Arrowhead Game Studios has built a business on forming cracks in even the strongest of friendships. In 2011, they released Magicka, a cooperative action game where you and three others don the robes of wizards wielding spells that would have made Dumbledore faint. With such unruly magic at your fingertips, casualties were inevitable on both sides of the fight. Helldivers takes that same idea—accidentally butchering your friends—and slaps a macho "hurrah democracy!" label on it in the vein of Starship Troopers for a winning combination of chaotic action and hilarious fun.
It turns out that every piece of far-future science fiction released in the past decade was right: the future is a pretty ugly place. Humanity is at war with just about every species in the galaxy at the same time. With a foreign policy that would make Genghis Khan blush, it's a good thing humanity has one secret weapon up their sleeve: Helldivers.
There is no doubt that Helldivers is at its best when played with three other friends. While it is possible to embark on missions against alien threats by yourself, doing so often fluctuates between moments of extreme boredom or frustration as you're either forced to tackle missions too easy to challenge or too challenging to complete alone. Playing with groups of strangers can work, but expecting the coordination required to take down Helldivers’ toughest missions from random people online is a losing battle.
But when you do find that perfect group, either with friends or strangers, Helldivers has the potential to become one of the most exciting multiplayer experiences of the year. As hordes of enemies rush your squad's position, ammo dries up, and you desperately eye the timer counting down to when the dropship will arrive to whisk you to safety at the end of a mission, Helldivers frequently can take your breath away—or leave you laughing hysterically when the dropship finally lands and you were too busy shooting aliens to realize where it was landing was right on top of you.
Death in Helldivers is merciless and swift. Whether it comes from a robot dog thing that rushed you while you were reloading or from straying into the line of fire of your own automated turret, you will die. And those moments of death, unintended or otherwise, often provide you with Helldivers’ most memorable moments; everything is going wrong and all you can do it watch in horror and laugh.
Fortunately, Helldivers comes packed with enough toys and weapons to make sure that these deaths are almost always spectacular. As the most armed force in the galaxy, there is no shortage of ways to murder aliens—and the occasional teammate. Alongside a host of various primary weapons that you can unlock and customize, Helldivers also provides you with a treasure trove of goodies to use in the field in the form of "stratagems".
Of the dozens you can unlock, only four can be brought with you on missions, so choosing how to build your character is a must. Once in the field, stratagems are called down from orbit using a combination of button presses and then throwing a grenade to mark the spot where the equipment will land. Helldivers has a massive selection of equipment to choose from, from vehicles, mech suits, anti-armour weapons, jetpacks, various types of airstrikes, automated turrets, and even deployable obstacles to funnel enemies into killzones—the options are staggering.
But as chaotic as Helldivers can be, knowing when to use these stratagems in concert with the rest of your squad provides a depth of strategy and teamwork that few other multiplayer games can aspire to. On the highest difficulty missions, squads will need nothing less than perfect teamwork and discipline in order to succeed. With death being one misstep away, and hordes of enemies frequently overrunning your positions, players will need to act just like a real squad and cover each other and work together as best as they can, and that's when Helldivers is at its best. Fortunately, dead teammates can be called back into action with their own stratagem. As long as one of you survives, there is hope for the whole squad.
Sadly, those moments of tension—where you're hanging on by just a thread—can be ruined by a few of Helldivers' problems. The biggest is that as fun as Helldivers can be it can also become overly repetitive very quickly. Missions are little more than a random jumble of the same objectives over and over again, and while it's not the destination but the journey that makes Helldivers fun, the lack of diversity in what you're doing in the field can really begin to bore sometimes.
Missions tie into an overarching campaign that every player contributes to. The more you fight one type of alien threat, the more you conquer their territory and drive them back. But sadly, I cared little for this campaign and its implications on a day-to-day basis. While it was interesting logging in and seeing how the frontlines had shifted since I had last played, there is little to incentivize you to become attached to the progress of the war. Furthermore, your contribution is so incremental and small that it rarely ever feels meaningful—like voters lamenting how little their one vote makes a difference.
Helldivers is hands down one of my favorite multiplayer experiences of this year. If you can recruit a few friends (there is a split-screen option for local play), Helldivers results in all the chaotic hilarity you'd need to keep you invested for hours on end. Without friends, Helldivers still is a ton of fun, but expect the fatigue of limited objectives and a shallow campaign to set in more readily. Either way, Helldivers is absolutely one war you should enlist for.