Helldivers 2 review – team kills and bug-stomping thrills

With its high-chaos, high-comedy firefights, Helldivers 2 is a riot to play with friends – although its launch has been hampered by persistent matchmaking and progression problems.

Ten minutes into a mission on the planet of Malevelon Creek, my squad and I emerge from a swampy treeline to finally catch sight of our target. This time it’s a scientific base, and we’re here to destroy it entirely. After clearing the area of enemies, I summon a hellbomb – one of the largest payloads in our arsenal – and manually arm the device.

We quickly move away, making space for the massive explosion that is to come. Yet as we scurry back towards the bushes, I spot a neighbouring facility that could be destroyed with a simple airstrike. The temptation of completing two objectives within twenty seconds proves difficult to resist, and I bring up my stratagem list to input the combination.

As I pull back my arm to throw the beacon, several things happen at once. The hellbomb behind us explodes, triggering a massive shockwave that rocks my screen. This diverts the aim of my throw ever-so-slightly to the left – instead of gracefully arcing through the air towards the robot facility, the beacon bounces off a large rock, drops to the floor, and lands at the feet of my squad. Before we know it, explosions are raining down around us, and we’re all swiftly turned into jam by my airstrike.

Oh. Perhaps cool guys should look back at explosions.

Here’s a Helldivers 2 trailer setting the tone.Watch on YouTube

This ridiculous scenario is typical of a mission in co-op shooter Helldivers 2, where team-killing is a regular occurrence. Over the past week, I think I’ve died more frequently from the actions of my squadmates than from the hordes of bugs and robots we’re supposed to be fighting. Far from this being annoying, however, the ease with which accidents can occur is actually one of the game’s greatest features. Mistakes, mishaps and dramatic ragdolls are the point of Helldivers 2 – creating a stage for goofy firefights with friends that can quickly spiral into a comedy of errors. It’s this extreme silliness which makes the game so entertaining, and its battles so memorable. (Certainly this one – my squadmates won’t be letting me forget that particular mistake for a while.)

Clues that Helldivers 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously are obvious from the get-go, with the opening cinematic taking the form of a military recruitment ad where Super Earth citizens are asked to sign up as helldivers and spread ‘managed democracy’ across the galaxy. With the help of bombs and bullets, of course. Those familiar with the original 2015 Helldivers game will likely recognise this irreverent sense of humour: the style may have changed from twin-stick to third-person shooter, but the satirical spirit remains the same.

Helldivers 2 screenshot showing The player-character stands facing a large fireball from an Eagle Rocket Pod drop.
Oh blast. | Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment / Eurogamer

After graduating from the tutorial level – which highlights just how expendable you are – you are introduced to your ship and the galactic map. This is an overview of all the planets currently available in-game, with the community of players collectively working together to ‘liberate’ planets and unlock new combat zones. It’s a neat way to create a sense of scale: conveying that this war is taking place across multiple planets at once, and that you’re playing a small part within a large army. With a mission selected on the map, you’ll (hopefully) be matchmade with other players, and can then pick your loadout. On easier levels, you can get away with choosing almost anything in terms of equipment, but higher difficulties will require you to think more about your squad balance – and the sort of challenges you will likely face in the mission. Bullets will work on hordes of bugs, but for armoured robots, you’ll need something more explosive.

Then it’s down to the ground, dropped in a hellpod that lands with a hefty thunk. There’s a real weightiness to everything in Helldivers 2, from the gun recoil to the colossal explosions, but there’s something particularly convincing about the hellpod and supply drop impacts. Working with your squadmates, you will first need to complete a main objective (such as launching an ICBM), then travel to an extraction zone and hop onto a ship within the allotted amount of time. The maps are also filled with a number of points of interest – containing helpful items like ammo or currencies – while there are enemy outposts that can be destroyed for bonus rewards. It’s all too easy to be distracted by side-content, then realise you’re running out of time to complete the mission – only to find yourself in the middle of a ferocious battle with streams of robots dropping from the sky. Things really can escalate from zero to 100 with no warning. Thankfully, Helldivers 2 does come with a ping system, allowing you to easily communicate to your squadmates that it’s time to get the hell out without the need for voice chat or typing.

Helldivers 2 screenshot - The player-character looks up at a rocket as it launches. The game’s UI states: mission completed - launch ICBM.
MAD respect. | Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment / Eurogamer

What’s most noticeable when you drop on a planet, however, is the incredible atmosphere of the battlefield locations. There are frozen wastelands where your walking speed is reduced by heavy snow. On desert planets, a sandstorm might sweep in, impeding your view and allowing bugs to spring towards you without warning. My personal favourite is Malevelon Creek, where crawling through the bushes at twilight is an alarmingly spooky experience. This is partly due to the horrifying noises made by the automaton enemies, whose location you can pinpoint thanks to the game’s solid directional sound design. But it’s also the knowledge that some of these enemies have chainsaws for arms, and will barrel towards you if they spot you. Terrifying. When a fight does kick off, it’s total pandemonium, with red lasers streaking across the sky in a crossfire that looks straight from a sci-fi movie. Your character’s dialogue becomes increasingly desperate as the situation intensifies: screaming out “last reload” in a panicked state, or bursting into unhinged laughter when you unload machine gun bullets onto your enemies.

