When people throw around the term twin-stick shooter, it's easy to associate it with other titles who have either excelled at the genre, like Geometry Wars, or failed, like Halo: Spartan Assault. Though any way you look at it, a twin-stick shooter is usually associated with holding the right analog stick in a constant direction, unleashing a steady stream of bullets on any enemy that dares to grace your screen. Helldivers, by Arrowhead Game Studios, is a refreshing take on the genre, one that rewards brains over brawn and tactics over bullet counts.
Welcome to Super Earth Helldiver, our very own planet in the distant future that's seemingly a prime target for alien Bugs, homocidal Cyborgs, and the robotic Illuminates who apparently obsess over laser technology. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to ensure humanity's survival by protecting Super Earth from alien invasion, but also pro-actively taking measures to eradicate the alien scum and wipe it from existence. Truth be told, aside from some cleverly written dialogue and some hilarious parodies and parallels to our current culture, the story is paper thin. But you won't really need much of a reason to commit genocide to three distinct alien races aside from your hardcore patriotism to your home planet.
The core gameplay consists of choosing a star system, and then choosing one of several randomized planets, with randomized maps and randomized mission objectives. The planets are ordered from the easiest difficulty to the most unrelenting, each one containing a helpful item to unlock, whether it's a completely new weapon, or a new stratagem.
However, as I mentioned previously, Helldivers breaks the trend of dropping down and spraying and praying by forcing players to play smart. In fact, many times it's better to avoid combat altogether in order to simply stay alive. Things can get hectic really quick if you're carelessly alerting the enemy to your presence, which will always result in signaling even more enemies and before you know it, you're surrounded on all sides of the screen.
It also doesn't help the situation that you can damage and kill your friends with your gunfire. Normally I'm not a fan of friendly fire, but in Helldivers it provided yet another strategic layer on top of the already hectic layer. It forces players to stay mindful of their friends' presence and usually results in some sweet defense scenarios. You know those scenes in the movies where the two protagonists stand back to back and shoot at enemies in front of them, yeah, that happens in Helldivers, usually without even coordinating it.
Another big component of Helldivers are Stratagems, which are four "skills" you take with you on your mission. Each and every one of them is a viable option, depending on how you choose to go about them. For instance, those tackling missions solo might want to take the Turret and Ammo Stratagems, as they'll allow you to place down a defensive turret that can protect you while you try to capture an objective and replenish your ammo in case you run out early.
But they can be equally beneficial to your team as well, providing support when they need it. However, like friendly-fire, these can harm you and your fellow Helldivers if not careful. Turrets can and will fire in your direction if you're standing where the enemy is. Hell, even calling down Stratagems can be dangerous if you happen to be standing where it's supposed to land. Thankfully, there are more than enough context clues about where the'll land, so that's a little more rare, but it certainly can happen. The Square button is basically a necessity as it will command your Helldiver to dive for cover, allowing you to duck out of harm's way. It's equally badass when you're out of ammo and approached by enemies, and your fellow Helldiver buddy aims his gun at you, prompting you to dive for cover as he destroys the impending horde of baddies that would have otherwise dismembered you.
What adds yet another layer of tension to Stratagems and mission objectives are the directional inputs that must be pressed. For instance, when trying to re-establish a connection to a SAM site, you'll need to put in a directional code to start up the boot sequence, and then put in a much longer code to actually power it on. When you're swarmed by enemies, it can often be stressful to try and input the code correctly. The same goes for Stratagems. Each one requires a button input to call down, which means you always have to assess your surroundings to see whether you'll have enough time to actually put it in.
One other unique feature to Helldivers is being able to drop down directly on top of a mission objective, knocking it out immediately and then focusing on others. And while that's a totally viable solution, a lot of times you're being directly dropped into enemy territory, meaning you'll need some quick reactions to survive the initial drop.
There is a progression system in the game tied down to Research Points. When you level up your rank you're awarded with some, as well as picking up samples scattered around on each planet, which awards you with one Research Point per 10 samples. You can then drop these points in everything from weapons to Strategems to make them more effective.
All of which I just described already makes for one hell of an experience, especially for a twin-stick shooter, but Helldivers takes it one step further with the addition of a persistent social progression in the game's main campaign. For every mission you complete, you gain Community Influence, which directs the flow of battle either toward an enemy's home planet for total eradication, or toward Super Earth. This constant back and forth make for a quite engaging game, however since I played mostly during pre-release, we never got to see the full impact of taking over the Bug homeworld, though we were fighting it out on their planet. The difficulty of each mission will affect the amount of Influence you gain, constantly encouraging you to tackle harder missions to make more of an impact. And even though your Influence is usually super small, you still can't help but feel accomplished, knowing you're contributing to the greater good.
Helldivers is meant to be played as a multiplayer co-operative experience, and as such, can be quite unforgiving when played solo. Though the game certainly supports solo missions, it's easy to get overwhelmed without at least a secondary player to provide some cover fire for when you're completing any of the numerous mission objectives on any given mission. Many times I was wiped out easily when playing on any planet that had a rank above Easy. Had I played slower and more careful, I probably would have had a much easier time completing it.
If you're planning on purchasing Helldivers, which I wholeheartedly recommend, but don't necessarily like playing with random people, try to encourage your friends to buy it. It's not only a much more manageable yet hectic experience, it's also a much better game. And hey, if that's not a selling point to them, inform them it's Cross-buy and Cross-play, meaning one purchase will get them the PS3, PS4 and Vita version, as well as allowing them to team up with anyone, no matter what system they're playing on.
FOR SUPER EARTH!