Helldivers II seems like a great co-op game. I had a lot of fun blasting giant bugs and mechanical soldiers for a few hours in Arrowhead Game Studios’ upcoming shooter, calling down airstrikes and screeching with laughter after accidental friendly fire transformed good intentions into hilarious deaths.
Much of Helldivers II builds on the formula of its 2015 predecessor. You play as ordinary soldiers who ODST-drop down onto procedurally generated planets, fighting to defend the dystopian democracy that is Super Earth. Friendly fire is always on–between that and the dangerous alien threats you face, you’ll die plenty of times, redeploying on the battlefield as a new soldier ready to give their life for the cause. Prior to each mission, you determine your loadout, including what special armaments and heavy artillery you may want to call in when things get bad, like air strikes, deployable turrets, and rocket launchers. When the mission is finished, you call in a dropship and defend the landing sight until your ride arrives.
The big shift between Helldivers II and the first game is the perspective. While the original Helldivers was a top-down shooter, its sequel is an over-the-shoulder third-person shooter (with the option to go first-person while aiming down sights).
This puts a heavier emphasis on action and ludicrous destruction: aspects the first game certainly had but which were tempered by the ability to easily see where all your allies and enemies were standing at a given time. It’s easier to be tactical with a top-down view. This shift in perspective forces you to make judgment calls without being able to see behind you. Could GameSpot video producer Aaron Sampson see me aiming down sights with a sniper rifle when he sidestepped right in front of me? No, because I was behind him. Could I notice that he was walking into my line of fire right as I was pulling the trigger? No, because my entire field of view was condensed to a narrow sniper scope.
You don’t get moments like that in a top-down shooter. Your squad doesn’t almost leave you behind because they could not see that you were being held up by monstrous insects behind them. You don’t have missions go south because your teammate blind-tosses an air strike while sprinting away from a giant robot. Everything is just more frantic and intense when your perspective is restricted by over-the-shoulder, and it makes missions increasingly nail-biting as a result. Improvisation has always been a part of Helldivers’ DNA, but Helldivers II ups the ante by giving players more dangerous and explosive options while simultaneously decreasing how much information each player can take in at any given moment. It’s glorious fun, and I had a genuine blast for the couple of hours I had to play it.
“With the shift to the third-person–and I completely agree with the baseline sentiment that if you were to have a game that is appreciated with a community, keep building on that one. But when we started thinking about what we’re going to do next after Helldivers, we had this desire to make something that was first-person or third-person–to see how well our design philosophy is translated into that perspective and not just in the top-down perspective,” Arrowhead Games Studio CEO Johan Pilestedt told me. “So when we started talking about that, we just took the camera in Helldivers 1 and just moved it down to a third-person perspective and it’s like, ‘Yeah, this has something. We can really work with this.'”
He continued: “And the further we got into that, the more excitement we got around the potential of the project. And I think the main differentiating factor is that we wanted to, of course, retain some of the key features from Helldivers–the Strategem system, the co-op, the friendly fire always being on and so forth, and the entire philosophy behind it. But we really wanted to go heavy into the intensity, the viscerality, and also the slapstick humor that naturally happens as you play the game. So those are the things that we thought were something that we could really double down on in a sequel.”
Helldivers II feels like playing as a character in something like Alien or Starship Troopers. And not the badass hero characters who survive impossible odds and save the day–you’re the background nobodies getting blown to bits. Each match feels pretty quick too. Our quickest mission wrapped up in about 20 minutes while our longest took closer to 35 minutes. That’s a dangerous window of time for me–I’ve lost hours of my life to games like Apex Legends and Knockout City, where the short match length makes it so damn easy to just say, “Okay, one more game.” Though, in Helldivers II’s case, the studio designed it that way to help players not drop tons of hours into the game at a time.
“I’m generally a big fan of the session-based games where you know that [you] can play a match and it takes at most 40 minutes or something like that, especially given my schedule and everybody else’s schedules–we’re all getting older,” Pilestedt said. “Everybody has kids nowadays or a dog that needs walking or a job that they need to pay attention to. Time is at a premium, so it’s always nice to be able to have those kinds of games where we can get together and play one or two sessions.”
I think the coolest aspect of Helldivers II could ultimately be the Game Master, the omnipresent force in the game that controls the armies invading Super Earth space. As you and your squad complete missions, you’ll impact the war effort on the planets you’re fighting on, determining whether Super Earth successfully defends its territory. As the game continues post-launch, these efforts will have tangible effects on the make-up of the galaxy, changing where alien armies focus their intentions and adjusting what strategies they deploy during missions. These adjustments are handled by Helldivers II’s Game Master, similarly to how a Game Master oversees the campaign of a tabletop game. Only instead of handling a group of four to six friends at a table, the Game Master is responding to an entire community of players.
