Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Helldivers was a long time coming. Originally announced during Gamescom 2013, it was supposed to come out the following summer, but its developers were silent on the status of the game until the beginning of this year, in which it was suddenly announced that the game would be out in the beginning of March. As someone who enjoyed Arrowhead’s previous game Magicka, I was very interested in Helldivers for a number of reasons, and once it came out I delved into it. Let’s see if it holds up.
Helldivers is a PlayStation-exclusive downloadable title, available for PS4, PS3 and Vita. Remarkably, the game is thoroughly connected between the three platforms; with Cross-Buy, Cross-Play and Cross-Save enabled, one purchase grants you a copy of the game for each of the three platforms, your progress persists between them, and the multiplayer population base is near-seamlessly pooled between all three platforms.
The game takes place in a far flung future, where humanity is flourishing under a global political system of “managed democracy.” However, this utopian (and noticeably dystopian) way of life is threatened as the people of Super Earth branch out into space and encounter three hostile alien races: the Bugs, the Cyborgs, and the Illuminates. War immediately ensues, and Super Earth finds itself beset on all fronts. To combat the alien scum, players are recruited into the Helldivers, a division of elite light infantry that are deployed to accomplish high-value objectives.
Helldivers is fairly straightforward in structure. Each player has a space frigate, the bridge of which serves as a hub for all the game’s features. Here you can view, customize and upgrade your equipment; link up with other players online; and view the galactic map. Once you’ve picked a mission from the map, you deploy from your ship using one of the hellpods sitting on the bridge. The galactic map in particular introduces the player to one of Helldivers’ unique features: the war. Not unlike Dead Nation for example, Helldivers features an online metagame tracking Super Earth’s progress in its war against each enemy race. Each theater of the war is split into multiple regions, with each region home to planets that must be subjugated.
As you complete missions on these planets, not only do you gain personal rewards, but your accomplishments contribute to a global progress bar for that region. Once the bar fills up, the community successfully takes it over, and the war progresses to the next region. Wars continue like this until they reach the enemy’s home planet, at which point an event is held giving players the opportunity to finally conquer that race. In addition to this, enemy races will sometimes strike back, attacking capital cities in regions in an attempt to push the forces of humanity back. This takes the form of another event, where the community is given a chance to suppress the rebellion. All events use a progress bar like the one shown for galactic regions; once one starts, the community has anywhere from a few to a few dozen hours to fill that bar up by completing objectives. Players are incentivized to participate in events mainly through the promise of double experience points.
Speaking of experience points, Helldivers provides three avenues of player progression. The aforementioned points gained from completing missions eventually allow you to level up. Each level of promotion gives you access to something new. Sometimes it’s an aesthetic piece of gear, like a new cape or helmet. Other times it’s a perk or a new weapon. Leveling up also grants you one research point, which is the second method of progression. Research points are normally gained on the field by gathering up any samples found lying around (ten samples earns you one research point), and are spent to upgrade your weapons and stratagems. Finally, while you unlock perks and primary weapons by leveling up, you unlock stratagems (more on that in a bit) by completing planets.
From its metagame down to its moment to moment gameplay, Helldivers is all about cooperation. Whether you’re on the bridge of your ship or in the middle of a firefight on the planet down below, other players can beam in to join you at almost any given time. The game allows for any mix of up to four local or online players on Vita, PS3 and/or PS4 to join up and kill aliens together. Friendly fire is permanently enabled, forcing you to watch your fire and avoid tripping over your teammates. Many enemies, such as Bug Tanks and Cyborg Hulks, also encourage distraction and flanking tactics; others are simply best not taken on alone, such as the Illuminate Council Members and Bug Brood Commanders.
