Galactically gory good times

Super Earth is engaged in the Galactic War, a multi-front conflict across an empire threatened ...
Super Earth is engaged in the Galactic War, a multi-front conflict across an empire threatened (so far) by the Terminator-esque Automatons on one side and the insectoid collective of the Terminids on the other. Photo: supplied
From: Arrowhead
For: PS5, PC

If you’ve got a few gaming friends around the place, chances are one of them periodically expatiates enthusiastically about how good Helldivers was. Arrowhead’s 2015 top-down shooter won a bit of a cult following with its propensity for thrilling escapes, heroic last stands, and hilarious friendly-fire incidents.

It’s taken a wee while, but Arrowhead is now back with a sequel to its hit that has ramped things up in almost every way. More alien hordes, more exotic locations to fight and die over, and more getting your air strike co-ordinates wrong and calling in a series of cluster bombs that obliterates everyone on your team (sorry guys, my bad). Welcome to Helldivers 2, soldier.

Helldivers 2 takes the bold — and great — step of moving its action away from the top-down, eye-in-the-sky perspective and down into the mud and blood of the action. You’re now in charge of your Helldiver from a third person action game position as they slog it around the battlefield, charged with defending the interests of Super Earth.

Ah, our beloved Super Earth! Planet of adequately-sized homes and the galaxy’s finest governmental system, "Managed Democracy". Helldivers 2 continues the first game’s Starship Troopers-inspired satire of a future for humanity that’s fascist, militaristic and buried in jingoistic propaganda up to its eyeballs, and it’s often hilarious.

You’ll start the game by naming your flagship by picking from two lists of perfectly grandiose nouns (mine is the Ombudsman of Conviviality, although I strongly considered Hammer of Family Values), then running through the brief Helldiver training process, which is overseen by the bombastic General Brasch ("Super Earth’s oldest and most grizzled war hero"). By the time that’s over it’s perfectly clear that you won’t be playing a character here so much as a series of hapless brainwashed mooks fed into the expansionist meat-grinder, and all too happy to yell "Freedom requires firepower" or "Sweet liberty!" as a giant bug coats them in corrosive acid or they sidestep at the wrong moment and get a team-mate’s anti-personnel round through the back of the head. Do not get attached.

Super Earth is engaged in the Galactic War, a multi-front conflict across an empire threatened (so far) by the Terminator-esque Automatons on one side and the insectoid collective of the Terminids on the other. Arrowhead has brought a live feel to the war by having events develop over the life of the game: players were busy battling the Terminids in one sector when the Automatons showed up, and we were all called upon to go and fight them instead. Collective player goals have been set, and planets both lost and liberated as the community succeeds or fails at them. It’s a neat way to make it all a bit more dynamic.

From the bridge of your ship you can select your chosen area of conflict, then narrow it down to your desired planet. Your fellow Helldivers around the world will be in action in several areas on the surface already, so you can pick one of those to join or start your own mission if so desired.

There’s a wide variety of mission goals on offer that range from eliminating enemy bases or targets to retrieving data from crashed ships, ending illegal broadcasts or launching ICBMs. Your Helldiver is fired to the surface in a bullet-like drop pod and you’re off and running on the surface of an alien world, likely with (up to three) internet squadmates in tow.

Your puny human Helldiver is awfully squishy compared to the chainsaw-wielding Automatons and the vicious Terminids (who have a nasty habit of staggering blindly forward a few steps to take a final, potentially fatal slash at you even after you blow their heads off) — and hideously outnumbered, too — but they do have the considerable resources of Super Earth to call on. Your flagship is still up there in orbit and ready to offer a massive variety of support options to your squad on your say-so. These can be broadly categorised into resupply and special weapons for your Helldiver, defensive options such as sentry guns and minefields, and more direct interventions in which it will fire your choice of ordinance at whatever area you tell it to (by throwing a beacon). These options are collectively called stratagems, and each different one is accessed by inputting a different combination of directional buttons; get a link in the chain wrong, and you’ll have to start again. (Expect situations in which you are running around surrounded by enemies while desperately trying to input the code that will bring down reinforcements or a field-clearing strafing run.)

Each Helldiver can select up to four stratagems to take into each mission, and needs to choose carefully depending on mission requirements. As you play, you’ll unlock more from the large list to help tackle increasingly tough challenges that appear at higher difficulty levels, like enemy armour and gigantic, death-dealing fortifications.

Each mission has a time limit before your support takes off and a limited pool of reinforcements that can be called in when there’s a man down, so under these constraints it’s up to you and your squad to make your way around the war-torn map and accomplish your mission goals, then call for evacuation and hold out until transport arrives and you can dust off. Along the way you’ll find secondary objectives, enemy bases to knock out, patrols to skirt or eliminate, and currency and medals to spend on upgrades and unlocks back on your ship.

It’s simple enough, but Helldivers 2 manages to combine these elements into some ridiculously fun gameplay. Sometimes there’s the fun of a group of strangers coming together to efficiently clear objectives like a well-oiled machine. Rarely have I felt like more of a badass in a game than being parked with a sniper rifle on a ridge overlooking an enemy base, picking off killbots trying to get my squadmate as he runs up to set a bomb that will blow the whole place up. And sometimes there is the fun of things descending into utter chaos, your position completely overrun, bugs everywhere, and the mortar turret you put down 30 seconds ago firing a round that blows three of you to pieces. Heroic escapes, selfless sacrifices. On one memorable occasion on a mission as a pair, my anonymous squadmate and I had been blasting away ineffectually trying to defeat a giant armoured bug that killed both of us a number of times until he died again and when I called him back as a reinforcement, his drop pod came down from orbit and went straight through its head. Super Earth salutes all round.

In short, it’s a total blast. Is there anything worth complaining about? Early server overload issues seem to have been mostly ironed out, but sometimes unavailable games remain on the planet map a bit long, so often you’ll need to try to join several before finding one, which is a little annoying. An injury system whereby your Helldiver can take damage to limbs or chest with varying effects also seems mostly redundant, as you tend to either heal or die, and rarely seem to end up suffering the penalties for any length of time. And the look of the game is decent, rather than spectacular.

But these are the most minor of quibbles. Helldivers 2 is the most fun I’ve had with an online shooter in ages. Never has sending so many men and women to their gory deaths been so enjoyable. Get out there, Helldiver. Long live Managed Democracy!

By Ben Allan

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