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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Genre: Action
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Release Date: Dec. 7, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Helldivers'

by Brian Dumlao on Dec. 21, 2015 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Helldivers is set in a dystopian future, where players fight to protect Super Earth, where a managed democracy has blurred the lines between military and government rule. We are losing the war, and the Helldivers are the last line of defense against three invading enemy species.

Upon hearing that Helldivers is a twin-stick shooter, you'd be forgiven for tuning it out almost immediately. There have been plenty of twin-stick shooters in the last two gaming generations, especially with the rise of the downloadable marketplaces. Most come with one gimmick or other, but they play very similarly. However, Helldivers is very different in a lot of ways, and what you get is a very fun experience.

It is the year 2084, and all of mankind is now flying under the united banner of managed democracy. The planet has been renamed Super Earth, and the people have traveled to the stars in hopes of spreading the seeds of democracy. You play the role of a Helldiver, a special kind of soldier in Super Earth's army, and your job is to spread democracy by force against all who would resist it.

The story seems simple on the surface, but there are two different forces at work that make it stand out. The first is the obvious influence from "Starship Troopers," particularly the Paul Verhoeven film version rather than the Robert Heinlein novel. The game almost overloads you with pro-democratic propaganda that is extreme enough to feel like it was lifted from the film except for a few tweaks here and there. It is ridiculous enough to fall into parody territory, and while that would seem like it would get very old very quickly, the developers put in just enough to make it prevalent but didn't overdo it to where the joke stops being funny.

The second aspect that helps shape the story, oddly enough, is modern politics. You'll see it briefly when you get to the backstories of how and why you went to war, but anyone who has been paying attention to current events in the last decade will find the reasons to be oddly familiar. The bugs, for example, have a planet and carcasses that are rich in fossil fuel, and the cyborgs are deemed a threat when one of them blows themselves up. Only the Illuminate have a non-political reason for being attacked, which is that the inhabitants of Super Earth want to steal the advanced alien tech. Like the propaganda, there is more of a slant toward humorous than overt political messages, but it is daring of the developers.

The game has a skeleton of a typical twin-stick shooter, though it is more in the vein of Dead Nation, as you have a melee attack and must pull the trigger to fire your weapon in any direction. From there, things play out much differently than expected from the genre. For starters, you can break into a run or crawl. You can't fire while you're prone, but it's a very good way to get through a turret field relatively unscathed. Also, you have to reload your weapon, and while that mechanic has been introduced in the past, reloading here doesn't just modify your ammo count. If you have a half-empty magazine and you reload, you lose the bullets that were in the magazine you just threw away. While your shooter instincts would tell you to reload at every quiet moment, you'll want to abandon that in favor of only reloading once you know that your clip is empty. This becomes important as you only have a small amount of ammo when you start any mission. You can carry another gun and some grenades, but you can easily drain your ammo if you have full-on firefights all the time. Thus, your game plan changes from a full-out assault to sneaking around as often as possible, so you don't have to expend bullets absolutely necessary.

Stratagems are a game mechanic that makes up for your dearth of ammo. You can carry up to four stratagems at any time, and there is a variety to choose from. The most basic allows you call for an ammo drop, so you can feel more comfortable when you have to be in a firefight. You can call on turrets to cover for you as they spray against all foes, saving your own ammo in the process. There's also a few that have you call for strafing runs and bombing raids to clear enemy nests or wipe out difficult foes.

Though the stratagems can quickly turn the tide of the battle in your favor, there are some failsafes so they can't be abused. For one, all of the stratagems are limited by time or quantity, sometimes both. There's a cooldown timer to prevent you from spamming the same stratagems, and there's also a timer from when you drop the beacon to when the drop actually occurs, making stratagems live up to their name since you have to plan when to use them instead of hoping they immediately get you out of a jam. Also, when you call for a stratagem, you have to input a directional key combo to confirm the request. The key combinations are always on-screen, so you don't have to memorize anything, but it does add another obstacle to getting that stratagem, especially if you're under heavy attack or are using a controller with a bad d-pad since any interruption or incorrect press means you must restart the process.

The other thing to be aware of is the fact that the game always activates friendly fire. For a title that supports up to four players online and offline in any combination, that means everyone has to watch their fire lest they accidentally down one of their own. It also means that indiscriminate stratagems, like turrets and bombing runs, can hurt or kill allies. Stratagem drops also are a means of killing friend and foe, so everyone on the squad has to be aware at all times.

