After a hard day at the office sometimes all you want to do is blow something up, fortunately gamers get to do that whenever we wish and that is why we are such a happy, stress-free group of people.. right? Helldivers was developed by Arrowhead Studios and originally released in March 2015, as you might imagine with Sony publishing it arrived exclusively on all Playstation platforms and then that Christmas on PC. After a friend decided to pick it up last week I joined him and after a rummage through our Steam friends we now have a four-man team ready to lay down suppressing fire and nuke everything from orbit. A cheeky review is in order, so let us take a look at Helldivers on PC.
The setting for the game is simple, mankind has now developed the ability to warp around the galaxy and of course whenever humans do this there will be a group of aliens lining up to put us back in our place. In terms of enemy races, we have a big cliche sandwich in the form of the Cyborgs, the Illuminate (why can't they ever just be nice?) and the Bugs. You run your campaign of war from the bridge of your Starship, where you can choose upgrade to gear, check out ongoing co-op games to join or select a new mission of your own.
When choosing a mission your first task will be to select a race to fight and then you will be presented with a string of planets. As you first start out with Helldivers you have limited gear at your disposal but as you complete all the missions on the surface you will be given the item reward for that planet. If you already have that item you will be given a boost of XP instead. The planets range in difficulty, from the left being easiest (dive in the park) to the far right being the most challenging (Helldiver). When you pick a mission you will see a random bunch of white icons on the map and these represent objectives which can vary from destroying a number of structures, scanning for mines or carrying an objective a set distance (and many more). As the team leader, you need to select a drop point, players then choose their equipment loadout and it's time to take the express elevator to hell.
Once planet side you have an unlimited amount of time to complete all the objectives and then reach the evacuation point from where you will be taken back to your ship in orbit. Sounds simple enough right? Well, the developers have made a few design choices that will constantly keep you on your toes, the first being that all players share the same view window. This means that when in a co-op game nobody can break off and go lone wolf. This is genius in a way because it forces players who don't know each other from Adam to work as one unit. Of course, you will get some players who will just not agree on which direction to head and these games will very quickly end with a massacre. To help with this the game does have a built in VoIP which allows players to talk without using TS or Discord: yes you will get an unwanted soundbite from strangers lives sometimes but that's the internet for you.
The second and certainly the most interesting design decision made by Arrowhead was to include friendly fire. You can stab, shoot, crush, burn and explode any of your teammates at any time. Hell, often you will take someone out just by entering the game and landing square on their face with your drop pod. This can be problematic in a game with your friends, never mind with randoms have just linked up with. As we all know the Internet is full of dickheads and trolls who love nothing better than to spoil other people games. I've even heard of people who drop into a game, kill everyone and then disappear. I pity the gamers who would spend time doing this but regardless it is a big downside to the friendly fire being always on. In contrast, with a weeks play under my belt, I have not come across one player who has intentionally set out to ruin a game. More on from that, having to watch where you fire and drop ordinance actually becomes a satisfying part of the experience. Often you will find yourself being overwhelmed and on top of making quick decisions, you also have to avoid wiping your entire squad out with a single rogue grenade. With the right people by your side, friendly fire adds far more than it takes away and there's nothing more rewarding than picking off enemies around a floundering teammate.
As well as weapons your troops can call down stratagems from orbit by punching in a selection of directional commands specific to that item. You can call down a whole suite of items, from ammo crates, automated turrets and even Mech Suits or a multi-crew APC. Ordinance such as artillery and orbital lasers can also be called in this way. While I favour the controller for Helldivers this mechanic does offer a reasonable argument for using mouse and keyboard. Regardless of which you use watching your last standing teammate attempt to press the right keys for a revival as he's utterly surrounded is one of the tension fuelled highlights of the game.
'Become an Entomologist they said'
If you have seen the 1997 action flick Starship Troopers will notice the strong influences right away, everything from the gung-ho 'do your bit' intro sequence to the actual aesthetics of the Bug race. I've not compared them side by side but these truck sized invertebrates certainly look like the ones found in the film. That's not a bad thing mind, they look great. In fact, the whole game looks great, from the awesome destruction you blaze across the screen to the explosive ways your enemies depart this world: especially the bugs. I challenge anyone to jump in a mech suit, mow down a horde of giant insects and not feel epic. The PC version does look crisper as you might imagine and the view window does seem slightly further back but overall there really isn't much difference between the PC and PS4 version other than framerate.
All for one
As mentioned the galaxy is split into thirds and each has numerous sectors spreading out from the centre where the human 'super earth is located. Everything you do contributes to community influence which in turn feeds into a pool of progression. In this way, the entire Helldiver community can either conquer a hostile race or let it advance towards your home planet. There are numerous outcomes to each 'session' from a total win where all enemy races are vanquished to humans losing super earth. Each time the board is reset and the cycle begins again, think of it like Groundhog Day on a galactic scale.
I do have mixed feeling about this system: I'm overall glad they did include it but you never feel like you effort really make much difference. To be fair there are situations that crop up, such as capital cities under siege where you have a set amount of time to repeal the attack. I do have concerns that when the games player base drops to a certain level this mechanic will cease to function properly and effectively kill the game for the remaining players. This can obviously be avoided as long as the contribution requirements shift depending on the current player base: at this time I don't know if it does but I will try and contact Arrowhead for some information.
So Helldivers totally nails the core experience and every in-game system is rock solid: even the multiplayer comes off without a hitch. How long you stick with Helldivers will really depend on the kind of player you are because after a few weeks the games appeal will start to wane for some players.
With two 'expansions' under its belt, the game does have more mission variety now, there are more events that can take place as well as a few new enemy types. However, I can't help feel like Arrowhead Studios have really failed to innovate here on what could have been so much more. How about missions with more of a theme, breaking into enemy garrisons for example or fighting through derelict space hulks floating in orbit. It's always difficult to see how a developer sees their own product, maybe key people have moved on or perhaps they are just finished with this particular IP. I would hope that at the very least the team consider making another game based on the Helldivers formula with more variety, end of campaign boss fights and teams of Helldivers working together. I could even see Helldivers work as an MMO with some heavy tweaking but that would need a lot of work. These are all just random suggestions but ones born from a genuine respect for the product that is already in place and offers one hell of a fun experience: even if its appeal can be diminished by repetition. My advice is to play it from time to time rather than religiously every night for a month.
My final verdict on Helldivers is that it is certainly one of the most exhilarating and polished twin-stick shooters out there and even when the long term replay value sees a fast drop off, there is no denying this game is wall to wall fun provided you are playing with a group who know the meaning of teamwork.
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