Arrowhead Games seem to have the top-down action concept down-pat. Whether it's frying and dying in Magicka or running the gauntlet in their titular reboot, they know what works. And no more so than the modern benchmark for the so-called twin-stick shooter, Helldivers. Helldivers has enjoyed timed exclusivity on Sony consoles, and been such a delight, it took out my personal Game of the Year award (certificate in the mail). Now, citizens of the Beige Box can deploy for Super-Earth and see what Capital D Democracy™ feels like.
There's a war going on. And it's cyclic. Helldivers operates under a never-ending galactic conflict, where the armed forces of a Verhoevenian system are winning hearts and minds against three distinct opponents. The cyborgs, bugs and enigmatic Illuminate occupy three encroached slices of the galactic periphery, with Super-Earth looking to annex territory from the inside-out. Each domain is fragmented into small system quadrants, therein a host of discrete planets and thereon to take the fight to the enemy. Each mission undertaken adds to a cumulative combat quota and, once met, the planet falls to the Helldivers.
Events like defense missions add a dynamic wrinkle to affairs, where enemies will take over an urban planet deep in Super-Earth space. If enough players deploy to instances of the incursion in response, running missions and winning against the invaders, the planet will be wrested from the alien grip. If not, the planet falls, along with all surrounding territories. These invasions happen with regularity and, given how the metagame is fueled by global player actions, it feels exciting to log in and either take part in events, or see after-action logs of events outside your timezone.
But that's merely the outer shell. There'd be little impetus for players to log in if the base game was tepid. But, as correctly inferred, Helldivers is peerless.
Players begin their galactic democratisation on the bridges of their own cruisers. Serving as an ornate de facto mission select screen, you can select the region and system you'd like to deploy to from a holographic terminal. The ship then lurches into a lightspeed jump, the viewport bedazzled by light whipping past the armoured glass. Just as quickly, the cruiser rapidly decelerates. As the streak of transit recedes, the destination planet looms in the forward viewport. The quad drop-chutes hiss open and duty calls. It's time to dive.
The bridge also serves as a lavish lobby for friends and random folk who catch players before they deploy, as well as offer access to upgrade terminals. More on upgrades later, but the physicality of the ship, its vantage point in orbit and the subsequent hiss of drop-pods as the 'divers ready up in the tubes beats any sort of abstracted lobby. Once inside the tubes, players are free to select loadouts. Weapons, offensive and defense support items, vehicles, perks; an expansive military science-fiction cache to stow before descent.
And then, planetfall.
Land, seek objectives, complete objectives, bug out. Helldivers' missions aren't often longer than twenty minutes, though higher difficulty missions might demand boots on the ground for a little longer. Upon clambering out of the drop-pod, players are free to roam towards objective markers on their minimap in any order. Missions generally revolve around activating or protecting assets, such as artillery pieces, AA missile batteries, ICBMs and even escorting civilians a short distance overland. The micro-sectioned mission design has just enough variation to stave off the ennui of continued operations. I've swept the cordons for unexploded ordnance hundreds of times, and I'm still finding it as palatable as my first crack with the metal detector. I've detonated bug nests and enemy ack-ack outposts and laser-targeted the heavier tangos for a gunship strafe and the acts have not been diminished by repetition.
It speaks to the combat. The feel. The physicality of a Helldiver and three comrades thumping across the landscape. Some might see the isometric angle as submission to anything but arcade superfluity. Helldivers is deceptive. Those expecting a game of 16bit sensibilities are quickly, thoroughly castigated by tactical, lethal mechanics. The game is, if nothing else, the product of a cohesive vision.
Helldivers operates as any top-down twin-stick shooter should. Movement and shooting operating independently, understated-but-convincing animation governing a feeling of weight and intent. Ballistic weapons kick and buck with every squeeze of the trigger, spent shells spat from chambers to plink and skitter at a player's feet. Lasers cook their batteries and hiss coolant from vents as the beams bore into targets. Reloading is not instantaneous. Vehicles have cumbersome turning radii and languid turret speeds. Helldivers is Cannon Fodder by way of Battlefield in a sumptuous, measured way, where lethality is not a commodity solely reserved for Super-Earth's targets.
Friendly auto-turrets, recalling the indiscriminate gigawatt lasers in Haldeman's seminal Forever War, track enemies through squadmates with hideous results. Bullets are not choosy. Heavy weapons have no friends. A teammate's wayward firing vector will punch into comrades despite the intended victim. No safe quarter here.
Strategems provide a major proponent in battlefield accidents. Players call down their initial selection of reinforcement, support and specialty hardware from orbit, delivered in varying times of deployment. The lack of instantaneous arrival and slight inaccuracy of LZ coordinates proves the devilish kink. A player might squat to punch in a delivery code and toss the subsequent drop-beacon into the dirt, continuing the fight until the requisition screams down from on high. In hairy situations, the screen is chaotic. Multiple firing vectors, vehicles like exoskeletons and tanks rumbling about, mines bouncing and bursting. A flash of shadow atop the delivery beam and WHOMP, the package is delivered. If anything is underneath, even partially, it's instant death. When any number of these deliveries are being made, DFA is the order of the day.
But one of Helldiver's oft-commented triumphs is the fact co-op gameplay with strangers is not the crass mess one would imagine. Rather than a frustrating mess of griefing and undermining, the inherent systems emphasise supporting, helping out and playing smartly. Earlier in the year, on both Vita and PS3, I found this very much to be the case, and the reputation continues on PC. The unintentional accidents are laughed off, relished and learned from. The squad who sticks together, survives.
Through conquest and leveling, a greater variety of arms and perks become available. They might not come laden with the overwrought flavour of a Destiny gun catalog, but Helldivers' space soldier cache is as rich and punchy as any. All manner of firearms and deployables can be upgraded with accrued research tokens found scattered across the maps, incrementally improving certain aspects like damage and resilience. A highlight here is that, outside of a few of the mainstay assault rifle types, there's little redundancy. From the thirsty short-range bullet hose Defender SMG to the conservative Paragon, the Breaker shotgun to the screen-sweeper LAS-98; each weapon feels distinct and rarely unsatisfying in its rapport.
The review reads like a love-letter, and by God, it damn well is. I'm not ashamed to say Helldivers is the best game I've played in years. The satire is superfluous, but thematically congruous. There's no great story beyond the ones you experience on the battlefield. The metagame could do with a little more to it, but the raw mechanics more than stoke my continued enthusiasm to keep playing. Helldivers is a lean, rugged thing. Tight mission structure manages to compress satisfying PvE multiplayer into working parent-friendly time investments. Uttered without caveat, I cannot think of a top-down shooter this well-oiled, this well-conceived.
Simply put, citizen, Helldivers is essential.