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Helldivers 2 Review

Who needs a knife in a nuke fight anyway

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There aren't many game development studios that stick with a particular style. Sure, working on the same franchise is one thing, but to have a methodology or a set of principles that carries across almost all releases is a rare thing. One such company is Arrowhead Game Studios, who have been carrying their own peculiar banner across the decade and a multitude of genres and titles. From Magicka to The Showdown Effect, the team have continued with their unique design quirks – such as enabling friendly fire in multiplayer. Their latest multiplayer offering is Helldivers 2, a sequel to the 2015 title that switches up the perspective to third-person, but continues to be a co-op multiplayer horde style shooter.

Helldivers 2

Helldivers 2 doesn’t bother with much narrative. During the opening cutscene that tries to inject some Starship Troopers-esque humour and set the mood for the game, players learn about a futuristic Super Earth, and how one day a hostile alien species landed and began to cause havoc. The planet was secured, but the invasion did not stop, as the aliens have apparently already infested many planets on the galaxy's perimeter. As a Helldiver, your task is to venture out to these distant planets and push back the alien threat by completing a variety of standalone missions on randomly generated planet surfaces, killing tons of bugs and robots in the process.

You might find occasional bits of text on PDAs during excursions, and the NPCs that stand around your ship have some random and generic things to say, but for the most part the game does not concern itself with deep lore. There's no discernible continuity from the first game, and no explanation on where the Terminids bugs came from. The story doesn’t even mention or properly introduce the second enemy faction, robot Automatons, as they invade from the other side of the galaxy map. The basis of the series' humor and main jokes also remains elusive – everyone yells about spreading and protecting democracy, and it seems like you missed the set-up of the joke. Perhaps just constantly having characters screaming about it is supposed to make it amusing through sheer absurdity. Horse-style shooters typically do not focus much on the narrative, and this all certainly feels quite thin.

The original Helldivers was a top-down isometric action game, and the sequel switches things up to become a third-person shooter. After completing a tutorial that introduces the basics, players get to name and embark on their small ship, which serves as your base of operations. A few terminals allow you to customize your character, manage loadout, upgrade ship components, and check the map, which brings up an overview of the intergalactic conflict. There is a meta-game that is supposedly taking place, as the community can only deploy on planets in sectors closest to Super Earth. By completing missions on these planets, a percentage meter moves ever so slightly, and eventually (in a few days) the planet is liberated, and another one - or a new sector - becomes available to deploy on. This might feel engaging to some players, as they are supposedly making a difference and fighting together with the community, but it's all just as likely to be a fully dev-controlled façade.

From the available planets, players choose which randomly selected mission type they want to tackle. The map's terrain is also randomized, and there is variety through times of day and planet-wide effects, such as slower reload times on a cold planet, or a free support weapon call-in. Players get to see an overview of the generated map area and pick where to deploy, with the main objective and extraction point marked, along with enemy infestations. Once the preparations are completed, you embark into the drop pods and get blasted down to the planet.

Helldivers 2

The surface of the planets have different environment types, so you could have a frozen planet, a jungle-like planet with toxic fumes everywhere, a more temperate planet with lakes and beaches, and so on. The terrain variety is decent, with occasional hills and valleys, and signs of past battles such as ship debris, small outposts in varying states of disrepair, and so on. The natural terrain looks believable, and can often be quite atmospheric as you delve deep into alien nests in the middle of the night, or when a fog envelops the land. However, the structure variety is definitely lacking – you will have seen the handful of possible outposts within a couple of hours of play.

But you’re not just strolling across the planet enjoying the views. The deployments have a few different main and optional objectives, and also feature a timer. Main objectives usually has you clearing out a large boss-type enemy, re-aligning antennas, destroying alien eggs, or recovering some key item. Once the main objective is completed, extraction becomes available from the designated spot, but you can keep exploring to find bonus currencies, and do optional side missions. Deployments have a 40 minute timer, after which point your main ship leaves orbit, and Stratagems become unavailable, including respawing. But the limit is not too bad; there is enough time to explore and do most of the content on the map. There are occasional 10-minute missions, which are a nice change of pace as you sprint between a few scattered main targets, usually focused on combat. If you run out of lives or fail to extract, it's not a big deal – as long as the main objective was completed. The game's lore is that you're just disposable soldiers, which is also why each time you redeploy your character's voice changes.