Furthermore, your motley squad is always being supported in one way or another by the rest of Super Earth’s armed forces. While out on a mission, all Helldivers have access to a variety of resources available from the forces orbiting the planet, which come in the form of stratagems. In addition to your primary weapon and perk, you choose four stratagems to take with you into the mission. Stratagems are broadly organized into four categories: supplies, defense, and offense, and mission support. Supply stratagems include secondary weapons such as heavy machine guns, rocket bazookas, and flamethrowers, but they also rope in special gear such as a personal shield generator (think Halo) or a backpack filled with ammo. The supply category also includes a couple vehicles. Meanwhile, defensive stratagems serve to provide tactical support to you and your squad, such as having several burrowing mines deployed from above to cover your tracks, or having your frigate deliver an automated turret to provide fire support. Finally, offensive stratagems take the form of various support strikes. These include close air support from nearby fighter-bombers, heavy barrages from offsite artillery, and precise rail cannon rounds fired from ships floating above orbit. Mission support stratagems are not equipped, and instead made available to you as you need them. For example, you’ll always have access to the Reinforce stratagem, which revives any dead squadmates. In missions where you’ll have to destroy certain objectives, you’ll also be provided with a stratagem which—after a lengthy construction time—delivers a, manual-detonation nuclear bomb to your location (known aptly as the “Hellbomb”).
Stratagems are activated by inputting a sequence of directions on the D-pad (not unlike a classic cheat code). Successfully completing the sequence grants you a beacon orb that summons the stratagem to its location once you throw it. Just like in Magicka, each stratagem has its own specific button sequence, which is easy enough to dial in during downtimes but of course challenging to do while in the middle of a battle. In addition to being limited use in some cases, all stratagems require you to wait a certain amount of time between uses. The more powerful the stratagem is, the longer both its wait time and its button sequence tend to be. For example, while a simple strafing run from an overhead fighter carries only a 10-15 second cooldown and requires only three button presses, the Shredder missile—a nuclear ICBM that destroys everything within its impact radius upon impact—requires seven inputs and one must wait over three minutes before calling another.
One of the most impressive things about Helldivers is the vast array of equipment options available to you. Among the main weapons, there are assault rifles, submachine guns, and shotguns, as well as more specialized weapons such as the Arc Thrower and Rail Gun. Even within these categories, the weapons are distinct. Each of the three shotguns, for example offer completely different playstyles; the Breaker auto-shotgun is a good all-rounder with shots that go through enemies. Meanwhile, the sawed-off Double Freedom can be wielded in one hand and fires incendiary shells, and the Punisher features a low spread (and thus long range) and a pump-action reload. One of my personal favorite weapons is the Justice assault rifle, which differentiates itself from its brethren by firing high-caliber armor piercing shots that penetrate through multiple enemies in a line, allowing one shot to hit multiple targets.
There’s also a good selection of perks available to you. Some perks change your grenade type from frag to smoke or incendiary; others grant you faster running speed or heavy armor. A popular perk is Stratagem Priority, which reduces all the cool-downs of your stratagems by 40%.
Of course, perks and weapons are joined by stratagems, and by combining the three you’re able to effectively build your own personal “class” from the ground up. Want to be the guy in heavy armor with the shotgun and bazooka? Want to be the commander-type who’s always on his radio calling down air support? Want to be the commando who quickly closes in on the enemy with a jetpack and sprays them with SMG fire? Helldivers lets you build your own play style by letting you pick and choose your equipment. It helps that you can also customize your outfit to look the part.
One unfortunate thing to keep in mind about Helldivers is that while there is quite a lot to upgrade and unlock, eventually you will have everything. Once you hit max level and upgrade every piece of equipment, the carrot on the stick is completely gone. This is more something to note than a straight negative however, as I think Helldivers is fun enough to keep playing on its own merits.
Not unlike with Magicka, Arrowhead has as of this writing already put out several DLC packs adding a horde of additional weapons, stratagems and aesthetic gear. With all of the DLC so far, the game’s arsenal is huge, to such an extent that I’m really beginning to wish they had included the ability to construct preset loadouts. There are so many weapons that it can be tedious to scroll through them all to set up your equipment for the mission. Further, it’s reasonable to be put off simply by the sheer amount of DLC that’s already available. However, so far I generally feel that the base game has everything you need to succeed; the DLC packs are there to add variety. It helps that the developer has also been active in improving the game via patches, including adding in new content and enemies.
