What's that I spy, a title published by PlayStation on PC? The first of its kind, the lesser-speckled Helldivers is a pretty big deal on that basis alone. It's not just about Sony dipping its feet into PC though, because what we've got here is a pretty special isometric twin stick shooter set in a comical sci-fi universe with procedurally generated levels, four player co-op and enough content to keep you enthralled for hours at a time. That is, unless you get bored of, ahem, inadvertently vaporising your fellow Helldivers.
That's because Helldivers is co-op done the hard way, with four chaotic players all desperately trying not to fry one another with a stray bullet. That's a lot easier said than done, let me tell you.
You play a character who is a part of the Helldivers. The Helldivers are an elite unit of soldiers who are battling through an intergalactic campaign against the enemies of mankind. Hitting the new game button for the first time throws you into a humorous cinematic where you’re introduced to the Helldivers, Super Earth, and the inevitably bloody predicament that you’re about to find yourself slap bang in the centre of.
You begin the game in the control room on board the SS Freedom, the Helldivers flagship. From here you can manage and upgrade your armour and weapons, learn about the various enemies that you’ll encounter in the field, and view the campaign map and information.
At the armory you can change the appearance of your character from a variety of unlocked apparel, starting with a flashy black and yellow number. You can also change your gender, but when the default male character has the ability to shout freedom like Mel Gibson then why would you ever want to do that? Moving on from aesthetics you can upgrade your unlocked weapons with research points which are gained from gameplay and levelling.
By activating the campaign map in the control room you’re supplied with all of the latest major changes to the game world since you last logged in. From here you can select which missions to undertake. The aim is to complete all missions on a particular planet, thereby completing the planet and adding points towards the Helldivers global campaign. When you choose to begin a mission you’re able to choose your weapon, stratagem and perk load out for that mission.
Stratagems are a fun little feature which is effectively support drops from the SS Freedom. There’s a variety of stratagems available from ammo caches to bombs and minigun turrets. This game really does have a sense of vulnerability to friendly fire; so if you don’t want to get levelled by your own minigun? Better hit the deck! Like many games involving character development these days there are perks. You start out with the laser sight perk which I found very helpful. There’s a bunch of other perks that can be unlocked through play too.
Once you’re in the field and on a mission, moving around uses the typical WASD layout that we’re all well versed in by now, or of course using a gamepad's twin sticks, as befits the genre. There are objectives to complete which are shown as symbols on the map. These could be activating a Surface to Air Missile launcher or holding a territory in King-of-the-Hill style gameplay, along with many others. Around the map you’ll find samples which help towards weapon improvement. There a mini-map which displays enemies using a radar system and also shows where your objectives are. Once enemies are encountered it’s simply right click to aim and left click to obliterate.
Ammo is quite limited, usually to around four full magazines. Oh, and Helldivers also uses the ultra-realistic feature where any ammo left in a discarded clip is lost – luckily the game does warn you about this, but it can be tough to remember initially.
Once you’ve completed all of your objectives and killed every enemy in sight (or ran like hell from them because you’re out of precious ammo) then you can head to the pickup point. Activating this point gives you a series of up, left, down and right commands that you execute using W, A, S and D, respectively. This is a neat little system and is quite reminiscent of entering cheat codes in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Or, if you were a goodie-two-shoes, then it’s a little like the lowrider contest mechanics. This system is actually used in a few places, such as activating certain objectives and calling in stratagems. I’ll be honest, the first time I extracted I expected a rope ladder to drop down from the craft to make my escape, but no; when the craft lands, make sure that you’re not underneath it. Yet another example of friendly fire in this game.
Overall the mission structure is fairly linear and can be repetitive during longer sessions once combat starts to become more of a chore than an enjoyable blood-fest, but that aside the variation in mission design makes things feel a little more fluid.
Visually, this is very much an isometric twin stick shooter. If you’re looking for photorealistic graphics and spectacularly detailed effects then this certainly isn’t for you. The graphics aren’t going to be worrying the likes of The Witcher or Battlefield but for the genre they are quite pretty. There’s a colourful palette on offer and the lighting effects are quite immersive. There’s a small array of graphics settings to tweak depending on your hardware. There’s also free key binding and you can switch between using mouse, keyboard or both.
Gameplay and ambient sounds are aplenty and of high quality. Weapon firing audio is fairly rewarding and destroying a robotic enemy sounds as satisfying as it looks. Speaking to NPCs yields paragraph after paragraph of written text but there’s only a small line of spoken prose. For a smaller title like this it's understandable, particularly when considering the number of languages supported. Recording the full audio would be quite the money sink.
If you take into account the limits of the genre itself, then Helldivers is a fantastic way to keep yourself busy for hours at a time, Helldivers is a surprisingly immersive game with intuitive mechanics and a rewarding levelling system. Repeating seemingly the same mission over and over does get a little staid, but the variable objectives and procedurally generated worlds go some way to fixing that. Not taking itself too seriously, this is friendly fire fun for all.