It’s only February and 2024 has already another unexpected hit. Helldivers 2 revels in the confidence of knowing exactly what it’s doing, offering up one of the most approachable extraction shooters yet.
The extraction shooter is an emerging subgenre of games focused on getting players to drop into an intense mission, complete objectives, obtain loot, and extract without fighting or dying too much. Helldivers 2 takes that formula and redefines it by applying its basics to a more traditional mission-based sci-fi shooter that feels one license deal away from being a direct adaptation of Starship Troopers.
In a month full of new live service games launching to less than stellar results, Helldivers 2 is the one I’d recommend the most, especially as it may be shepherding in a more mainstream, approachable future for the popular genre.
In Helldivers 2, players control soldiers fighting for Super Earth, a fascist, military-focused coalition intent on wiping out threats it considers a scourge. Right now, that entails the bug-like Terminids and Automatons. If you’ve watched or heard of Starship Troopers, it’s a shameless homage to that premise. This is reflected through gameplay too, as each time you die, you start playing as a new soldier who has enlisted and is 100% into fighting and dying for Super Earth. Sometimes, it feels like a more apt Suicide Squad story than Kill the Justice League.
Players do all this across a variety of missions on planets under the control of enemy forces. After kitting out their loadout on their starship, players choose a mission on an available planet that Super Earth has not completely “liberated” yet, alone or with friends, and are dropped down in pods and forced to complete objectives (or die trying). Objectives vary in difficulty and scope, circumventing a common problem that live service games run into: a lack of variety. As Major Orders and the planets players can fight on continue to shift from week to week, developer Arrowhead Game Studios seems poised to keep that feeling of variety going.
Helldivers 2 controls somewhat more heavily than contemporary third-person shooters and friendly fire is always active, but that means every move players make must be more intentional. If you overexert your character and run out of stamina and ammo in the middle of a group of enemies your teammates are shooting at, you’ll probably die. It features lots of hidden depth as players learn the intricacies of combat.
For more help midbattle, players can call down Stratagems. These can offer resupplies, contain weapons, or be barrage strikes that take down entire groups of enemies. Super Earth can’t make that a simple button press, though. Instead, you’ll have to put in fighting game-like combos on the D-pad to summon Strategems or interact with objectives during missions. Couple that with the multiplayer setup that has all players working toward the same goal, and the game nails the thematic feeling that players are working for a fascist government that doesn’t care about them individually.
That doesn’t mean constantly going on these extraction missions isn’t entertaining. Helldivers 2 allows players to get in and out of missions that are as involved or as straightforward as they want them to be. The core combat and Strategem systems make it enjoyable enough to just mainline objectives, but there are optional missions and hidden resources to find on every mission for the more hardcore teams and players willing to risk their limited number of respawns on multiple tense combat encounters for greater rewards.
Of course, there are some launch window woes to look out for. In particular on PS5, its public matchmaking system constantly fails to find matches despite a healthy player count. The developers are actively working to fix these issues, but for now, it’s best to go into Helldivers 2 with a group of friends if you want to experience multiplayer. Narrative content is also pretty nonexistent currently, so the game actually isn’t doing much to critique the fascist government players are serving outside of a surface-level satirical presentation of its ridiculousness. I hope Arrowhead starts to question Super Earth’s actions more as the story and lore of Helldivers 2 evolves.
Thankfully, those are all minor issues, not massive systems that require complete reworks. Something about Helldivers 2 is already clearly resonating with players, with tens of thousands of players currently flocking to it on PC, making it PlayStation’s most-played PC release ever. I think that’s because Arrowhead understood the core satisfying elements of the extraction shooter genre and distilled those strengths into something that, while more basic and co-op-focused than your standard extraction shooter, is an intense experience that’s enjoyable in quick bursts and also gives players a greater task to work toward.
Helldivers 2 is available now for PC and PlayStation 5.
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