Helldivers / 24th of March 2015
Starship Troopers, released in 1997, was a trashy, militaristic sci-fi action movie that, at the time, divided audiences. I loved it then, and still do now. In-part because of its extreme violence and old school action, but also because, like director Paul Verhoeven’s previous films, it manages to work on various levels. It was a film made to ensure that you could enjoy it both, as a child, and as an adult, with a message that’s just as on the nose today as it was in 1997. It was just a shame that back then there wasn’t an equivalent videogame capable of delivering that same base thrill, allowing you to revel in that world and all it encompassed, whilst still providing you with more than an afternoons worth of disposable entertainment.
However fast forward eighteen years and Arrowhead Game Studios are have attempted to remedy that with their latest title Helldivers. A cross-platform, top-down shooter that allows players to connect online through their PlayStation 3, 4 and Vita, Helldivers may have no official connection to Verhoeven’s cult classic, but has managed to capture the film’s essence so perfectly that once you begin playing, it’s almost impossible not to link the two.
The game’s intro is delivered - just as Starship Trooper’s was - as a propagandist advertisement, one that encourages you, the player, to enlist in the Helldiver programme and defend ‘Super Earth’ and its colonies from the threat of the, assumed hostile, alien races. It’s all very tongue and cheek, as phrases like ‘managed democracy’ and ‘ensuring predictable outcomes’ (in regards to elections) are trumpeted out with sincere patriotic zeal, allowing players to instantly understand the world they’re about to delve into. However outside of this brief, but excellent, opening cinematic the game is in truth rather light on story. That may sound disappointing at first, but once you realise exactly how the game functions and that, rather than trying to deliver a cliché ridden narrative about some unique soldier, Helldivers’ story is about the intergalactic war itself then you may find more than a little to appreciate.
As a cross platform game, Helldivers focus is definitively as a co-op multiplayer, although it can be played offline in solo, or local play, should that be your only alternative. However the structure of the gameplay means that, should you refrain from playing online, any progress you make will not be counted toward the community influence. The way said influence works is that for every successful mission a player undertakes their efforts are combined with that of other Helldivers across the network in order to give a representation of how successful the war effort is going at that time. Small successes over time add up and eventually generate community wide events where every player has the option to assist in an invasion of an alien faction’s home world. Conversely, should progress falter, then the very same aliens will attempt to launch counterattacks, instigating events where players must defend human colonies from invasion. It’s a wonderful system that has echoes of Dragon’s Dogma’s U.R. dragon - a boss whose heath was whittled down by the community as a whole rather than a single player - and creates a greater sense of an ongoing conflict as planets and systems seesaw back and forth between human and alien control.
The individual missions themselves play out as groups of up to four players selecting a planet from a galactic map, and being dropped in ‘ODST style’ onto a randomly generated planet. Once there players are tasked with completing a series of small objectives before calling for an extraction shuttle, all the while trying to fend off hordes of hostile aliens. It’s a simple enough scenario, but is built upon fantastically by the custom load-outs, perks and stratagems that are the key to surviving each mission.
Upon beginning any mission players are able to select from a variety of weapons, a unique perk and up to four stratagems. Some of these take the form of rechargeable airstrikes, ammo drops or even single-use vehicles, and all of which allow players to play Helldivers in a manner that suits themselves. Prefer agility over brute force, then take a jetpack over a pilotable mech. Prefer stealth over frantic combat, then carry distraction beacons and throw enemy patrols off your trail. There’s a wealth of choices to be had, each unlocked from conquering planets and serving to make later missions more manageable. The only flaw in this set up one could perhaps point at is the lack of a load-out screen before entering into a mission. It’s not a huge problem as each match remembers your previous equipment and allows you to alter it as the mission start-timer counts down, but it would have been nice if you could use the game’s armoury system to save one or two custom load-outs so that you only needed to select one at the start of each mission.
Brief oversights aside, there’s one other outstanding feature that deserves mentioning, the way in which these stratagems are called in. Arrowhead have hit upon a gimmick as simple, and yet as brilliant in affecting gameplay, as Gears of War’s active reload or Resident Evil’s inventory. In order to call in an airstrike for that much needed support in a desperate situation players must use the d-pad inputs to enter a quick code (not unlike cheat codes in a Mega Drive game). It’s simple yet brilliant in causing you to frantically panic as you try to input the necessary code before getting overrun. And not only that it’s used to allow team-mates to respawn players should they fall, an essential portion of the game as, although they’re not limited in number, respawns are dependent on team-mates having time to call each other back in.
And it’s a good thing respawns aren’t limited by number as, in Helldivers, friendly fire is one setting that cannot be turned off. It may sound stupid and prone to abuse by random players, but when success is only achievable by working together, and your team-mates depend on each other to respawn, it manages to level the playing field. For example should one player kill you, whether accidentally or on purpose, then nine times out of ten the rest of the team can respawn you relatively easily. Should it keep happening then that player will likely be killed himself and others won’t be quite so quick to call them back into the action. Aside from that however, the friendly fire mechanic and limited ammo supplies ensure that it’s not just button bashing, or a thoughtless spray and pray mentality, that’s needed to emerge victorious. Knowing you can’t stand in front of team-mates whilst they shoot, or drive over them in vehicles means you’ve always got to keep on your toes, a drop in concentration can mean an accidental team kill, and that can quickly leave you overwhelmed in a pinch.
All things considered Helldivers is an absolutely great game, and with patches quick to be released that helped resolve initial connection issues it’s hard to point out any major criticisms. The lack of pre-configurable load-outs is an oversight, and the online only and forced friendly fire mechanics might not be to everyone’s taste, but they are in place for a clear reason. Arrowhead have managed to build a game here that has so much depth to it, and feels so clearly sure of what it’s trying to do that you can’t help but be impressed. Like Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, Helldivers is not only an absolute treat for those who enjoy co-op multiplayer games, it’s also something no one saw coming and a game I’ll keep coming back to for a long, long time.