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02/08/24 Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Helldivers II (PS5)

By Lee Mehr 12th Mar 2024 | 2,900 views 

Between wonderfully-addictive combat, encouraged comradery, & consistent tongue-in-cheek humor, Helldivers II is a fantastic way to spread liberty & prosperity through patriotic destruction.

Roughly nine years ago, Arrowhead Game Studios unleashed Helldivers upon the world.  While not setting the world on fire, it was a respected top-down shooter about destroying enemies in the name of liberty, freedom, and democracy.  After what initially seemed like a trailer for a new Starship Troopers-licensed third-person shooter, eventually the emblazoned title revealed itself to be: Helldivers II.  Given the team's previous pedigree, or lack thereof regarding genre and budget, it's no small feat to shoulder bigger risks after upgrading to the middle-market space.  Fortunately, the final result is one of the best bug-barbequing, robot-annihilating, friendly-fire-violating cooperative shooters of all time.

Step into the boots of Super Earth's most glorious soldier: the Helldiver.  After indulging in corny propaganda a well-intentioned call to arms against those willing to stamp out our way of life, you enroll in the military to wage war against any and all of Super Earth's enemies.  Any questions?  Well, why?  Can't you see we have a war to win against them?!?!

As I've already mentioned, it's clear this series is unapologetically replicating Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers but with every foot soldier donning a cool cloak.  And that tonal similarity is succinctly translated down to its setup and tone.  The humorously overwrought intro and tutorial really try to sell you on being the best of the best.  All the pomp built around doing what are essentially military basics any shooter fan has grown accustomed to feels a bit suspicious at first blush, like it's indulging in its cheesy dialogue for its own sake.  But then, just like its inspiration, your first actual combat encounter is an unnerving contrast.  Instead of a well-lit training area with obvious tells, you're likely plopping onto a planet with limited visibility while truck-sized bugs begin to swarm.  Whether by enemies or friendlies, death comes swiftly and you're just another body thrown in the meat grinder.  

Fortunately this unsettling reality can't overcome the pure love of freedom coursing through your veins.  The routine of liberating said planets is quite simple: plot a course on the galactic map to a liberty-starved planet, select a plot of land with whichever preferred main objectives you want to pursue, do an orbital drop onto the surface, and spread Managed Democracy wherever necessary.  On top of your main objectives – which might be either defending a base, destroying egg nests, sabotaging enemy operating bases, or something similar in nature – there are various side quests scattered across this open landscape.  The demands placed upon you and/or your squad (up to 3 others) vary based on which of the nine difficulties are selected.  How much or how little you decide to accomplish within the established timeframe is left to every squad.  Be warned though!  After the designated countdown timer hits 0:00, you're no longer able to call in any more reinforcements nor stratagems (more on that soon).  

Stacking up bodies never gets old thanks to some of the most kinesthetically satisfying third-person shooting.  Arrowhead's extended development time since Helldivers is immediately apparent through these polished mechanics.  It's more than simply having a rock-solid framerate and crunchy feedback (which it certainly has), but also a sense of tangible momentum when deftly shooting hordes of enemies.  One of the nicest touches comes from what I'll call a "dual-tiered UI system," wherein the smaller eye makes slight shifts based on recoil while the outer one stays fixed to the center screen.  Think of it like the third-person equivalent to Killzone 2's wobbly red dot while aiming down sight; strangely though, first-person scoping feels less satisfying by comparison.  The way these nuances and the plurality of fun weapons fuse together rank this among the best shooting systems in recent memory.

Rock-solid mechanics are huge boons for a shooter, but something is missing if there aren't exciting threats.  From a distance, bugs and robots sound quite typical in this day and age, but that'd ignore their fun variety and incredible aggression.  Again, Starship Troopers plays a clear influence on Helldivers II's bug categories.  From the more agile Hunters to heavily armored Chargers, the invisible bug general behind the scenes frequently uses a potent mix of several classes to split up attention.  Even the smallest, slowest tykes can be formidable distractions when in overwhelming numbers.  Spraying Raid across a planet is all well and good, but eventually you have to step up to the big leagues and fight those socialist automatons.  You'll never forget the first time seeing a battalion of crimson LED eyes in the distance and a fusillade of tracer rounds bombarding your position.  Between the wild variety - including akimbo chainsaw-wielding psychos - and the heavy-metal aesthetic, every major assault feels like The Terminator Tet Offensive.  It's legitimately the closest thing to Space Vietnam, but with your team was on the backfoot and relying on guerrilla tactics.

A sizable part of Helldivers' mechanical personality stems back to stratagems.  Think of them like in-game cheat codes to call down either airstrikes, orbital cannons, napalm, defensive turrets, specialty weapons, or napalm again.  Just tap out the correct sequence of D-pad inputs, throw the beacon towards your desired target, and wait.  Like other inspired combos, stratagems seek to capture a unique fusion no one knew they wanted: Dance Dance Revolution and wartime atrocities.  At first blush, it may seem weird to embellish entering The Konami Code when playing with certain interfaces or calling airstrikes, but it adds a new level of stress while so many other things can be happening at once.  Perhaps while running away you mistakenly call in a much broader artillery barrage that accidently kills a couple of teammates, thus making enemies hyper-fixate on you.  They're a small tweak at first glance, but add an enticing layer of chaotic fun the more you experiment with them.

