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  • Writer's pictureRoberto Nieves

Review: Helldivers II

The dropship is on its way. A squadron of seasoned Helldivers eagerly awaits extraction off the hellscape of the alien battlefield. They are surrounded by blood-thirsty aliens determined to make toys of their corpses. Friendly fire is on. Ammo is limited. The enemy is varied and armored. The minutes feel like hours. Time slows down. This may be the end. For a regular soldier, they may fold, but for a Helldiver, managed democracy is worth fighting for to the very last breath.

The ground quakes with orbital bombardments. The air is filled with the sounds of gunfire and alien screeching. The rattle of heavy machine guns perforates the enemies of freedom. A voice crackles of the countdown to extraction. Sixty seconds, thirty seconds, each moment feels like an eternity. Then, just as the enemy closes in, the ship swoops in. Expending every final round of fire and support, the Helldivers extract. After a forty-minute op, the team cheers with another cup of Liber-tea. This is Helldivers II, a co-op shooter shaping up to be the co-op shooter of 2024 and beyond.

Helldivers, assemble

In 2015, indie studio Arrowhead Games released a small but ambitious isometric twin-stick shooter, Helldivers. Inspired by the likes of Aliens and Starship Troopers, Helldivers became a hardcore white-knuckle action co-op experience. Where coordination and teamwork were essential to survival. Enemies faced fearsome enemies, from insect-like aliens to enemy robots and even a sentient alien race. The original wore the slapstick humor of a Paul Verhoeven film on its sleeve and ran with it. As the friendly fire was always on, the gameplay was met with a hilarious calamity, from dropping orbital strikes to players to the entire team being nuked by a wayward explosion.

The original ran for nine years, constantly challenging and rewarding players. In Helldivers II, the same fundamentals are back, and the familiar experience returns with a mammoth new upgrade. No longer an isometric twin-stick shooter, the Helldivers experience is a third-person shooter with all the working and trappings that come from this gameplay perspective. The familiar mechanics are there. Players move and take cover, shooting at anything that isn't human. The big draw is the polish and refinement of an already solid foundation.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of more democracy

Helldivers II has a downright euphoric sensation of combat and tactics. Every weapon has a punch and distinctive sound design to let players know what you are using in the thick of battle. Players carry a primary and secondary weapon but can call in a special heavy weapon. One of the earliest introduced is the heavy machine gun. This weapon has a special pop, and every rat-ta-tat-tat feels dynamic and visceral. At one point, I lay prone with another player and fired short bursts at alien insects from across an icy lake. But, in terms of arsenal, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Helldivers II sports an impressive arsenal that only has room to grow. Shotguns, recoilless rifles, armor-piercing assault rifles, grenades, the list goes on. The key distinction that separates Helldivers II from other games in the genre is the use of space as a weapon. Each player is assigned their own Super Destroyer, and from that destroyer comes the universally essential tool for battle: the stratagem. Strategems are orbital drops that are essential for combat. The previous game used this gameplay hook as well, but in Helldivers II, there are many more to choose from

All Helldviers are created equal

Stratagems can be either offensive, defensive, or supply drops. Offensive stratagems are airstrikes from orbit. Gun strafes, bombing runs, cannon shots, and bombardments are just a handful of stratagems that can be unlocked in the offensive type. Defensive stratagems include automated gun turrets and various devices, such as a minefield deployment drop. Supply includes special weapons such as arc cannons and vehicles like tanks. Choosing which stratagem for battle can mean the difference between a sacrificial victory and a total victory. Each player has their own weapons and stratagem loadout, meaning that battles can become an orchestra of bombs and Gatling gunfire.

Helldivers II embraces the true intergalactic battlefield experience. Like its predecessor, every single player contributes to the overall war effort. Stats show live data of every enemy downed; every bullet fired, and every Helldiver who has fallen. The entire player base works to liberate the galaxy planet by planet. Then, when preparations are made, players are sent on an express elevator to hell at thousands of miles per hour. Once on the ground, players partake in missions that can last as long as forty minutes.

Conquer fear, Conquer death

The mission structure is different from its predecessor. Each mission has a primary objective, but there are numerous secondary objectives to complete and places of interest to explore. The primaries are marked in orange, and blue are secondary. The entire planet is enemy territory. Roving patrols hunt down and alert entire armies to the player's presence. The key is to keep moving, avoid engagement when possible, and directly engage with everything you have! Enemy distribution points can be uncovered and destroyed for bonuses and further success. When fighting the alien bugs, for example, destroying bug nests can help thin the ranks and contribute to liberation.

Compared to the first installment, Helldivers II is a gargantuan upgrade from the first. The gameplay experience weaves everything that was promised. With the patriotism, the lunacy, the slapstick humor, and the over-the-top combat merged into one seamless experience, players are bound to lose thousands of hours over. It's a sensation that is captured perfectly.

Do you want to live forever!?

Combat is simply euphoric. Every moment feels like life and death, punctuated by the sound of heavy gunfire and orbital rounds dropping on foes. The music score, in particular, underscores the moment. At times, I felt my hair standing up with how good it came together. Playing in Helldivers gives a mixture of high emotions. One on hand, you feel like cannon fodder as explosions and enemies decimate your enemies and comrades. On the other, you feel like an unstoppable, elite soldier with a galaxy to conquer. Helldivers II feels more like a Suicide Squad than the recently released Suicide Squad game.

Nothing is perfect in paradise, and Helldivers II, for all the greatness it shares, has a few drawbacks. Firstly, server issues and connection issues are still happening as of this writing. Despite their frustrations, it is humbling to see how popular the Helldivers have become. Arrowhead was a smaller studio in 2015, and despite the frustrations with servers and connections, it is humbling to see their small indie game blossom into a full-blown dream. Another aspect could be how players unlock new weapons and items.

The position has been filled

Helldivers II is moderately priced at $40, and everything that can be unlocked is unlockable through grind. Every mission earns Super credits. In each mission, there are samples and super samples. Samples allow for upgrades to the destroyer, which subsequently enhance strategems. These samples can be collected by happenstance. Enemies occasionally drop them, and abandoned human settlements contain them as well. With a timed limit on the battlefield, it is a grind to find and collect enough for upgrades.

There are microtransactions, but fortunately, they are not predatory. The Super credits can be bought, but they can also be earned in mission as well. They go towards other items, namely armor. Each armor has different attributes and benefits. Everything can be unlocked through repeat gameplay, but if a player wants to give a little extra tip to the team, they may do so with the microtransactions.

The few, the proud, the Helldivers

Helldivers II is the definitive co-op shooter of the year and may very well be one of the best online experiences in this generation of consoles. The combat is sublime, with every aspect considered. The enemy is challenging, but the game gives plenty of tools to achieve victory. It's a strong presentation that is cinematic and smooth, rich in detail immersion. I've already spent many hours on this and simply cannot wait to jump back in. That is the makings of a game that respects its audiences and creates an infinitely enjoyable gameplay hook. Strap on your capes. Democracy needs you.

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