Until last weekend, Helldivers was totally off my radar. Then my boss Stephen texted me on Sunday saying we should team up and play it. It was good, he said. It was like a tactical, sci-fi Diablo, he said. My interest was piqued.
I fired up my PS4 and we played for a few hours, and after he signed off I played for a few hours more. Last night, I teamed up with a couple more friends and kept playing. I've really liked what I've played so far, and while I'm not equipped to make a final judgement on the game, I can at least tell you what it's like.
Helldivers — which is out today as a cross-buy (and cross-play and cross-save) game for PS4, PS3 and Vita — is another one of those "sum of various influences"-type games. So, let's do this that way.
It's a little bit Starship Troopers…
Helldivers opens with an ironic propaganda video that immediately recalls the "Would you like to know more?" infomercials from Paul Verhoeven's wonderful 1997 cinematic adaptation of Starship Troopers. It's a knowing homage, and the whole game carries that sort of tongue-in-cheek bravado.
You play as a citizen of "Super Earth" who has signed up to join the Helldivers, an elite commando team that wages war against aliens abroad. You're a tiny cog in a massive war machine, and as you blast your way through enemy troops, your characters will yell things like "Get some!" and "Say hello to Democracy!" It's silly; half as sharp as the film it's aping, but it works.
…a little bit Diablo…
The game itself is a top-down shooter. You move with your left stick, aim with your right stick, and can equip all manner of sniper rifles, rocket launchers, lasers and grenades. You'll play with up to three teammates, all four of you on the same screen.
Maps and mission objectives appear to be procedurally generated. Before you deploy, you'll look over a map with a number of objectives — go blow up the bug hive, or transport the briefcase to the drop point, or activate the SAM site — and come up with a broad plan of attack.
You'll then airdrop in, ODST-style. The game itself plays (and looks) a bit like a sci-fi tinged Diablo III. You'll be earning XP and unlocking new weapons and abilities, fighting off swarms of enemies, and gradually upgrading your appearance and loadout.
Helldivers looks great on PS4. Drop-pods slam into the ground with satisfying heft, the sun casts lovely shadows across the hot sand and freezing ice of the planets you're exploring, and your weapons explode with beautiful luminosity and cascades of shell-casings. I haven't played the PS3 version, but Stephen reports that the Vita version is fine, though doesn't look as good as the PS4 version (unsurprisingly), nor does it play as smoothly without the controller's two extra shoulder buttons. The sense I get is that the portable version will work best as a supplement for the "main" version, which you play on your TV.
Basically, if you played as a demon hunter in the console version of Diablo III, this game will feel familiar. If you spent any time playing Dead Nation, that's a good frame of reference, too.
…a helping of Magicka…
Helldivers was made by Arrowhead Game Studios, the Swedish outfit behind the PC game Magicka. Their new game has a certain philosophical alignment with Magicka, particularly in how thanks to friendly fire, your hapless characters will often kill one another off. There's a bit of slapstick to this game, and it works best if you don't mind laughing at yourself.
Friendly fire is a constant consideration in Helldivers, and it's easy to screw up aiming your heavy machine gun and waste one of your teammates at an inopportune moment. You can summon turrets or other automated weaponry to help you defend a position and fend off waves of enemies, but if you're not careful (or don't remember to hit the dirt and crawl under their fire), those turrets can wipe out your whole team.
Helldivers is a difficult game, even on its "easy" missions. Just about everything can kill you. You can call in an ammo drop and, if you're standing in the wrong place, get crushed by it. You can accidentally drive a vehicle over your friend. Or, if you stand too close to your evac beacon at the end of a mission, you can be crushed by your own transport ship as it lands.
At first the friendly fire seems frustrating, but eventually, you learn to adjust for it. It's a vital part of the game, really — you have to be careful where you aim, or where you call in your airstrikes or drive your vehicles. Otherwise, you'll wipe out your team at a crucial moment.
…just a hair of Titanfall…
In addition to loading out with various weapons, your soldier can assign up to four "Stratagems," which are basically support buffs he or she can radio in.
A lot of the game revolves around calling in tactical airdrops. You even have to call in respawns — when any of your teammates die, you'll have to call in "reinforcements" and their replacement soldiers will drop in. Hit the left shoulder button, enter a (sometimes complicated) pattern on your D-pad, and you'll call in a drop for a defensive turret, or an offensive air-strike or strafing run, a powerful secondary gun, or even a large mech or armoured personnel carrier.
Stephen and I spent most of one level stomping around in our mech suits, gleefully chewing through enemies (and accidentally shooting one another a little):
Last night Jason Schreier, Digital Trends' Adam Rosenberg and I all hopped into an armoured personnel carrier and wreaked havoc:
When you call in a stratagem, you'll have to wait for it to cool down before you can use it again, and most stratagems have a limited number of uses per mission. You can only call in one mech, for example, or ten airstrikes. You never run out of ammo drops, which is good, because ammo is a constant issue in in Helldivers. So, you'll have to call in frequent airdrops to replenish your supplies as you go. (Hint: Call in an ammo drop at the start of each mission.)
Also, just like in Titanfall, if you throw your airdrop beacon in just the right place, you can time your mech or ammo drop to land directly on some enemy troops, crushing them. Just don't stand too close, or you'll be crushed yourself.