Missions in Helldivers are relatively freeform. Each one consists of several objectives sprawled across a large region. Objectives can include escorting VIPs, destroying high-value objectives (such as bug nests), assassinating specific targets, and setting up pieces of equipment. You choose where in the area you would like to be dropped off at, and upon choosing your loadout, you are deployed to the planet’s surface in a high-velocity drop pod, known as a Hellpod. Once on the ground, you’re free to run around and tackle objectives in any order that makes sense to you. Upon completing (or failing) every objective assigned to that mission, an extraction beacon becomes available somewhere in the map. Making your way there and activating it summons the shuttle, which is your ticket off of the planet. While the shuttle is on its way however, enemies will constantly spawn en masse, forcing you to fight tooth and nail just to stay alive.
The three enemy races in Helldivers are very distinct in the way they respond to player threats and the approaches they thus require. The Bugs—in classic Starship Troopers style—are fast, tenacious, and numerous. More than any other race, they exert constant pressure on players through the use of cloaked Stalkers, large numbers, and scouts that can jump very far to close the distance quickly. The Illuminates—clearly modeled somewhat after the likes of the Protoss or Eldar—rely on their ability to sow confusion among the squads’ ranks and limit their movement. Energy shields, cloaking technology and teleportation allow them to both distract players and catch them by surprise. Meanwhile, the Cyborgs are former residents of Super Earth who have experimented on themselves and become twisted abominations. They use heavy weaponry, thickly armored enemies and deadly shock troops to overwhelm players with brute force. While each of the three races are quite varied, I some are more fun to fight than others. Notably, I find the Illuminate irritating to fight due to their ability to kill you instantly as well as mess with your controls.
Helldivers organizes its missions into 12 difficulty levels, so it’s not hard to play at your comfort level. Levels 1 through 4—with 1 being aptly referred to as a “Dive in the Park”—are fairly quiet, with mostly non-threatening enemies that do not appear in substantial numbers. 5 through 8 can be completed with some challenge by a single person, but should more realistically be done with some help. 9 through 11 offer some of the game’s toughest challenges, as it is at that point that the races deploy all of their toughest rogues. Level 12 missions—known as Helldives—require a full team of people coordinating, communicating and operating on all cylinders, and even then you still may not succeed.
Make no mistake; Helldivers is a challenging game. Even when playing at the lower levels, vigilance is required. At any point you may accidentally shoot a teammate, or step on a mine. Everything that damages enemies also damages fellow Helldivers. Airstrikes are not canceled, nor do turrets stop firing simply because a teammate is standing in the danger zone. I’ve seen missions that ended before they started because the team was completely overrun by enemies upon landing. On higher difficulty levels, all it takes is one scout throwing up a flare to force the squad into a lengthy pitched battle with a battalion of enemies.
How well Helldivers looks and runs will naturally depend on the platform you play it on. I’ve put in most of my hours on PS3, where it generally looks fine, but occasionally crashes. On Vita the game loses an expected amount of detail and fidelity, and is also prone to framerate dips and longer load times. With the recent content patch, there are about five different environmental types that missions can take place on, and each of them offer different challenges in addition to looking distinct. Forest planets for example feature winding paths that can help you lose enemies, while colder planets are blanketed in snow that slows you down.
Seamless cross-play between three different platforms is no small feat, and for the most part Helldivers handles it admirably well. Cross Save works automatically behind the scenes, keeping your experience consistent no matter what platform you play on, and the ability to mix and match players not only between local and online but between different systems is honestly really impressive. It hasn’t been without its quirks, though. Though at this point I believe these issues have largely been ironed out, I’ve experienced a lot of dropped games and loss of server connectivity, which is a huge bummer because you lose any experience or items gained in the course of a mission, wasting everyone’s time. I’ve also found that PS4-PS3 connectivity to spotty. While it’s easy enough for PS4 players to stumble into your game and vice-versa via normal matchmaking, as a PS3 player I was unable to manually join a PS4 player’s game, even after being invited. Though really, this could just as much be an issue with PSN in general, as you can’t even see PS4 players on your friends list on the PS3 XMB.
Helldivers isn’t a perfect game, but man have I had a ton of fun playing it. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but for every one thing I think the game could have done better, there are multiple others that I think the game nailed. The variable challenge, the extremely wide arsenal, and the impressive cross-play systems all weave together to create a really tight and focused package that knows what it is. That’s the kind of game that you look forward to playing with friends on Friday evenings.