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I Don’t Get What All This Helldivers 2 Hubbub Is Abou– Hey, When Did It Become 5 AM

Damn, this game is good

Arrowhead / Sony

Last night I decided to finally spend some time with Helldivers 2, Sony’s new bug-blasting, robot-smashing co-op shooter that’s become a sensation on Steam. That was a mistake. 

Unfortunately for my sleep schedule, the game rules. I wouldn’t say I immediately picked up what it was dropping from orbit, though. Over the weekend I attempted to put Helldivers 2 through its paces, only to bounce off it after an oddly overwhelming – but very funny – tutorial and a disastrous first mission. The issue with both of these things is that I did them solo, and Helldivers 2 is perhaps the least soloable game I’ve played in years, despite the fact that the option to do so exists. 

In Helldivers 2, you and up to three other players smash into a variety of planets and accomplish various missions in the name of preserving Super Earth’s mega-democracy (which is definitely not a propaganda lampshade for lucrative intergalactic genocide). These vary in length and often contain optional side missions that grant additional XP and medals, which you can use to unlock new weapons and cosmetics. For example, a 15-minute mission might see you hunker down and fend off hundreds of swarming bug aliens, while a 40-minute outing might task you with clomping around a large, open landscape and destroying robots’ fuel reserves – and, if you so choose, disrupting communications and other encampments along the way. 

No matter what you get up to, it’s a blast, because the simple act of, well, blasting feels so good. Heck, even watching other players do it feels good; the way chunks of chitin crack off bugs and sheets of twisted metal melt off robots is wildly satisfying. It’s akin to watching a hydraulic press video on YouTube: a visible accumulation of violence culminating in an oh-so-satisfying pop. On top of an armory of rifles, machine guns, shotguns, and explosives, you also have access to stratagems, which are orbitally-dropped goods and services that can turn the tide of battle. They are infinitely reusable, tied only to a cooldown, and crucially, triggered by entering fighting-game-like directional commands. 

That last part ratchets up the tension just so in the middle of a hectic firefight. Say a couple of your squadmates have gone down amidst a sudden, Star Wars-esque robot incursion, and you find yourself frantically on the backfoot. Health bar ticking down, you fumble at the command for reinforcements – which allows your squadmates to respawn by dropping in again – even as it’s displayed on your screen. Up, down, right, left, dow– no, shit. Up, down, right, right– fuck! Then, at the last second, you nail it just before you, yourself, get blown to smithereens.

Skirmishes are almost always at least a little overwhelming and regularly see you walk a knife’s edge between dominant destruction and panicked survival. This is where Helldivers 2’s true brilliance lies: As a result of the game’s capacity to overwhelm, you simply can’t go it alone. You’ve got to stick together, whether you’re playing with friends or a crew of complete randos. Silently and mechanically, the game undergirds this idea every step of the way. Stratagems almost always impact your team, one way or another. The resupply stratagem calls down enough ammo for everybody; if you help yourself, you’re helping your team. Reinforce is your best backdoor out of a desperate situation; if you help your team, you’re helping yourself. Even screen-filling orbital strikes and nuke-like attacks can reduce your teammates to smoldering, limbless heaps – which is not advisable, but is very funny. 

Which brings us to Helldivers 2’s other great strength: It’s hilarious, and it knows it. The premise and writing are strong, but again, mechanics do so much of the heavy lifting here. Being able to quickly revive teammates after accidentally dropping the full fury of Super Earth’s space armada on them means such outcomes produce laughs rather than rages. Even the game’s name is a double entendre: It refers to both the way your ship pods punch into planets at the start of every mission and a magnificently silly-looking dive-into-prone-position ability that the game encourages you to use liberally. Bugs nipping at your heels? Dive and then scramble away. Giant bug barfing flesh-melting acid in your face? Dive backward like a clumsy, screaming Max Payne. Terrain is often uneven, so you’ll find yourself unintentionally diving off large hills and small cliffs, to bone-crunching results. 

But Helldivers 2 is generous: These falls don’t usually kill you. They just do a little damage, heightening the sense that you are an underprepared, over-propagandized recruit who’s been hurled into a meat grinder by an uncaring military apparatus. Sound effects back this up; characters regularly freak out and scream things like “SAY HELLO TO DEMOCRACY” and “MY LEGS” while shooting at enemies and being sliced to ribbons, respectively. 

So basically, Helldivers 2 is a playable version of Starship Troopers, with subtext included. It’s unrelentingly stupid in so many smart ways. There’s live-service stuff, but it’s blessedly optional. This is how you make a co-op shooter in 2024. I foresee myself losing a lot of time to this one in the next few weeks – and a lot more sleep.      

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