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Helldivers 2: The Kotaku Review

A random player and I are surrounded by giant, alien bugs who want to rip out our guts and eat our bones. We are trying to destroy their nest, which lies in a rocky crater on some backwater alien planet. Low on ammo, out of health items, and unsure of what to do next, it seems we are screwed. But this is Helldivers 2we have powerful tools at our disposal, like a massive airstrike or auto-turret. My squadmate calls in his airstrike before I can, runs into the fray, drops it at his feet, and begins tossing grenades. “Get outta here! I’m taking ‘em with me!” he yells. I dive over an angry insect the size of a dog and skitter out of the crater, explosions and gunfire popping off behind me. Then there is one big boom. I turn around. He did it. He saved the day, killed two dozen bugs, and destroyed their vile nest.

A moment later—as I get ready to call him back to the war via a drop pod—my game crashes. I sigh. This has been my Helldivers 2 experience: an incredible third-person shooter filled with equal parts hilarious and heroic moments, currently marred by technical issues and server problems. But if that stuff gets fixed…oh boy, this is something special.

IGN / Arrowhead Games

Released on February 8 on PS5 and PC, Helldivers 2 is the big-budget follow-up to the (also awesome) top-down sci-fi co-op shooter, Helldivers. Like the original, released in 2015, Helldivers 2 is also a gritty shooter that tasks you and up to three other players with completing missions across alien worlds filled with enemies that can kill you quickly (assuming all the friendly fire doesn’t get you first.) Both games are set in a satirical sci-fi universe where a powerful empire, Super Earth, uses guns, bombs, and invasions to spread “Democracy” around the galaxy.

But this time, developer Arrowhead Games changed up the perspective and scale of the experience. Helldivers 2 is now a bigger third-person shooter with more side objectives and larger maps than anything seen in the first game. Before playing the sequel, I was worried that this shift might rob Helldivers 2 of the tight combat and intense action found in the first game. Thankfully, that’s not the case, and instead, the new perspective and larger scale just make the action and combat better, adding more enemies to kill and more ways to do it. Oh and so many more ways to die, too.

Death is just part of the process

You will die a lot in Helldivers 2. That’s part of the appeal of this game. It can get really hard, especially if you play alone or on its harder difficulties. One mistake can wipe out a squad. One bad choice can lead to a lot of pain. And yet, that’s what makes Helldivers 2 so much fun.

Dying in this game isn’t a huge problem. You can come back a set number of times each mission, pick up your weapons, and get back into the fight in a few seconds. Instead, death is often a punchline rather than a punishment.

For example, while nearing the end of a mission, my team was waiting for our escape shuttle to land and take us away—every mission forces you to “evac” out—and were holding the line. Barely. Enemies were attacking from every angle and we were low on supplies and out of respawns. But the shuttle was here, salvation was near—until it landed right on top of someone, killing them instantly. We all laughed, saluted his body, and hopped into the shuttle.

These kinds of moments are a common occurrence in Helldivers 2 because basically, everything kills you. Your squadmates can shoot you. Your own turrets can rip you apart. You can drown in rivers and fall off rocks and die. Even the supplies and weapons you call in from large ships orbiting the planet can land on you and kill you.

But this isn’t frustrating because you can bring back your dead comrades and they land equipped with ammo, guns, and grenades. This helps the game never feel too punishing (even at its highest difficulties) as even a total squad wipe to some nasty giant robot or bug means you will all be back soon and can move forward, likely while giggling about it, too. It also allows for heroic sacrifices and experimentation with all of the game’s tools and weapons.

Support is a few button presses away

The other big part of Helldivers 2 is the use of “Stratagems,” a concept first seen in the original game. Stratagems are different support or offensive tools you can use during a mission, and you can choose which ones to have in your loadout before dropping onto a planet. One of my favorites is simple but effective: dropping a large machine gun that I (or anyone in my squad) can grab and use for the rest of the mission. Another Stratagem might activate a large bombing run or airstrike. Others drop ammo, bring back teammates, or provide new tools or gear, like a drone that follows you around with a laser gun, covering enemies who get too close. (Yes, the laser drone can kill you. Of course, it can.)

