In 1997, writer and motivational speaker Richard Carlson released his now wildly popular self-help book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…And It’s All Small Stuff. But I really wish the good people at Arrowhead Game Studios had never read that book because it’s actually the small stuff that ruins their new game, the arcade-style, top-down, sci-fi shooter Helldivers (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Vita).
Set nearly seventy years from now, Helldivers tasks you with invading enemy planets so you can set up automatic defensives, take over points of strategic importance, and complete other tasks that largely involve you shooting anything that moves.
Like most games of this kind, Helldivers has you runnin’ with the left thumbstick and gunnin’ with the right one. But while many top-down shooters fire automatically, this has you pulling the trigger to shoot. This, unto itself is not a problem, nor is it uncommon (though I will admit I prefer the former, which lets me go all Rambo). No, the problem lies in the fact that your ammo is seriously limited. Granted, you can call in supply drops (which I’ll get to in a moment), or you can be more precise with your shots (though that’s easier said than done), but either way it’s still rare, and thus frustrating, that you begin a mission with enough ammo to complete it.
As for those aforementioned ammo drops? Well, they certainly do help. As do the auto turrets, aerial strikes, and other helpful items you can have delivered. Except that when you want to ask for something, you have to punch in code using the D-pad, which makes this feels like busy work. It also doesn’t help that the arrow icons for these codes are small and light grey, so they often blend in with the background, while the icons for the kinds of drops available are also small, which makes it hard to distinguish the aerial strikes one from the reinforcements, especially during a firefight.
But what’s really frustrating about the shooting in Helldivers is that you have to manually reload your guns; your soldier doesn’t automatically do it when you run out of bullets…y’know, like in almost every other shooter, top-down or otherwise. And yes, it is something that many people will get used to doing. But during the heat of battle, I still often found myself pulling the trigger three or four times before I remembered to reload.
Which is why I appreciate that, when you get shot in Helldivers, you don’t always die. Instead, you’re just injured, and fall to the ground much like you did when you got hurt in the Gears Of War games and in the multiplayer modes of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequels. And while you can be recovered by a teammate if you’re playing co-op, you can also jam on the “X” button to patch yourself up. You can even crawl around, or use your pistol to take out any nearby enemies before healing yourself.
You can also avoid being shot by ducking. Well, sort of. While hitting the square button will make your soldier drop like they’re going to give you twenty, your enemies can still hurt you. Granted, you can crawl away, but since you can’t shoot from that position (unlike, oddly, when you’re lying on the ground, hurt), it really only works if you duck behind something.
Along with all the shooting, Helldivers also has a strategic macro game. As you complete missions, this contributes to the status of the war for everyone playing. Which is an interesting idea that gives this game a much grander feel. Though, I must admit, as someone who doesn’t play well with others, I found myself wishing other people’s progress had no impact on my game.
Helldivers also has a really, really annoying map problem: You can’t see the map while you’re moving around. You can pull it up to see where you need to go, but you can’t move while looking at it, nor can you shoot, or even set any waypoints. As a result, it can be really irritating when you’ve completed your objective and are trying to figure out where the extraction point is located while enemies are shooting at you.
The people behind Helldivers also made a mistake common in games that can be play solo or with friends: You can’t pause your game if you’re playing alone, even if you set the online, uh, settings to “private.”
Helldivers is also wildly inconsistent in its difficulty. While the planets’ difficulty designations range from really easy to really hard, with multiple levels in between, the difficulty sometimes varies greatly on the same planet. For instance, on the third world I visited, the landing area seemed to be located in the middle of an alien party to which everyone RSVPed, while the second mission on that same planet had no enemies coming to see me off when I was waiting for the shuttle to pick me up.
While all of these problems apply whether you go it alone or with friends, playing Helldivers co-op manages to have its own unique issue: You can’t disable friendly fire when playing with other people. Which gets really tiresome after a while, given how people usually play these kinds of games with a “spray it, don’t aim it” kind of approach.
As for how the different editions of Helldivers compare, while the Vita version uses the back touchscreen instead of R1 and L2 to reload and throw grenades, respectfully, and the front one to run — and yes, this is as counter-intuitive as you might imagine — the game otherwise works the same as the PS4 and PS3 editions. They even look the same, though that isn’t saying much since the graphics aren’t especially detailed, while the character and environment designs are rather pedestrian.
On their own, none of the aforementioned problems with Helldivers would’ve been deal breakers. But collectively, they turn should’ve been a fun and frantic shooter into something rather tiresome, and ultimately a lot more frustrating than fun. Which, Richard Carlson be damned, is what happens when you don’t sweat the small stuff.