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April 2024

Helldivers II

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Release Date: Feb. 8, 2024


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PC Review - 'Helldivers II'

by Cody Medellin on Feb. 16, 2024 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Helldivers II is a cooperative shooter that packs in frantic, third-person action against massive enemy mobs.

The original Helldivers came out roughly nine years ago, and it was a pretty big hit at the time. While it looked like just another twin-stick shooter with a Starship Troopers vibe, the game won over many people with its more hardcore shooter sensibilities and a sense of progression that made it feel like you're part of something bigger, and the victories felt significant. A sequel felt inevitable, and even though nine years is a very long time to wait, Helldivers II has finally arrived.

The story takes place roughly 100 years after the events of the first game. After using the blood of the Terminids as a fuel source and farming them for that purpose, the giant insects have broken free from their bondage. They propagate rapidly, so they're quickly taking over planets and decimating everything, with Super Earth being their final destination. While there's a plan to create a barrier to prevent the bugs from terrorizing the planets again, it falls to the Helldivers to travel between planets to push back the Terminids and reclaim the galaxy under the banner of Super Earth. The Helldivers also need to watch out for a race of cyborgs that want to take over the galaxy.

The game never delves too much into the narrative, and if it weren't for the blurbs on the website or the occasional snippet of dialogue from the people on your ship, you'd be completely in the dark about how the ending of the first game got overdone. While narrative isn't a focus in the sequel, the vibe is, and the game nails it as well as its predecessor did. From the patriotic taunts to the managed reviews and PSAs with disturbing fine print, the game understands how to properly use the serious yet silly setting that was popularized by the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers decades ago. Provided you're fine with the running joke, it works quite effectively.

If you're familiar with the first game, you're not going to be surprised with Helldivers II, as a majority of the game mechanics have transferred over. For those who aren't familiar with the first game, it's a typical shooter with some roguelike elements. The objectives can include taking down a propaganda broadcast tower, destroying a bug nest, blowing up a factory, or just raising a flag, but the level layout and enemy types are randomized based on the planet and your selected difficulty level. You have a limited number of weapons and guns, but you can always call upon ammo and weapon drops if you run low. You can also call upon things like an orbital cannon or a bombing run to clear things out — if you can enter the key combination and get a good throw of the homing beacon before being interrupted by an attack. Fulfill your mission, and you'll head back to the pickup point, where you need to call for the ship and hold out for two minutes before you can return to the floating base and take on a new mission.

The big twist to shooting bugs and robots is how many gameplay elements are borrowed from what hardcore military simulators. Reload your gun while you still have bullets in the clip, and the leftovers get wasted. There's no such thing as auto-reloading, so you'll always need to perform a manual reload to keep firing. There's a sway when you're moving and aiming at the same time. Downed enemies will never drop ammo or items, so you're going to rely on calling in ammo drops versus scavenging for things during the mission. Friendly fire is always on, and since your bullets are good enough to go through large bugs, stray shots can easily shred a fellow Helldiver.

The mix of hardcore shooter elements within what would normally be the domain of less stringent shooters creates a potent mix that makes every situation quite enjoyable. Play it smart, and you'll deliver some awesome firefights where everything goes according to plan, with big booms and loads of enemies getting ripped apart by weapons. The feeling of a well-executed plan never gets old. It's enjoyable to hold out against hordes of incoming enemies Left 4 Dead-style and then jump aboard the ship as you run out of bullets and grenades. There are plenty of moments like this, whether you're going for the main objective or taking the time to explore the world and finding extra objectives, which produce a fulfilling gameplay loop.

At the same time, some of the enjoyment comes from missions going sideways and seeing the results of those mishaps. If someone's standing too close to the radius of an orbital strike, they'll get blown several feet into the air before landing with a splat. One might barely make it out of a skirmish with broken arms and legs. Players might try to land the reinforcement pod on enemies and accidentally squish a teammate in the process. Having things go wrong and dying in unintentionally hilarious ways is part of the game's character, and it helps that the community embraces these occurrences as a fun part of the game.

