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Helldivers 2

Helldivers 2

Written by Rob Larkin on 3/15/2024 for PS5  
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So let's get this out of the way up front: Helldivers 2 is a solid game of the year candidate. We've got nine months to go yet, but this early entry in the calendar year has every chance of taking the plaudits at the end. What helps those chances even more is that the game is a live service game. A month in and we're already seeing the planetary system it inhabits evolve and change as new threats, and new weapons and tools, emerge. A game that can keep itself fresh and refreshed in the gaming community's mind throughout the coming months should offer the staying power to finish strong. 

But there is one problem here. A problem that the developers, Arrowhead Game Studios proudly banner across their own website: A game for everyone is a game for no one.

This is not a game for everyone. And Helldivers 2, despite all its accolades and praise, might not be a game for you. I know for the majority of my time with it, it kept trying to be a game that was not for me. 

The first problem I had with Helldivers 2 was its own popularity. The original Helldivers had a peak player count of under 7,000. There were reports that the makers were expecting something closer to the tens of thousands for the sequel. After the first week the game was hitting 300,000 every day, only limited there because the servers were crashing and preventing any more from actually getting in. Once server issues were resolved and capacity increased, the load ballooned to peak counts of nearly half a million. The situation became so bad, once players were in they started leaving the game running overnight to be able to hop back on when they woke up the next day, only exacerbating the problem.

These issues with servers and access are largely now resolved. The occasional error does pop and lockouts do happen, but for the most part things are fine. And this is the primary reason this review is weeks late. I spent the better part of my first two weeks with the game unable to get in, or unable to matchmake with any other players on the rare occasions when I did get in. And this is not a game for solo players. Thought the difficulty does seem to ramp the more people are loaded into a mission. I notice way more enemy spawns with more players in a mission and at more than just a linear progression as well. The difficulty is always spiked to encourage team play and cooperation. So you can't really run through the game solo...

...and there are no protections in place to encourage a positive experience for solo players. Name a negative multiplayer lobby trope, I've had it in Helldivers 2. Mics default to on so new joiners coming in with shitty music blaring in the background - check. Loud chewing and crunching noises mid match - check. New guy popping in and popping off with a foul mouthed curse laden tirade before we even left the ship to start a mission - check. Tryhard taking one look at your character level and kicking you from a matchmade game because it doesn't meet some imaginary minimum threshold - check. AFK players that prevent the whole team loading into the mission forcing you to leave the matchmade lobby to go find another one - check. Whatever the annoyance, Helldivers 2 has it. But those are just annoyances. What's unforgivable is the out of control griefing.

Apparently there was a mindset going around that rewards weren't shared at the end of a mission (narrator: they are). The rarest currency in the game is a kind of resource that can only be found in mission. It is used for certain ship upgrades and not only needs to be hunted and collected on the battlefield, but whoever is holding them also must successfully extract and survive the mission in order to secure the loot in your ship's inventory. But people are idiots and some players were getting aggro, killing whoever was holding the resources, snatching them from the corpse for themselves just before extracting, and patting themselves on the back for what a clever boy they were... even though everyone still gets the shared rewards.

Some variation of this scenario, fighting over the mis-perceived scarcity of what is actually a shared resource, is what let to one of the most toxic nights I've ever had in my gaming life. Multiple times over the course of one evening I was matchmade with this type of scum and having to not only try and survive hordes of bugs but toxic players as well. Problem is, respawning is a manual effort, not automatic. So once the toxic players can kill you off, you can't get back in the game unless they let you. They can also spawn trap you with full kitted loadouts as you dive back in with only a primary weapon. And if they are the "leader" (or more accurately "some random dude who's game the algorithm decided you should join") then they can also use you as the team completes the entire 20-40 minute mission, kill you when the final objective to extract appears, refuse to revive, and relegate you the role of spectator. They can then waste your time jumping around and goofing off but you stick with it because you want to at least share in the XP and other rewards. But no, just before extraction they can boot you from the party leaving you with nothing but a massive waste of the last half hour or so of your life. Your recourse to these events? Not a damn thing. 

You see, there is no reporting mechanism for toxic players. There is no penalty for them to behave this way. There appears to be a blocklist, but it doesn't even pretend to work. I tried to add all these goons to the list and no changes appeared until days later when one of those jerks finally popped into view, with the rest apparently roaming the population with every opportunity for me to join on them again. A game with friendly fire always on, no automatic respawns, the ability to kick players and troll their time having no protections in place to prevent or even discourage any of it. This is not a game for everyone. What would be cool would be if I could just opt to be the leader and provide toxic free fun times for everybody every time. But more than 90% of the games I initiate solo end up just being that, solo. The broken servers and matchmaking never actually inviting anyone to my good time party. 

