Helldivers 2 review: "A fiercely challenging and visually breathtaking cooperative shooter"

Helldivers 2
(Image: © Arrowhead)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Helldivers 2 is a fiercely challenging and visually breathtaking cooperative shooter where failure is funny and success feels magnificent. However, bugs and server issues hindered the initial experience, while there's a sense the game's full potential is yet to be realized.

Pros

  • +

    Incredible action

  • +

    Hilarious coop chaos

  • +

    Fascinating real-time Galactic War simulation

Cons

  • -

    Lingering launch instabilities

  • -

    Some frustrating bugs in the game itself

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Helldivers 2 has only been out a week, but it's already given me enough virtual memories to last a lifetime. Though admittedly in the world of Helldivers, a lifetime doesn't last very long. There was the time my partner called down a sentry turret that immediately shot her in the back of the head, whereupon she yelled at me for the offending headshot. There was the time I performed a perfectly executed dive out of the way of a charging alien bug, only to land right in the deadly projectile vomit of another alien bug. There was the time I got myself inextricably wedged between a building and a hellbomb that I'd personally called down and activated, and could only shriek in embarrassed terror as all three of us were vapourised in a fiery mushroom cloud.  

Fast Facts

Release Date: February 8, 2024
Platforms: PC, PS5
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

You may have noticed all these cherished memories are also ferocious goofs, and while this is disconcertingly accurate to my personal life, it's also what makes Helldivers 2 special. Arrowhead's sequel features incredible combined-arms action, a pinpoint Starship Troopers pastiche, and a contiguous live-service experience that would make other games in the genre throw up in their purple, sequin-covered unlockable hats. But the magic is in how Helldivers 2 follows through on every idea with the ice-cold logic of a true Machiavellian mastermind. Play with that box of fireworks if you want, it says, but if you blow your hand off, consider it a learning experience.

Fighting for Democracy

(Image credit: SIE)

Much of this was true about the original Helldivers, which like the sequel, saw up-to four players band together to complete randomly-generated yet consistently dangerous missions on alien planets. It had all the same fundamentals, from broad design points like the uncompromising combat and satirical themes, to more specific features like how you can call in airstrikes and ammo resupplies by inputting directional codes on the d-pad. Yet like all of developer Arrowhead's previous games, the action was viewed from a top-down, isometric perspective. 

The biggest change Helldivers 2 makes is switching the action to third-person, putting you on the ground just behind your highly trained, equally expendable fascist space thug. This might seem like a minor selling point for a sequel, but the difference it makes to your appreciation of Helldivers' action is enormous. Now, when you call in an ammo replenishment from your orbiting space cruiser, you can look up to the sky, and watch the pod jettison from the side of the spacecraft before arcing down through the atmosphere. And when an alien bug the size of a bin lorry thunders in your direction, you can feel the ground vibrate as its pincer-shaped legs stab into earth.

Arrowhead understands not just the appeal of this sense of scale, but the importance of providing tangible feedback at every point on that scale. At its most basic, Helldivers 2 is about shooting waves of enemies with shotguns and assault rifles, and these foundations are thoroughly satisfying. The way bugs burst and robots rupture is a masterclass in damage feedback, as is the way larger enemies shred and stagger under sustained gunfire. 

(Image credit: SIE)

"The way bugs burst and robots rupture is a masterclass in damage feedback"

Yet even on the simplest of missions, your starting equipment isn't sufficient to fend off the hundreds, perhaps thousands of foes you and your fellow Helldivers will face. This is where Stratagems come into play. By inputting a specific, arrow-based code, you can deploy a wide variety of military support actions. This might be a heavier weapon like a machine gun or a laser cannon, a defensive emplacement like a sentry turret or deployable minefield, or it might be the wrath of whatever god Super Earth prays to in the form of orbital strikes and artillery bombardments.

The latter of these stratagems can be astonishing to behold. I'm particularly fond of airstrikes, which drop a straight line of ordnance across a point you designate, tearing up anything in its path in towering tongues of flame. Enemies are obliterated, buildings reduced to rubble. Even the ground doesn't get away scot-free, with the strike leaving behind a mess of undulating craters that can be used as cover in a pinch.

These Stratagems do not exist purely for spectacle's sake, with each handy in different situations. You don't want to waste an airstrike on a cluster of small bugs when a sentry turret will do. Calling them in is a skill in and of itself too. You need to physically pull up a menu and punch the correct arrow code into your wrist communicator, which can be tricky when there's an army of bugs bearing down on you. Then you need to throw the target painting orb into the right place, which must be done by eye. Throw an airstrike too far and it'll miss. Throw it too close, and you'd better retreat pronto. These orbs can also bounce and stick to targets. More than once I've tossed an artillery strike orb onto an enemy only to have it charge me, resulting in panicked squealing as I frantically tried to escape the walking blast zone.

Shake it Off

(Image credit: SIE)

It's crucial to understand how ruthless Helldivers 2's logic is. Anything that can kill enemies can also kill you and your teammates. Bullets, bombs, grenades, hellpods, explosive canisters, environmental hazards. The frantic pace and intensity of combat means that accidentally killing yourself and your teammates is less an occupational hazard and more of a hobby. But when things go wrong in Helldivers 2, it's usually hilarious, thanks to the game's exaggerated voice acting, physics, and gore. When they go right, however, it feels fantastic. Working together as a team to establish a perfect defensive perimeter, or enact a seamless assault on an automaton fortification, is some of the most gratifying cooperative gaming I've experienced since the days of Left 4 Dead.

