Hell ain’t a bad place to be

The twin-stick shooter is one of gaming’s oldest game types—and one of the hardest to make stand out among its contemporaries, especially given the genre’s recent resurgence in the Indie scene. Helldivers unique metagame feature, though, helps separate what would otherwise be a rather generic game from the pack.

Helldivers puts players in control of a run-of-the-mill soldier fighting for the glory of the unified Super-Earth. Ruled under one “managed democracy”, the inhabitants of Super-Earth feel it’s their duty to expand and spread the message of this way of life to all they come across in the universe. Several races, however, wish to stand in the way of Super-Earth’s all-powerful government, so conflict erupts on an intergalactic scale.

It’s here where the metagame aspect takes place. Besieged on three fronts, the Helldivers branch of Super-Earth’s military must perform missions on a series of planets, pushing each enemy race back across several sectors of space, until finally reaching a homeworld in the hopes of conquering it.

Each respective planet in those sectors is procedurally generated, which means that you’ll never play the same mission on the same terrain twice. The game offers almost a dozen different random missions types no matter the planet, such as demolishing enemy fortifications or setting up and protecting oil pumps to help support the war effort. Combine this with the dozen different difficulty rankings among the planetsfrom Level 1’s “Dive in the Park” to Level 12’s “Helldive”and Helldivers features possibly the most variation you’ll find in a top-down, twin-stick shooter. Only when everyone pitches in to successfully complete missions can you make any real progress in the campaign.

The idea of working together to win goes well beyond just Helldivers’ metagame, though. With four-player local and online co-op, it’s easy for players to team up with friends or strangers to tackle the game’s objectives. Unfortunately, you’ll be forced to if you want to have any hope of completing the hardest difficulty levels. I found it impossible to beat anything beyond a Level 4 difficulty by myself, and we couldn’t beat anything past a Level 6 without a full four-player complement of Helldivers.

It was here where I found myself the most frustrated, as often, I couldn’t find enough players to successfully conquer the game’s hardest terrain and objectives. Sometimes, I couldn’t find enough players willing to take on the Level 12 worlds and was forced to muck about in the lower-level ones. Even though they’re procedurally generated, locations started to feel simple and repetitive as I quickly mastered the necessary techniques to use to finish my missions. The lack of an option to play with botsand allow me to play how I wanted to playmade the game feel way too reliant on co-op, and I found my progress severely restricted by who was or wasn’t online.

Of course, sometimes even when I found a full group of players, the mission would still be doomed from the start. Similar to Arrowhead Game Studios’ first project, Magicka, friendly fire is a constant threat and can’t be turned off. This does offer an extra nuance to the game’s substantial inherent difficulty when you find a competent team of people who want to work together, but someone with an itchy trigger finger who wasn’t the greatest team player would often ruin the mission for us. We could’ve booted them, but then we’d be back to being down a person in a game that doesn’t lend itself well to fewer than four players.

If you can get that right mix of players together, though, Helldivers provides a memorable twin-stick-shooter experience. Whether it’s the unusually fleshed-out universe for this type of game—including Super-Earth’s propaganda being pumped across the news feed in your home base and a full encyclopedia’s worth of baddie rundowns—or the responsive controls, Helldivers shows the potential of how great this ancient gaming genre can still be, even on modern consoles.

There’s also a strong strategic element that you don’t always see in shooters like this. Figuring out where to drop in pre-mission and which objectives to tackle first were often just as important as working well as a team. Sure, there were moments when one player would have to act as a decoy to expose the weak point on the rear of a tank enemy, and without that teamwork, the day would’ve been lost. But dropping in away from known enemy encampments, using the terrain to protect one side when defending a point, or just bringing the right gun to the fight were as critical as working well with other players.

And while Helldivers may be classified as a twin-stick shooter, there’s also more to the gameplay than just pointing and shooting at one of the three alien races. The game incorporates several RPG elements into the experience to help your individual character still feel unique enough among the thousands of other faceless soldiers.

Each Helldiver is mildly customizable, with a handful of different armor pieces given to you at the start, and more can be unlocked as you level up. The armor is purely cosmetic, though, and actually, so is the process of leveling up. The game doesn’t offer any stat boosts—not even for HP. All you can get is a new gun, cosmetic armor piece, or access to a harder set of worlds.

The real rewards for playing the game actually come from conquering planets, which allow you to earn new Stratagemsthe equivalent of special powers. Each Helldiver can carry four into battle, and these could be as simple as calling in an ammo drop or as game-changing as having a vehicle, turret, or mech-battle armor delivered in order to help turn the tide of a battle or beat a hasty retreat. The Stratagems add some real diversity to the gameplay, and being able to utilize them at opportune times often means the difference between defeat and victory.

And since the balance relies so much on four-player co-op, that means the best Stratagems are unlocked mostly behind the game’s hardest worlds. These are easily the most interesting part of customizing your character, but tying them to planets instead of levels makes the RPG elements feel somewhat worthless.

I found issue with how much of Helldivers’ accessibility and difficulty is balanced for the four-player co-op experiencewhen, realistically, it’s not the easiest thing for everyone to pull off. If you’re fortunate enough to have that tight-knit co-op crew you can always go to, Helldivers is one of the better top-down, twin-stick shooters I’ve seen in a while.

Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.03.15
Helldivers’ metagame campaign and variety of gameplay are more than enough to keep you entertained, but only players with a tight-knit group of co-op buddies will be able to get the most from the experience.
The Good The metagame aspect makes you feel more like an actual soldier in an army, working toward a greater goal.
The Bad Tacked-on RPG elements; lack of AI bot options.
The Ugly Getting ambushed by alien bugsbut you’re too distracted by twirling your cape around to fight back.
Helldivers is available on PS4, PS3, and PS Vita. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.