Helldivers 2 official artwork and logo for the satirical shooter

Inspired by Starship Troopers, Helldivers 2 is a highly satirical shooter that has you spread peace, liberty and managed democracy across the stars through the use of overwhelming firepower. And much like Starship Troopers, despite obviously being cannon fodder with the life expectancy measured in minutes, Helldivers 2 does a phenomenal job of making you feel like you're an unstoppable badass... all the way until you accidentally call down an orbital bombardment directly on your head and send yourself flying into the stratosphere Team Rocket style!

So if you're curious about where exactly Helldivers 2 excels, as well as where it misses the mark and falls flat on its face, allow me to share with you my thoughts after spending well over 70 hours playing it since launch. Spoiler alert: it's pretty darn good!

Video version of this review (~17 minutes)

Freedom never looked so good

As someone that frequently plays oldschool RPGs where you can barely tell if you're looking at the top of someone's head or a random bit of shrubbery, I genuinely don't care about a game's visuals. If things look nice, that's great, but if not that's perfectly fine as long as the actual gameplay is solid. As such, I'm both shocked and delighted to say that it was Helldivers 2's presentation that ended up getting me sucked in!

It doesn't matter if we're talking about a desperate battle against bugs in a damp and humid jungle or just the pre-game lobby set aboard your starship, everything about Helldivers 2 just looks and sounds great. Bugs charging at you through the thick smoke left behind orbital bombardment, you and your team desperately waiting for extraction while turrets fire relentlessly into the darkness, the red eyes of the automatons glaring at you through the blinding sandstorm of a crimson world - all these are simple gameplay moments that are elevated into something highly memorable thanks to the excellent audio-visual design.

Perhaps the biggest piece of praise I can give Helldivers 2 here is to say that even the loading screen is amazing. The loading screen! I have the attention span of a squirrel that's been on a steady diet of chips and cheap energy drinks, yet despite that I don't think I've ever alt-tabbed or walked away from my PC while Helldivers 2 was loading. The way the music swells as your drop pods are launched and the way the air screams past you as you break through the atmosphere is just perfect! So while there are games out there that can stomp Helldivers 2 when it comes to raw graphical fidelity, there are very, very few that can beat it when it comes to style and atmosphere.

Helldivers 2 screenshot of the phenomenal and exciting loading screen

Falling down onto a new world never stopped being exciting for me

Weapons and other toys

As for the actual gameplay, Helldivers 2 is less of a conventional shooter, and more of a USA army simulator where you deal with your problems by airmailing absurd amounts of ordinance directly to their face through the use of Stratagems. Besides delivering freedom from above, Helldivers 2's Stratagems also give you access to things like sentries, minefields, high-powered weaponry with limited ammo, shields, and even a jetpack!

Naturally, you can't simply summon the rocket fairy to blast away your enemies whenever you feel like it. Not only do all of your Stratagems have a cooldown, but they also require a bit of time in order to trigger, are just as capable of destroying you and your allies as they are enemies, and they generally require a semi-complex chain of key presses in order to launch.

That latter part is one of those things that sound like it would be annoying, but actually it works perfectly in the context of Helldivers 2. The process of inputting these codes can be fairly easy while you're frolicking through a field, but trying to do the same while dodging 15 murder-bots is another thing entirely! And so, despite ultimately being very simple, these Stratagem codes add a surprising amount of tension to the gameplay, as well as the occasional moments of hilarity as you watch your friends fumble the reinforcement code over and over again.

Helldivers 2 watching someone fumble with the key presses for strategems

Watching someone panic and wave their hands around is never not going to be funny

Since you can only have four unique Stratagems in your loadout, and since most of them are highly specialized, you'll need to rely on your fellow players in order to cover your weaknesses. The same goes for your weapons as they're all very clearly designed around specific engagement ranges and enemy types. Regardless of what you choose, pretty much all of the weapons feel great to use, especially some of the punchier ones like the Recoilless Rifle or the Autocannon as their sound design really sells their devastating potential.

The weapons also have a decent bit of complexity to them. The reason this is the case is because you have different stages of accuracy depending on your speed and position, everything from the 'I hope I'm going to hit the correct planet' style of aiming while running to the 'this might as well be a laser' accuracy while laying prone. Combine this with most weapons having some sort of 'trick' you need to master, as well as enemies that all have different flavors of weak spots that allow you to really tear into them, and you end up with some highly satisfying gunplay.