This chaotic combat engine is built into a round-based structure of procedural missions that all feed into a larger, online galactic war. From your personal orbital cruiser (which you get to name from a preset list of words). You choose which planet you're going to fight on, the type of operation you'll attempt, and the difficulty level of that operation, of which there are nine. Each mission will have one or several main objectives, alongside numerous side objectives.

The main objectives start out as unromantic grunt work, like getting fuel stations up and running, or clearing out Terminid nests filled with eggs (early missions against the Automatons are slightly more fun, so I'd recommend taking them on first). But they become more interesting as the difficulty level rises. One has you prep and launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, with sufficiently apocalyptic results. My favorite, though, was our first mission to take out a "Bile Titan", a tower-block sized bug that takes more than a can of Raid! to take down. When we found this monster, we approached as closely as we dared, then deployed every bit of ordnance we had at our disposal – air strikes, orbital bombardments, mortars, the works. As it screeched beneath a hail of righteous fire, we felt obscenely clever about ourselves. In a scene ripped straight from a Hollywood movie, however, when the smoke cleared the titan had barely been scratched. Cue twenty minutes of frantically avoiding being stomped to death as we tried to hold on until our Stratagems rearmed.

(Image credit: SIE)
RELATED

Helldivers 2 isn't just one of the best co-op games of the year, but one of the best PS5 games so far this generation.

Completing a mission at a certain difficulty level will unlock the next difficulty up, which in turn provides new enemies to fight and new missions to attempt. Individual objectives do repeat frequently, but their randomized arrangement, combined with other side objectives like destroying bug nests and automaton fabricators, and the generally unpredictable nature of your enemies, keeps the action plenty varied. I've had missions that were cakewalks, missions that were nightmares, and everything in between, often on the same difficulty level. One particularly memorable operation saw us complete the objective within five minutes, trundle off to mop up a side objective, then spend the next half hour in an increasingly uncontrolled retreat toward the extraction point against a horde of bugs that simply never stopped coming.

In short, the core loop of Helldivers 2 is brilliant. But it has one big problem and one big unanswered question. The problem is mostly technical. The launch has been rough, with substantial server issues causing problems from a straight-up inability to connect to missing upgrade menus and friends randomly dropping out of games. But the game itself isn't free of issues either, from minor visual glitches like objects floating in the air, to more substantive flaws like weapons randomly disappearing from equip slots. I played an entire mission unable to aim down the sight of my marksman rifle because the weapon had randomly turned invisible. 

None of this has been a dealbreaker, but it has been a nuisance. Despite these issues, as a live service game, Helldivers 2 is undoubtedly off to a strong start. I love how the game makes you feel like a part of a much larger conflict. Not just in how your action collectively builds toward the "liberation" of planets. But in how it always feels like you're surrounded by the actions of other players. As your ship rolls around a planet to the next operational target, you'll see other ships hovering in orbit through the windows of your bridge. On the planet itself, you'll see other hellpods zooming down toward the surface, other extraction shuttles taking off and flying to safety. It appears these aren't just visual flourishes either, but the game actively tracking events in the Galactic War in real-time, which is extremely neat.

A Bright Future Ahead

(Image credit: SIE)

Nonetheless, Helldivers 2 feels like the start of something, rather than the apex of it. While there are plenty of weapons and stratagems and cosmetics to unlock through playing right now, there are also some obvious holes in the game for Arrowhead to fill with updates. The main one is driveable vehicles, which were part of the original Helldivers but are absent here. There's also clear scope to add new enemy factions, weapons, missions, stratagems, etc. In other words, I think we're yet to see the game's full potential.

Most of all, I'm curious as to where Arrowhead will take Helldivers 2's themes and narrative. The game's parody of fascism is spot on. The cognitive dissonance of my Helldiver turning an alien bug to mulch with a machine gun while yelling "Get a taste of Democracy!" is exquisitely Verhoevian in its lack of subtlety, while the game's indiscriminate combat systems reflect the uncaring nature of the game's own military death cult. But the original Helldivers featured all these ideas too, and right now, Helldivers 2 mostly replicates them rather than pushing them forward in any meaningful fashion. Hence, I hope it can find new ways to explore its own tongue-in-cheek authoritarianism, and the horrors to which such an ideology leads.

The good news is, Helldivers 2 is in a position to do exactly that. It's already an enormously fun cooperative shooter, and well worth buying into just for that. But I'm fascinated by its real-time Galactic War simulation, and the storytelling opportunities it holds for the future. At a time when the merits of live-service games are being called into question, Helldivers 2 has the potential to turn that conversation around. I never thought I'd be interested in a live service game again, but against my better judgment, Helldivers 2 has got me doing my part.


Disclaimer

Helldivers 2 was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.

More info

Available platformsGames, PC, PS5
GenreThird Person Shooter
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Rick is the Games Editor on Custom PC. He is also a freelance games journalist whose words have appeared on Eurogamer, PC Gamer, The Guardian, RPS, Kotaku, Trusted Reviews, PC Gamer, GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and more.