When people say various forms of gameplay are “outdated” or “archaic,” claiming new technology has supplanted such mechanics with superior systems, I point to games like Helldivers. In my estimation, there’s plenty more that could be done with the likes of side-scrolling and turn-based mechanics; in the case of Arrowhead’s great game, we’re talking about an old-school top-down, ceaseless action game that is indeed reminiscent of yesteryear. And yet, given the sheer amount of depth offered by procedurally generated environments and a persistent online universe, it’s a compelling and addictive blend of old and new.
As a game that puts an intense focus on challenging gameplay, you might think it sacrifices visual quality. And while it won’t turn any heads and it won’t earn any awards for photorealistic imagery, this is a wonderfully presented production. Granted, “procedurally generated” doesn’t necessarily translate to endless variety; in my experience, it just means more of the same, only in slightly different locations. That holds true here but there’s still plenty of variety on these alien worlds, and this is combined with great special effects and some impressive, meticulous artistry and detailing. It also flows exceedingly well, despite all the insanity that can occur on the screen.
The sound matches up nicely with the graphics, giving us a complete, technically sound experience. The soundtrack consists of some surprisingly impressive pieces, although you don’t often hear them due to the often hectic nature of the gameplay. Still, even if you are inundated with baddies, you will appreciate the stellar combat effects, which make a headset doubly worthwhile (you’ll want one to talk to your buddies, too). There isn’t much in the way of voice performances or narration but I doubt anyone will call the sound in this game generic or uninspired. The developers go that extra mile with both the visuals and the audio, proving that smaller digital titles can be treated with just as much care.
Okay, so forget about the story. There is one, of course, and it actually mirrors some real-world politics here and there, but you’ll be spending 99.9 percent of your time playing and micromanaging. It’s like Destiny went into a top-down format and added about a million more enemies. It’s like an MMO mixed with an old-fashioned twin-stick shooter system. The plot, which involves a Super Earth attempting to spread “managed democracy” throughout the galaxy, is often tongue-in-cheek, as it gleans its amusing humor from franchises like “Starship Troopers.” And you’ll be going up against three different races in your constant battle: Nasty-looking alien bugs, the highly advanced Illuminati, and the cyborgs (humans with metal grafted in).
As is typically the case with persistent-world adventures, the stories you create are the ones you’ll remember. They won’t revolve around characters and plot; rather, they’ll center on your latest harrowing quest. Maybe you just barely escaped with your skins intact; maybe it was a colossal failure due to the inanity of a particularly useless teammate. Either way, the main story quickly takes a back seat and you’re left with a hugely robust, wildly entertaining action game. It’s a twin-stick shooter, which is a relatively simple and accessible format, but there’s much more beneath the surface. Yeah, this isn’t like a fancier version of Smash TV or something like that. It’s an epic, tireless cosmic war that demands vigilance and dedication.
You can view everything from the War Theater, which is on the console of your ship. The Theater is split into three sections and those sections are further broken down into smaller areas; you can conquer these and earn valuable Community and Experience Points. Completing missions nets you Points and you’ll need them for new skills and equipment. Such advancements are critical because once you’ve nabbed the smaller sectors, you have to take on the enemy on its home turf. This means traveling to the home of the bugs, for instance, and trying to conquer the entire planet…it ain’t easy, and only the most accomplished Helldivers will be able to complete the uber-difficult mission.
The only trouble is that the missions aren’t that interesting. I didn’t really expect them to be overly intriguing or compelling in any special way, but these get a little drab and repetitive after a while. And speaking of repetition, if you play by yourself, the game quickly starts to feel like a frustrating grind. Obviously, Helldivers is designed for co-op play, and this is where it shines: Battles are fast and intense, and each player really needs to step up. Working together is key (rogue teammates don’t fare well) and even though each objective isn’t exactly fresh or inspired, you always want to tackle it with a goodly group of comrades. I will admit, however, that after some hours, the “been there, done that” feel is palpable.
The good news is I was usually far too busy to notice. When the situation involves more than just twitch ability, and all players really need to deliver, you get some great battles. The squad leader picks the area in which to fight and when deployed, the team selects their equipment setups, dubbed stratagem. You can also decide which objective to tackle first, and working your way toward each objective is usually a blast. The pacing feels just about right and when you start to unlock a slew of goodies, like the UAV that highlights threats on your map, the satisfaction level rises quickly. Furthermore, you really have to learn about your foes; for example, cyborgs can deflect bullets with their metal skin, so you have to take that into consideration.
Everything progresses fluidly; nothing feels tacked on or pointless. Like I said, the objectives are repetitive and underwhelming, but the process of achieving those objectives most certainly is not. Well, the gameplay can be repetitive at times but given the sheer amount of customization and unlocking going on, you’ll always feel as if you’re progressing. Besides, how the game plays out depends on your situation; i.e., which of the three races you’re fighting and the combat styles of your allies. When these get mixed around, you can enjoy some very different battle experiences. For one play session, you might have a team that’s intent on getting through a mission with as little pain as possible; in another session, everyone might just accept that massive confrontation is inevitable.
The controls are top-notch; the twin-stick shooting doesn’t feel loose or finicky and the accessibility is obvious from jump. However, the difficulty could smack you right upside the head and your reaction will have a big impact on your enjoyment. If you knuckle down and concentrate, you will be justly rewarded. If, on the other hand, you start suffering from friendly fire (a problem with the game at times), and you’re cursed with crappy teammates, the game might soon become a tedious grind. I would strongly suggest you play with likeminded individuals ‘cuz if you do, you’ll really appreciate what this game has to offer.
Helldivers holds huge entertainment value for certain players. The game has its share of minor issues, such as visibility (with so many enemies on screen at once, things can get nuts), the story is amusing and even comical but I wonder if it was even necessary, and the game can become irritating if your co-op experiences are found lacking. Despite all that, if everything clicks, you’re in for one hell of a ride. The presentation is great and the multiplayer gameplay is some of the best you’ll find. The amount of depth, coupled with the potentially super high rewards for good players, makes this a diamond in the rough. For those of the correct disposition, Helldivers will be an absolute gem.
The Good: Good design, detail, and overall presentation. Excellent graphical and audio effects. Great pacing and an addictive reward structure. Accessible and yet, extremely challenging. Blends a huge amount of depth with straightforward action. Playing with a competent team is hella fun.
The Bad: Missions start to feel uninspired and bland. Can feel like a repetitive grind, especially when playing solo. Perhaps too tough for some.
The Ugly: “I really hate it when we fail because someone on my team is a complete tool.”
3/9/2015 Ben Dutka