Getting to play with these fun toys comes at a cost.  As with most modern shooters, the vast majority of weapons, armor kits, stratagems, and ship modules are locked behind certain in-game currencies.  The long and short of it is this: the more you accomplish on your mission the more you'll be rewarded.  Most of these currency categories are directly tied to performance with main/side objectives and how many Helldivers successfully escape.  The most obtuse currency is split into three tiers: Common, Rare, and Super Samples.  Unlike the rest, Samples are collectibles scattered around the field and have to be physically carried off the battlefield to be counted.  It's a nice dynamic in two respects: there's a greater impetus to explore the wider world and also to not stupidly throw your life away, lest you like running back to your last body to grab them again and again.  Either way, you want to ensure someone leaves with them in order to put towards useful ship modules, which can reduce stratagem cooldowns or drop support weapons with full ammo.  While the currency clutter can be a tad overbearing, it's nevertheless good Pavlovian training to encourage you to spread liberty off the beaten path as well.

Another large part of what makes liberating so enticing comes back to sheer presentation.  Like amped-up music before a sports game, listening to Wilbert Roget II’s wondrous score and the fiery howl of your capsule breaking through a planet’s atmosphere perfectly sets the scene for the oncoming onslaught.  The constant barking between fellow Helldivers (favorite amongst them being Yuri Lowenthal's voiceover) about "getting a taste of liberty" is consistently exuberant, even in the face of broken bones.  Just a quick stim and you're ready to return to the fray once more!  All of this surrounded by the appropriate audio punches for guns, distinct enemy sounds, and all-encompassing destruction happening in real-time.  With the right type of arsenal and a few quality teammates, you can make explosive symphonies rivaling that of Beethoven or Bach.  Yet even with all of the potential noise, there's still a certain level of clarity to the on-screen action. 

There's also something to be said for how Arrowhead so perfectly contrasts its live-service template with that of recent contemporaries, such as Suicide Squad for example.  Despite being sequestered to a modest interior hull, you're constantly getting real-time feedback through both the transparent-aluminum windows showcasing action from orbit and liberation updates via the holographic galactic map; conversely, the only sense of action in vacated Metropolis is a looming Brainiac moving his… weird tentacles around on occasion.  Those features only scratch the surface too.  New memes have spawned thanks to an employee known only as "Joel" effectively being a D&D Dungeon Master, influencing percentages on the backend to inspire thousands of Helldivers to direct their attention to a certain planet.  Between role-playing, helping to cleanse a planet after each successful mission, and players collectively unlocking a new mech stratagem after full planet liberation, so many elements contribute to this sensation of galactic warfare.  It inspires the type of engaged ecosystem so few multiplayer titles can dare reach, let alone sustain for weeks or months on end.

That's not to ignore the live-service mantle coming with potential drawbacks.  Some could argue Arrowhead has course-corrected too much with recent weapon nerfs & enemy spawn rates for higher difficulties.  And since Super Samples can only be found on Suicide Mission difficulty or higher, messing with previously successful builds can draw insane ire.  Given this being nascent territory for the developer, it's worth nothing that such gameplay tweaks are always in flux; in fact, during this review's editing phase, Arrowhead revealed a new balancing update in response.  There's also the fear of shenanigans like pay-to-win weapons or potential scams as well.  While there is a currency that can be purchased with real-world money (Super-Credits) and a premium battle pass (Warbond) locked behind it, Super-Credits are also in the standard Warbond and can occasionally be found on the battlefield.  And while this Premium Warbond has some fun toys, including a light armor set graded as medium armor, it neither presents ridiculously unfair advantages nor feels absurdly out of reach for anyone.  If you're dedicated and keep an eye on Personal & Major Missions for big payoffs, nothing on the storefront should be off-limits.

The most unanimous critique stems from Arrowhead becoming a victim of its own success.  No one – absolutely no one – could've anticipated the popularity for this middle-market shooter ($40 Standard/$60 Super Citizen Edition).  After hitting stratospheric heights upon release, the server stress caused a plethora of connection errors and long queues.  This had seemingly been ongoing for most of February.  As someone who started playing between late February and early March, my online experience has been mostly smooth, aside from one late night that resulted in numerous disconnects and losing out on xp.  While it certainly stings, I don't think that's enough to taint my overall thoughts.  Even if I'd had a rougher time, my general sentiments would be similar to Gears 5 at launch: the massive errors would merely diminish my excess enthusiasm to fight on. 

Helldivers II is a sterling success through its potent fusion of polished gunplay, overwhelming odds, and an unapologetically satirical tone.  By remaining so thoroughly committed to the bit through world-building, presentation, and so on, it's pure bliss to revel in the joyous destruction against bug and automaton alike.  After all, I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  And we can't have tyrants destroying our very way of life now, can we?  There comes a time in every patriot's life that they must ignore incessant phone calls from family & friends in order to spread Managed Democracy for the greater good.  If you have the guts, fortitude, and passion to spread liberty by any means necessary, then earn your cape and become a Helldiver today!  Would you like to know more?

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a digital copy of Helldivers II - Super Citizen Edition for the PS5

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