04 . 15 . 2024

Helldivers II

Image. Reservoir Creative.

New orders are in, cadets. The Ministry of Truth has ordered that there be a documentation of the war effort, and since I’m on desk duty I have been given this grave responsibility. That’s right – it’s time to review the freedom-flinging frenzy that is Helldivers II. 

Helldivers II has taken the gaming world by storm, becoming the largest debut of a Sony game on PC ever. It’s a third-person co-op shooter, where your goal is to eliminate the tyrannical bugs known as Terminids, and fight back the advance of the “socialist Automatons”. You start in your own personal war room, where you can survey the galaxy and observe what currently threatens managed democracy. After picking a planet you can select what mission you want, so as to further liberate the planet from enemy control.


At this point you drop in behind enemy lines, accomplish the mission objective (like launching an ICBM, defending an outpost, or evacuating citizens), and then extract from the planet while trying not to be overwhelmed by the enemy. 

At your disposal are a handful of stratagems – in-game codes that allow you to summon more supplies, air strikes, and heavier artillery. Stratagems are what really set Helldivers II apart. You choose what stratagems and boosts you want to bring at the start of a mission, optimizing your choices for what will best accomplish your objective. Calling in a stratagem involves inputting a code on your D-pad, which brings me back to the olden days of cheat codes. After that you throw a flare which summons in your chosen stratagem, and you pray your teammates don’t get killed by the payload’s delivery.

The gunplay feels immersive on the PS5 thanks to the haptic feedback from the DualSense controller. (Not enough games utilize the DualSense to its full capabilities, which is a shame.) It plays smoothly, and while there is the occasional jankiness, it never detracts from the gameplay. It’s a chaotic game by nature, so if anything that jankiness just adds on to the pile of chaos. 


Artistically it’s most evocative of, well, Starship Troopers. If you thought you could read a single review of this game without mention of Starship Troopers, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s just such an easy comparison to make! In both the movie and Helldivers , you wear cool uniforms and kill bugs to fulfill your patriotic duty. (How annoying is it that fascist uniforms tend to have great fashion sense?).  The graphics are admirable – performance doesn’t slow on the PS5 and it still renders a beautiful portrait of democracy.  The music is rousing – simple, repeated melodies with short intervals between the notes, implying strength.  And of course it’s brass instrumentation – that’s the most patriotic of instruments.

I’ve always been a fan of co-op games. Earth Defense Force is a top-tier game for our family, so I’m happy to see a game of its ilk break out into the mainstream. Helldivers II, like many games of this generation, is a live-service game. Live service done poorly has given it a bad reputation, but done well it does really make for a living game. (For example, Sea of Thieves has done a great job shaping the world in response to the players, and designing events that change and encourage player interaction.) Some will bemoan that it’s live service, but there is a key difference with Helldivers II. His name is Joel.

That would be the name of Helldivers II‘s game master. Much like a game of Dungeons & Dragons, Joel responds to the way players engage with the game. This is live-service leveled up – before, game directors would listen to feedback and respond with balance adjustments and events that catered to what the players wanted, but the development cycle was much longer and for a predetermined story. With Helldivers II, Joel adjusts the day-to-day gameplay based on how players have been accomplishing their objectives. If players fail to defend a system, new routes open up for an enemy faction. If the Helldivers are winning a little too easily, Joel might tip the scales more towards the enemies to keep it challenging. I compared it earlier to Dungeons & Dragons, but really it bears more of a resemblance to the tabletop war games that inspired D&D in the first place!


Now for me to discuss the spiritual values of this game, I’ll have to engage in some dissident discussion. May the Ministry of Truth have mercy on me. 

