Although the console release season mostly dries up in December, the same can't be said about the busy Steam marketplace. Several exciting PC games have launched within the last week on Steam, including Dragon Quest Heroes and DARIUSBURST Chronicle Saviours. But for my money, the most compelling game to launch on Steam this week is undoubtedly HELLDIVERS – the subject of our latest Steam Spotlight review.
Arrowhead Game Studios' HELLDIVERS originated as a PlayStation game earlier this year but has now arrived on Steam. The game takes place in a dystopian future in which the armies of Super Earth wage endless wars across the galaxy. Although HELLDIVERS is a twin-stick shooter, the heavy cooperative focus, wealth of unlockable equipment, and deep and challenging gameplay make it unlike any other game. Learn more from our detailed review with video!
Conquering the galaxy with LIBERTY
In the future imagined by HELLDIVERS, the governments of Earth have united to form Super Earth. They also practice a unique form of Democracy (the North Korean kind) in which freedom is spread by conquering other worlds and species. The agents of that "freedom" are the Helldivers, brainwashed super soldiers.
The game begins with a highly propagandistic introduction similar to newsreels shown in the movie Starship Troopers. HELLDIVERS takes that film's satiric and amps it up a bit with some delightfully humorous dialog. During battle, the Helldivers will quip, "How about a nice cup of Liber-Tea?" and other phrases that humorously misunderstand the concepts of democracy and freedom. I only wish there were more such lines.
Become a Helldiver and contribute to the war effort!
After completing a short tutorial, players will find themselves on the bridge of their own personal ships. Everyone's ship looks identical and can't be customized (boo!). Your ship serves the same purpose as the one in Warframe, acting as the hub through which levels and upgrades are selected. It also doubles as a multiplayer lobby, allowing a team of four players to meet up before and after missions.
HELLDIVERS' Galactic Campaign is part of what gives the game almost limitless appeal. To pick a mission, you'll access the galaxy map on your ship. There the galaxy is divided into sectors for each race at war with Super Earth: the Starship Troopers-style Bugs, the robotic Illuminates, and the half-organic Cyborgs.
Each of these sectors contains a variety of planets that you can choose to conquer. A planet offers 2-3 missions to complete, at which point everyone on the team will earn a reward such as an item unlock or bonus experience. All fun stuff, but the community element takes it a step further…
Each HELDIVERS player is actually just one soldier in a larger galactic war that consists of every single player. The missions that you complete on a planet contribute Influence Points towards the war against that planet's faction, with better performance contributing more Influence Points.
As the war goes on, Super Earth builds up enough influence against a faction to challenge its home world. This triggers a special event in which the community has two days to build up enough Influence to conquer the planet (plus earn double experience while doing so). Succeed and you'll knock that enemy out of the war. Losing the war will cause the enemy to push back towards Super Earth, which can trigger a special defense event. Once all three sectors have been conquered (which typically takes about a month), the war starts anew.
Fighting the good fight
After selecting a mission, your team will enter drop pods and head to the planet surface. From there, they'll have to complete multiple objectives spread across a procedurally generated map. Some of these objectives include capturing an area, escorting a group of four NPC survivors, retrieving a black box, repairing and firing artillery cannons, and more.
Once the group has completed (or failed) all objectives, they can head to the specified extraction point and call a shuttle to pick them up. The shuttle takes a while to arrive, though, which leads to some intense standoffs as you wait for rescue. At least one Helldiver must make it onto the shuttle in order for the team to complete the mission.
HELLDIVERS is a twin-stick shooter, with each soldier carrying a rifle, pistol, and grenades. We've all played twin-stick shooters before, but a number of factors make HELLDIVERS' gameplay more engaging (and hardcore) than other games in the genre. For starters, most planet-side interactions involve rapidly inputting specific sequences of directions on the controller or keyboard…
Activating extraction beacons, requesting ammo refills, vehicles, and turret, and even reviving dead players – all of these require you to quickly tap out the correct sequence as displayed on-screen. Not only is this more interesting than just tapping a button, it becomes downright tense when you have to perform complex interactions in the heat of battle.
Tough mechanics for tough soldiers
Requesting ordinance or reviving players carries another element of danger. All requested equipment arrives several seconds later via drop pods. Any players unlucky enough to be standing beneath a drop pod when it lands will be crushed to death, which happens often enough. On the other hand, your supplies might helpfully land on a tough enemy and take it out.
Friendly fire is active at all times, so you'll have to watch out for each other's positions. Players can hit the deck in order to avoid stray shots, but mostly everyone just tries to aim around each other. Weapons with wide spray like shotguns can quickly make you unpopular with your team. Abusive players can be rated negatively or kicked, but I have yet to run into someone like that.
Reloading weapons is also a bit more hardcore here than usual. Weapons don't automatically reload when you empty a clip, which proves annoying at first. You have to manually press the reload button. And any bullets left in a partially used clip will be discarded upon reloading, so you can't just reload after every shot like in other games.
