It used to be a running joke back in the late 80s and early 90s that video game box art had little to do with the actual game’s content. Mega Man, Pac-Man, and Golden Axe – to name but a few – presented a level of emotion, mischief, and heroics in their box art that didn’t fully translate into actual gameplay and emergent story telling. The box art for Helldivers: Super-Earth Ultimate Edition, however, tells a more reflective narrative: four Helldivers, completely surrounded by jagged and fearsome giant insects, are hopelessly overwhelmed proving their desperate defensive attempts futile. This is every bit the experience that Helldivers delivers.
Helldivers exists in a meta galactic conflict where each player is concerned with little else than their communal effort to defend Super-Earth (it’s Earth, but super) against three interstellar threats: the Bugs, the “Illuminates”, and the Cyborgs. This all takes place in the Galactic Campaign, a war in which is tracked on every player’s map in their ship that monitors various real-time stats. These include player and enemy deaths, as well as either daily progress towards an all-out assault on a faction home world, or an all-out last stand on Super-Earth itself. Keep in mind that the Galactic Campaign moves with or without you as the individual player. Depending on when you first plunge into Helldivers, certain factions might have already been defeated, and you won’t be able to access them until the war is over. Having played over 10 hours within 2 weeks of Helldivers, and I have only just faced the Illuminate threat, even after a war that has waged on for nearly a month in real world time.
As macro as this concept is in framing the entire player base within a common goal, the galactic war teeters between standing as a constant motivator for player cooperation, and failing to give the impression that you contributed anything after completing individual missions. There is something to be said about being a part of a larger cause, and Helldivers does a fine job at constantly feeding you information, detailing what the status of the war is. However I often felt like a cog in the machine, as the Influence Points my team earned after every mission never felt like it put a dent in the Helldiver initiative of conquering enemy faction home worlds.
This would be an even bigger problem if the moment to moment gameplay in Helldivers weren’t a constant collaborative and demanding multiplayer learning experience. Like many of Arrowhead’s previous titles, Helldivers is best described as an isometric cooperative multiplayer shooter, where up to four players are dropped down planetside to tackle missions that seem relatively simplistic on the surface: complete a series of mostly button prompted objectives on procedurally generated planets, and make it to the extraction point alive. All of the objectives are concrete and simple, but the unidimensional nature in the mission design is greatly offset by the unrelenting rule-sets that Helldivers imposes upon the player.
Lesson One: Friendly fire is permanent. Friendly fire is the governing body that is always in consideration when weathering the elements in Helldivers. Friendly fire isn’t only reserved for gunfire, but any and all ordinances (or Stratagems) that drop from orbit will pancake any poor sap that just happens to be standing under it. Stratagems themselves also don’t discriminate either, as automated turrets, piloted mechs, and other vehicles can mow down or steamroll those who aren’t careful.
Lesson Two: Memorize your Stratagems. Insidiously, all Stratagems require a directional button-combo sequence to even initiate a countdown timer before they fall from the heavens. This, of course, is in light of the numerous and highly aggressive enemies that offers a stiff resistance at its easiest, and become nightmarishly challenging on the highest difficulty. Many a Helldiver has perished after frantically screwing up Stratagem sequences before getting trampled by a massive armoured insect.
Within Helldiver’s opportunistic attitude to screw you at every turn blossoms a rare form of cooperative brilliance. There’s an almost tribal coordination that develops when engaging enemies in combat. Formations, such as firing squad lines and defensive circles, are conditioned out of osmosis after several fuck ups of walking into an ally’s line of fire. It’s not often that co-op games emulate the feeling of communicating with your fellow players telepathically. Helldivers just happens to be one of the few.
Very much like the most recent multiplayer hit, Rocket League, there’s an underlying forgiveness for killing your allies accidentally; it just happens. It helps that reviving downed allies is reserved to a short button tap, and while calling down dead allies also requires a button combination like all other Stratagems, they offer infinite revives and bring back all dead players to the field at once. None of this means that you can get away from griefing other players deliberately however. Both the meta galactic effort and the sheer difficulty of each level aptly discourages trolling behaviour. In fact, I found that trolling happened so infrequently, that I didn’t hesitate to blow a blatant jackass to smithereens who was indiscriminately killing our comrades. No one protested, he just left the game.
Helldivers also fosters a high level of trust within each of the players; it even provides simple call-out options such as “Wait!” “Move!” and “Negative!” for those without voice chat. Unless someone is spamming quotes, you’re almost always safe to assume that any communication attempts are meaningful for purposes such as refilling their ammo or drawing your attention to another mission objectives. I primarily used these command options to lead players towards Samples, in-game collectibles that grant you research points used to upgrade your Helldiver.
Customization options are simple yet profound, only giving players the option to choose one primary weapon, one perk, and four Stratagems. Unfortunately there are some common staples within the custom options that Helldivers offers, which limits the variety in loadout customization. The Laser Aim Module perk is a reliable choice, as equipping it is the only way you can line up your shots to avoid friendlies before pulling the trigger. The Sickle, one of the game’s energy weapons, is a highly popular rifle for a primary weapon. Its long range and high firing rate make it freakishly well balanced, and its energy properties allow the gun operate on a cool-down instead having to restock ammunition through Stratagems. It takes time for most players to see much else that’s new and meaningful after level 10, which at times puts the game in danger of becoming a bit monotonous.
Levelling up of course provides players with new custom options; though interestingly enough, your player’s level in no way impacts on your Helldiver’s strength or constitution. This reinforces the cooperative relationship as every player, whether they’re level 9 or level 30, feels like they play a meaningful role in combat, and knows how important it is to keep their comrades alive.
Helldivers: Super-Earth Ultimate Edition comes packaged with all the mission, weapon, and enemy DLC packs released thus far. Together they advance the core game into one of the most robust and committed co-op game experiences I’ve played in years. Here, Helldivers takes the opportunity to emulate as many co-op multiplayer tropes practically possible. Among them, you’ve got your multi-seated tanks from Battlefield, your two seater vehicles from Halo, and your barbed-wire and fire barriers from Horde Mode in Gears 2 and 3. They all serve a purpose in various encounters and situations in Helldivers, particularly against the toughest enemies the game can possibly throw at you, especially the Master bosses. At this point, you will need to coordinate with friends both in advance and in the action, because Helldivers at its hardest is far more difficult than a full on sprint in the park.
I have a considerable amount of respect for a game like Helldivers. It takes only a moment to orient you in its fundamentals before making you fully responsible for your contribution to the galactic war. Though the war itself might be a bit too meta for the tastes of some, and the game only fully rewards those who have stuck around for the long haul, Helldivers is an achingly demanding and purposefully well put together cooperative powerhouse.
Be sure to armor up. This is gonna be one hell of a Helldive
Helldivers manages to be the isometric intersection of many of the best co-op design ideas in modern gaming in a way that fully justifies its brutal difficulty.