“We have one guy that [we] hired [to be the] Game Master: That’s his job title,” Pilestedt said “He’s really into games and he’s a really experienced designer that’s really into tabletop games, and I’m a huge fan [of tabletop games] myself. And a lot of the design values that we have for Helldivers II comes through in the way that we think about [tabletop games] or the way that tabletop games work.”
I joked with Pilestedt that–as my friend group’s go-to GM for Dungeons & Dragons, Kids on Brooms, or Candela Obscura–I bet I know how Helldivers II’s Game Master feels, and he responded that that comparison might be truer than I think. For Helldivers II, Arrowhead wanted to capture that sensation of camaraderie amongst the players–like an adventuring party in D&D–who will undoubtedly mess with the Game Master’s well-structured plans, forcing Arrowhead to adapt and improvise how the narrative of the post-launch experience plays out.
“The way that you [as a tabletop GM] lay out this wonderful adventure and it turns into a farce whenever players get their hands on it,” Pilestedt said. “And that’s the way that we develop our games as well. We set up a premise of, ‘This is what you need to do,’ and then as soon as players start doing it, [the plan] turns into a farce. Players can’t stay serious when playing a game because you know that it’s a video game. And the same thing extrapolates into the way that we look at continuous development and just generally how we entertain the community. So instead of having a group of five people, we’re going to have a group of however large the community is going to be that we need to basically [be the] Game Master for. So it is very much close to that same philosophy. We’ll see how it works. I’m excited about the prospects of it.”
He continued: “A lot of the controls that the Game Master has [are] a lot of on and off switches and stuff like that–they can enable [stuff] on certain planets. So now on this planet, this thing happens and that’s available for a certain period of time. If you’re naive about it or if you go down to brass tacks, it’s similar to what other titles have done before, like, ‘This game mode is only available for this period of time.’ But here, we try to connect [these events] in a narrative way. And I would hope to release updates at least monthly, but maybe if it’s a major update to the game, it’s every three months.”
Helldivers 2 – Warbond: Steeled Veterans Gameplay Trailer
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Like its predecessor, Helldivers II won’t feature any moments of PvP. Sure, you can accidentally (or not so accidentally) shoot an ally thanks to friendly fire, but the entire experience is PvE. “And there’s a good reason for it,” Pilestedt said. “Because there’s so many opportunities to have a PvP mode and so forth, but one of the things that you do when you introduce PvP modes into games is, I believe, that it brings toxicity into the community. And if we look at the Helldivers 1 community, we had such good success in having a very friendly community because it was always [us] as humans versus the aliens. So it’s that united front, no matter if I went to Tokyo or New York or Stockholm and I met somebody that played Helldivers, we know that we’re on the same team. So it’s something that we wanted to retain for this game as well, that sense of camaraderie between everybody that plays this. We’re fighting for Super Earth, even though we’re fighting for a dystopian regime.”
This sense of camaraderie translates into the minute-to-minute gameplay too. A player carrying rockets can load them into an ally’s launcher, saving said ally considerable time on the normally lengthy process of reloading, for example. I really like mechanics like this–they add a greater semblance of teamwork to a mission beyond the scope of everyone all shooting the same enemy a bunch. It also adds value to players who want to take on a more supportive role in the game, giving utility to folks who want to benefit the team but maybe don’t excel with some of the game’s harder-hitting weapons. I hope Helldivers II builds on mechanics like this and adds additional options to play a supportive role.
“The assisted reload is the primary [mechanic] that has a true [cooperative] interaction in that sense,” Pilestedt said. “Of course, we have the same mechanic where you can heal other players, but in the future, there will be many more true co-op mechanics that make the two people much more efficient together. But there are ‘light’ versions of that [already]. So what I mean by that is, from a philosophical standpoint, when we think about what co-op play is, it’s when you get synergetic effects between two people or three people, so two becomes three or three becomes four. And some of the equipment like the machine gun has that effect, even though it’s not a true game mechanic, in that it has a massive ammo capacity but it takes five or six seconds to reload. So I can hold a lane on my own with that weapon, but as soon as I need to reload, I need help from my friend to cover me while I’m reloading.
Helldivers II sounds like it could be a pretty fun game to play and my time with it has me excited to try the full release. It’s way too soon to tell what sort of staying power Helldivers II will have, or whether the community will support it as vehemently as the one that rallied around the original game. Our industry is stuffed to the gills with popular live-service shooters already, so carving out a space is a tricky prospect. But Helldivers II seems to be the experience that I wanted Anthem to be, and I’ve been looking for a game to fill that void since BioWare decided to give up on it. Maybe, just maybe, Helldivers II could be it.
We’ll find out soon enough. Helldivers II is scheduled to launch for PS5 and PC on February 8.