‘Helldivers 2’ Impressions: Bug Blasting Co-op Shooter Provides ‘Starship Troopers’-Inspired Thrills and Humor

We’re trying to hit the last bug nest when our mission clock runs out. Our support ship departs, taking with us our valuable stratagems and leaving us on our own with no extra lives. The two of us are overwhelmed and running low on ammo, so we decide it’s best to cut our losses and run. As we pull back, my friend gets clipped by his own laser drone, doing just enough damage that the bugs surrounding him are able to finish the job and take him down. “Come pick up my samples,” he shouts, as the entire bug swarm turns its attention on me. “It’s too late for the samples,” I reply, watching the dropship arrival counter tick down.

I back up to a reasonable distance, picking off the creatures that get close to me, and take a moment to open up my map. I’ve got to make it halfway across the battlefield in under two minutes, so I just book it as fast as possible. Bug breaches open up around me as I continue my sprint, not looking back at the massive horde hot on my heels. After a white knuckle dash, I finally make it to the extraction zone just as the ship lands. As I turn around to get into the back of the ship, I see the enormity of the forces on my tail and dive into the ship with five seconds to spare, extracting with little but my life.

This is the type of action you can expect in a session of Helldivers 2, the new co-op shooter that’s taken Steam and PlayStation 5 by storm. You and up to three other players form a squad of Starship Troopers-style soldiers on a mission to liberate planets from the bug-like Terminids and unrelenting robotic Automatons. In the 20 hours I’ve been able to put into the game so far, I’ve found a wonderfully thrilling and surprisingly funny experience that’s an absolute blast to play with your friends.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: this game has been suffering from technical issues since launch. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to put as much time into it as I would like is that when my friends and I end up having time to sit down, we haven’t been able to log on to the overburdened servers. Developer Arrowhead Game Studios has been working hard to try to alleviate this issue, but server caps have been an issue as the game continues to gain popularity. It seems the issues are starting to even out, as they recently raised the cap to 800,000, but some irritating bugs still persist.

Even with the frustrations, I can’t help but be completely enthralled by Helldivers 2. The game’s missions, which can be completed in about 20 to 40 minutes, provide a great bite-sized chunk of a gaming session, and it always feels like you can fit in just one more. The overall structure of the game revolves around you aiding in the war effort on one of two fronts, either against the Terminids or Automatons. There are many planets on each front that need to be “liberated,” and every mission you do helps move that liberation percentage up just a bit. It’s a small structural touch, but for a game without a central narrative, it allows you to feel like you’re a part of something bigger going on around you.

These missions are all procedurally generated, each centered around a specific goal, like launching an ICBM or evacuating civilians, providing you with a good amount of variety every time you play. Global modifiers are active for all players that will alter the landscape of what you’re facing, and each planet that you land on has a specific environment. You’ll be doing missions all over the planets, so you’ll end up playing both day and night, which changes up the vibe in significant ways. Even though you’re always pulling from the same pool of mission types, there’s enough modifiers in play that will make it worth returning to over and over again.

Another thing that adds variety is the two different enemy forces. When I started (and was still playing on medium), I thought I had a good grasp on the game playing against the bugs, but when I moved over to the robot front, I was getting my ass handed to me. Each enemy faction requires very different tactics and loadouts, and learning those is a ton of fun. Even within each of the forces, there’s a large variety of units that all have different weak points or strategies to defeat them. Shifting difficulty levels changes up the mix of enemies you’ll see, scaling in a way that feels smart and exciting, forcing you to get used to fighting enemies that normally would have felt impossible when you started.

The gunplay in the game feels extremely good, without making you feel too powerful. The targeting cursor you’re using swims a bit while you’re moving, making you think on the fly about whether to prioritize accuracy or mobility at any moment. When reloading, any ammunition remaining in your old clip will be discarded, so you’re always considering when is the optimal time to reload, adding another layer of strategy to what could have been a very basic shooter. So far I’ve used a range of assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols, but there’s so many more to unlock. No one gun seems to be the most overpowered, making any a viable option. Unlocks in the game are handled through various currencies that are either rewarded for mission performance, like requisition points and war bond medals, or acquired while exploring areas, like the ever-valuable samples.

The real mechanic of Helldivers 2 that sets it apart from other co-op shooters is the stratagems system. When you’re building your loadout before launching a mission, you can pick four of these, ranging from an extra powerful weapon to a tactical napalm airstrike, all called into a specific point by throwing a beacon. They’re summoned by holding down a button and pushing a series of directional commands, like you’re playing high tension Simon Says. Each of them have specific cooldowns or limits that you have to be aware of, but your effective use of stratagems will make or break your mission. There’s such a frantic joy in trying to input commands in order to deploy your airstrike on an oncoming horde, and it’s thrilling when you pull it off.

It’s also extremely funny when those stratagems go wrong. The inclusion of friendly fire makes for some humorous moments with your friends without feeling overly frustrating. Sure, it feels great when you throw that beacon for your orbital laser and it hits the bug nest perfectly, but it’s so hilarious if that beacon bounces off of a rock and comes right back at you, sending you and your squad running for your lives. It’s easy to lose track of where you are in a firefight and not notice that your buddy has called in a resupply, only for that to land directly on your head, killing you instantly. One of my favorite moments playing the game was introducing one of my friends to my work gaming group, then looking at the amount of friendly fire damage he did on the end of mission results page and having a discussion about the proper placement of turrets for teammate safety.

Aside from the basic narrative setup, the game owes a lot to Starship Troopers in terms of tone. The opening cinematic plays out like an over the top propaganda ad straight out of the Verhoeven classic, and all the messaging in the game is about spreading “managed democracy” on behalf of “Super Earth” is delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The tutorial is a hilarious military training course that forces you to hurt yourself in order to learn how healing works. Even the way you have a limited amount of lives for your team, which are used when you activate the reinforce stratagem to bring a dead player back into the game, emphasizes the fact that the powers that be treat you as a disposable resource rather than a valued member of the cause.

In addition to the great tone, the overall presentation of the game helps everything shine. Aside from some slightly confusing store menus, the UI is clean and easy to read. Despite not being a graphics powerhouse, the look of the game frequently surprises me. The mix of planet types and weather effects combine to create some striking images. A napalm strike at night on a snowy planet over a robot encampment accentuated by the camera shake and visual effects is a sight to behold that draws you into the action. The score also feels very cinematic, piping up at just the right moments to make a tense battle even more exciting.

My game group tends to give co-op shooters a quick chance before cycling back to the old standby classics that we’re used to after a pretty short amount of time, but I can already tell that Helldivers 2 is going to have its hooks in us for a long time. The game is amazing at making you simultaneously feel like a badass tactical genius and an absolute fool, feeling fun both ways. The nine difficulty levels in the game and the two different enemy forces provide so much variety that the game will always be challenging us even when we start to gel more and figure out the game’s tactics. It’s exciting to see that the audience is here for a game like this, because they’ve built such a strong base that definitely has a lot of ways for them to expand in future updates.

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