Some games give an entirely different impression in screenshots to the one you’ll get with the controller in your hand. Helldivers is a case in point. Yes, it’s a god-view shooter and yes, you do control it with twin sticks. Yet it’s also something entirely different - a suggestion that won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Arrowhead Game Studio’s earlier hit Magicka.
As a Helldiver, your job is to tackle whatever threat is currently facing Super Earth - the cleverly named planet at the center of human civilisation. You’re not alone in this endeavour, everyone else that’s playing is also both defending Super Earth and attacking one of three alien species that’s currently threatening the governance of your particular race.
This political mechanic provides context to the action, allowing players to determine which sectors of the galaxy would benefit most from their attention. Defeating an alien race by capturing all the sectors between Super Earth and them, then defeating their homeworld results in them being removed from the playing field, while allowing any one of the races to conquer Super Earth ends the game for everyone.
The action continues whether you’re online or not, much like an MMO, and there’s an update stream on login so you can get a recap of what happened in the war since you were last involved. It’s a nifty motivation for what is otherwise a pretty repetitive experience, and it’s nice seeing the spaceships of other players in orbit around a planet as you attack it.
The core gameplay sees you charged with tackling objectives in a sector of space, planet by planet. The higher the difficulty (there are twelve), the more objectives there are, and the tougher and more numerous the alien menace you’ll encounter down on the surface. Many of the nasties you’ll be obliterating en-masse are of the bug variety, combining nicely with the tongue-in-cheek narrative to give the whole affair a Starship Troopers vibe.
There are a limited number of guns available, and you’ll be able to select any two to take to the surface. Each can be upgraded by spending research points (earned on leveling and by finding items in corners of the maps you fight on), and - as always - there aren’t enough to go around, so you need to choose things that support your style of play.
Before too long you begin unlocking more advanced strategems (selectable perks, basically) and you’ll need to choose wisely which to bring along. Just having them with you isn’t all there is to it, however, as you’ll need to input a series of buttons (much like the famous Konami code, in fact) to trigger these strategems and bring their bonuses into play. This singular mechanic defines a lot of the experience as you’ll often have something in your bag that could level the playing field - but only if you can scramble your trembling fingers quickly enough to deploy it.
Enemies are many - if not all that varied - and coming to terms with the fact you can’t eliminate them all makes up much of the initial learning curve. If you play it like it’s a typical shooter, standing your ground against insurgent alien scumbags, you’ll soon run out of ammunition and be overrun. Instead, you need to figure out how to assault the objective and move on as efficiently as possible - something that’s sure to create even more frustrating experiences than I found while playing strictly with other reviewers.
Helldivers, you see, is a purely multiplayer game. You can elect to go it alone, but it’s extremely hard to solo - and someone else could drop in at any time regardless (you don’t seem to be able to disable that.) Instead, you’ll find yourself playing with others most of the time (in couch co-op, online, or a combination of up to four players), which means much of the time you’ll trying not to swear at that one guy who’s standing his ground when everyone else in the party knows it’s long past time to beat a hasty retreat.
Still, the game’s fresh and new; it’s going to take some time for people to get to grips with it, and by the time you start gaining some serious player levels, chances are pretty good you’ll have left the derps in the dust.
While it’s fun - especially if you’ve got a co-op player on the couch beside you - it takes a while to get going due to the steep learning and even once it does, it’s pretty repetitive. There are only so many missions to complete, and so very few combinations of aliens and environments to encounter. Fortunately, the constant weapon unlocks help keep things interesting, and some truly hilarious combat scenarios (friendly fire is always on) means there’s a pretty good chance of a uniquely amusing sequence playing out just around every other corner.
Visually it’s pretty plain and simple, making it a largely similar experience on the PS Vita as it is on the PS4 (a cross-buy title, you can play it on either console or even a PlayStation 3, if you like, for the same one-time fee), but the sights and sounds also manage to stay out of the way and don’t overly detract from the experience.
What did negatively impact things, for me, was the random loss of my research points at level seix; I never got them back, either, which means my character is forever gimped compared to others I might encounter, with less upgraded guns and items than I might have had - were my points all allocated correctly. Hopefully that little kink is being ironed out as we speak.
Bugs aside, it’s a nifty and unique title, and one definitely worthy of investigation for fans of multiplayer, shooters, and the out-of-the-box thinking Arrowhead Game Studios. If you like all three of those things, it’s a no-brainer.