If you told me that a top down shooter might turn into one of my favourite games of 2015, I’d call you insane, take your lunch money and maybe even give you a wedgie. That might seem harsh, but hey, I’m a big believer in tough love. Either way, it would have been both harsh and totally uncalled for given the fact that, yes, one of my favourite games of 2015 is very likely to be a top down shooter. I appreciate that we are still very early in the year, but such is the fun that I’ve had with Helldivers that I would be genuinely amazed if it doesn’t end up in my top 10 games of the year.
Let me make this clear though – the joy of Helldivers is tricky to explain. If I take you through the finer points (which I invariably will), there is every chance that it will start to sound like a solid if somewhat bog standard co-op shooter, and while that is true in terms of its base mechanics, it is ultimately an array of small but perfectly pitched minor touches that combine to make Helldivers so much more than it really had any right to be.
At its core, helldivers is a co-op top down shooter for up to 4 players. The immediate aesthetic is a combination Destiny and, well, Halo I suppose. Needless to say, it’s very Bungie, but sadly, unlike Bungie’s finest, Helldivers lacks the artistic flair that make both of those series quite so memorable. It’s true that imposing a genuinely memorable art style on a top down shooter is notoriously difficult (case in point; Halo: Spartan Assault), but even with expectations lowered, Helldivers randomly created landscapes are both boring and disappointingly bland. They’re never offensively ugly and the chunky art design does give everything a pleasing weight, just don’t go expecting anything particularly memorable from Helldivers relatively liberal selection of worlds.
“But wait, didn’t you just say how much you loved this game?”. Yes, yes I did, and despite the disappointing art design, I’m keeping to my story. Sure, the forgettable aesthetic isn’t ideal, but it’s just about the only downer on what is an otherwise exemplary gaming experience and arguably my favourite PS4 exclusive to date (please note that Helldivers is a cross buy title and also comes on PS3 and Vita).
The first thing you are likely to notice about Helldivers is how similar it is in tone to Paul Verhoeven’s trashy but really rather brilliant, Starship Troopers. Beyond the simple fact that one of the three “enemy” races are simply referred to as ‘bugs’, Helldivers also leans heavily on heavy handed but largely successful political satire. It’s unlikely to win any prizes for its script but this playful satire plays in beautifully to Helldivers meta game – an on-going cooperative online war with the aim of protecting Super Earth (yep, that’s what it is actually called) by moving the front deeper into the territory of the 3 main enemy types; the Bugs, the Cyborgs and the, well, high tech alien types. It’s hardly Total War, but the implementation is pitch perfect and successfully implies the sense that you are part of a larger on-going war.
Once you do fire down for a particular mission, the basics are immediately recognisable and, as always, playing with friends is far more entertaining than going solo. With very open-ended mission design, the tactical options for you and your group of battle hardened compadres are surprisingly varied with the high difficulty level of enemies and limited ammunition often forcing you to go beyond the simple run and gun routine that is often so prevalent in games of this ilk. The actual mission goals aren’t that varied, but the way in which you can deal with them are – extractions in particular can be hugely entertaining with many descending from brilliant tactical victories into complete and utter farce at the drop of a hat (or an ammo crate). It’s amazing how often an otherwise well-planned escape is often ruined by a moment of madness that sees your entire team going down in a blaze of infuriating but ultimately entertaining glory.
These moments of madness often come about due to two very important design choices – 1) The fact that friendly fire is always on, and 2) the introduction of ‘Stratagems’ that add a surprising amount of depth to the combat while often inadvertently adding to the mayhem on screen. While the madness incurred by friendly fire is rather self-explanatory, it’s often the introduction of stratagems that truly throws the cat amongst the pgeons. While they range from simple ammunition drops to large scale artillery strikes, as they are dropped from orbit, these care packages can (and often will ) land directly upon the head of a friendly fighter. You can see the drop coming and there is a timer linked to its arrival too, but in the heat of battle, it’s amazing how often you’ll fail to notice both the timer and the looming shadow above your head. It’s genuinely amazing how many times a decent plan has come undone due to a damned weapons crate landing on my head.
The turrets are even worse. While absolutely invaluable to large scale battles, these turrets will cut you down if you are in the way, and with the potential for four on-screen at any one time, the chances of friendly fire quickly escalate. Yes, you can go prone, but that slows you down, so as you can imagine, crawling around on the deck isn’t ideal in the long run. Add the fact that stratagems are only dropped via surprisingly complex d-pad inputs, and sometimes, even getting them on the field can get you killed. It might seem like a relatively simplistic input at a glance, but with no ammo and enemies bearing down on your position, that 6 input d-pad code can take forever.
It may be visually bland at times, but the gameplay is anything but. At its core, this is a standard top down co-op shooter, but thanks to some very clever design choices by Arrowhead Game Studios, Helldivers is transformed into one of the finest games currently available on PS4 thanks largely to some of the best local co-op since Diablo 3. Solid if played solo, brilliant when experienced online and absolutely fantastic when played locally with friends, Helldivers combines tactical nuance with unpredictable design and brutally unforgiving combat to great effect. Top down shooters appeared to run out of steam towards the end of the last generation, but Arrowhead Game Studios have proved rather unequivocally that smart design can breathe new life into even the most stagnant of genres.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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