If you love Starship Troopers, you're going to get a massive kick out of Helldivers.
The goddamn bugs whacked us, so now the 'managed democracy' of Super Earth finds itself beset by ravaging hordes of aliens, twisted cyborgs and hyper-advanced civilizations. Only the brave citizens of the Helldivers have what it takes to turn the tide, fearlessly dropping into the most dangerous missions from orbit and bringing the light of propaganda to the entire galaxy one blackened nuclear crater at a time. Or just charging straight into the grinder.
Verhoeven would be proud, but in gameplay terms, Magicka fans are going to be in their element here. Arrowhead Game Studios are already experts in the field of utterly bonkers cooperative shooting, and Helldivers takes things one step further. You'll drop into battle with three mates and an insane customised loadout, calling in everything from turrets to mechs and tanks from orbit, then desperately try to avoid being killed... or accidentally killing each other.
Friendly fire has never been so much fun, and it makes Helldivers one of the most entertaining twin-stick shooters in years. Would you like to know more?
On a basic level, Helldivers is a squad-based isometric shooter with seamless cross-platform multiplayer and attractive Sci-Fi visuals. You'll thud into your chosen planet via an orbital drop pod, tasked with locating and completing a number of objectives before calling for extraction. Missions range from recovery and defence to demolitions and activating equipment, leading you throughout some randomly-generated maps full of increasingly dangerous enemies to slaughter or better yet evade for an easy life. Helldivers proves more hardcore than most, with reloads depleting any remaining ammo in your magazine rather than returning it to your reserve, forcing you ration your shots and rely on your fellow troopers in a pinch.
A generous selection of unlockable and upgradeable weapons all feel pleasingly weighty and destructive in hand, encouraging teams to bring out varied loadouts and assign specific engagement roles, while all the tactical planning usually goes straight to hell once you return to your extraction point and hold off armies of ravening goons until the dropship arrives.
Familiar stuff, yet brilliantly implemented barring some fairly generic and repetitive map design that can start to drag after a few hours (a common foible of procedurally generated games). A few curated set-pieces might have been nice. However, while most shooters would just stop there and call it a day, Helldivers is just getting started.
The enemies you face become increasingly durable and ridiculously powerful after a while, meaning that you'll need to use Stratagems to even the odds in your favour. Before each mission you can choose four deployable pieces of equipment to bring along, from handy consumables to different one-use weapons, deployable turrets, mines and UAVs, which you can summon by inputting a tense selection of D-Pad commands and deploy by placing a marker. After a few seconds your chosen gadget thunders down from orbit, crushing anything beneath it, and making a massive impact on the battle. There's a huge variety of these situational Stratagems on offer, all of which can be upgraded to further improve their utility. Crowned by some ridiculously powerful tech like four-person APCs and tanks that your entire team can cram inside, or enormous mech suits that feel intensely gratifying to stomp around in.
You can even throw down an SOS beacon to summon another player into your game should things get hairy, watching them thunder through the atmosphere and smash into the ground ready to assist. Or, just as likely, land directly on top of your hapless squaddie and squashing them into pate in the process.
Helldivers is all about friendly fire. Taking a leaf out of Magicka's book, which allowed us to "accidentally" freeze, soak or set our mates ablaze, practically everything you do, use or deploy can be incredibly hazardous to you and your team. Your weapons can damage and kill your allies. Your Stratagems can crush them on impact, then annihilate them with their withering firepower if they don't leap for cover or fall prone. As such you'll have to take great care to check your fire and communicate effectively. Thankfully respawns are plentiful, meaning that these moments are intensely hilarious rather than annoying, though you do have to manually deploy a respawn drop beacon... and potentially squash another of your pals as a result!
All of which makes Helldivers an utterly superb cooperative game: one that makes you work together not just to win, but to survive more than a few minutes. Coordinating your attacks, cooking up your strategy and then throwing all of your plans out the window as everything goes to hell and dozens of bugs swarm your position is incredibly rewarding, and makes completing your mission oh so very satisfying. It also helps to mitigate the recycled map generation, seeing as every match plays out totally differently depending on your friends, not just your foes. Quite frankly it's stupendous.
Finally, Helldivers ties everything together with a persistent online battle for the galaxy. Every mission you complete grants influence points to a particular sector, gradually unlocking new planets and zones as you push towards the enemy home worlds and eventually take them down as they attempt to do the same. Once you (or your enemies!) wins, the season resets, roughly every few weeks or so. It's an effective way of making you feel like part of a wider community, a citizen of Super Earth, and also provides an addictive persistent hook as you increase your level and earn research points to unlock and improve your equipment over the course of many hours.
There is a singleplayer experience here if you want it (though you'll still have to play online to participate in the Galactic War, of course). Tense and tactical, it lacks the rambunctious chaos of four-player competitive co-op but encourages you to think more carefully about stealth and effective loadout synergies. Unfortunately, most of the more challenging levels are practically unbeatable solo, seeing as they're balanced for multiplayer and often hobble one player by carrying a cumbersome mission-critical object.
Visually-speaking, Helldivers is handsome and runs at a decent clip on PS3 and PS4, though I primarily reviewed it on Vita in order to fully test the limits of the cross-platform play. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Arrowhead got their priorities right by drastically reducing environmental detail and texture resolution in order to provide a smooth experience even when four players are involved. Rear touchpad commands also work brilliantly, believe it or not. My only gripes would be that the always-online requirement burns through the Vita's battery very quickly,
while the system's microphone cannot be deactivated and frequently picks up game audio [UPDATE: you can deactivate it on the home menu - details in the comments. Many thanks to dulcaoin for pointing this out! - Jonathan]
£16.99 is also a little pricey for a twin-stick shooter, despite Helldivers' raucous co-op play, polish and fun factor, but if you own a Vita and either a PS3 or PS4 then value goes through the roof. You'll get all three versions as standard, and can effortlessly pick up where you left off. Everybody fights, no one quits. If you don't do your job, I'll kill you myself!
- Raucous, bonkers yet hardcore cooperative shooting rewards tight teamwork
- Gratuitous friendly fire is surprisingly hilarious and fosters close communication
- Great selection of guns and deployable gadgets
- Compelling persistent progression and overarching online war
- Maps can feel samey and generic due to procedural generation
- Online features burn through Vita battery quickly
- A tad pricey if you don't plan to cross-play
The Short Version: Come on you apes! You wanna live forever?
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios