If you have even the slightest interest in sci-fi, the first thing you’ll think of when you launch Arrowhead Games’ Helldivers is Starship Troopers. And that’s never a bad thing.
The references are deep in the opening cinematic, which recalls the ‘Do You Want to Know More’ screens of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical epic. Super Earth must be saved – which means you must go forth and kill anything which doesn’t have a human face. When your first enemies are bugs with a familiar terrifying tenacity, you’ll instantly feel right at home.
That connection is enough to give us a foothold in the far-flung future of the game but the experience quickly carves out a unique niche – first with a sense of dark humour and then with the surprisingly depth of its gameplay.
Helldivers is pitched as a twin-stick shooter but that tag tends to conjure up images of frivolous arcade fun. In truth, this game is often challenging and demands attention and a serious sense of strategy to survive.
So yes you will run with one stick and shoot with the other but base gameplay elements are shockingly realistic – guns have to be manually reloaded and you’ll be back in action faster if you reload before the end of a clip. But that also means losing whatever rounds were left, meaning even a decision this simple has to be weighed and balanced.
Missions in Helldivers are chosen on a large galactic map, with three fronts currently available. You can battle the familiar bugs, the cyborgs or the metallic hellions of the Illuminati, who are all super mad at Super Earth for some reason. Your fancy ship can warp to any of these areas, giving you the chance to select a planet to take on. Each is rated based on difficulty and unlocked as you level up, so you can easily choose how tough a time you want to have on the ground.
A typical mission in Helldivers sees you splashing down on enemy planet and trying to take on a series of mission objectives before being extracted. Sounds simple enough and it really is, with some missions taking significant less than 5 minutes.
You have a variety of guns at your disposal but your biggest asset comes in the form of strategems. These are essentially power ups which are called down from your ship by holding down the trigger and inputting a series of D-pad directions. That in itself is a masterstroke, forcing you to pause and press a long string as enemies bear down on you.
It’s worth the effort thought, because strategems are pretty awesome. You can call down things like extra ammo or a fairly weak airstrike to begin with, but you’ll add new items as you level up, and you can also increase their efficacy with research points you accumulate by levelling and picking up samples in the field.
So it won’t be long before you’re able to encase yourself in an armoured walker, grab a health booster for your allies or lay a surprise carpet of mines. But one stratagem which never got old was the turret. It’ll plop down in a field of enemies and carve them into kibble but even here there’s balancing to consider – the turret will kill anything in its path so be sure to hit the deck before it sprays.
Playing solo and on lower difficulties, its often enough to camp out at the extraction point with your turret buddy and wait for rescue – something which can quickly become repetitive, especially considering the range of mission types don’t vary much at the beginning. Thankfully, there’s plenty more to Helldivers.
For one, past the ‘easy’ missions (which have three levels) the difficulty really starts to ramp up and the game also offers up a lot of different content – from plenty of new enemy types to a better variety of missions and more of them to complete in a single run. Escorting stupid civilians is a real pain in the teeth.
But undoubtedly the best part of the game is its multiplayer element. Simple head to the pod on your ship’s bridge to find a game to teleport into. Up to four can play at once, though it wasn’t always easy to find a game during the review phase, something which will change after the retail release.
Everything that has the potential to become stale in solo play is erased by playing with others. The fights are utterly frantic every moment but there’s a sense of victory at every extraction. That said, the game is punishingly difficult for a crew which isn’t working together, leading to lots of expletives and battles which can turn on a misplaced bullet.
The game teaches you quickly though, and you’ll soon be thinking as part of the team – calling down ammo to help others and (most importantly) bringing them back to life should they expire. It’s the moments of chaos which are most memorable – like when you call down a helpful item which happens to squash one of your team-mates flat or when you first realise that the mech suit tends to kill your allies if you tread on them.
Arrowhead takes the multiplayer aspect even bigger here with a persistent conflict. Each and every battle you win or lose contributes to the overall intergalactic war. Secure a planet and you’ll earn a small amount of community points which help to shift the balance of battle in your favour. It really makes you feel like part of the fight, and gives you a reason for one more round to try to wipe the bug scourge out.
This persistent war is also punctuated with regular events – during the review period we got to assault a major bug homeworld. Winning would push them out of this system for good while losing would mean they reclaim some territory. I tried my best to turn the tide but with only a handful of players online right now, we were eventually defeated. I wept for my fallen comrades… then killed more bugs in vengeance.
Helldivers is one of the most surprising titles I’ve played this year. It looks well and the controls are responsive (something which cannot be said for the Vita version) but it’s really the depth which grabbed me. From the moment to moment choices you have to make to the sense of making a small but vital difference to a truly galactic conflict and the ferocious force of each and every battle. It’s often challenging and just as often rewarding, especially for co-op fans.
Helldivers is available on PS4, PS3 and PS Vita (Cross-buy and Cross-save) from the 4th of March 2015 for €20.99.