Helldivers 2 Review

Folks, I'm not the oldest gamer out there, but I've been gaming longer than most, and I've been at it since only shortly after I could walk and talk. From the Atari days to DOS PCs, onto MMORPGs, modern consoles, and the Steam era, I've been there through all of it - but I've never seen a game quite like Helldivers 2. Having played the first game by developer Arrowhead Game Studios (a much more isometric affair that was much easier to consider as a lower-budget game) along with plenty of other cooperative, four-player shooters on both PC and consoles, I've had my fair share of memorable times gaming with buddies in horde modes and similar experiences. 

Right off the bat, Helldivers 2 puts off a snarky, over-the-type pretend fascist vibe all about spreading "managed democracy" at the end of a gun barrel. You won't be terrorizing innocent humans - instead you'll be exterminating large armored insectoid aliens called the Terminids and a civilization of sentient Terminator-like machines called the Automatons - but for those looking for a little tongue-in-cheek allegory pointing to real life, then yeah, you'll definitely find some of that here.

With lots of faux-super-patriotic jingles and catchphrases (which certainly serve as tongue-in-cheek commentary on authoritarianism and fascism, just like the 90s cult classic film Starship Troopers did), overwhelming amounts of firepower levied at increasingly insurmountable enemy spawns on higher difficulties, plenty of opportunity for hilarious mishaps with your buddies leading to copious amounts of watercooler-moment-worthy friendly fire and accidental deaths, and many laugh-out-loud moments of insanity, Helldivers 2 delivers a much-needed injection of pure fun that's been missing for years in the online co-op shooter space. This is one of the most instantly meme-able games I've seen in a long time, and even though its release didn't come entirely out of nowhere for me like it did for many players, its runaway success has taken almost everyone by surprise, its developers included.

Suit up, Helldiver

After a short, if insufficient tutorial that sets the stage for an experience that's pulled right out of Starship Troopers, you'll be sent off on your own ship to run missions to fight the bugs and robots through an array of objectives like destroying nests, blowing up eggs, terminating pirate broadcasts, eliminating huge bosses, rescuing civilians, generating seismic data, and launching missiles. On higher difficulties, some of these become multi-stage objectives that require hitting points on the map and engaging in several steps while there, sometimes all in a specific order. You'll get some random generation in the form of mapp arrangement, enemy spawns, and the placement of samples and other currency throughout a map that, if you collect it and get out with it, you can spend it on new unlocks back at your ship. 

Weapons are all unlocked and equipped with your loadout, not looted like a Diablo game with randomly generated properties attached, which means there's no grind for perfectly-rolled gear or anything remotely like that. All you're doing is putting together a set - hopefully one that complements your team's choices and works with the mission you're going on - of guns, armor, and "stratagems" (called-in bombardments and heavy weapons) so that you can unleash hell on the bugs and bots. 

Oh, and hell you will bring, because you're going to have to just to survive and complete the mission. From airstrikes to cluster bombs, napalm to huge bombs and on to orbital lasers and mini-nukes, the kind of fire you can call down from the sky is truly impressive. But you'll need it: missions can take upwards of 40 minutes to complete and on higher difficulties can throw thousands of enemies at you, dozens or even hundreds at a time across the entire map in a four-player game. 

The arsenal you carry is no slouch, either: fiery and explosive sniper, SMG, rifle, and shotgun weapons round out the primary weapons, with revolvers and machine pistols serving as sidearms. Support weapons include machine guns, railguns, grenade launchers, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, laser beams, cannons, electricity-throwing arc launchers, and more. And finally, as a backpack item, players can strap extra ammo, a shield generator, or a module for a flying drone to their back that will shoot at enemies independently of their own movement and gunfire. 

Time to Spread Democracy

All of this hardware is truly going to be necessary, because as players move from difficulties 1 up through to 9, the fights go from easy to manageable to butt-clenching to downright untenable to stand your ground during.  By the time you're on the highest difficulty, you'll be running from point to point with dozens of enemies in chase, having given up on actually trying to kill everything you see, desperately trying to complete objectives and extract before your team runs out of reinforcements (which work like a big pool of extra lives for the whole team). 

