can call down that special ability while in combat. What kills enemies will also kill you, so being judicial on your placement is important. Also some abilities have limits per mission, and a cooldown period before it can be used again, so being frivolous with abilities is also a bad idea. With constant enemy patrols, enemies that alert other patrols to assist when you are spotted, hanging around any area waiting for abilities to cool off is discouraged.
However with fellow players backing you up, most of the ability recharge aggravation is mitigated. Getting overrun can still occur, but a partner laying down flamethrower waves while another lifts you off the ground is a lot more effective than beating down waves alone. Together teammates can cover a player as he taps in lengthy directional combos on his D-pad to hack an objective or call down an air strike. My first 10 missions I went at it alone, followed by just as many with allies. The difference is striking. While still difficult and unforgiving, it’s brilliance as a tactical coop experience is undeniable.
All missions end with at an extraction point, where every sentient thing on that planet surges towards your position. While you await a shuttle craft to land and rescue the squad. In other words, every mission ends with the infamous scene from Platoon. My teammates would hold off swarms just long enough for me to deploy a turret. Then we would cower behind it as the swarms kept coming. With ammo running low we resorted to tossing strafing runs intermittently, and finally with 10 seconds, left scurry to the landing site (don’t let the ship land on you). Jumping on board, with enemy fire burning a hole in our backs, Our shuttle taking off utterly surrounded in a sea of chattering angry alien bugs.
Enemy variety is a plus, with the more advanced units showing up as you progress into harder missions. Helldiver’s flanking AI tactics will keep you and your squad, on your toes. You may start getting used combating the same kinds of swarming bugs or cyborg maniacs with the same tactics. Relying heavily on deployable turrets to defend a wide area. Keep in mind that the game adapts to this, shielded mechanisms nullify your deployable flamethrowers, or long range snipers will start destroying your turrets in a couple of shots. You must adapt your tactics to survive.
Helldivers’s planetary scenery can be pretty plain, and its overall lighting and visual look lacks a certain visceral appeal befitting of the horrors of war. Still there guns have visual and sound effects that give off the impression of raw power in all directions. The shuddering of a powerful machine gun turret rounds decimating a wave of enemies. Your own weaponry leaving trails of smoke and tracer fire. The rattling gunfire and detonating ordinances will explode from your speakers, the action gets chaotic and the audio is up to the task.
Where Helldiver’s falters is in the way it clings heavily to grinding. Hours of highly similar missions to increment stats and war results. Considering that missions are essentially a variation of go here, defend that, and survive extraction it’s hard not to get bored of the routines. Even with how great coop play can be, jumping on a hamster wheel with buddies can still be jumping on a hamster wheel.
Helldivers doesn’t apologize for its difficulty and heavy reliance forming cohesive teams. This approach is refreshing and enjoyable. “Wait! WAIT! We can’t leave Joe behind! PICK HIM UP!!! PICK HIM BUGS!!!” these are excerpts from our cooperative game chatter, and I DIG that. The way ability use is controlled, limited ammo requires consideration, and how relentless the flanking AI drew me back into this game. It’s repetitive grind doesn’t change the fact this game is an white-knuckle adrenaline surging bug stomp with friends.