“Come on you apes! Do you want to live forever” – Helldivers; how Sony is redefining the isometric shooter.
Heavily influenced by Robert. A. Heinlein’s novel ‘Starship Troopers’, this Playstation exclusive- first announced at Gamescom- is developed by Stockholm based Arrowhead studios (the creators of PC title Magicka). Informed by classic twin stick shooter franchises like Contra and Metal Slug, Helldivers incorporates familiar mechanics from other franchises to produce a new gameplay experience.
Players are placed into the role of an elite military unit known as a Helldiver (comparable to Halo’s ODST), set in a future dystopia where Earth is ruled by a managed democracy and Mankind fights for its very existence (this aspect of the narrative directly informs the games unique dynamic difficulty). The isometric design is reminiscent of last year’s Shadowrun Returns; but rather than the neo-noir cyber punk aesthetic, Helldivers opts for the more industrial militaristic look of 1980’s Science fiction (The ships are evocative of the U.S.S Sulaco from Aliens). The procedurally generated environments run the gamut; from barren wastes where the deep and driving snow can slow your characters movement to white hot desert planets their surface cracked and scorched by the sun, with dynamic day and night missions the bright colour palette contrasts with the gun-metal grey of the Helldivers making these worlds feel even more foreign.
From your ship- hovering ominously over a planet- players explore the available missions through a Mass Effect style galaxy map. Almost roguelike in their structure missions require players to complete a number of procedurally generated objectives before extracting, with no checkpoints or do-overs this adds a sense of weight to your actions. Much like in modern FPS games, here you can kit out your Helldiver with your preferred loadout of: weapons, perks and stratagems (more of which are persistently unlocked as you level up your character) before dropping in from orbit (players can actively choose their dropzone). Played cooperatively with up to three other players, Helldivers is the first title I’ve seen to really promote cross-play (available on all three of Sony’s gaming devices), while at the same time it heralds the return of couch co-op (With the prevalence of online multiplayer there’s a sense of nostalgia that comes with playing games split screen with friends next to you and It’s encouraging to see a developer fostering that communal experience) to which the inherent challenge of the game seems a natural fit. The constant threat of friendly fire on the chaotic battlefield (which much like playing hardcore mode in call of duty cannot be turned off) necessitates teamwork. Death can come from anywhere; supply drops can crush players unlucky enough to be caught underneath them (something anyone whose recently played Titanfall will be familiar with), even friendly equipment can pose a threat (turrets can’t distinguish between you or an enemy should you walk in front of them). To help balance this players are locked onto the same screen (even when playing on a vita) allowing for greater coordination and less “accidents”. This sense of tension is compounded by the pressure to perform manual reloads and call in stratagems in the heat of battle. Stratagems- think Call of Duty’s care packages- range from calling in extra ammunition or reinforcements to requesting heavy ordinance or a unwieldy but powerful mech (these are done through a complex series of inputs on the D-pad comparable to pulling off moves in fighting games). Like Medal of Honour Warfighter’s ‘global war’ meta game, each mission feeds into an overarching intergalactic war which takes place over a two month period. If the community manages to pull together and survive then the difficulty for everyone will rise and the war begins anew, should they fail the difficulty will drop (this is an exciting new way to handle difficulty in games that I certainly haven’t seen before).
Destined to become a cult hit amongst its community, Helldivers is a rich homage to the shooter genre but with modern sensibilities and I can’t wait to play it when it releases sometime this summer.