Arrowhead has even made the in-game map less intuitive to use than expected. You'll often need to check the map in order to locate your next objective or check for enemy patrols. But players have to look at the map; it can't be accessed while moving. Imagine running just far enough from a horde of enemies to glance at the map and figure out where to go before the bad guys catch up. That said, dead players should really be able to look at the map in order to assist their teammates. Rainbow Six Siege incorporates such an element to good effect, and it would improve HELLDIVERS as well.
Obtuse mechanics like friendly fire, reloading, and map-checking might sound off-putting in concept, but in practice, they add to HELLDIVERS' hardcore appeal in a Dark Souls-like way. The galactic war is rough, and everyone has to look out for each other in order for the team to survive.
The only hardcore element that doesn't really work is tossing grenades. The longer you hold the trigger or button, the farther your grenade goes. But HELLDIVERS doesn't provide any form of targeting reticule for grenades, so you'll often over- or under-shoot your target. Players can learn to compensate to an extent, but overall grenades just aren't fun to throw like they should be.
Character progression and unlocks
After completing a mission, the team receives a star rating. To get all three stars, the team has to complete every objective (some can be failed), get everyone into the extraction shuttle, and avoid dying too many times. Each star earned contributes Influence Points to the war effort.
Each player receives experience based on the mission's star rating and difficulty. Although the game displays your stats like kills and accuracy, neither actually contributes to experience or any other form of progression. It feels wrong not getting experience for kills. Enemies spawn endlessly in HELLDIVERS, so the developers probably feared that players would grind enemies and level up too quickly. But at least, give us some incentive to take them out other than mere survival!
As you level up, you'll unlock new uniforms, weapons, Perks, and Stratagems. Each player only gets to equip one Perk at a time. These include the default laser sight that helps with aiming, the ability to jump, run faster, use different kinds of grenades, and more.
Players get to equip four Stratagems of their choice as well. Stratagems consist of a variety of offensive, defensive, and miscellaneous tools and equipment that can be requested during missions. A few examples: ammo drops, heavy machine guns, drones, turrets, mechs, vehicles, and more. Most Stratagems are unlocked by completing specific planets, although some unique ones can be purchased as DLC.
Weapons and Stratagems can also be upgraded with Research Points. You get a Research Point every time you level up or collect 10 Samples from planet surfaces.
HELLDIVERS gets pretty tough on higher difficulty planets, so you'll usually want to team up with other players. A game with such a cooperative focus needs good matchmaking, and that's mostly what we get here. Head to the Multiplayer platform on your ship and you can browse a variety of in-progress missions to join. You can invite Steam friends from the same location.
Should you want to play a specific planet but don't have friends to invite, players can still randomly join your game. You can even send out an SOS during a mission to greatly increase the chance of people entering your game. It's way more entertaining to play while waiting for other gamers than to wait in some lobby!
Some games would force players who join in-progress games to watch along helplessly or worse, simply prevent them from joining. HELLDIVERS wisely allows people to join at any time with no penalty. Even if you hop into a game right before extraction, you'll still get the same full experience reward as everyone else. This encourages people to head those SOS calls and join up, perhaps staying together for further missions.
The one bad element of HELLDIVERS' multiplayer system is that it doesn't track recent players. Sometimes you might get disconnected from a game or simply want to play with someone you met before who isn't on your friends list. With nor recent players list, you have no way to rejoin those players. Arrowhead should really fix that in the future.
The Steam version of HELLDIVERS offers both local and online multiplayer. Local players, unfortunately, can't use their own profiles; they have to share the host's. Of course, the game works with mouse and keyboard, but it plays perfectly with controllers as well. You also get Steam Achievements and Cloud support.
The Steam version's required specs are mercifully light. Although the Surface 3 apparently can't handle it, my three-year-old gaming notebook can run the game at 720p resolution with everything else maxed out. Any machine with a decent graphics card and 4GB of RAM should be fine.
HELLDIVERS is available in regular ($20) and Deluxe ($40) editions. The $40 package includes a bunch of paid DLC – a holdover from the PlayStation versions. The DLC consists entirely of optional items like unique weapons and Stratagems that can't be unlocked otherwise. They do provide a nice cache of equipment right off the bat, but you won't be disadvantaged with just the base game.
A multiplayer-focused Steam game like HELLDIVERS would be perfect for a 4-pack discount. Unfortunately, Steam has apparently discontinued the release of new 4-packs, so, for now, players who want to gift the game have to buy individual copies.
HELLDIVERS is one of the best games I've played all year. The Galactic Conquest structure with everyone's contributions adding to the war effort, the vast array of Stratagems and weapons to unlock, and the unique and hardcore gameplay touches all combine to make something special.
This one reminds me of Rogue Legacy (another favorite) in that it's a relatively low budget game that I really want to see expanded in a sequel. But the game we get right now for $20 is already more entertaining than many $60 games. Whether you hop online for just one mission or spend hours conquering planets, it's always great fun to team up with friends or strangers in HELLDIVERS.