Sure, on even the toughest missions you'll occasionally be able to stop and take a stand here and there to put down a pesky Charger or Tank in order to be able to complete an objective - which for some objectives is absolutely necessary if you want a shot at finishing it without getting mauled - but as you rise up in difficulty, you'll realize that more and more fights simply must be avoided or retreated from if you want to get anywhere. 

Regardless, the developers have ensured that progression through the difficulty modes is a fairly smooth curve, with increasingly overwhelming numbers of tougher enemies at inopportune times, all combined with tougher mission parameters (often ones that mess with your ability to quickly and accurately call down strategems), rather than the simply pushing you into identical missions as lower-difficulty ones with the only change being the enemies now take less damage and deal out more. There is just a bit of that in Helldivers 2, but the bigger challenge, thankfully, comes from elsewhere.

Instead, higher difficulties will give you more complex missions with more objectives, higher chances at optional additions that can ruin players' day, and challenging modifiers that force players out of their comfort zones of just dumping ordnance from the sky on every group of enemies they see. This forces players to adapt and puts them in a state of perpetual near-desperation, creating a kind of adrenaline rush that I think has been missing from too many games for too long.One thing you'll quickly figure out is that the game's missions and enemy spawns are not decided via basic scripting - everything is conditional and dependent on where players are, what difficulty the mission is set on, and what progress has been made on the mission so far. Sprinkle in some randomness, and I think you'll be pleased to find that the game is predictable enough to not feel entirely random, but yet still just random enough so that you don't always know precisely what's going to happen.

"AA" Games and how it applies here

Helldivers 2 has a $40 price tag and was made with a more modest development budget that the gaming world often deems "AA" - where the development was a bit too expensive to be a true "indie" game for most studios to fund themselves, but still not so expensive to make that the price tag has to be the full seventy bucks. With many of the biggest-name games costing several hundreds of millions of dollars, where publishers desperately need to sell millions of copies just to break even, we have seen some very boring and safe decisions get made in order to try and ensure the publisher at least makes their money back.

And while it's pretty clear where our forty bucks went on Helldivers 2 - the graphics we see here aren't the pinnacle of eye-melting visuals (although the effects on some planets are nice, and the interplay of light and smoke can sometimes be very nice), and we don't have any celebrity actors or big crossovers - I still think most playing this game will find this game to be quite impressive visually, with a presentation that matches its intentions. From the range of planets to battle on to the sheer size and number of enemies that get thrown at players on higher difficulties, it can still be quite the visual spectacle, and if the game's price tag was $50 or maybe a bit more, I don't think a lot of gamers would scoff - that is, that's assuming the game would've still caught on and sold like it actually has, and it might not have at a higher price.

But the reality is that few game studios large or small will ever put together a $40 game that is this good or successful, even just one time in their entire existence. It certainly didn't hurt to have a big company like Sony bankroll the development of this game, and the result is something a bit unique - a Sony-funded simultaneous release on PS5 and on PC (via Steam) with full cross-play on day one. And having Sony foot the bill for the years of development I'm sure still wasn't cheap, but I imagine it has to be nice knowing a smash hit, at least this time, cost Sony a fraction of what it did most of its other exclusive games.

One other plus side is, this is a very positive result of a Sony experiment in releasing a game on both PC and PS5 at once, instead of doing their usual staggered release where they delay the PC port by 2-3 years or more. Hopefully we see more of that, as it seems Sony has noticed that the Steam gaming community has generally been a profitable and positive one to court - assuming they employ developers that know the PC market and make games this community will immediately jump into without reservation - and any game that offers good multiplayer value and seems to offer good value on day one, like this one does, is always going to be a good candidate.

The Dreaded Live Service Game

Now, Helldivers 2 is still a live service game, but it avoids some of the pitfalls of the practice by allowing the premium currency to flow generously for those who aren't paying additional dollars for it, to the point that the Super Credits are actually strewn about nearly every mission in little crates, crashed pods, and bunkers. Additionally, by staging everything as a galactic war with moving fronts that is directed by the developers at Arrowhead (rather than a set of canned automated events that just follow a predictable schedule of real-life holidays), they keep things fresh and feeling like it's not the most transparent psychological exploit of a fear of missing out on daily objectives and such. In addition, the way Arrowhead will very occasionally pepper in some of their in-development content into people's games causes rumors to spread and people to record and share clips of these discoveries, too. It's a brilliant way to generate hype for new gear and even enemies to fight.

