Helldivers 2 lights the way for AAA – by rejecting its norms

Helldivers 2 intro cutscene helldiver thumbs up
(Image credit: Sony)

Helldivers 2 has a melee button – a basic shove, activated by pushing in the right stick on your controller. Once you crawl close enough to a magnified spacebug, though, it's hard to imagine where you'd want to poke your elbow. Between the cruel mandibles, jagged carapace and legs that taper into points, you'd be better off fist-fighting a kitchen knife.

But that's the magic of Helldivers 2, as a design proposition – the reason that bug-splatting has recently become an international pastime for millions. Where AAA developers tend to sand off the edges, looking to reduce the friction that might put off a new player, Arrowhead has created a game that's all edge – distinguished by a series of surprising and divisive quirks.

Divine introspection

Helldivers 2 factions

(Image credit: Sony)

Let's pick out a few of those. First, there's the deeply ironic tone, which casts every player as a fervent propagandist fighting to prop up Managed Democracy (read: fascism), while generating bug oil for a Super Earth still in thrall to fossil fuels. This kind of satire is far from a sure bet. Just look at Helldivers' chief inspiration, Starship Troopers, which was derided on release for promoting Nazi ideologies. Only later was the film critically reevaluated and audiences properly recognised, in the words of director Paul Verhoeven, "a movie about fascists who aren't aware of their fascism". Had the winds blown the wrong way at launch, Helldivers might have been just as badly misunderstood.

Then there are the creative risks laced throughout Helldivers' mechanics. From afar, its core proposition might look safe – a mixture of DMZ-style extraction shooting and horde modes from the heyday of the Xbox 360. But the details are devilish. Calling in an orbital strike or redeploy involves a disorienting gamepad dance, as you pull yourself out of harm's way with the analog sticks while inputting sequences of d-pad codes. It's a farcical experience akin to patting your head while rubbing your tummy, and a bold choice – given that cheat codes are not a part of the lived experience of a large proportion of Helldivers 2's audience.

The experimentation continues with the Galactic War, a territorial metagame with oblique rules which tracks just how well, or badly, the forces of Super Earth are doing against the insectoid and automaton threats. That's before you get to the resupply stations, which enemies can smash to pieces before you get a chance to use them – and the steerable drop pods that can crush unlucky allies. If they don't step in front of your bullets first. "Friendly Fire is an integral part of the Helldivers experience," reads an FAQ answer from Arrowhead's support team. "You will not be able to turn off Friendly Fire."

Helldivers 2 screenshot

(Image credit: SIE)

"There's no Warzone without PUBG, after all, and no DMZ without Escape from Tarkov"

Many of these colorful characteristics could be interpreted as wilfully obtuse. They might have tanked Helldivers' chances of a clean slate of review scores, or caused a chain reaction of negative word-of-mouth at release. That's why such design quirks are ironed out of larger, AAA productions – which can't afford to turn off a portion of their potential audience if they're to turn a profit.

But Helldivers 2 isn't a big-budget game. Despite the backing of PlayStation, developer Arrowhead employs only around 100 staff – a tiny team compared to the armies working on Call of Duty and Fortnite. In order to compete with the well-established leaders in the live service space, Arrowhead has no choice but to stand out. And in that context, unique design quirks – even potentially upsetting ones – become positives.

That's partly down to the rise of the streaming age. Like Lethal Company before it, Helldivers 2 lends itself to viral clips that catalog the emergent misfortune of other players. In fact, gaming schadenfreude has become so widespread on social media that it's begun to change common player attitude to failure – allowing us to embrace our slip-ups as the punchlines they are, rather than tossing aside the controller.

When the winds do blow in the right direction and a AA game becomes a phenomenon, the developers at larger studios can only look on. But you can bet they'll be taking notes, figuring out ways to incorporate the lessons of Helldivers 2 into their games. At a time when tentpole game development is more expensive and risk averse than ever, this is how AAA can source – or steal, if you want to put it bluntly – the fresh ideas needed to survive at the top. There's no Warzone without PUBG, after all, and no DMZ without Escape from Tarkov.

For companies like PlayStation and Xbox, games like Helldivers 2 might be part of a new kind of pipeline. By funding smaller projects to take the creative risks, they can fold the best innovations into their endless live service monsters afterwards. More than ever, the torch of innovation is powered by AA batteries.

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Jeremy Peel

Jeremy is a freelance editor and writer with a decade’s experience across publications like GamesRadar, Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer and Edge. He specialises in features and interviews, and gets a special kick out of meeting the word count exactly. He missed the golden age of magazines, so is making up for lost time while maintaining a healthy modern guilt over the paper waste. Jeremy was once told off by the director of Dishonored 2 for not having played Dishonored 2, an error he has since corrected.