Aside from various victories and mishaps, the one thing that will keep you and your friends or random strangers coming back to replay very similar missions is Helldivers II's sense of progression. At the end of every mission, you get your own personal XP leveling and an overall progression meter for planet and system liberation. The progress increments are small, but this is taken from everyone playing the game; in the span of less than a week, several planets have already been liberated. It means that you will miss out on seeing every environment if you're not on all the time, but it also means that it feels like you're making a contribution to the war effort with slow and steady progress even when you're not actively playing. It is a very fulfilling system, and if the first game is any indication, there's a good chance that you'll still be able to experience everything from the beginning, as the war resets when every section of the galaxy is conquered.

All of those things were hallmarks of the first game, and it is nice to see that they've been successfully carried over to the sequel. There are a few big changes to the gameplay mechanics in this iteration. The first is a change of perspective from a top-down shooter to a third-person perspective. The change immediately makes combat more visceral, as you get a better perspective of the enemies and a better view of limbs being blown off and their blood splattering all over your armor and billowing cape. Elevation now plays a more noticeable role, as you can now look up and blow up dropships. Although you can't jump, you can at least clamber up small objects to eventually reach the high ground in some skirmishes. You lose out on the expanded view from the top-down perspective, but the trade-off is worth it. The only drawback is that the local multiplayer option is gone due to that change in viewpoint.

That leads to the second big change for Helldivers II: a mandatory online connection requirement. The biggest issue is one that's common with online-only games: server stability. The game became an unexpected hit when it launched, and the consequence of that was too many people were trying to jump in at once, causing the servers to crash. A fix was applied over the weekend, and that limited the number of people playing at one time, resulting in a larger population not being able to even adjust their settings, since you need to be online to get beyond the title screen. It has improved over the past few days as more people have gotten in and connections seem to be more stable, but it's too early to claim that everything has been fixed.

The last major change is the presence of different currencies and ingredients used to acquire new tools and buff up existing ones. On top of that, there are War Bonds, which act very much like Battle Passes from other persistent multiplayer games, and they're split into paid and free versions. Even with the relatively low cost of the game, the presence of passes can be off-putting, especially since there are more than cosmetics in the premium tier. The good news is that the game doesn't seem to be as predatory as most other games in this regard. The premium War Bond is the most expensive thing on offer, and with the promise that it won't expire, it doesn't tempt you to buy it early and rush through the game for fear of losing its rewards forever. It does offer some weapon variants not found elsewhere, but they aren't overly powerful, and the PvE nature of the game means that "pay to win" is less of a concern. More importantly, only one type of currency can be bought with real money, and the amounts never feel like you're overpaying to get what you want, especially since everything can be found in-game at reasonable amounts if you never shell out more cash. The system feels reasonable.

The overall graphical presentation is quite good. As alluded to earlier, the details for the characters are excellent, as the armor on the Helldivers looks amazing and the creatures look grotesque. The only exception to this comes from the faces of your crew members, which can look dead, but you won't mind too much since you only ever see three in-game faces in the entire game. The environments look very nice, with loads of detail on the vegetation and an abundant amount of particle effects being used, such as various explosions and clouds of dust and smoke. Texture pop-in is nonexistent, and item pop-in is also at a minimum, making this a clean-looking title.

From a sound perspective, it's pitch-perfect. There aren't too many tracks you'll hear playing, so you'll have to get used to the same two themes when you enter a planet and when you are extracted from one. It properly conveys themes of heroism, and you won't get tired of them since neither track lasts too long. The sound of the weapons is crunchy, as are the guttural screeches coming from enemies. Explosions are nice and loud. There aren't too many voice types in the game, but you won't mind, since the lines are hyper-patriotic, and you can't help but laugh at the bad puns.

After a day or two of using complicated workarounds, Steam Deck users can now play the game without much fuss. The game runs at the system's 1280x800 resolution, and the graphical options default to a mix of high and medium settings. The result is a game that constantly runs in the low to mid 20fps range, and a full charge on the original LCD version of the Steam Deck runs for an average of 90 minutes. It's a heavy game for the system, and while the ability to play it on a portable device is nice, you'll really want to drop as many settings as possible to get better performance.

Helldivers II is a good game that happens to have some current teething problems. Everything — from the perfect satirical tone to the solid gunplay and variety of difficulty levels — create some exciting and satisfying gaming moments. Some of the more military simulation traits generate some tense situations, but they can be humorous moments, too. The microtransactions don't feel too bad in the game's overall scheme. If the connectivity issues can be resolved and stabilized soon, then Helldivers II can be one of the sleeper hits of the first half of 2024.

Score: 8.5/10

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