(PlayStation Vita) Helldivers

Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: SCEA
Genre: Action / Twin-Stick Shooter
Players: 1-4 (Online Co-op)
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

It’s 2084, and aliens are threatening Super Earth’s glorious democracy. Mankind’s supremacy should be a given, but the Bugs, traitorous Cyborgs, and enigmatic alien Illuminates didn’t seem to get that memo. Because of their ignorance, it’s up to you to spread Earth-style democracy to their region of the galaxy. And you’ll be spreading it the way Earthlings do best: with bombs and bullets. In Arrowhead Game Studios’ latest top-down, twin-stick shooter, the developer takes everything they learned with Magicka and created Helldivers, a new action title that’s just as funny, addictive, and at times, frustrating.

Spreading democracy isn’t easy, but fortunately, both Earth and you are backed by an army of Helldivers. These resilient soldiers, an amalgam of Starship Troopers and WarHammer 40K Space Marines, with their enthusiasm for violence and access to powerful arms, spread mankind’s influence by crashing down on alien planets in drop pods and securing objectives to complete missions and conquer—sorry, liberate—worlds. Once a planet’s two to three missions have been complete, the planet will be taken and an accompanying influence boost will increase man’s hold in that region of the galaxy. The more players conquer, the more they earn individual recognition as war heroes as well as contribute to the Galactic Campaign. Each point that goes towards the campaign also pushes the engagement borders closer to the aliens’ homeworlds. The ultimate goal is to plant Super Earth’s flag on piles of charred alien corpses as they litter their home planets.

The aliens don’t go without a fight. Not only will they put up a tough resistance on the planets, they also occasionally go on the offensive, initiating double-experience events that can result in Earth losing ground if Helldivers fail to push them back. To ensure that the conquest train rolls on unabated, you can call on the aid of fellow players before or during a mission. Multiplayer games can be engaged during a mission by sending out an S.O.S. or beforehand by accessing a teleporter on the main ship—there, you can also access an armory, in-game encyclopedia, and navigation computer. Players might also join a game already in progress of their own accord to lend an unbidden hand, as long as the option isn’t chosen to make the game private.

Missions can be played solo for as long as you are able to repel the waves of enemies. Each map is patrolled by alien squads that lurk around key areas. These areas are typically those spots that host the objectives needed to complete the mission. Objectives vary—to a degree. There are several types of assignments, but they fall into a handful of categories and are often repeated. Areas need to be captured, cases retrieved and returned to a base, and codes entered at key panels. Enemy ambushes tend to accompany most stops, as they rush in from all sides to overwhelm any Helldivers in the vicinity. The forces can be thinned out by killing patrols before they have time to summon reinforcements. This is especially difficult in the beginning, before you have the more powerful weapons or upgrades necessary to quickly down all the patrol units before they send out a distress signal. It’s also easy to stumble upon patrols when on the lookout for lab samples, which add up to research points that are put in a pool with those points earned as rewards that go towards unlocking upgrades. Enemies are resilient, too, and redouble their efforts after the extraction shuttle has been summoned to evacuate any remaining players. Still, these are manageable situations if the missions are a lower difficulty level and the player is experienced; they also make for a great way to get in quick sessions when time’s limited. However, you’ll want to call in some help for the more difficult missions to avoid going insane from being constantly overrun.

Tackling the harder planets not only leads to considerable progress towards conquering the Galactic Campaign but also results in better unlocks. In addition to planet-liberating perks, you also receive items after leveling. These rewards are in the form of gear, weapons, or Strategems. Gear doesn’t affect your stats, but it does help in differentiating your Helldiver from another, while the weapons have unlocks to further boost their stats, such as additional ammo or increased firepower. Strategems, however, are at the heart of the experience, allowing Helldivers to call down a variety of support pods. As with the extraction points, Strategems must be called in by using the directional pad to input the signals displayed on the screen. Once successful, a beacon needs to be tossed out for the ships above to lock on before a counter ticks down to when the drop ship is ready. Support items can also be used by other players, such as extra ammo, special weapons (e.g., grenade launcher, sniper rifle, etc.), a jump pack, and a mech suit. Other items benefit the group, including landmines, turrets, bombing runs, and decoy beacons that distract enemies. One especially destructive and ridiculously fun call brings down an armored personnel carrier bristling with weaponry, straight out of WarHammer 40K, with one player driving and the other taking gunner positions, which can run over enemies and lay down massive amounts of fire.