…a scoop of Hybrid (remember Hybrid?)…
Maybe you don't remember Hybrid, so you'd be forgiven for not getting that reference. But Helldivers' most ambitious (and most untested) idea echoes the idea at the heart of 5th Cell's 2012 shooter: Every mission you undertake is part of a grand war being waged by all Helldivers players around the world.
At any given moment, Super Earth's three-front "war" is progressing toward one or more of alien homeworlds. (The aliens in question are either humanoid cyborgs, mysterious aliens called Illuminates, or burrowing bugs. Think Terran, Protoss, and Zerg.) Progress in a various front is represented by a gold "Community Influence" bar, and each player's successful missions help that gold bar progress.
If enough people complete enough missions against one of the alien races, you'll unlock a series of difficult missions invading the alien's homeworld. Fill that bar, and that alien race will be "defeated" and removed from the current war. (That's my understanding, anyway.) As I played over the weekend, it was possible to accept missions against all three alien races at once, but yesterday, the war reset and we started over. At the moment, you'll only be able to play against the bugs, at least until Super Earth declares war on the other two races, which Sony says will happen 24 and 48 hours after the game's launch.
If players can clear all three alien races, they will win the galactic war, unlock some (theoretically) cool upgrades and other unique stuff, and add one to your "wars won" stat. And then, presumably, the war will start all over again.
This is the element of Helldivers that I've seen the least of, but it's a neat idea in theory. On Sunday as we played, there was an offensive going on on the bug homeworld. If Stephen and I did any missions there, we'd get double XP, which was a great motivator to get us (and everyone else) off doing bug missions.
There were only a handful of people playing Sunday, but once the game is out, the idea is that when it comes time to attack a homeworld, thousands of players will simultaneously wage campaigns across whatever homeworld Super Earth is invading. If everyone can complete enough missions before the timer runs down, they will defeat that race and be one step closer to winning the war.
There are also distinct battles that can take place on Super Earth's remote capital cities or, if the humans really slack and let the aliens gain too much ground, there can even be an invasion of Super Earth itself. If that happens, players will be recalled to take on special missions at home. I haven't seen any of those yet, however.
… and a pinch of Left 4 Dead. OK, I'm done.
The final game that Helldivers reminds me of is Left 4 Dead. More so even than that game, Helldivers is best played with a friend, and it really just isn't all that much fun to play solo. That's probably the clearest recommendation I can make for the time being: This is a game to play with a few friends, either on the couch or with voice chat. It works to play with silent strangers, but Helldivers is at its best when you're frantically coordinating strategies out loud.
Solo is a bit of a slog, though — the game just isn't as much fun for a single player, particularly the higher-difficulty missions. It gets more manageable as you unlock better gear and stratagems, but many challenges have you defending waypoints from attackers coming from all four corners of the screen, and it can quickly become overwhelming and frustrating. Solo play isn't bad, but the game loses a significant amount of its charm without a team.
It is, however, fun to play with fewer than four. Stephen and I almost had a better time just the two of us than we did teaming up with two other strangers. With three, Jason, Adam and I were able to take on some pretty difficult missions and survive.
Helldivers also resembles Left 4 Dead in the way its missions strike a balance between familiar challenges and emergent gameplay.
Each mission plays out similarly — carefully work your way through the map, avoid enemy patrols, clear objectives, then fight off enemies at the extraction zone — but there's a good deal of room for improvisation and unexpected developments within that framework. Most missions took us around ten minutes to clear, but there's a definite "one more mission" tug to the game that makes it difficult to stop playing.
Things quickly get more exciting and interesting as you kick up the difficulty — last night we took on some missions that were rated "challenging" and "very challenging" and found ourselves attempting to clear much more challenging objectives against tougher enemies, including the occasional massive, tank-like bug that could demolish a soldier in a single hit.
And bear in mind, most of the gifs in this article have been of the bug campaign — I still haven't seen all of the various bug enemy types, nor even a fraction of the cyborg or illuminate enemies.
So! That's Helldivers: Starship Troopers + Diablo + Magicka + Titanfall + Hybrid + Left 4 Dead. Whew. As good as that all sounds — and this game really is fun! — take it for what it is: I've played the game for five or six hours, and while I enjoy it so far, a number of things remain unproven.
I'm assuming that the game's servers will hold up, and that everyone will be able to play. I'm assuming that matchmaking will work as advertised, and players without a group of friends will still be able to team up with strangers. (If your internet connection goes down you can still play offline and level up your Helldiver, but you can't contribute to the galactic campaign, and a lot of the metagame evaporates.) And while I like the promise of the galactic metagame, it remains to be seen how it will work once more people start playing... or how Arrowhead plans to keep people interested in the long term.
Friendly fire could also be a big issue with strangers, and the game is wide open to trolling and griefing your teammates. There's a built-in reputation system that lets you reprimand players for being jerks, but I can't say yet whether it will actually work as a deterrent.
Still, Helldivers has all the ingredients of a one of those "small" games that winds up stealing more of my time than the latest big-budget blockbuster. I don't know if I'll still be playing it next year, but I'll certainly be playing it for the next few weeks. I've won my share of battles, but I'm in this thing to win the war.