Unfortunately, while there are all sorts of weapons covering all sorts of playstyles, many of them are a bit of a trap as the weapon and Stratagem balance is currently very messy. Weapons like the Breaker shotgun or the armor-piercing Railgun feel incredible to use and pack one hell of a punch! On the other hand, there are weapons like the Scythe laser rifle or the Flamethrower which just feel pathetic in almost every respect. The Scythe in particular used to be my favorite weapon in Helldivers 1, but in the sequel it does basically no damage and overheats way too quickly. And so, despite being a cool-looking laser rifle, I have basically never seen anyone but me use it in a mission.

As a consequence of this, once you start exploring the higher difficulties you're going to see people using mostly the same types of weaponry, over and over again. Even if you don't follow discussions online and just experiment with the weapons yourself, chances are good you'll end up with a similar loadout as it's just that obvious which weapons and Stratagems are good and which are only good for getting yourself killed.

Balancing all of this shouldn't be too difficult as it's just a matter of tuning a couple of numbers, so with a bit of luck we'll get a patch in the near future that should sort all of this out. I certainly hope so anyway, because Helldivers 2 has way too many fun weapons and Stratagems to be in a situation where only a couple are truly good.

Helldivers 2 screenshot of the weak but awesome looking flamethrower

The flamethrower looks incredible, but it's sadly just terrible

The bugs and the bots

Each mission in Helldivers 2 takes place on a procedurally generated map that's themed after whatever world you're currently on. So if the planet you're delivering freedom to is covered in thick forests and endless fog, that's exactly what you're going to get once you land there. Naturally, not every planet is equally hospitable to human life so the difficulty will go up and down depending on where you are, but it does add a nice bit of variety and excitement to the missions. The same goes for the weather effects as the map suddenly getting covered by an impenetrable mist or a violent sandstorm is definitely an experience to remember!

Depending on which planet you choose to explode onto, you'll be faced off against the robotic Automatons or the Terminid swarm. The former feel like a combination of terminators from the first movie mixed in with some Warhammer 40k units, while the latter are basically spruced up versions of bugs from Helldivers 2's main inspiration - Starship Troopers. Both are well designed, and most importantly, they both feel satisfying to fight. Personally, I'd attribute this to do the localized damage system that allows you to literally tear them into tiny little pieces with high-powered weaponry.

Helldivers 2 screenshot of a nuke being used on a red planet

Sometimes really high-powered weaponry

As you would expect, fighting each of the two factions also feels completely different. The bugs are fast, aggressive, attack in large numbers and generally try to bring you down in close quarters combat. On the other hand the bots are slow as molasses, but they compensate for that by being armored and durable, as well as preferring ranged weapons and defensive emplacements that can mess with your equipment and call-downs.

While you can get through missions with a generic loadout, it's always a good idea to tailor your build to the faction you're fighting against. Bots have clearly defined weak points so precision, long-ranged weapons can do a lot of work, while those same weapons against bugs can often be a liability because sniping one bug doesn't exactly stop the other twenty from taking a nibble out of you. Similarly, wide, sweeping attacks and Stratagems are insanely powerful against the bug hordes, but lose a lot of their effectiveness against the mostly spread out automatons.

The one problem here is that both factions field immense amounts of heavily armored enemies in the higher difficulties, all of which require very specific answers since most weapons can't actually damage them. Combine this with the aforementioned balance problems and you've got a situation where the game heavily encourages you to vary your builds, while the overwhelming presence of these elite enemies essentially forces you to run the same, efficient anti-armor loadout regardless of what you're doing since that's the only real way you have to guarantee your team will have what they need to beat the mission.

Helldivers 2 screenshot of the bots reinforcing with dropships

Shooting down bot transports before they can deploy anyone is one of my favorite things 

It's all about the chaos

Speaking of which, the actual objectives you have to do in each mission are all incredibly simple. Everything from turning on artillery outposts to saving civilians or even launching a literal nuclear bomb is done by pressing a few buttons and, if the game is feeling really frisky, maybe even turning a couple of valves! The reason this is the case is because Helldivers 2 is less concerned about the 'what?' and the 'why?', and more about the 'how?'. Because once again, pushing in a couple of buttons is super easy when you're nice and relaxed, but when you're in the middle of a terminator apocalypse and the ground is literally shaking from the bombardment, trying to solve a puzzle for literal babies without getting shot in the back does get noticeably trickier!