Each one of these Stratagems is called into action by holding down one button and then pressing a string of d-pad commands. Then you toss a marker and the gun, bombing run, or gear drops a few seconds later, right on the marker. This might sound clunky, but it’s clearly by design. When nothing is happening, calling these support tools down is trivial. But when you are surrounded by bugs or deadly bots, low on health, and running for your life, suddenly pressing L1 + up, up, down, down, left, up becomes much trickier. The button combos add just enough of a mechanical layer between what you want that when you successfully call down an airstrike during a particularly intense moment it feels wonderful. You feel like the coolest person ever. On the flip side, fucking up a combo multiple times as your friends scream for you to drop a turret, feels awful in a way that reminds me of a young soldier clumsily trying to load a gun in a battle he wasn’t prepared for.

So often games want to make you feel powerful and heroic and Helldivers 2 does offer you the chance to be a badass warrior who saves the day. But, boy oh boy, you gotta earn it—and if you don’t, if you fuck up, the game will slam you into the ground and laugh at your mistakes. For some players, this might be frustrating, but if you play along with Helldivers 2 and understand that it wants you to earn your victory, you’ll have a blast dying over and over again.

And the game does give you plenty of ways to succeed. You can unlock new guns and armor via a battle pass-like reward system, earn in-game credits to gain access to new Stratagems like bigger bombs or mortar cannons, and find materials that let you craft upgrades for your capital ship that help you in a number of useful ways, like making air strikes bigger or faster. You can also unlock boosters that help your entire squad, too.

If this sounds like a lot, don’t worry. You won’t be spending a lot of time looking at menus and trying to perfect a build. Instead, these all amount to the game asking: How do you want to kill bugs and robots today? How do you want to spread Democracy through this galaxy? There’s no wrong answer, either. Just different ways to blow shit up and complete your mission.

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I do wish there was a bit more variety in missions and the places you explore. While different planets have varied biomes—a snow world, a desert world, a forest world, etc.— you can only fight on a select number of planets at one time, so you are limited in what you get to see of the galaxy. Missions can also start to blend together, with a lot of them asking you to shoot stuff near a thing until something happens and then go blow something up and leave. Luckily, Helldivers 2 is a blast to play, but I can see how its grind could start to wear folks down over time and hope later difficulties, future updates, or new planets shake things up.

As you and the thousands of other players fight off bugs and complete missions on different planets, you help the larger war effort taking place across the whole galaxy. Over time, I watched the community take over entire planets by completing missions. However, I also spotted a few times when we lost progress. I wonder if there’s a future where the player count drops for a bit and we lose SuperEarth itself? Perish the thought.

Too many bugs, and I’m not talking about the flesh-eating ones

This is the point where I want to end the review with a clever, concise, and well-written paragraph summing up my thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I have to address the 400-lb flesh-eating space bug in the room: Helldivers 2 is a bit of a mess right now.

In my 22ish hours with the game across dozens of missions and adventures, I’ve run into a laundry list of problems. I had a bug where my guns disappeared when I tried to switch to them. I’ve fallen through the world multiple times. My PS5 has crashed hard more than once. I had one annoying problem where the game’s framerate went from a silky-smooth 60 FPS to an eye-destroying 5 FPS. And then there are the server issues. I was forced to play alone for more than half of my review time, as joining a match with randoms was hit-and-miss. Even when it worked, I’d notice I wasn’t getting my XP or post-game rewards. Trying out crossplay, I ran into all sorts of mic and audio issues with PC players.

Helldivers 2 is a damn fine game, which is the only reason I was able to play through its messy launch. I was willing to put up with a lot of shit to get my fill of spreading democracy across a violent galaxy through even more violent means. But even after a post-launch update, I’m still running into plenty of annoying bugs and online hiccups that make it hard to recommend this co-op shooter…at least for now.

If you are reading this in April 2024 or even some time in 2025, I’d guess that most of—if not all—of these issues are fixed. That sounds nice. I can’t wait to get to that point. Because right now, things are still so shaky that I’m almost nervous to play. Nothing sucks more than spending 20 minutes completing a tough mission on an alien world only to get killed by a console crash.

That said, I still think Helldivers 2 is a special game. So many shooters strive for realism, but leave out things like friendly fire or managing ammo out of fear that it might annoy players. The devs and this game aren’t here to make you heroes, instead, Helldivers 2 says: “Combat is hard. War is brutal. And you will die.” But it makes sure to give you all the tools, options, and weapons you’ll need to succeed in its hellish battles. You can become a hero in Helldivers 2. You can, I’ve done it. You just got to be prepared to fuck up a few times and laugh about it. Oh, and having some friends around helps, too.

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