Going in solo is like serving time in the stockade, but buddy up and hitting terra firma is a hell of a ride.
Especially this generation, Sony has always seemed the most supportive of the smaller titles, already having titles like Journey and Papo and Yo under their belt right alongside heavy hitters like Bloodborne. Helldivers is one of their latest experiments on PSN in conjunction with Arrowhead Game Studios, and plays with community engagement in a new way. There still needs to be a game underneath the concept, however; Helldivers trips there.
The titular Helldivers corps is basically played as the Marines of “Super-Earth”, which is at a constant three front war with different alien races. The radical nationalistic “Team Super-Earth, Galactic Police” angle is never really explored enough to make a point, or ridiculed enough to properly take the piss. Story is never really the point, though the ridiculous one liners spouted by the Helldivers can still be entertaining.
" The game is meant to be played with friends in an up to four man squad, and this expectation is apparent throughout the design. "
Onlookers might easily mistake Helldivers for a dual stick shooter, but playing the game like that is a recipe for disaster. A Helldiver needs to be very deliberate in his or her movements, taking aim and firing off rounds with precision to make each shot of the limited ammo count. Helldivers is unapologetically a tactical shooter, like a Rainbow Six game crossbred with Killzone Liberation on PSP.
If you were familiar with the name of the developer, it was probably because of the Magika series. Helldivers shares its friendly fire mechanic with the former, though it is in service of the tactical game style it strives for. The game is meant to be played with friends in an up to four man squad, and this expectation is apparent throughout the design. Solo players are given a free life for each completed objective, but a group is encouraged to watch out for each other and can replenish consumables and revive fallen companions, among other things.
The technologically advanced Illuminates, weapon heavy cyborgs and swarming bugs each bring different strategies to the table themselves, and call to mind the famous Starcraft races as one of the many inspirations the game has. Though their environments differ ascetically, and the separate species require different tactics of the player, they all follow the basic mission structure.
" Once the community triumphs in one war, another starts right away. Helldivers is a very cyclical game of war, and war never changes. "
The most interesting, and most annoying, part of Helldivers is the campaign structure. In real time, every active player takes part in the ongoing war. After choosing a front to contribute to, you or your team is dropped into a selection of planets, all with with differing objectives and difficulties. Late in any particular war though, when you’re on the last front or two, you can find yourself stuck on fighting a foe you’ve gotten bored of, or on a homeworld and doing missions way over your head.
The war is advanced through the community at large completing missions and gaining enough influence over a sector, thus advancing the front. It’s an interesting concept in massively multiplayer gaming, but personally it never gave me a strong investment or payoff. I felt like a player in something larger than myself, but it was never personally rewarding. There is a level up system that unlocks further equipment, but that only goes so far.
Once you’ve made landfall and have your boots on the ground, missions follow a general structure. Capture this point. Activate something at this point. Destroy this thing at this point. Occasionally, escort this thing from one point to another. These missions don’t vary much in more than name and they all feel more or less the same. Once the community triumphs in one war, another starts right away. Helldivers is a very cyclical game of war, and war never changes.
"The game is so tied into the multiplayer, that going solo can feel rather lonely. "
It’s the clearest message that Helldivers is intended to be a multiplayer game, staying as out of the way as it can for a group of buddies to make their own tales of glory of when their squad barely escaped that mission the one time, rewarding co-operative play in ways that few games manage these days.
So inclined, squad members can alter their loadouts to fill specific roles in a co-op shooter fashion, or everybody can do their own thing. Helldivers can call down rechargeable “strategems” to support themselves and their team, including resupplies, turrets and heavier guns, or even carpet bombings. Missions go more smoothly with co-operation, and everything can easily go fubar without communication.
Music is non-existent and visuals aren’t all that notable to begin with, so a single player jaunt through a mission could easily be used as a sleep aid. It’s also far easier to get cornered or overwhelmed as a single player.
"The persistent connection requirement leaves the Vita version of the game feeling like a general afterthought, "
Being so intimately tied to online brings problems of its own too. The persistent connection requirement leaves the Vita version of the game feeling like a general afterthought, even in the way it controls. The touchpad is hardly a replacement for the other shoulder buttons as usual and the simple fact that without PSN connectivity the game is nearly useless suggests the port was more of a “why not” than a thought out inclusion.
Helldivers knows everything it wants to be, and doesn’t care if that doesn’t please you. Super Earth is pretty clear that is doesn’t just want you though, it wants you to be with friends. Solo gamers aren’t going to find a lot to sink into here, but fall in with some friends in a squad, get through boot camp and you’ll have some laughs…maggots.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Tactical gameplay melts with multiplayer co-op and community engagement in a fun way and creates an amazing group play experience.
The gameplay systems can stick you where you don't want to be, and the mission structure at the best of times is repetitive. Vita version is almost pointless once away from wifi. Single players don't get a great experience. The whole community integration concept isn't conducive to individual players feeling accomplished.
Helldivers is a fascinating experiment in community involvement mixed with a classic tactical shooter. It doesn't fire on all cylinders, but get a group of people together and Helldivers can be a hell of a time.