Helldivers 2 Review: Democracy Done Right


It was just the two of us, strangers on a crimson wasteland of an alien planet, surrounded by swarming giant bugs whose only purpose was to rip us to shreds. We’d cleared out the oozing nests, successfully launched the ICBM, and reached our extraction zone to get the hell out. But as we waited for our transport, the bugs overwhelmed us. The auto turret we’d put down was destroyed, I was out of clips for my heavy machine gun, no grenades. We were running around, shooting at the ocean of insects at our heels, counting down seconds when our aircraft arrived. Just as we beelined towards the rear doors, my squad mate called in an orbital strike on the area. We stood at the gates, unloaded our guns one last time on bugs right in front of us, and watched a glorious missile strike obliterate everything in sight before we flew off planet.

Helldivers 2, the cooperative online third-person shooter from Arrowhead Game Studios, is packed with moments like these, where epic things happen not by inherent design, but by player choice. My squad mate was a random player I matched with online, and we barely exchanged any words as we helldived for two hours straight, spreading democracy on untamed planets crawling with hungry bugs and killer robots. That kind of organic interaction online is increasingly rare in games today. There is an abundance of online shooters and co-op experiences out there, but very few of them unite players in a common cause quite like Helldivers 2 does. And fewer have the confidence in their gameplay systems to allow players to create their own fun, rather than constantly throwing things at them to do in case they get bored.

Its throwback, elusive purity, that harkens back to online gaming sessions of yore, has turned Helldivers 2 into a phenomenon, despite the many technical issues that have plagued the game since its February 8 release. Launched with little to no hype and barely any marketing push behind it, the co-op shooter’s authentic PvE playground, tongue-in-cheek writing, and simple but visceral design has made it one of the most played games on Steam. Over the last month, Arrowhead has been dealing with a problem of plenty. A ballooning player count left the game’s servers vulnerable to crashes, even pushing the studio as far as to cap its peak concurrent player count while they did issue fixes. Subsequent updates have improved things, but not all issues have been squatted away. It’s a testament to the game’s rare appeal, however, that players have chosen to forgive its technical missteps and kept diving in for more.

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Before getting into what Helldivers 2 is and what makes it work, it must be made clear what it’s not. There’s no PvP in the game and it’s not a Battle Royale. It also doesn’t have traditional loot that co-op shooters like Destiny do. You don’t constantly pick up new and better weapons or gear. Helldivers 2 is PvE only and will stay that way. It’s up to four-player co-op, where you take on missions together or jump into another player’s session on different planets spread across the map. While there’s no single-player style campaign and story, there’s a unifying narrative. At the centre of it all is Super Earth, a comically fascistic and militaristic federation that has established a “managed democracy” in the galaxy. Its purpose is to colonise all planets, and spread its own way of life at any cost. Inflated patriotism is valued above all, and citizens are drilled to conform in an objectivist dystopia.

But when, the Terminid threat — thought to have been suppressed in the first game — returns, we are recruited to fight in the common cause and give the acid-spewing insects a taste of democracy. This time, there’s a new enemy in the mix, too. Automatons, a race of socialist cyborgs, challenge Super Earth’s imperialistic rule and threaten to disrupt everything held sacred. To counter the two-pronged assault on freedom and democracy, Helldivers, an elite squadron of soldiers who act as the “scalpel of the military might of Super Earth,” are mobilised once again to drop deep behind enemy lines and obliterate everything in sight.

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Automatons’ socialist ideals are a threat to democracy
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios

The game begins with a hilarious bit of recruitment propaganda that would give Uncle Sam a run for his money. You’re taken through a tutorial section that gets you up to speed on bug-killing basics, you get your own cape and ship, and are thrown into the galactic war. Your ship, a gigantic Super Destroyer that stays in orbit, acts as your base of operations. Here, you change your loadout, unlock new weapons of mass destruction, and take on missions spread across several planets. Your destroyer comes with a map table, where you can view the status of the war on Terminids and Automatons and jump into the fight. You can either start a mission solo or with your friends in co-op, or dive into an ongoing session to play with random players online. Once you join a session, you’re either sucked into the other player’s Destroyer ship as they ready up the mission and helldive with them, or you drop directly onto the planet if they’ve already embarked on the objective.

The missions themselves are straightforward, focusing on military-style objectives divided among Terminid and Automaton factions in the ongoing Galactic War across rising difficulty levels. On the insect side, you could defend freedom by evacuating civilians, conducting surveys and collecting data. Or you can take on bug extermination missions, where you survive massive swarms to kill giant Brood Commander and Bile Titan boss bugs. When battling Automatons, you can take on missions to protect liberty by reactivating fuelling stations to launch an ICBM, finding crashed escape pods, or destroying fuel and munitions stockpiles. Or you can take up head-on fights against the killer robots to try and find and destroy Hulk and Devastator cyborgs. You can dive into these missions solo, but the more expansive missions on higher difficulties are best tackled in a group. And playing Helldivers 2 in co-op, whether with a friend or other players online, is just simply way more fun.