Where Helldivers 2 does excel is in the gameplay itself. On the one hand it's just mindless bug shooting (or mech shooting). But mindless bug shooting when done this well is so much damn fun. This is the Starship Troopers game I've always wanted to play, and we even finally got an actual Starship Troopers game last year, and it was pretty good. But this one is even better, complete with fascist political satire overtones. It's also the Terminator game I've always wanted to play when you switch planets from ones threatened by the Terminid bug invasion to the Automaton mechs. And we've also have had a Terminator game before, and it was pretty bad. Heck, it might even be the best Madalorian game too, once you strap on the jetpack. 

Missions have enough variety, some are just drop here and kill this, others have you running around setting up objectives and interacting with the mechanics of refueling a dropship, or extracting scientists hiding in bunkers by escorting them to a shuttle to escape the the invading forces. Some are quick bites and only take a few minutes of a 10 minute timer. Others might push to the limit of the 40 minute timers. There are a ton of difficulties to ramp in to the more onerous settings, a steady progression to unlock new abilities and weapons in the forms of Strategems. Even calling down the Strategems themselves is a button mashing exercise which can be kinda awesomely harried when needing a desperate arial strike when nearly overrun, and you've got to get the sequence right of four to eight d-pad presses or be left holding your leg in your hands instead when a bug tears it from your body and spits it back at you. There's even a Strategem Hero minigame to practice your d-pad skills in between fights while resupplying on your ship. 

And the planets themselves are fantastic. The game does such a good job of dynamically adding weather and atmosphere and other elements across the various terrains. Lava filled planets make your stamina to run drain faster in the heat and obscure the screen with low visibility from the gasses hissing out of the terrain. Jungle planets get razed as the terrain deforms under the weight of you orbital bombardments. The planets are not wholly unique, they follow a set number of archetypes. But they do feel dynamic and distinct. It's a great setting for bug stomping or mech smashing. 

It's not perfect. There are key interactions on certain missions like super bombs the game never really explains. But then it totally redeems itself with an excellent use of in-game transactions and resource economy. Idiots hoarding sharable resources aside, there are three main currencies for unlocks and upgrades and only one costs real money. It is entirely used for cosmetics and can even be farmed in-game. It's really a perfect execution of supporting a game with microtransactions as a necessary evil without it ever feeling predatory or pay-to-win. 

A game for everyone is a game for no one. So who is Helldivers 2 for? Well, it's not the solo players. The streamers love this game and rightly so. It is excellent. But they have their own Discord no doubt, with a dedicated #Helldivers2 channel full of fans. They never have to suffer the plight of solo matchmaking. Back in the early days when the servers couldn't handle the loads, they were able to skip the lockouts by cheating in and joining directly on a player who was lucky enough to already be in game. They don't have to suffer the toxic matchmaking - the idiots with no respect for other players or no awareness of what nonsense is spilling through their microphones. They never even needed to utilize a blocklist that plainly doesn't work. They never wasted 40 minutes of their life in a bad experience only to get kicked as the timer ticked down. 

Helldivers 2 is not a perfect game, but man, is the gameplay executed well. It is a hell of a lot of fun to play. The weapons, strategems, environments, enemies, difficulty spikes are all best of class. It is a true game of the year contender. But the single player experience is so much worse because of the necessity and unavoidability of team matchmaking that all too often puts you into toxic situations with no protections in place. If you have a group to play with, this game could easily be a 9 out of 10, maybe better. I don't have that group, so my experience was something distinctly less than that. I'm going to land on a score of 8 here to try and middle ground both the 9 from a group perspective the game deserves and the 7 my own struggles warrant as a single player that Arrowhead appears to have no interest in protecting. I want to love Helldivers 2, but every night now I look at it in my PlayStation menu and remember some truly awful playing experience or another and end up opting to play something else instead. 

Helldivers 2 is truly a game of the year contender. The gunplay and gameplay is excellent. The variety invites you to keep hoping into one mission or another. The difficulty ramps from fun barrel shoots to harried and hair-raising struggles on the edge of a knife. However, the overall experience greatly suffers when playing as a solo player. If you have a group, dive in to hell. If not, be careful out there, soldier, and watch your back. The bugs aren't your only enemies. 

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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