The map is littered with small and large alien nests, as well patrols, so you'll get into plenty of combat with the bugs (and with robots, on their side of the galaxy). The shooting feels satisfying as you pump clips into the squishy or metal enemies who charge towards you, and can be somewhat reminiscent of Outriders. The third-person floating reticule has plenty of sway and recoil, and takes some getting used to. There is an option to aim in first-person down sights, which helps a bit. Players choose their loadout consisting of a primary and secondary weapon, from the typical assortment of rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and pistols. A few specs of each weapon type offer the typical tradeoffs – more damage but more recoil and smaller magazine, and so on.

The enemy variety is rather good, compared to similar games such as Darktide or Deep Rock Galactic, with both factions having slightly different experiences. The basic Terminids bugs will scurry towards you, while others can leap great distances; some are larger in size, and soon begin to have frontal armor which requires better weapons or flanking to penetrate. Some can spew deadly goo, while others can become nearly invisible. The robot Automatons focus more on guns, but still have their melee units and even those that launch grenades. Most enemies may perish quickly, but their sheer numbers can often be overwhelming. Attacking random patrols can cause them to call for reinforcement if a specific enemy is not eliminated quickly enough, prolonging the fight. And when encountering nests, the spawn points must be closed Gears of War style, by tossing a grenade into a hole in the ground for bugs or a factory exhaust vent for robots. The grenades can be finicky however, and requiring multiple attempts as enemies continue to spawn, and the longer they do, the worse it gets.

Helldivers 2

To help turn the tide and replenish ammo, players can call-in Stratagems. These are abilities or deliveries sent down from your ship in the planet's orbit. You can equip 4 such call-ins before a mission, such as a delivery of a support weapon, which is a third gun that you can carry, including a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, or a follower drone that auto-fires at foes. But most Stratagems focus on mass orbital strikes against enemy concentrations, with lots of variety available – from devastating single-shot, specific area strikes, to carpet bombings, to deployment of gas and fire; there is truly no shortage of options for "nuking from space". All deployments are on cooldowns, often multiple minutes long, and some are unlimited while others can only be deployed a few times per mission.

In another bit of unique design, that fans of the first game will be familiar with, calling in these strikes (and interacting with some of the objectives) requires players to enter a displayed combination of D-Pad arrow inputs. It's strange at first, like you’re playing Simon Says or doing a fighting game combo, or entering a Contra cheat code, and it's certainly not what you want to be doing in the heat of battle. But somehow, it becomes a bit immersive, simulating those scenes from Sci-Fi movies when someone is frantically typing in commands on their wrist computer.

The action is engaging but challenging because many design decisions are unexpected – but perhaps on par for the developers. There are bonus modifiers for shooting while crouched or prone - but who has the time to lie down when swarms of bugs are closing in from every direction? For that matter, mechanics such as healing teammates or helping to speed up their reload of support weapons also go unutilized. Further, friendly fire is always on from all sources, be that a friend's rifle or their barrage or turret deployment. Ammo is always running low – doubly so because reloading discards the entire magazine, even if it still had bullets left, military-sim style; chronic reloaders need not apply. The minimap has to be toggled manually for some reason, and awkwardly navigated with the DualSense touchpad. Both you and enemies can take damage to individual limbs, but these minute details get lost in the chaos.

The movement can feel stiff; you can sprint away from danger with decent speed, until your stamina runs out, as fighting up-close is dangerous and death comes from just a few blows even in heavy armor. There is no jump ability, as you can only vault over obstacles, and there is no dodge – you can just very awkwardly dive to the ground and hopefully out of the way. But then you need to get up again, which takes a few precious moments. Despite the game trying to be humorous and promising typical fast paced co-op mayhem against hordes, its mechanics are geared towards a much different type of experience, and for many players this may come as a shock. Although those who played the previous game, and even the older titles from Arrowhead such as Magicka, will know that this is their MO.

Helldivers 2

Helldivers 2 remains a game that is meant for co-operative multiplayer first and foremost; there are no AI teammates available to help. By the time you get into level 4 or 5 (designated as Hard, out of 9), solo incursions are truly no longer feasible and certainly are not fun. With up to 4 players per mission, the combat becomes at least more manageable, as enemies swarm in almost non-stop, featuring huge baddies that soak up ammo or must always be attacked from the back where they lack armor. So you begin to coordinate orbital strikes, one after another; while it's undoubtedly hilarious during the first few dozen hours to get blown up by friendly fire, these instances (and other unique design choices) become more annoying as you try to push through the increasing difficulty. What doesn't kill you, makes you ragdoll.