It's exactly these moments that make me so eager to dive back into Helldivers 2. Not the whole getting shot at thing, mind you, but rather the sheer chaos that can erupt at any moment. All it takes is a single player accidentally triggering a patrol and not clearing them out before they raise an alarm in order to transform a stealth operation into a fight for sheer survival. In 30 seconds flat a happy field full of flowers can transform into a dust-ridden warzone with explosions and screams going off in every direction.

Helldivers 2 fighting bugs in a blinding mist

The mist can obscure even the biggest bugs, which often leads to some really hectic fights

Surviving these situations requires both personal skill and cooperation with your team, which is where Helldivers 2's gameplay shines. It's very easy to make a mistake when panicked and find yourself repainting a nearby hillside with your face, but it's also possible to make a couple of really smart maneuvers that help stem the tide and save the day. The same goes for your team as you'll frequently find yourself in near-death scenarios, only for them to suddenly get resolved by a precision bombing run from a teammate that noticed you're in trouble... or by you suddenly exploding because your good Samaritan misjudged their throw!

In a way, these battles frequently feel like an actual war where you're just a tiny cog in the machine desperately ducking and diving from terminators while simultaneously trying to survive the sky raining fire. It really makes you feel like you're completely out of your element, especially given how easily you can die, which then only makes each success feel all the more memorable as you really had to work for it. 

And that's basically it. It's a very simple gameplay loop that consists of exploring, fighting, doing objectives and running away in sheer terror from the seemingly endless hordes of giant bugs. I don't mean that in negative way either, as the relative simplicity of mission really lets you focus on what truly matters - causing chaos and sharing a laugh whenever you or your teammates get punted by a Charger like some sort of misshapen golf ball.

Helldivers 2 screenshot of an intense escape

Escaping while all hell breaks loose around you is certainly an experience

A non-predatory cash shop!?

Much like a lot of games out there, Helldivers 2 launched alongside not only a cash shop, but a Battle Pass system as well. While this caused me a great deal of concern at the very start, I'm pleased to report that both have been implemented in a very customer-friendly way. The 'cash' shop uses Super Credits which can be found in just about every single mission (or purchased with real money), which means that everyone will be able to access even the fanciest of armor sets with a little bit of effort.

Similarly, the paid 'Battle Pass' can be acquired by just playing the game, and best of all, it doesn't expire! In fact, there is no carrot to endlessly chase and nothing to really stress about. All Helldivers 2 asks of you is to simply play the game in order to get your hands on new toys and cosmetics, which is exactly how it should be.

There is, unfortunately, one problem here, and that would be the acquisition rate of Medals which you need to unlock new items and weapons in both the paid and free Battle Passes. As it stands a fully completed mission on the hardest difficulty will give you around 8-14 Medals and take anywhere from 20-40 minutes, while progressing through some of the later tiers of the Battle Pass requires hundreds upon hundreds of Medals. As a consequence of this, unlocking new items can be a painfully slow process even if you're a highly skilled and highly active player.

That said, you can speed this up by farming the same 5-minute defense mission over and over again until you can start hearing mortar turrets in your dreams, but that's hardly a fun way to play the game or something Helldivers 2 should encourage. So considering how well they've handled the monetization of 'premium' items, I can only hope the Helldivers 2 team will manage to find a way to make the overall grind a bit easier on the casual players as having more weapons to experiment with is definitely a positive thing for everyone involved.

Helldivers 2 screenshot of the rotating super store

Even the rotating 'cash' shop doesn't feel predatory

Closing thoughts

Helldivers 2 is phenomenal! It feels satisfying to play, it looks and sounds great, and its ability to generate ridiculous moments in almost every single match makes it a highly memorable experience. As an added bonus, it's also one of the least greedy 'live service' games I've played in a while.

So while it does have some major balance issues that need to be resolved sooner rather than later, I think I can comfortably recommend Helldivers 2 to anyone that enjoys co-op shooters and doesn't mind the occasionally brutal difficulty. Now, if you'll excuse me, I do believe there are some bugs out there that need to be delivered a hearty dose of freedom!

[Note]: I've also taken the opportunity to create a brief beginner's guide covering some of the most important tricks and strategies I learned throughout my time with Helldivers 2. So if you'd like your first foray against the bugs and bots to go as smoothly as possible, I'd welcome you to give it a look.