Obviously much of the language surrounding the game is politically charged. The robots are socialists, and buzzwords like “liberty” and “managed democracy” are thrown around like grenades on the battlefield. But once you dive into the worldbuilding one layer deeper, you see beyond the (admittedly very thin) façade. “Managed democracy” in this universe means that you tell a computer what your beliefs are and it decides and submits the vote for you. We fight the bugs to free planets of their scourge – but their corpses also provide us with a natural resource dubbed E-710. (Those who played with calculators upside down should figure that analogy out pretty quickly). When you die, you don’t technically respawn – the reinforcement that’s called in just replaces you. Looking at the actions and not the words, it’s clear to see the values do not match up. 

The hyper-patriotic atmosphere of the game is clearly meant to be received as satirical, and it does a good job conveying that. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s failed to understand that. Part of the reason that the culture of this game spread so quickly though is due to the effectiveness of its pseudo-propaganda. It’s fun to be in on the joke of fighting for managed democracy. We’ve been given hammers and every threat looks like a nail. It’s nice to simplify the world. But therein lies the danger.

Awwww! Screenshot.

I’m not saying this game is a fascist-making machine. In fact through its satire it does a great job acknowledging the evils of totalitarianism. But it does make me uncomfortable when I sit with how fun it is to be part of the club. It showcases the dangers of reducing truth to bite-sized rallying cries. We want things to be simpler, because simple problems require simple solutions. The sense of control that gives us is incredibly pacifying! And because we’ve accepted that managed truth in its entirety, it feels like a worthy cause to fight for. But there is more to truth than that. Compromise is complex, and conflict is not always solved through dropping a bomb.

The feeling this commitment inspires may seem a lot like patriotism, but there is absolutely a difference between true patriotism and the jingoism that’s on display in Helldivers II. Chesterton says it best:

My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’.

G.K. Chesterton

We’d be right to question our mother’s judgment if she was under the influence. Ignoring her mental state altogether and following her drunken orders won’t get us anywhere good. Just the same, we have a duty to our country, but not if what our country asks of us is unjust. Part of the duty we owe to our country is making it a country worth inspiring such commitment. And a country that demands blind obedience is not worth serving. 


In the same way, we don’t preach a blind faith in Catholicism. In fact, we invite questions and scrutiny. Truth should be put to the test. When we’re wondering why the Church holds a certain teaching, there is always a reason. Faith and reason complement each other.

Test everything; retain what is good.

1 Thessalonians 5:21

While the act of faith is believing in something that’s not perceivable by the senses, it doesn’t mean we got there without other answers and consolations. That testing of everything is what builds trust and inspires loyalty.  

Still, these supposed flaws that Helldivers has are contingent on taking the plot seriously. And the point of a good satire is that, when it’s taken seriously, it should make us uncomfortable. But that’s not how the game is received. Everyone is well aware that living in this game’s world would be the opposite of freeing.

As a reviewer I sometimes need to put on the “wet blanket” analytical self, but that’s exactly the type of analysis that prevents you from having fun in a game like Helldivers II. So because it’s NOT some indoctrinating machine, I’m going to stop now, suspend my disbelief once more, and continue playing this awesome game. FOR SUPER EARTH!


Scoring: 88%

Art: 4.5 / 5

Music: 4 / 5

Story & Writing: 4 / 5

Gameplay: 5 / 5 

Design: 4.5 / 5

Morality / Parental Warnings

Violence: Violence makes up the meat of the game. So far it’s only between bugs and robots. At this point there is no inter-human violence, but there are hints that there is a new alien faction on the horizon. Blood is everywhere. Explosions have a tendency to detach your limbs, but it feels more cartoony than it does gory. 

Language: No inappropriate or dissident language here, though there is online voice chat in this game. With a game this popular, there’s bound to be some occasional toxicity and vulgar language.

Suggestive Content: Not really much – if you dive deep in the lore, you’ll find out you need to submit a form to be allowed to have sex with someone, “subject to a 180 day approval process”, which is hilarious. No objectified designs here. 

About Matt "PBnJ" Palardy

Video-game lover since I first jumped around in Super Mario 64. Tolkien nerd and music enthusiast to boot. Hope you enjoy long rants about miniscule details!