SUPER EARTH. Just think about that name for a second. An Earth that's so genuinely awesome that it's been declared SUPER by its inhabitants. This is the Earth presented by Helldivers, a sci-fi twin stick shooter created by Arrowhead Game Studios, and it is here to bring Managed Democracy to every other civilization in the galaxy, whether they want it or not.
What is Managed Democracy? Well, in the Helldivers future, the act of voting has been distilled down to a test administered by computer, at which point, your answers are tallied and your votes are essentially cast for the rest of your life. It's an easy system that takes the thought out of public service, and if you listen to the wonderful Starship Troopers-esque propaganda trailer that plays as an introduction, easy, thoughtless service is exactly what Super Earth needs.
As the government would have its citizens believe, Super Earth is at the center of a galaxy spanning war with three fronts. The first enemy is the classic sci-fi “Bug,” a race of giant insects concerned with nothing but propagating their species by consuming others. The second is an advanced culture called the Illuminates, and the third is a breakaway faction of humans who believe that the Super Earth government has brainwashed its citizenry (perish the thought!) and as such, they have turned to technology and become Cyborgs, because I guess that proves their point.
Super Earth's answer to the threats at their cosmic doorstep is the Helldiver, an elite space marine equipped with an arsenal of heavy weaponry and a variety of stylish capes befitting any occasion. While it's possible for a Helldiver to work solo, they are at their best in groups of four, each of them wreaking havoc and tearing ass across a distant planet. Weapons are unlocked as your Helldiver levels up, and they cover your normal range of shotguns to sniper rifles, with the occasional laser beam sprinkled in between.
Beyond the handheld weaponry, Helldivers also come outfitted with a number of stratagems, or special ordinance, which can be called down from orbit by way of the same type of drop pods that deposited the requester. Stratagems range anywhere from simple ammo drops, heavy ordinance, to things like armed tanks and mech-like suits. Just like handheld weapons, these special call downs can be improved by way of research points, with most allowing for two to three levels of improvement. With that level of arsenal behind them, Helldivers perform their missions like well oiled machines, spreading truth, justice, and the Super Earth way like invulnerable super soldiers.
Well, at least that's how Super Earth sells it. Such missions start with the Helldivers dropping in from orbit, and are supposed to end with the whole squad loading into a jump ship for evacuation from the planet surface, but in between, all but the best Helldivers will suffer from an awful, awful amount of death. You see, like the wizards of Magicka, Arrowhead's last multiplayer game, friendly fire among Helldivers is a very real and very dangerous thing. In fact, you will die more often at the hands of your fellow squad mates then anything else in you face on those alien planets. Be it errant shots in the heat of battle, or one of the myriad of stratagems cascading down from the sky only to land on your head, death comes especially quick in Helldivers. It is brutal, bloody, and more often then not embarrassing, especially in a crew of people who may or may not be paying attention.
Because of this, the amount of success derived from actually being a team player is refreshing. With everyone forced to stay on the same screen, and where the smallest lapse in judgment can mean instant death, I was worried about having to rely on “the internet” to protect Super Earth's galactic interests. Thankfully, the majority of people I played with understood what was at stake, and only rarely did a rogue, "I'm going to do this myself" commando-type find his way into one of my missions. It didn't stop me from dying, from either walking into someone else's line of fire or mistaking the quickly expanding shadow of a incoming stratagem for anything else I could possibly be standing in. Hell, I even fell victim to the old "sure it's safe to hid under the approaching jump ship" thought. It's not, by the way. Not safe at all. Thankfully, despite all the death, as long as one Helldiver remains alive, the others can be summoned back by way of drop pod.
Hidden in the deep well of team play, though, is a true lack of any real single player action. While it's possible to venture out on missions alone, working into the higher difficulties by yourself is a herculean effort, requiring luck and tremendous amounts of patience. The skilled, or the masochistic, may find satisfaction lone wolfing it, but its clear that this is meant for team play, and the few times I did venture in alone felt incredibly lacking.
With all the excitement exhibited by the gameplay, it's a little sad to see that so little is paid to the missions themselves. Each system you can travel to consists of ten different planets, each one serving as a different difficulty level that ranges from “You should be able to do this yourself” to “HAHA Nope!” Within that difficulty though, are only a handful of different mission types. You have your standard kill missions, your blow this thing up missions, and even escort missions (why are these still a thing?) but none of them stand out, and everything, planet and all, are forgettable once your team has finished with whatever they came to do. The same can be attributed to the overall story as well. Despite my love of interesting word combinations and my inane fascination with game lore, there is very little here that hasn't been touched on previously. I would love to have seen Arrowhead dive in a bit deeper then just a codex and a few written words to get you on the road to conquering the galaxy. I mean, for a planet that is supposed to be controlling it's population, there is a surprising lack of space-borne propaganda to remind the Helldiver what it is he or she is dying for.
Despite those small story issues, Helldivers conquers its fair share of stars. For those with a team waiting, the delicious bits of gun-based carnage will far outweigh any and all feelings that come with the “oh, we're doing this again” doldrums, and even those without steady play friends will find enough camaraderie within the matchmaking to make Super Earth proud. Because in the end, if we can't make Super Earth proud, what are we really living for?
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!