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Helldivers review

 

In the future, social anxiety will be weaponised. That is to say, in the future, social anxiety will have a lot to use whatever weapons you'll be carrying around. Helldivers is actually a top-down shooter for up to four players, and it sees you blasting your path through procedurally-made alien worlds as a cheery space fascist, spreading Managed Democracy across the universe. So, far, so Heinlein. But this is also the latest game from Magicka developer Arrowhead Game Studios - aright and studio, whose logo shows an arrow going through somebody's head. In other words, you should expect a few quirks. The biggest of these is friendly fire: it is so terribly easy to shoot your own team-mates in Helldivers. It's so terribly easy to be shot by your own team-mates. Or stepped on by them if they've unlocked mechs. Hell really is other people.

Friendly fire's what I fear when I drop into play, screaming out of orbit, gun ready, grenades primed. I'm not worried about the bug hunt, although it's relentless. I'm not worried about my part in a wider galactic war, or even the obvious ethical problems with my mission. I'm worried about the inevitable court-martial - or game boot - when I do something stupid. Stupidity can be terribly swift, too. The other day I decided to head into multiplayer, and I landed in a map just as a heroic Helldiving stranger was finishing off what had clearly been an epic one-man stand while he waited for evac. Sadly, dear reader, I squashed him flat with my falling Hellpod. It is hard to make up for something like that, so I simply leapt into the evac ship that he had called, and disappeared back into single-player as swiftly as I could.

Multiplayer is full of this stuff. Helldivers is ultimately a game about panic: your four-man team is never landing on a planet to wipe out all members of the game's three alien races and clear the map. Instead, you're there to do purposefully infuriating little missions - readying a missile launcher, priming an oil pump, escorting survivors to a bunker, protecting a rocket as it prepares to launch. If you're familiar with the brew-your-own-spells system that brings Magicka to chaotic life, you'll know the kind of dexterity that's required - and then a lot of waiting around while a timer ticks down, whatever shape they take, missions generally involve frantic matching of complex d-pad prompts as you interact with terminals -. It's all about busywork and holding territory as you fend off waves of critters of varying sizes. These critters come at you endlessly, too. You will never clear them all. You just have to plug away at them as efficiently as you can, taking them out before they raise the alarm, prioritising the bigger guys over the smaller guys, and not shooting any friendlies as you go. Total panic. If you don't take a few comrades with you when you expire, you're not really playing Helldivers as it's meant to be played.

Needless to say, multiplayer is the heart of the game. It's where the real tension lurks, as you try to not be the guy who scrubs the mission three mini-objectives in. Multiplayer's pretty wonderfully supported, too, offering local play and online match-making with a minimum of fuss.

Single-player isn't a wash-out, however. It's just different. The rules are the same, the missions are unchanged, and it's still all about those waves, but the emphasis is completely distinct. After all, you can chug through pretty much anything the game throws at you with four well coordinated players. As a lone wolf, you need to be a lot more strategic.

Example. While Helldivers basically operates like a fancy twin-stick shooter, the endless ammo of Robotron is but a distant memory. Clips are short and stringently rationed. You have a back-up weapon and a melee move, but a lot of your offensive options come in the form of stratagems: equipment, abilities or specific one-shot attacks that you can call down to the field by entering - you guessed it - a complex string of d-pad commands.

And so the real long-game appeal lies in the Galactic War, a system that's fuelled by both single-player and multiplayer progression, and which sees the entire community reaching out from a central Super Earth in a bid to wipe out the game's three alien races. You do this by completing levels to conquer planets that are spread across different regions of space. Each planet has its own difficulty setting and its own reward in terms of an unlock, and if successfully overrun, it will give you a handful of influence points that go towards the overall effort and the push towards each alien home world. In reality, there's not that much to worry about - just play your missions and you're contributing to a bit of persistent fun for everyone - but it does give the game a real sense of character as the galactic map ripples forth and back in terms of ownership, and you're occasionally called in to either storm an alien stronghold or defend your own home.

The first Galactic War ended halfway through this review, incidentally, and it didn't end well. Super Earth fell to the alien hordes, the credits rolled, and then the whole thing reset. I can't blame the alien hordes, really: with our jackboots and four-person tanks, it's hard to pretend that you're playing as the good guy here. (Even within the ranks of the baddies it's still possible to be especially naff, incidentally. Stumbling and frequently confused, I would pitch my own contribution to the war effort somewhere between tragic and accidentally subversive.)

All of this stuff is powered by procedural generation, as missions spin up their own little arenas, spread across a range of terrain types, all of them bleak but starkly pretty, from wind-swept deserts to rotting jungles. The enemies themselves aren't bad, either, scaling from crustacean-themed bugs to spindly, blown-glass robots, each with their own quirks. The star of the show isn't your foes, though, and it certainly isn't the fascist 'goodies' you're cast as in this knockabout imperialist satire. The star of the show is the panic that's generated as you head into adventure, knowing that you're this close to screwing everything up for your team in a darkly hilarious manner.