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You can pick your missions in the ongoing Galactic War from the map table on your Super Destroyer
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

The operations also come littered with side objectives, which grant additional rewards upon completion. Your objectives on a mission, however, only serve to frame the action. Despite the recurring asks, each operation takes on distinct flavour because of the dynamism of your interaction with the bugs and the cyborgs. The planetary ops essentially act as online sandboxes, where you get to play around the way you want. If you choose so, a mission could thus become a strictly professional run where you tick off all the boxes and fly out, or it could become a chaotic, overwhelming, near suicidal ride, where you wander off on a bug-killing spree or get sidetracked admiring the scenery. This is where Helldivers 2 succeeds where many other online shooters fail — it never curates the fun for you, instead choosing only to provide the tools necessary to create your own fun.

And speaking of tools, there’s plenty of them to aid you when you’re helldiving. While your standard loadout consists of a primary and secondary weapon and grenades, you stock up on some extra firepower with the help of Stratagems, your own private arsenal of planet-cracking ordinance. These are basically care packages called in from your Super Destroyer, with each stratagem bound to its own unique code. These codes need to be punched in via a specific sequence of directional inputs on the controller or the keyboard.

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Don’t get sidetracked admiring the scenery, or do
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Stratagems can range from basic drops like the standard issue machine gun or ammunition resupply — available to players from the get-go — to massive missile strikes that flatten the marked land in front of you. All Stratagems must also be used strategically, keeping the cooldown timer for reusing them later during the mission in mind. Calling in a support weapon like a heavy machine gun, or a sniper, or a flamethrower right when you land on the planet makes sense. You equip your weapon of choice right from the start and retain the option to recall the same weapon later down the line when the cooldown timer has expired. And it’s perhaps more prudent to save the bombastic orbital missile strikes for later when you know you’ll be drowning in insects or robots.

The Stratagems you’ll carry can be equipped in the loadout menu right as you step into your Hellpod to dive into a mission. You start out with a modest lineup of basics and as you level up and earn mission rewards, you can buy new, more devastating ones. Selecting the right Stratagems for a mission is also crucial to success; they can act as a scalpel or a hammer and it’s up to you to decide what works best for the mission at hand. And simply calling one in in the heat of battle is nerve-racking, too. Pushing in the right codes to request a Stratagem when you’re being chased around by a dozen cyborgs with flaming swords can be a tricky business.

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Requesting in your heavy weapons early on makes sense
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Beyond the weapons of mass destruction, your fellow Helldivers are the best tools you have on the battlefield. Working as a team isn’t just important, it’s necessary. It’s much easier to manage the crowd of bugs around you and work through your objectives one by one if you and your teammates are in sync. They can help you with resupply drops and revive you if you die fighting for Super Earth. When you’re revived in the thick of battle, you can become a weapon yourself as your Hellpod drops onto the planet. You can control the direction of the descent and position yourself to land directly on top of a big bug to kill it in an instance. Calling in a timely resupply drop or reviving my friend right on top of a raging Charger never got old. And in perhaps one of its best design choices, friendly fire is always on in Helldivers 2. You’ll be shooting indiscriminately in this game, but with the possibility of riddling your teammate with bullet holes, you must watch where you’re shooting. Killing your teammate (whether done accidentally or on purpose) is always fun, though, even if it leaves your squad crippled for a hot minute. You can of course revive them back, but you must also be prepared for some friendly vengeance.

The shooting feels good, too. It’s punchy and weighty and you always get distinct feedback from your firearms. While the game is mostly played in a third-person perspective, you can also switch to a first-person view while aiming down sights for a more accurate and visceral shooting experience. Bullets hit your enemies with devastating impact, separating limbs from bodies in an acidic explosion. Your movement feels fluid, too, with a jet pack ability later granted through a Stratagem to enhance your manoeuvrability. You can also quickly dive to the ground and go prone to dodge an attack or get out of a hairy situation with a double tap of a single button.

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Shooting feels punchy and bullet impacts are conveyed well
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios

New weapons, armour, and equipment can be permanently unlocked in the Warbonds menu. Warbonds are on-sale equipment sets of growing quality that can be purchased with the in-game currency. Once you unlock a weapon or a piece of gear, it is added to your permanent inventory. While in-game currency can be purchased with real money, Helldivers 2 never makes it so that you have to grind interminably to get meaningful rewards. It’s fair and transparent live service model especially stands out among its peers, many of which stonewall your progress unless you spend money on a battle pass or buy exorbitant items.

