Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PS Vita and Sony PlayStation 3
If you’re the kind of gamer looking for a deep single-player experience, strong on story and characterisation, then Helldivers isn’t for you. To call it lacking in these aspects would be an understatement – but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. Oh no. Because if you are instead seeking to have a hectic and wildly fun time in multiplayer mode, seek no further; you have reached the end of your quest. Helldivers is by no means perfect, but if there’s one thing it’s successful at, it’s being entertaining.
Playing as one of the titular Helldivers – an elite group of soldiers tasked with defending “Super Earth” – you’ll find yourself plunged into a galactic war humanity is waging against three other races on three different fronts. The Bugs are giant insectoids of the Starship Troopers variety, who charge in close with overwhelming numbers; the Illuminate are a highly advanced race whose technology includes cloaking devices and long range energy rifles; and the Cyborgs are humans with cybernetic implants, who fight using more traditional guns and grenades.
Whichever theatre of war you choose to enter, you’ll soon find yourself doing hectic battle with your foes in a brutal top-down shooter. A myriad of weapons are available to account for every play style, and you can customise your loadout before each mission. Perhaps more importantly, however, you get to choose four “stratagems” which you can activate by entering their specific combinations on the D-pad. These add not merely a whole lot of extra depth to the gameplay but a lot more fun; you can call down airstrikes or additional equipment like ammunition, powerful guns, turrets, and vehicles.
While stratagems are entirely optional they are also rather necessary if you want any chance of success in Helldivers. This is not a game that pulls any punches; it is brutally difficult even at its easiest. For each front there is a contested area which contains multiple planets, of which you can play whichever you want, and each of which has one of twelve different difficulties ranging from “Dive in the Park” to full on “Helldiver”. Completing any planet with a difficulty above “Medium” is a true challenge if you try to go it solo, and it’s only with a full squad of soldiers that you’ll stand any chance at all on the most unforgiving worlds in the galaxy.
Of course, there are other reasons you might want to play with a full squad – namely, that Helldivers is a significantly better game the more people there are involved. It’s the kind of game which is perfunctory in single-player mode, perfectly enjoyable for a short while but lacking the variety required to be engaging in the long term; yet with other players, it truly comes to life. It has both online and local co-op, and where possible, you’ll want to team up with three other people to defend Super Earth. The more hectic it is – the more bullets are flying, enemies dying, and grenades exploding – the more fun it is too.
Co-operative play is also made more entertaining by the fact that friendly fire is always turned on. As a result, it’s easy to accidentally kill a team member by pointing your gun the wrong way, or stumble yourself into the line of fire. For a game which thrives on chaos, this is actually a good thing. Players can also be killed by their own stratagems, and those of others, leading to some truly hilarious situations. If you’re not careful about where you stand, you might find yourself crushed under the very weapon you just ordered to save the day. Furthermore, in co-op mode, players who die can be returned to the fray using a stratagem – and can therefore end up crushing the very person who called them back.
Even if you go solo, however, Helldivers is built in such a way that all individual progress you make goes towards the collective headway of the war, as participated in by all players. The ultimate goal is to progress on each front to the enemy home planet, and the war is won when all three are conquered. Conversely, the war can be lost if the joint effort of all involved is insufficient and your foes manage to capture Super Earth. Whether the war is won or lost, it subsequently restarts, becoming more difficult if won and easier if lost. While this concept works well, it can also be disconcerting to turn on the game and find that the war ended while you were away, and that the entire shape of the game has changed.
That said, the war – no matter how it stands – is never particularly interesting from a narrative standpoint anyway. The story is brief and shallow, and there isn’t much more to it than what has already been described. There’s an amusing cutscene to start the game off, presented as a recruitment video for the Helldivers which, to a shot of blazing guns, encourages you to help “spread managed democracy throughout the galaxy”. Elsewhere, a few other propaganda-like touches help keep things light. Even so, no matter how amusing it is to hear your soldier scream: “How about a nice cup of liber-tea?!” as they slaughter their foes, it’s still far from an engrossing affair.
The other major issue that holds Helldivers back is its lacklustre mission design. There are various kinds of environments – deserts, jungles, snow – but they all just seem like palette swaps of the same fairly boring area. There’s a limited number of mission objectives too, and none of them are particularly inspired. You’ll find yourself capturing areas, activating SAM Sites, and escorting civilians from your first mission until your last, with little or no variation between. Resultantly, the game can feel rather flat at times, particularly if you’ve already been playing it for a while.
Despite all this, with the raucous chaos of multiplayer mode, Helldivers is still capable of being engrossing for long periods. This is aided by a simple levelling system, which allows you to upgrade your weapons and stratagems, and the ability to limitedly customise your character’s appearance – both of which allow you to invest in the game. With a little more care given to the mission design and the story, Helldivers might well have been an exceptional game, but it falls far too short on both counts to make single-player interesting for any decent stretch of time. It’s a game of two halves, engrossing in co-op but disappointing when played solo, immensely fun at its best but rather average when not.