The first new post-release content was released a couple weeks back in the way of a second mini-battle-pass that includes new gear unlocks. Unlocking this gear requires more Super Credits, but they can be earned mid-mission in addition to being bought with real cash, and the rate of earning them in missions is so good that ponying up real money is kind of silly because even if you do, you'll still also need to earn the medals from completing missions and scouring maps to unlock individual pieces in there, too - and dollars won't buy those.

Still, whether all of this it's going to stay this way or not in the future, or whether Arrowhead will start charging more real money for things that players actually will use on the battlefield, I don't know. But I have to imagine that at this rate, very few players are spending real money on the game's Super Credits currency, especially since that only buys armor variants that have stats you can get through regular play as well. (They could be buying the armors with the Super Credits, I suppose, but none of them really stand out that much visually, and like I mentioned, they just range through a small selection of abilities on the armors seen on the standard unlocks too.)

If greed gets the best of the developers and things take a turn for the worse as far as what costs real money, I imagine that will come long after most of us will have gotten bored of the game and moved on. But it's hard to tell how much control Arrowhead vs. Sony has over what, and what Sony's interest is in all of this, especially with the millions of copies this game is selling. Are they just stunned and bewildered by the runaway success of this game and don't know what to do with it? Did they put poison pills in their contract they're about to open up to start trying to extract cash from a PC playerbase they may or may not much care to keep happy? Are they just happy to be here, taking the $40 base price for a well-made game, excited to keep the party going? It's hard to tell. 

Either way, once they come to their senses, I will say that Sony generally doesn't mind leaving some of their published games alone without having to go and try to squeeze money out of every player, so let's hope this game is one of those.


Simply put, Helldivers 2 is built such that it's not really intended to have an endgame the way that something like an MMORPG does, or even how many other live service games are doing things. What I like about it is that it focuses less on the destination and more on the journey - by injecting early features into live games and making life "cheap" (as in, giving players lots of reinforcements in every mission and keeping incoming damage for players pretty high), having experimental things come in and just wreck players doesn't ruin their day like it would some. There's no hardcore mode here, no one's worried about their kill/death ratio, and everyone's died to what feels like basically nothing in this game - sometimes multiple times per mission. 

With the developers building all of that as a foundation for a place that's still somewhere that we can all have fun, they've put together a playground to spawn, kill, and die in and allow players to not worry about having to be "on" all the time - which to me is a nice change from Battle Royale games and other competitive team-based games. It also allows the developers more room to goof around, and then introduce new things into a small number of player sessions before even officially adding them to the game, adding interest and excitement every time.

But back to "endgame" and those who insist on that term - simply put, this game doesn't have an endgame currently, and so far it doesn't need it in my opinion. There are 50 levels you can gain XP to rise through, but past level 25, there's nothing but titles to achieve. I mean, did Gears of War's Horde mode have an "endgame"? Did Left 4 Dead have one? Of course not! It was just a game you got on and played with your friends, because it was fun to play. And while there's progression here, and new things are getting released regularly, Helldivers 2 is carefully built to sidestep the endgame-oriented ARPG mentality that we've come to center around with games like Diablo 4 and even stuff like Borderlands 3.

My Life for Super Earth

Either way, Helldivers 2 supplies a great game you can play alone or with others (I highly recommend the latter) along with an addictive gameplay loop of chaotic and challenging fun where no two missions go the same. With a large range of difficulty levels that start out at a walk into the park and end in a complete charlie-foxtrot deathtrap, there's going to be something in there that most players will find on just the right level of comfy-to-challenging that will keep you coming back. 

And as you unlock new ordnance, weapons and tactics, those difficulty levels will feel like they can open up quite a bit and you'll feel comfort at higher and higher levels - although that'll probably taper off long before you get anywhere near the highest. And for my part, after over 100 hours played almost daily since the game's release, I can say I'm still excited to jump in most nights and contribute to the insanity with my buddies each day. When will that dry up? I'm not sure, but for now, I'm not worried about that. Bugs and bots need to be eliminated.