When you dive to hell, be sure to bring a friend or two.
Few games simultaneously emphasize the comfort of co-operative multiplayer and the bitterness of defeat quite like Helldivers. The relentless top-down shooter throws everything but the kitchen sink at players and requires careful teamwork at all times. One small mistake from a single person can be the difference between victory and failure. The reliance on true cooperation leads to potential disasters with random players, but with the right group of people, Helldivers shines as a multiplayer experience.
Think of the Helldivers as the future version of the Army. The game opens with a tongue-in-cheek recruitment video for the titular unit and establishes a personality that contrasts the game itself. Helldivers does everything to destroy players, and yet it's all set against a satirical backdrop in which soldiers proclaim their love of jetpack jumps mid-battle. This lighter tone helps alleviate some of the frustrations of war, but with war comes death. Lots of death.
Helldivers is a difficult game in every way imaginable. Easy missions fail to convey the reality of the situation, but tackle a planet on medium difficulty or higher and it quickly becomes apparent. Droves of enemies come from all sides of the battlefield. Larger enemies require more firepower to kill effectively. Friendly fire is on at all times. Missions often devolve into chaos in the blink of an eye, and Helldivers wouldn't have it any other way. It sounds like a nightmare, but the thrill and satisfaction of a victory with two or three other people largely trumps the despair.
That's not to say Helldivers doesn't stumble occasionally, specifically the way in which it utilizes friendly fire as a core feature. The concept forces players to work as a team instead of a group of lone wolves, which enhances the multiplayer component. But it also leads to some cheap moments, namely the way in which players join a match. Almost every time I joined a group of players, I'd automatically deploy right on top of someone's head and kill them. They had practically no time to react. I could feel the anger come through the TV screen every time it happened. Moments like that don't support the friendly fire ideology in a positive way.
Nevertheless, I continued to play with other folks and participated in plenty of successful missions. The missions themselves involve a series of random objectives on procedurally-generated planets. One map may feature desert terrain and require players to capture an area, while the next takes place in a forest and asks players to deliver a black box to a nearby base. All missions eventually end at the extraction point, in which the group holds out until a shuttle arrives. There's a certain amount of repetition to the objective-based structure, and some objectives are more eventful than others. Environments often get recycled as well, and the lack of variety becomes more obvious over time.
But no matter the objective or scenery, players must be completely focused at all times to ensure victory. Stratagems in particular stand out as one of the most important mechanics in Helldivers. They're abilities that can be equipped in the loadout screen, and all of them require specific D-pad prompts to execute on the battlefield. It's like a fighting game, though not nearly as complicated. The required combinations are listed on the screen when players hold the stratagem button, but memorization proves far more useful when enemies quickly begin to swarm.
Helldivers features quite a few stratagems in various categories, whether it be offense, defense, or support. My personal favorite is the mech suit for obvious reasons. All of the stratagems are useful in their own special way, and working with other players who equip different ones makes for an even more satisfying multiplayer experience.
Upgrades also help players eradicate the enemy threat, and thus it becomes important to pick up samples on the battlefield. Samples eventually lead to research points, which can then be used to upgrade weapons and stratagems. Leveling up also results in research points, on top of cosmetic unlocks and new perks. The research system is surprisingly robust, but cosmetic items and perks leave something to be desired. The game only features a small handful of perks, and cosmetic items do little to change the look of the character in any meaningful way. At least players can spin their capes in a circle. Really, cape spinning is great.
Although upgrades and unlocks only affect a single character, the actions of that character can have a huge impact in Helldivers. The entire game operates as a galactic campaign in which all players contribute in an effort to capture regions and eliminate hostile forces. Successfully completing a planet adds to the global influence meter, and with enough captured regions, players can attack the enemy homeworld.
I also encountered missions in which one of the enemy races—Bugs, Cyborgs, or Illuminates—attacked a specific region, which the Helldivers were tasked with defending. Galactic campaigns are estimated to take roughly 4-6 weeks, with new enemy races introduced over time. It's a fantastic idea, and seeing your own contribution to the global effort instills a strong sense of pride and satisfaction.
The galactic campaign adds an inventive twist to the formula, but Helldivers works so well because it's great fun as a co-op experience, both online and local. The game allows solo missions, but the dull single-player component makes it a multiplayer-or-bust purchase. I'm sure that turns some people off, just as the intense difficulty may prove to be too much for some folks. But audiences who appreciate co-op and a good challenge are in for a treat.