While everyone has their own Stratagems to call in anytime, some are shared – such as the ammo resupply drop, and the ability to revive teammates. Dying solo lets you automatically redeploy up to five times, while in a group you have 20 lives shared together, and someone has to call-in for you to return to the fight. Any bonuses you find – such as upgrade currency at outposts – are also shared, so there's no need to be constantly grouped up when exploring. Playing with others is smooth and there are no hitches in terms of connectivity or lag, which is important for chaotic multiplayer.

But while playing with others is easy in theory, it's been troublesome in reality. Although not quite the level of disaster that Payday 3 was, the launch week of Helldivers 2 has been plagued with technical issues. Playing with friends worked ok, but matchmaking has been completely broken for most of the time, as we were unable to either quick-match drop-in, or join random open lobbies that appear on the planet maps. During the first server maintenance, which was poorly communicated and started in the middle of the day on Sunday of the launch weekend, we could not play for over 12 hours. As there is no offline mode of any kind, the game was inaccessible in its entirety. And when we did get into games, on a number of occasions the rewards were lost and progress did not save. While developers seem to be pushing out small patches frequently, the matchmaking has remained troubled. The game actually started to completely crash after the most recent update. For a multiplayer-only title, this is certainly not the level of performance one would expect.

Completing missions and optional tasks, as well as exploring and extracting, leads to greater rewards (and a post-mission rewards screen that takes far too long). You earn XP to increase your profile and unlock new upgrades for purchase. Upgrades are purchased by a few different currencies, that can be spent on new orbital weapons, and ship upgrades that improve all call-ins of a certain type. The new Stratagems are earned at a decent pace, but ship upgrades seem like they take quite a while. Medals are also a key currency, used to unlock new items in the Warbond shop, which is essentially a Battle Pass type setup. Here players can unlock new weapons as well as cosmetics - though to bundle cosmetics and gameplay items together never seems like a consumer-friendly idea. A second version of the shop offers for sale items that can only be bought by special currency that's primarily acquired by real money.

Helldivers 2

The presentation quality is what you'd expect out of a $40 title. As mentioned, there are some moments of good atmosphere thanks to environmental effects and art style. But there are a few rough aspects, with wonky animations, very poor facial animation on the few NPCs around your ship, and lack of AA. The Performance profile should be used so the framerate remains at a mostly steady 60fps, because the Visual quality mode can barely keep 30fps steady without giving much benefit to visual fidelity. Depth of field and Bloom should also be toggled off, otherwise they produce a horrendous-looking pixelated mess in the distance. In the audio design department, while the music is good and makes for an exciting deployment, the variety is sorely lacking, as there seems to be just a handful of tracks that begin to repeat quickly.

Helldivers 2 is a game that sticks to its guns. The developers have a style that transcends genres, and they continue that persona with their latest entry, even if it may not entirely fit. The promise of a fun co-operative shooter that focuses on mayhem and humor works for a few hours, but eventually the increasing difficulty make the awkward controls and hardcore design decisions become overbearing. The core gameplay loop has a similar fate – fun for a dozen hours, thanks to great enemy variety, but eventually wears you down with repetitive missions and enemies that soak up bullets. It's a more engaging experience at launch than its contemporaries, such as Deep Rock Galactic, or Darktide, but there's certainly room for improvement. The connectivity issues certainly didn't help, with a rough launch week and beyond. Still, it's a fine choice for a decent $40 USD asking price if you and your friends just want to shoot some bugs for a while.

Our ratings for Helldivers 2 on PlayStation 5 out of 100 (Ratings FAQ)
A strong art style that manages to produce some atmospheric moments, even if the technical aspects aren't as impressive. Audio design is good but limited in variety.
The randomly generated planets and objectives are simplistic, and when the initial excitement of orbital strikes wears off and the difficulty begins to climb, it becomes a bit of a repetitive grind.
Single Player
Joining games is straightforward and blowing stuff up together can be fun, friendly fire and all.
The connectivity has been outright broken for over a week since launch, and when you do get to play, progress may not get saved.
Helldivers 2 offers some chaotic and entertaining moments in the early stages, as you hop between planets with friends, call in devastating strikes, and spreading democracy. But as the hours begin to accumulate, increasing difficulty levels unravel some of the annoying design decisions, and along with persistent connectivity problems, it seems that the game could have used more prep time.
Helldivers 2
Helldivers 2 box art Platform:
PlayStation 5
Our Review of Helldivers 2
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
Helldivers 2 is ranked #1293 out of 1971 total reviewed games. It is ranked #15 out of 25 games reviewed in 2024.
1292. Storyteller
1293. Helldivers 2
1294. Planet of Lana
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Helldivers 2
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