PlayStation’s New Co-op Shooter Won Me Over Before the Game Even Starts

Super Earth needs you!

key art from Helldivers 2
Arrowhead Game Studios

If you’ve played one game tutorial, you’ve played them all. At least, that’s how it feels most of the time. But the biggest new shooter on PS5 and PC turns what could be a rote tutorial into a hilarious introduction to the game’s over-the-top satire and sets the perfect tone for what you’re about to dive into.

The Helldivers 2 trailer at the recent Sony State of Play showed off plenty of its bug-squashing action, with squads of heavily armed soldiers taking down waves of giant, armored alien insects. But what it didn’t prepare me for is that Helldivers 2 has more in common with Starship Troopers than it does your typical co-op shooter. While the core of Helldivers 2 is multiplayer action, its subversive story of an unquestioning soldier in a brutal fascist dictatorship is its real greatest strength.

Helldivers 2 is a more interesting shooter than I expected from its very first moment.

Helldivers 2 opens with a message from the Super Earth Ministry of Truth — a trustworthy organization if I’ve ever heard of one. In this short introductory video, a man steps out of his future car onto a perfectly manicured lawn, waving to the friendly soldiers cheerfully maintaining martial law on his street before greeting his wife and child. Suddenly, a massive insect steps into frame and turns his family into piles of goo as the camera cuts away.

According to this totally realistic piece of propaganda, the only way to prevent this from happening to you is to join the Helldivers, a military “peacekeeping force” tasked with invading other planets to exterminate their local insectoid inhabitants. The highlight is a voiceover telling you the Helldivers will let you “see exotic new lifeforms” over footage of a trooper shooting a bug in the head with a rocket launcher and being hit with a fountain of its bright green innards. It’s a blatant, on-the-nose nod to the opening of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers and while it doesn’t have an ounce of subtlety, it’s a beautifully unexpected welcome to a game with a satirical bent that I wasn’t expecting.

As great of a tone-setter as the opening video is, the tutorial that follows is a masterclass in turning a boring game design necessity into a narrative set piece. The tutorial opens with onscreen text spelling out the 48,000 trainees vying for a spot in the Helldivers, with a 27 percent “Combat Readiness Rating,” and a one-in-five expected survival rate. You’re then plopped onto a training course to learn how to press R2 to shoot and so forth as the voice of a general delivers some of the funniest in-game exposition in recent memory.

Helldivers 2’s combat is great, but its dark sense of humor is what grabbed me.

Arrowhead Game Studios

Cheerfully disregarding your 20 percent chance of surviving battle, the voice of General Brasch hypes you up as a potential savior of Super Earth, insisting he’s never seen such physical prowess as you hop over waist-high barriers and crawl slowly through the dirt. Every step of the way, as you mow down captive bugs and learn how to use a med kit, the voice is clear: watching you complete this simple obstacle course is the most impressive thing he’s ever seen.

The tutorial’s satire hits a grim peak as you’re shown how to call in reinforcements for fallen squadmates. As you look at a cardboard cutout of a Helldiver, General Brasch tells you this is your new squadmate, waxing poetic about how squads form “a battle-forged bond that could never be replaced.” In the next instant, Brasch detonates the cutout, adding that “Squadmates can and will perish tragically all the time.” After you successfully call in reinforcement, Brasch congratulates you on how moving past your dear departed comrade with such haste.

However, if you have as itchy of a trigger finger as I did, you get another, even darker version of the scene. If you shoot the cardboard cutout yourself, Brasch assures you that “friendly fire is an unavoidable part of life” — which, in Helldivers 2, is actually true. When you’re in a real game with other players, just a few stray shots can take down your teammate. That’s caused some controversy among players, but it’s also an essential part of how the game paints its troopers as utterly replaceable pawns in an imperialist army.

Any resemblance to Starship Troopers is absolutely not coincidental.

Arrowhead Game Studios

With your fallen squadmate quickly forgotten, the tutorial concludes with a short battle against a squad of bugs. Brasch assures you that you’re a one-of-a-kind hero, destined to “spread democracy” as no soldier before you has ever done. Finally, you step into a waiting rocket and blast off into space — only to see dozens of identical rockets rising around you, each carrying a newly minted Helldiver who you can assume was just fed the same message about being the one true hope of humankind.

From there, Helldivers 2 launches you into its live-service shooter loop. Judging from its early success — so many players joined in the first weekend they crashed the game’s servers — that loop seems to be an exceptionally good one. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick around, as it’s just not a genre of game that I tend to play for very long. I’m hoping that the impeccable tone its first few moments sets carries me through more bug-smashing missions, but even if I never play another match, the wildly irreverent intro to Helldivers 2 has already given me more joy than I’ve felt playing a shooter in years.

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