It is that element of friendly fire that can lead to some unintentional humor. Having an ammo crate land just as a person is unintentionally walking underneath it or getting squashed by the transport ship never fails to be darkly funny. However, there's something about a well-coordinated plan that get you out of a hairy situation with no fatalities that stays with you for quite some time. Though you can accomplish this with total strangers, it always feels best when you and a few friends do this on the more difficult missions.

The victories and mistakes made by a group of players are what really drive the fun factor, but players can also go solo. The nature of the game makes it near impossible for one player to take on the higher difficulty stages. Luckily, there are lower difficulty ones that are accessible to those who prefer to play alone. Even though the stages are labeled easy, none of the victories at lower difficulty tiers feel hollow. The enemies put up a tough fight, especially since they remain relentless and it's hard to find a good place to deploy stratagems without getting interrupted.

There are two elements that keep pushing the player forward even after multiple mishaps and victories. The first is the loot system that seems to be adopted by any number of games nowadays regardless of genre. Every mission, no matter how many players are involved, gives you XP that lets you unlock weapons and stratagems once you reach specific levels. It also opens up research points that can be used to buff weapon items, like an increased ammo clip or boosted melee damage. On top of that, each mission gives you different rewards, such as double XP boosts or damage modifiers.

The second, and perhaps most important element, is the metagame being played by everyone, whether they realize it or not. Separating Super Earth from the three enemy home planets are sections of space composed of smaller planets. As each person plays a mission in a section, they'll make progress leading to the capture of sections in the solar system. Continue to win, and you'll eventually reach the home planet where you have a limited amount of time to win more missions to conquer the place. The opposite is true, however, and racking up losses means that opposing forces will eventually occupy parts of the solar system until they make it to Super Earth, where you have to rally and get on the defensive.

The best part about this metagame is that you get a sense that your contributions mean something. There's always a running tally of how many Helldivers have died in every game and how many foes have been killed. At the end of each mission, the points that you've earned are dumped into that progress meter, and at the start of every game session, you'll get an update on how the war has progressed. It is an ingenious way of adding something that was only seen in the multiplayer elements of Planetside 2 and Chromehounds, but it makes it worthwhile for those who prefer solo play.

The only knock people may have against the title are the missions. At first, it seems like there's some variety in what you have to do. You capture spots, deliver energy cores and briefcases to bases, activate S.A.M. sites and defuse explosive areas. Depending on the areas you travel to, you may deal with cyborgs that need to be hit in precise areas or aliens that can take you out with one well-placed shot. It is exciting, especially if you only tackle a few missions at a time, but you'll soon realize that the randomly generated missions tend to pick the same kinds of tasks for each mission. You'll get some different mission combinations, but you won't really experience anything new. Again, for short bursts of gaming, this is fine, but those looking for marathon sessions will start to experience some déjà vu.

Though not a game that needs loads of horsepower, Helldivers is still a looker. The environments are pretty lush, and there's great use of lighting and shadow. Effects like fog are also used rather well, and the textures stand out positively despite the viewpoint making everything feel a bit small. Characters are animated well, and there are loads of little details, like the dismantling of parts as Illuminate snipers are downed or the visible discarding of clips as a gun is being reloaded. Though not an immediately impressive game as far as looks go, it is still one of the prettier top-down shooters around.

The sound matches up to the graphics in terms of quality. The bombastic score fits in rather nicely with the theme, but it isn't overdone to the point of being tiresome. The voices are good, and like the story, the tone is exaggerated to make the idea of a Super Earth army sound ridiculous. Hearing your Helldivers ask enemies if they'd like a nice cup of freedom after downing them in gunfire never gets old. What is most impressive about the sound package are the effects. Gunfire and explosions sound just like you'd expect them to, but it is in the details where the game shines. The metallic clang of bullets hitting a cyborg is great, as is the distinct sound of you hitting the last bullet in your gun before a reload. It makes you take notice of an element that is often taken for granted in games.

Helldivers is a very good game. The focus on being a more strategic top-down shooter gives it an identity, as does the high mortality rate due to friendly fire. Whether you play solo or with friends, the game remains exciting once you gain access to more guns and stratagems. Though the missions can quickly become repetitive, the contributions made to an overall goal keep things enticing. For those wanting a slightly different top-down shooter, Helldivers is well worth checking out.

Score: 8.5/10

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