Helldivers 2 is a third-person co-op shooter that’s centred as much around action as it is comedy. Gigantic insects and red-eyed robots threaten the sanctity of Super Earth and, frankly, this isn’t on. As a Helldiver, you must team up with your compatriots and pulverise these menaces for freedom (a shoulder-mounted laser cannon) and democracy (an aerial bombardment). Seriousness is reserved for the act of extermination, which adds tactility to the familiar motions of a shooter, making for horde management that promotes efficiency and frequent lapses of judgement in equal measure. Helldivers 2 is a slapstick masterpiece.
To begin proceedings, you post up in your spaceship, or the ship of whoever’s hosting your co-op group. All ships have identical interiors, but you can customise your soldier’s armour, weaponry, bonuses, and Stratagems (special abilities) in what quickly becomes a nice breathing space to decompress, spend, and re-energise. In the cockpit you’ll then select a mission from a roundtable that brings the Galactic War into perspective. In the centre is Super Earth. To the West are planets rife with Automatons, in what’s basically T-1000 Hills. And to the East are planets blighted by giant bugs with a penchant for mandibles and bulging gas sacks. You’ll then select a planet in one of these halves, with missions sorted by difficulty and whatever form the subsequent eradication will take.
All missions have a timer that counts down, whether that be a lengthy 30-minutes or a quickfire fifteen, and it’s your job to complete the main objectives within the time limit. For instance, destroying a number of bug nests before the final big ask – extracting safely. Feeling confident? Some missions are home to optional objectives, so if you tick those off and zip out of there safely, you’ll receive bonus rewards. Fail to extract and you’ll still get currency for upgrades, but they’ll be trimmed down a touch. And to clear up any potential live-service scares: yes, there’s a paid battle pass with some powerful goodies, but rewards don’t ever make it feel like a focus.
The loop, then, is to rinse bugs or robots, get home, buy some new toys, and do it again and again and again. While this might sound a bit repetitive, it’s the act of diving into hell and fending off the droves that keeps you coming back, not necessarily the rewards. Finally, we have a live service game that values heft over numbers, and dismemberment over health bars, so much so that a new shotgun excites me by virtue of how it’ll feel in the hands and not where it sits within a rarity rainbow. The only rarity rainbow you’ll find here is when light glints off your comrades’ limbs as they tumble through the air. On second thought… they’re just rainbows.
For those versed in third-person shooters, combat eases you in with a familiar rhythm of shooting, reloading, sprinting, and the like. But in many of these motions lie little details that force the management section of your brain to spin, delicately putting you under more strain as the hordes close in. For instance, reloading before you’ve emptied a magazine means wasting precious unused bullets, while accuracy is determined by your stance, so standing still or crouching means a greater chance of successful slaughter.
If shooting is your bread, then Stratagems are your butter. Unlockable back at your ship, these are powerful tools that’ll rain down from the sky, either in a delivery pod or as an explosive shelling. You can carry up to four in total, all of which have cooldowns and – Helldivers 2 is a generous soul – unlimited uses. Again, you can’t just press a button and they’ll conveniently fly in, oh no! Like a fighting game, you’ll need to stand stock still and stab a short combination of button presses to make it appear as a grenade in your hand. Lob the Stratagem and it’ll call forth a blue beam for “care package”, and a red beam for “if you stand anywhere near this, you will die”.
Stratagems are a real spectacle. Nothing beats watching an orbital strike slam into a turret post and reduce it to metal splinters, or watching as your robot companion’s laser sizzles through Terminids. But a greater joy lies in co-ordinating your abilities with your pals, as the key to tackling the toughest missions is having a variety of tools at your disposal. I often bring an anti-tank missile launcher in with me, so my pals and I have a way to crack open the beefiest armoured lads, reducing them from terrifying threats to glorified walnuts. Another of friend is also partial to a gatling turret for extra firepower in final stand moments. Others focus more on artillery. Napalm strikes built for roasting enormous nests. Nuke equivalents that melt entire armies. A bomb that creates an acidic haze.
Success is somewhat determined by the Stratagems you’ve earned, but clearing the toughest stages becomes an exercise in clarity of thought as chaos descends around you. The joy of Helldivers 2 is in the mastery of its motions and in the management of your sky tools, so even the most insurmountable odds always feel doable. Upping the difficulty level means stronger enemies who require more tactical nous to bring down, not a bump in a gear requirement; refreshing, to say the least.
And it’s the Stratagems that provide many slapstick moments. Honestly, Helldivers 2 might be funniest game of the year, as the pressure of the bugs and the robots and the forced physicality of your inputs encourages a comedy of human error. A ‘friendly’ turret might target an enemy in the distance mincing your friend who unknowingly stumbles into its bullet stream, then a bomb blast might send you tumbling into a lake. One time, a friend checked Xwitter for a split-second and he walked straight into a mine, vaporising him instantly. Another time, a friend shot a seemingly innocuous canister, only for all of our screens to turn white. He’d unleashed a nuke, killing us all instantly.
Death isn’t the end in Helldivers 2, though. This is a game that understands the importance of generosity, giving all players a single pool of lives to draw from during a mission. If a friend carks it, you can call them back in via the “Reinforcement” Stratagem, which is normally one of the simpler ones to pull off, though in hairier moments even this can feel like quite a task in and of itself. But even when that life pool drops down to one, Helldivers 2 is there, ready to give you another leg up. Instead of punishing you with a fatal zero, you’ll simply enter a longer, more charitable cooldown period, giving your remaining ally the chance they need to survive just long enough to sling a friend back into the fray. It feeds the fantasy of that last ditch effort, and begets fun every single time.
The game also knows that variety keeps missions from growing stale. You’ll still encounter the same objectives every now and again, but the act of completion is joyful enough to keep them engaging. Whether you’re exploding an outpost or loading up an enormous missile silo by literally depositing ammunition into its maw, every act is carried by how it all feels: heavy, frantic and, perhaps most of all, impactful. Some objectives you complete actually reward you with in-game changes, like the missile silo appearing in your Stratagems tab as a powerful aerial barrage, or the felling of a gigantic mushroom clearing the smog that’s plagued your visibility.
Helldivers 2 offers up a good range of enemy types to tackle as well. On the robot side in particular, many of them require co-ordinated teamwork to take down, with Star Wars-esque walkers needing a good flank to kill the spindly lad who controls them, while chainsaw-handed warriors require precise amputation, stat. The bugs are perhaps less ambitious on this front – based on my current experience, it seems like they mostly consist of 90% fodder and only 10% hulking chargers or stealthy stalkers, and I’d like to see a few more medium-sized horribles to keep things lively. Still, these are very small gripes in the grand scheme of things, and the planets make up for these deficiencies by being, well, really pretty and laid out so that you’re never far from an interesting objective.
Helldivers 2 has filled an ache in my heart. My friends and I have longed for another fun co-op shooter since we all drifted away from Warzone, and Helldivers 2 has exceeded my expectations on every front – and particularly as someone who’s grown tired of live service tropes. Yes, it might be lean in comparison to some live service giants when it comes to unlockables (looking at you, Destiny 2), but I think it has a longer tail by virtue of silliness being its top priority, where twists on simple acts make it a laugh generator and skill venerator. I could go on about how you can switch to first person for crunchier, more accurate shooting. How rockets can turn into explosive skimming stones if you angle them at the dirt. How the orange flashes of a gatling gun cutting through a dense mist is so beautiful it brings a tear to my eye. Oh heck, just buy the damn thing.
This review is based on a retail build of the game, provided by publishers PlayStation PC LLC.