Helldivers 2 is also dripping with humour. Its Starship Troopers-style satire of military exceptionalism lands as sharply as the Hellpods themselves. The game is peppered with patriotic propaganda, from the menus to the missions. All your actions are framed in the context of Super Earth and its unblemished imperial rule. All dissenters are enemies of the state and dangerous to democracy. Even the bugs and the robots serve as metaphors for socio-political enemies; those that don’t accept your brand of “democracy” are insects meant to be crushed, and socialists are a single-minded robotic threat to imperialism. When you dive down to a planet, comically jingoistic quotes motivate you to “spread democracy and freedom” and “protect your personal space with bullets.” And your character screams out silly battle cries and patriotic slogans when you unload the full clip on swarming bugs and robots in one go.

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Run from the bugs
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Despite working on so many levels, however, Helldivers 2 has been plagued by technical issues since launch, most of which stem from an absurdly high player count that continues to swell. Neither publishers Sony nor developers Arrowhead Game Studios had expected the game to be the smash hit it has become. The game’s servers have had a hard time bearing that load, with players experiencing issues with matchmaking and logging in. Many players reported being kicked out of online sessions till weeks after launch. I, too, couldn’t get the game to go beyond a loading screen on a weekend last month. Thankfully, subsequent updates have reined in much of the chaos. Servers are now mostly stable and jumping into matches is relatively smooth. Arrowhead has also addressed game balancing issues in a few updates in the past weeks, in addition to adding new content. These are to be expected in an online shooter, and the developers have promised to continue supporting the game with more content updates.

While server and stability issues have been buzzing around the game, Helldivers 2 has not had any notable problems with its performance and visuals. I tested the game on a PS5 and experienced stable 60fps, with a few minor dips, during my time with it. The visuals in Helldivers 2 stand out, as well. Its large planetary maps are highly detailed and burgeoning with oddities to explore. Its numerous planets have diverse environments. From Dune-style desert giants to icy cold distant rocks in space, every map in Helldivers 2 brings something new to the table. Perhaps the most compelling are the cataclysmic visuals of orbital strikes. These monolithic explosions scorch everything in front of you, lighting up screen like it’s judgment day. Helldivers 2 succeeds emphatically in depicting the crushing weight of these epic, fiery moments.

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“Freeze, or I’ll shoot!”
Photo Credit: Arrowhead Game Studios/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

With its emphatic launch on PC alongside PS5, Helldivers 2 throws up an important question that could perhaps end up changing Sony’s approach to releasing its games beyond its consoles: Does it still make sense for the PlayStation parent to launch its exclusive titles only on the PS5? With growing development costs for triple-A video games, restricting your potential audience to maintain positional strength in a decaying console war seems like an increasingly difficult decision for Sony to make. With the acquisition of Nixxes Software that has worked on PC ports of its most popular games, the company is clearly looking beyond the “only on PlayStation” approach. Two more PC ports of first-party PlayStation games are set to arrive in the coming weeks. Sony has been following a two-year waiting period strategy to make its games available on PC, but with the wild success of Helldivers 2 on Steam, a simultaneous release on Windows for some of its games could become the norm going forward.

In that way, Helldivers 2 could become an important inflection point in the games business, too. And its larger implications aside, the game is an authentic co-op shooter that keeps you coming back for more. Playing Helldivers 2 took me back to some of my best online experiences in Battlefield games, where a large part of the fun feels organic and player driven. It’s hard to find that sweet spot, to carve a distinct identity amidst a glut of online shooters and live service titles competing for player attention. But Helldivers 2 takes a deceptively simple path to walking the complicated ‘games as a service’ tightrope without tripping and falling down. It is refreshingly funny and self-aware, in addition to being mechanically sound. It never takes itself too seriously, but also doesn’t force the humour. Most generic live service games feel like clueless products trying to jump on a trend and pretending to be hip. Helldivers 2, on the other hand, consistently appears to be in on the joke.

Pros

  • Fun and engaging gameplay
  • Tongue-in-cheek tone
  • Explosive weapons
  • Simple, effective mission structure
  • Diverse environments
  • Fair pricing

Cons

  • Server issues
  • Jumping into online matches can take time
  • Needs more diverse missions

Rating (out of 10): 8

Helldivers 2 released February 8 on PS5 and PC.

Pricing starts at Rs. 2,499 for the Standard Edition on Steam for PC and PlayStation Store for PS5.


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