[PS Plus Reviews] February 2016- HELLDIVERS Democracy Strikes Back

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Disclaimer: This post is made as an entry for PS Asia’s PS Plus Junior Reporter competition. The points and views raised in the review however are not affected in any way.

Let me begin this review with some introduction to the folks behind Helldivers, Arrowhead Studios. This Swedish outfit made their debut with Magicka, a game that borrows a lot of concepts of top-down twin-stick shooters and hack n’ slash, but replacing all the shooting and massive hacking and slashing with magic. Its zany humour of the pop-culture references variety, substantial magic system, and plenty of chances to screw around your friends with its (hopefully intentional) finicky control scheme and the always on friendly fire. It was mired by bugs and glitches, but it is now a stable and awesome experience.

Arrowhead went to make a multiplayer-only side-scrolling shooter The Showdown Effect. While that game is fun and didn’t get much love (I haven’t tried it too), the guys got the opportunity to reboot the classic Gauntlet, a hack and slash from the 80’s. And then they worked on this gem, Helldivers.

All this preface is to show how the team has already have a signature style to their game design, and the easiest and most accurate explanation for what Helldivers is “Magicka as a full on twin-stick shooter” (Magicka with guns isn’t accurate, there are guns in that game via DLC). The humour is there, but now more subtle. The franticness is there. Controls are fluid in some place, intentionally not so in others. And now with backing of Sony, they explored new concepts as well.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with the review.

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Graphics & Sound

For a top-down shooter, Helldivers does an OK job for looking good. But most importantly, it runs at a perfect 60fps in most cases. It’s not the 60fps that I’m praising, but how well it can keep it consistent, despite the increasing counts of enemies, blood spills, and even ammo shells can litter the screen. On the PS4, at least.

Design-wise, what I can say it is.. generic. The problem is, I’m not sure if the genericness of the design is something intentional, the Helldivers all look like Destiny’s default Guardians, with cape and all. Enemies fall into the same trap too. The bugs are clearly influenced by Starship Troopers. The Illuminate looks like some high sci-fi race, like the Protoss or Eldar. The cyborgs are..cyborgs.

Speaking of Starship Troopers, the whole tone of the game, set by the intro, clearly invokes the series. The propaganda-like tone to it is hilarious too.

On the part of sound, Helldivers makes use it of it well, the Dual Shock 4’s mic in particular. Certain sounds play on it, and the most important of all the reload cue. As your clip is getting lower it starts pinging, signalling it’s almost out. Having that cue projected from the controller is not only neat, but practical too. Imagine playing couch co-op. You can easily know who if it’s you who is running dry by judging how close the pinging sound is.

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Gameplay

This is where Helldivers is at its strongest. The basic gameplay loop here is that you’ll be selecting a system to drop into- either the Bugs, Illuminate or Cyborgs, and then select a planet. This planet represents difficulty, from 1 (A dive in the park), to 12. Easy is on 3, and even that is hard to manage, especially if you’re dropping in solo. In the planet, there’s a series of missions to undertake, before being able to claim it and unlock a reward. This loop is reinforced with a metagame that will be covered in a bit. Plus, those rewards are very substantial.

Your typical Helldiver squad of 1 to 4 people are going about on all these planets spreading “controlled democracy”. That is by doing several objectives on each map. As simple as capturing a base, to carry a package to a drop zone, to clearing up a minefield, and activating and deactivating defence systems.

Helldivers goes in a lot of way to screw with the players. The aforementioned friendly fire is always an issue, to the point the game even keeps track on “accidental” kills. Then there’s resource management. You start out with limited amount of ammo clips, and you don’t have a specific count of how many bullets left in the clip except some visual bar and the sound cues mentioned earlier. Love to reload a gun even if you just shot a clip? Throw away that bad habit, as each reload discards the whole clip, including the remaining bullets. You’ll going to always juggle if a reload is needed or you can smack some more dudes with what you have now.

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Then, comes in strategems. These are support you can call in to the battlefield, in similar veins of special Magicks in Magicka. Unlike Magicka, you can only equip a few of them, and still have to some ridiculous button combos- this time similar to a Dance-Dance Revolution prompts with the D-pad. This can be calling for more ammo, plopping a defensive turret (that can still shoot you, remember: friendly fire is always on), or some cheap quick air strikes. Some crucial strategems require no slot to equip, such as the reinforce gem, which calls in dead helldivers: a neat way to revive the dead. Be wary of the supply drops too, yes you can totally get crushed by the pods if you’re not careful.

All of this franticness is supported by the endless hordes of enemies. Small groups are always in patrol, but if alarmed they may call in reinforcements. Kill them fast enough and it’s done. Or get ready to face a terrible onslaught of enemies. While you can wipe the huge waves of reinforcements called in, the enemies will keep on coming from other sources nevertheless. Learn to pick your battles, or face the dire consequences.

Helldivers is at its best with friends or in a full party with online players. It supports local multiplayer as well (remember to make a local account, or the progress won’t save). You can go in solo, but it would be viable for only the die-hard of helldiver to so. I tried playing a mission on easy solo. It didn’t end well, despite doing several attempts.

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Content & Longevity

Helldivers has a metagame, called the galactic war. Each war spans about 4-6 weeks in real life, where each successful mission played while online contributes points to capture and defend specific regions of the galaxy. Push far enough into the territories of the three enemies and you can initiate a home-world invasion event. If they pushed deep enough into our home planet, Super-Earth then a call for defence will be initiated.

Each time you log in after a while of inactivity the game will update you with the progress of the war, even includes some titbits of lore and blurps to make it feel more convincing, rather than just look at numbers grow big and small and looking at maps changing colours.

On the personal level, you have levels to grind and samples to collect. Gaining enough samples found during missions and you will gain points to spend on improving your current strategems and weapons. Want to unlock all those locked strategems and weapons? Go do more missions!

Interestingly, this edition that is being given for PS Plus subscribers have all the current DLCs included. These adds even more choice of perks, strategems and weapons to your disposal.

This game can be played offline, with local multiplayer up to 4 people. You can take your local mates online too, having friends or randoms online filling in the rest of the 4-man squad if needed. You can even play with mates on the PS3 version! Sadly you cannot do these with people on the PC version, and I have no clear answer if it works with people on the Vita. However, all versions support cross save so you can have your progress always saved and available for all platforms, should you choose to redeem them as well.

With many stuff to unlock, there’s plenty of content here. As long as you and your mate have not got tired of the antics and misery when it comes to the harder missions, you’ll be playing for a long time.

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Summary

This is by far the most polished Arrowhead games have made, (not sure if it’s true when it is first released though) and a shining example of what a Sony-backed indie game should be. Helldivers utilised almost all of the tricks and quirks of the ecosystem, uses controls that does not feel tacked-on or gimmicky at all, but still deliver a ruthless and fun experience that most people come to know coming from them. The downside? It’s a one-trick pony. If you’re not into the ruthless onslaught of enemies, friendly-fire, and plenty of other game design decisions with the intent to screw you as much as possible, it’s hard to get into the appeal.

For the rest of you? Go play it! Bring a friend or three. It’s a marvellous co-op experience. 9/10. Go spread Managed Democracy! Give ’em a cup of liber-tea!

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If you’re interested with other local co-op games, why not check this awesome list of games I did last year. Helldivers is in it too.

Looking for other PS Plus free games of the month reviews? I have you covered. Click here for a full list of games I managed to cover.

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