The creators of Magicka have never made a console game before, but their first—Helldivers—is one hell of a doozy. The chaotic co-op charm of Magicka never quite felt right on a gamepad, but with Helldivers, Arrowhead Game Studios hits that mark hard.
Magicka, for those who don't know, is a PC-exclusive top-down co-op adventure about wizards who carried a complicated method for casting spells, which would often lead to the accidental murder of teammates. It's difficult as hell, and requires a lot of practice if you want to be any good at it, or you can just chill and bask in the madness of it all like I tended to do.
The PlayStation-exclusive Helldivers swaps Magicka's complex spells for guns, and on its face looks like your average twin-stick shooter. But with co-op, friendly fire and a devilish method for receiving airdropped supplies during a mission, it's something more than that description would imply. You could call it a spiritual successor to Magicka built around a gamepad, but that would be to sell its uniqueness short.
I spent about an hour playing Helldivers with the game's Sony producer Mark Rogers and other journalists. There was no one thing quite as regularly hilarious as burning a friend to death with a stray fire spell—unless your friends are the sort to get really mad when you goof up during cooperative games, in which case "accidentally" shooting them will provide endless entertainment. But nonetheless the core gameplay, in which you complete objectives and shoot bug aliens as you work your way across one of many types of procedurally generated maps, is quality, and the need to manually reload when you finish a clip is a nice touch.
It's the "strategem" mechanic that puts it all over the top.
Strategems are supplies you call in to help you out as you go through the maps—think Call of Duty's care packages, except you choose the contents—which is good, because without them you won't stand a chance. You will run out of ammo, for one thing, and the only way to get more is to call in an ammo drop. Other strategems let you call in turrets or a large but slow mech, or a powerful bomb, and so on. There are lots of these. In order to call for one, though, you must enter a complicated code with the d-pad, and as a few of you certainly discovered in the Titanfall beta this past weekend, standing under a package that falls from the sky is not such a great idea.
Getting to ride a mech sounds as if it would be a hugely relieving move, but in the wrong hands it just ups the friendly fire chaos. We're used to a top-down shooter being responsive, but a mech does not turn on a dime. You can point your stick this way and start firing immediately if you want to—just be sure to have an apology ready for your ally who you exploded with one of your shells. After all, it takes a couple seconds for a mech to turn around.
That kind of potential for screwup is what made Magicka so thrilling, and that same tiny margin for error exists in Helldivers. The maps won't be huge, but when everyone is dead it's over. There are no checkpoints, and since the maps are procedural you won't ever get to try that exact one again.
But the best part? Fights can escalate to a silly degree in a matter of seconds.
At one point three of us—one in a mech—were attempting to guard a train as it moved through a jungle map when the regular assortment of cannon fodder bugs came at us. They kept coming. Tougher, larger bugs began to enter the fray before an enormous armored thing finally took the chaos to its apex. This king bug is akin to a boss, and you can only do damage to it by swinging around behind it. I, on foot, dutifully maneuvered around to its backside to "shoot it in the ass," as Rogers instructed, but the monster quickly sprinted across the field of battle and destroyed everything in its path, our mech and my on-foot teammate included. Suffice to say that attempting to get behind a giant monster while it and a hundred of its closest friends were coming at me was not an option, so I ran away. Unfortunately, these creatures are surprisingly adept at leaping long distances, and I was eaten up pretty quickly.
That, in short, is what happens when you don't kill efficiently. Shit gets out of hand real quick.
The level of stress is high, and that's exactly what makes the experience fun. It's off the chain, as the old folks say, and for me the enjoyment is all in the moment-to-moment madness of play, not necessarily in doing well. Helldivers is intended to be communal—it basically exists to be played in couch co-op, though solo and online play is of course supported.
It is, more or less, a party game. It's going to be cross-play on PS3, PS4 and PS Vita for online play, but it feels as if the couch is where Helldivers truly belongs. If you gather your closest [gender-neutral] bros together and bring out some nachos and guacamole along with your beverage of choice, you're likely to hit the right mood for what could be the premier "side eye and curse at your friends while laughing" game of 2014.
Phil Owen is a freelance journo with work at VG247, GameFront, Gameranx and many, many other places over the years. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen. Send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.