Players have to know where their teammates are and make sure they’re not hitting each other in the crossfire because friendly fire is always a risk in Helldivers 2.

Players have to know where their teammates are and make sure they’re not hitting each other in the crossfire because friendly fire is always a risk in Helldivers 2. (Sony Interactive Entertainment/TNS)

In the first two months of the new year, one thing became clear: Gamers want titles that offer fresh experiences but with a familiar hook. Palworld became an unexpected hit because it pushed forward a genre that Pokémon pioneered, combining monster taming and collecting with a Minecraft-ish environment.

In the second month, Helldivers 2 took fans by storm because through it Arrowhead Games has accomplished what many high-profile publishers have tried and failed to do: craft a compelling four-player co-op franchise. That wasn’t a process that happened overnight. The team had a solid foundation, building the game from elements of the original top-down shooter.

A reimagined project

For the sequel, Arrowhead fleshed out that vision and reimagined the project as a squad-based third-person shooter. Players take on the role of a Helldiver in command of a starship defending “managed Democracy” and Super Earth against the insectoid Terminids and the mysterious Automaton robots.

Fans of the 1997 film “Starship Troopers” should feel at home with the satiric vibe thrumming through every bit of dialogue. It’s all tongue in cheek as Helldivers fire bullets and shout “How’d you like the taste of freedom” or call in a bombing run while saying “Freedom delivery.” The bravado keeps the mood light because “Helldivers 2” is chaotic, violent and intense.

Helldivers 2 is set on Super Earth, a futuristic version of our planet, in which all of humanity is governed by “managed Democracy.”

Helldivers 2 is set on Super Earth, a futuristic version of our planet, in which all of humanity is governed by “managed Democracy.” (Sony Interactive Entertainment/TNS)

A session begins with players picking a sector to defend. They then head over to a star system with friends or warp in with random strangers. The leader picks a landing spot for the group, and from there, players choose a loadout of four Stratagems, which are tools needed to deal with enemy hordes. Players can call their ship to drop a Shield Generator Pack or a Grenade Launcher, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to firepower.

Pick the right Stratagems for the mission

Other Stratagems allow players to call in an Eagle Airstrike or an Orbital Precision Strike. These require players to toss a marker so that the planes or ship know where to cause mass destruction. If players are on the defense, they can call in turrets to help protect an area. Lastly, players can add on a booster that gives a passive perk to the squad.

With only four slots and a booster, players and their team have to pick the right Stratagems for the job. That often requires them to understand the mission. Some tasks require players to destroy Terminid nests while others are about escorting scientists to safety. Most Stratagems can be useful depending on the situation.

Once players have their loadout, they’re fired into the planet in a Hellpod, which looks like a giant bullet. From there, players have to complete the task but Arrowhead adds twists. First, friendly fire is always a risk. That requires players to be extra careful. They can’t blast enemies willy-nilly because they might kill a teammate. That’s important because squads have a finite number of lives called Reinforcements. Once that number hits zero, players have to wait and stay alive to bring back their buddies.

Interesting choices and surprising depth

Although it seems as though it would add an unwanted layer of difficulty, friendly fire actually makes Helldivers 2 better. It forges a better sense of realism because players have to account where they shoot. When using heavier weapons such as an orbital barrage, they have to tell teammates to scatter because the indiscriminate fire from space will kill them. All of this adds to a shared sense of teamwork, and the game incentivizes that by rewarding players with more Requisition Slips and medals for completing objectives and the mission. If players kill each other, they’re just wasting their time.

The second twist is that calling on the Stratagems takes time and a button sequence. To call for a weapon or bomber, players will need to hold L1 and press a series of buttons on the directional pad. It’s fine when no adversaries are around, but when the Terminid horde comes through, it gets more difficult as players have to fight and find time to input the complex codes. It creates tension, especially during the hectic moments of combat.

Part of the reason for that stress is Helldivers 2’s combat is slower-paced than that of other games. Players will find that running and gunning results in missing the target. It’s best to shoot while prone or kneeling. Helldivers also aren’t the most agile soldiers. The best they can do is a dive while sprinting. There’s no strafing. Players have to fire, run away, turn back, aim and fire again. Again, it’s cumbersome but that adds to the realism.

The biggest issue with Helldivers 2 is the learning curve. It takes a while to get a sense of what each mission asks players to do. Some tasks are outright confusing for newcomers. But they’ll eventually figure out how to collect Samples and gain more Requisition Slips. These two items unlock more powerful upgrades for the Helldiver and the ship, respectively. It’s how players earn new armor or acquire more powerful weapons.

That creates a compelling progression loop. The more fans play, the more weapons they unlock and that opens up new strategies and tools that make the more difficult and rewarding missions easier. After that, players just repeat the process as they explore the game.

The only thing that has held Helldivers 2 back is its popularity. The indie studio wasn’t expecting the avalanche of players and fans that had a hard time logging in for the first few days of launch. That has been improving, and it leaves Arrowhead with the job of offering more content to keep players happy and maintain that momentum so the hit game can have a longer life.

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PC

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now