In the middle of all this chaos, you will have to – somehow – make level-headed tactical decisions. The way the stratagem system has been implemented in Helldivers 2 is rather brilliant: if you want to call in reinforcements, supplies or airstrikes, you have to input a key combination. It’s like entering the Konami cheat code with people firing rockets at your head. This often takes a couple of seconds to figure out, which means that you’ll normally want to find some cover. This can be tricky, of course, if you’re being chased by giant bugs, and so it’s all too easy to accidentally button-mash in a panic, mess up the combination, and then be forced to try again… with your enemies now much closer. Over time, you gradually become much more fluid at entering these combos, with muscle memory serving to help you dial in reinforcements or airstrikes with ease. It feels hugely satisfying to quickly type out a combination, aim a perfect beacon-throw, then watch an enemy base explode into flames.

Helldivers 2 screenshot - A lone helldiver stands on the top of an extraction ship, surrounded by bugs, with their teammate dead.
Thankfully, the game is very generous with reinforcements on lower difficulty levels. Dying is more of a temporary inconvenience, although you’ll drop some of your gear and have to retrieve it on the battlefield. | Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment / Eurogamer

A similar key-input system is often required to complete objectives, with some missions calling for close cooperation between teammates. One mission tasks you with realigning a satellite dish, with a squadmate reading instructions from a terminal, and another manually turning the dish itself. Helldivers 2 is often vague about how you complete these objectives, largely allowing you to figure things out on your own – which only leans into the idea that a bunch of new recruits have been dropped on a planet with little training, handed a ton of explosives, and been told to ‘get on with it’. Cue some panicked flailing as you try to figure out puzzle solutions, or accidentally shoot the very civilians you were supposed to be protecting.

After a particularly intense fight, it’s nice to know that when you return to your ship, you can always dial down the difficulty for your next mission. Helldivers 2 actually has nine difficulty modes, meaning it’s possible to have a chill bug-squashing session with friends, then follow it up with a frenzied robot onslaught with limited respawns. The wide range of difficulty options also makes things more manageable when playing solo. (Taking on a mission by yourself is definitely possible, though for me at least, it lacks the entertaining chaos of a full squad.) The higher difficulty levels demand careful use of stratagems, good squad coordination, and an understanding of how to handle different enemy types.

Helldivers 2 screenshot showing Three helldivers look down on an abandoned facility filled with bugs, on a murky green planet with fires raging in the background.
Players in my matchmaking sessions seemed to have remarkably good etiquette, apologising for team kills, and frequently using supply packs to help each other stock up on ammo. | Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment / Eurogamer

Players in my matchmaking sessions seemed to have remarkably good etiquette, apologising for team kills, and frequently using supply packs to help each other stock up on ammo.

And boy do these levels get tough: you won’t be short of a challenge here. They force you to reconsider your strategies and try new ways of playing, as I discovered when my old tactic of ‘as many bullets as possible’ was no longer quite cutting it. The way rewards are given out means you’ll need to complete harder levels to unlock advanced ship upgrades, but if you’re happy pootling around in the easier levels, there’s no pressure on you to wade into the tougher stuff – there’s still plenty of gear to unlock at your level.

There were concerns from some that progression in Helldivers 2 could be sped up through microtransactions, provoking discussions around whether it was pay-to-win. From my experience, however, I found myself receiving a pretty constant stream of rewards, and I earned a generous amount of super credits just from playing the game, which I was then able to spend in the shop on cosmetics and armour. You can pay to gain access to the premium warbond early (a form of progression system resembling a battle pass), but you’ll still need to earn medals to unlock rewards, and you can eventually access the premium warbond with super credits earned through regular gameplay. None of the items in the premium warbond are particularly overpowered, so for me at least, I didn’t feel the need to pay extra at all. It’s worth noting too that Helldivers 2 is entirely PvE – so if there were an influence on the strength of your build, it only helps your fellow squadmates anyway.

The only time I actually had a problem with the progression system was due to technical issues. Helldivers 2 has had a particularly rocky launch, and over the past week I’ve experienced problems with matchmaking, logging in, being booted from games due to connection issues, and not having my progression recorded. In total, I probably lost about half a day’s worth of progress, which was somewhat disheartening. Developer Arrowhead Game Studios has been pushing out a range of patches to address these problems, and hopefully these updates will bring the problems under control. The episode did, however, highlight how frustrating it is to be unable to play Helldivers 2 offline, as an online connection is required even for solo play.

Helldivers 2 gif - The player-character pings a bullet at a hellbomb on the floor, starting a detonation sequence. The player-character runs away just as the bomb explodes, killing a large insect in the process.
In a pickle with no stratagems available? See if there’s an unexploded hellbomb lying around. | Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment / Eurogamer

Despite the issues surrounding matchmaking, when Helldivers 2 works, it’s a wonderfully slapstick co-op experience. Unexpected and memorable events seem to occur in nearly every battle, and I already have a stock of ludicrous stories from my first week with the game. There was the time I got flattened by the extraction ship. The time I stood on top of a massive turret, so that when the robots aimed their rockets at me, they blew up their own base in the process. The time I hid behind what I thought was an abandoned tank… only to look up and see its gun turn. All these moments are now seared into my brain in a way that feels quite unusual for a shooter, where it can be easy for all matches to blend into one. So as I head into another week of ‘spreading democracy’ throughout the galaxy, I’m excited to try the higher difficulty levels, and discover some of the most terrifying hordes the game has to offer. But perhaps more than that, I’m wondering where the next comedic team kill is going to come from. Anyone know the blast range of a mini nuke? Guess there’s only one way to find out.

A copy of Helldivers 2 was provided for review by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

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