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Helldivers 2 - Helldivers Never Die Twice!

In Oct of 2017 I wrote a brief and glowing review of Helldivers 1. When Helldivers 2 was announced I was, as you may expect, very excited to see the huge changes they had made. It was clear from the start this was going to be a massively different product than the original. It's pretty rare to see a game get overhauled so massively and retain the core design and gameplay loop. I daresay only a few games even come to mind (Risk of Rain and Fallout 2 to 3 for example).

Our gaming group dove in on day one and... uninstalled immediately. Spoiler alert: This is going to be a very positive review but day 1 was a nightmare. Our group decided to give the game some time to patch and work through their sever issues before climbing into another hellpod.

Now, here we are just over a month later and I am certain that Helldivers 2 will be nominated for Game of the Year and has a solid chance of winning it all. For a game launched in February, staring down 10 months of games to beat, that's a hell of a thing.

So what makes Helldivers 2 so much better than Helldivers 1, which was already an outstanding product? That's the topic of today's deep dive (pun intended) into game design: Scale and Scope and Stake.

Let's start with some definitions, and before we get too far I want to note that there's no "formal" definitions of these terms when it comes to game design. These are how I define them.

Scale: The size of the "playable world" as presented to the players. This does not mean you can reach everywhere presented immediately, but at least in theory those areas are somewhere you could or will go in the future.

Scope: The immediate area in which a player can affect. Essentially, the role you will be playing within that scale.

Stake: The consequences and impact your actions are going to have in the Scale and Scope of the game.

Finally, before we get to the Helldivers part of this Helldivers review I also want to note that none of these things make a game good or bad on their own, they are the supporting structure that helps raise (or lower) the game. Excellent game designers keep Scale, Scope, and Stake in mind from start to finish, while more novice designers see them more as a symptom of the game they want to make. For instance Elite Dangerous has truly massive scale (a whole galaxy that can take actual weeks or months to traverse) with tiny scope and scale (I'm just one tiny ship). Slay the Spire on the otherhand has tiny scale and massive scope. A complete run of the game can be done in less than an hour but your impact and control of the game means the scope and stake is immense (sorta, if you care about the plot).

Prepare to Die. I mean Dive.

The Scale of the game feels huge. There's a ton of planets filled with killer bugs, bots, and your so called allies, all of which are probably going to kill you more than you'd prefer. 

The game has a "live" GM, who is frequently updating the game with new galactic objectives and little pieces of plot to keep things spicy. This keeps the community engaged in working together to spread managed Democracy and protect Super Earth.

Every planet you see, in theory, you could go to. As you look at the planets, you can look around and see all the objectives, other divers, and so much fun little detail (like how many bullets have been fired) that gives you a real sense of how huge the game is.

In short, the scale gets to feel huge without having to create an infinite number of planets across vast distances like a space simulation. An asbolute masterclass in understanding what makes a game feel large without having to create vast numbers of assets that slow actual development to a crawl. I'm looking at you Star Citizen.

Friendly Fire Isn't

The Scope of the game is small, but not as tiny as some. In Helldivers 2 you don't play some great hero that comes back to life every time they are killed. Instead your voice and gender are randomized (by default, you can turn this off) to give you the sense of every new drop is a new soldier. Still, with a little luck, a little skill, and teammates that don't "accidentally" drop orbital strikes on your head a single soldier can feel like they are making a difference. Your squad's completion of an objective can move the needle by a few thousandths of a % while the broadcasts and destroyer crews tell you how vital and incredible you are.

Knowing how many bugs you eradicated, what level of patriot you are, and all the other little details really do make you feel like shouting "I'm doing my part!" at the end of every mission.

This small scope with the feeling of small but meaningful impacts makes the war seem more real. Combine that with the massive weapons like artillery, airstrikes, and orbital weapons against the galactic scale backdrop and you get the correct sense of the "cog in the war machine" reality, which is no accident.

The biggest factor in making you feel small without feeling insignificant is that combat areas are instanced to your squad. Take a game like Planetside or even Foxhole where the war is in real time and ongoing at every minute. You never have a chance to look at the impact you made. You don't get the personal progress bar of "I increased our holdings on this planet by 0.0002%" when you return to your ship. This lack of reflection leads games like those perpetual wargames to make you feel actually insignificant; and in my opinion creates a less optimal feeling of scope.

In Helldivers every victory feels like a victory, both for you, the squad, and Super Earth.

A Stake Through the Heart of Democracy

Stakes in games can be hard to convey. I started this post talking about the Slay the Spire. What are the Stakes in that game? I honestly have no idea. Does it matter if we don't slay the spire? Does it matter if we die?

Helldivers 2 on the otherhand has one thing most other games don't: Propaganda. The tongue-in-cheek news broadcasts, repeated phrases, informational pop-ups, and even their social media posts all deliver the roleplay experience required to make you feel like the Stakes are too high not to be enthusiastic in your missions.

Despite the Propaganda being mostly comedic in rhetoric, it feels SO on point when your helldiver shouts "HELLDIVERS NEVER DIE!" while completely surrounded and facing near certain death, machinegun blazing while explosions happen all around them. You get to feel like you're in an action movie, storming the beaches of Normandy or something. Though, instead of being the main character who will somehow miraculously make it out alive, you're that guy next to him who just looked down at a live grenade.

While other games ignore or downplay the campy "roleplay" nature of the game in favor of other story-telling vehicles (or no story telling vehicle), Helldivers 2 embraces it. This gives an additional layer of immersion, so it's no wonder that in practically every squad I have been a part of some real life person has shouted "FOR DEMOCRACY" when making a bold (and often futile) stand. It just feels... right.


For all the praise on Scale, Scope, and Stake here, I haven't actually talked about how the game plays or anything like that. It's a (mostly) third person shooter that pits you and up to 3 others against massive bugs or robots in a bid to colonize the galaxy for humanity.

Everything about the game feels great, but most of all the weaponry. When you've got a nuke (hellbomb) going off in the background as a Gatling turret is whizzing bullets beside you and you're there pumping endless shotgun rounds into anything that gets close it feels epic on a scale few games have reached. Those moments of absolutely obliterating the enemy are simply wonderful and not so common they feel stale.

This is often intermixed with hilarious comedies of errors, like detonating that nuke a little too close to an ally or having that gattling turret turn to shoot something on the other side of your body (it doesn't care one bit that you may be in the way).

The difficulty of the game is wide and varied, but once you dial in where your skill is, it is not uncommon to make it out with zero drops remaining or complete the objective and fail to extract (still a win as far as Super Earth is concerned!).

That said, with a full squad of patriotic heroes there's no better tool in your arsenal than good communications. Real heroes call out their airstrikes, and to be at your best you'll need a good microphone. That's where we come in, the attachable ModMic microphone or Kimura in-ear headset will save Helldiver lives. Can you really put a price tag on that?

As updates continue to roll out I am excited to see what else is added and removed from the game as the war for Super Earth continues.

There's nothing else to say: Helldivers 2 is a 10/10 good time, despite its bumpy first weeks and occasional server issues.

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