Strategems, like many elements in Helldivers, require a steady hand and some short-term planning. After support has been called down, you cannot run or look at the map until the beacon is tossed. Both the calldown process and beacon placement leave players considerably vulnerable, and these are just some of the additional dangers intentionally designed in the game. Another concern is friendly fire. There is no way to turn friendly fire off, and not only can other players kill you, but so can your support items: if a turret spools up and begins shooting at a closing horde, failing to hit the deck (also rendering you unable to fire), means the end of the line for you. The same is true if you step on a landmine or get caught in a strafing run. Players have a limited number of S.O.S. beacons to call dead teammates back down, and I’ve seen single firefights eat up every beacon, with a portion of the deaths being from teammates spraying the screen and hitting everything in sight, friends and enemies alike. Calldowns can also kill. I died a few times by having the drop pod of another player landing on me, and I had been the one that summoned them back down. I also developed different approaches to using Strategems depending on whether I was going to play solo or with others. Support items like landmines can be a disaster in multiplayer because teammates might not spot the beacon in time to avoid getting caught in the newly laid field, but they are perfect when playing solo, acting as a great way to create choke points. Touches like this really stretch out the handful of objectives and enemy types, eking a tremendous amount of gameplay out of relatively limited options.

Teamwork is essential to surviving the tougher stages, and it’s impressive how quickly squads adapt to roles based on minimal communication. Chatting is supported, and naturally makes the game much easier, but nonverbal communication is almost as efficient, with players falling into formations to secure the flanks and rear. It doesn’t take long to figure out what kind of weapons everyone has, so those with the shotguns and more unwieldy firearms end up in the front while those with beam or long-range guns fall to the back. Reloading is slower if the clip is empty, and if it’s not, the leftover ammo is tossed, so having someone around to lend a hand is always helpful. Team play is exactly what I was wanting out of a co-op twin-stick shooter laced with tongue-in-cheek humor (think Starship Trooper’s excessive jingoism), and while some might not like the harsher rules of friendly fire or being unable to move with the map out, I thought they emphasized the underlying tenets of planning and focus.

For everything that Helldivers does right, there is one serious area where it stumbles: connection issues. For a game with such a strong focus on multiplayer, it’s unfortunate that it could be very difficult to get into a session. Not only did I fail to get into sessions, but I would also be bumped out before the loading screen could finish materializing me into one. The lack of a full-game filter also adds time to an at-time tedious process, as I had to constantly scroll through games I couldn’t even join before finding one that I would likely be unable to, even if there was space. Connection issues in general were a problem, from matchmaking to jumping into games in progress, regardless of version or whose game I was attempting to connect to. The game is a lot of fun solo, if a bit of a grind, but it’s absolutely fantastic when playing with others. I was able to get into and complete several sessions, and every single one of them was a great time. The connection frustrations are a definite negative, but even a short game makes the wait worthwhile.

As Helldivers supports cross buy (and cross save), I played the game on all three supported platforms. The best-looking and -playing version is for PlayStation 4, as might be expected. The PlayStation 3 version also looked good, but it didn’t have as many special effects or as smooth of a framerate. The PS Vita version isn’t a slouch, but it is a little more difficult to control, due to reloading and grenade-tossing being relegated to sliding down on the rear touch panel. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but it did take me a while to become accustomed to it, though I actually found myself firing more accurately using the PS Vita’s analog stick. But even as much as I enjoy a steady shot, I’m sticking with a controller. You can’t go wrong with any version.

Helldivers is a funny, addictive twin-stick shooter that’s fun solo and even more so with friends but suffers from connection issues. Having to scroll through full games only to fail to connect to one of the open games is irksome, as is going through a game and not acquiring the experience and gear earned by having it lose a connection before the results screen can finish loading. The mixture of firearms, Strategems, and co-op play is a potent one, and makes the waiting and frustrations worthwhile. Of course, those frustrations shouldn’t be an issue to begin with, and I hope they won’t be in the near future.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. Screenshots from PlayStation 3 version.)

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