Game developers have long tried to make a great game Spaceship Troopers video game, but none have ever come as close as Arrowhead Game Studios’ recent release, Hell divers 2.
film by Paul Verhoeven Starship Troopers, one The fantastic decline of imperial capitalism remains as stark today as it did when the film hit theaters in 1997. The film follows a young soldier named Johnny Rico as he enlists in the United Citizen Federation’s army to colonize the galaxy. Half an action movie about destroying very gross bugs and half a social satire about the need to destroy them in the first place. Spaceship Troopers makes perfect sense as a basis for a video game – even if it took a few years of the original novel’s jingoism being mistaken as an endorsement.
Helldivers 2, the recent huge surprise hit third-person shooter, nails Starship Troopers’ show almost immediately, from the tongue-in-cheek propaganda of the opening cinematic and loading screens to a tutorial that ends with the player grabbing the Super Earth flag and moving it around an area to wave democracy in people’s faces, then greetings to end the mission. Hell divers 2 cleverly allows this note to penetrate every crack and crevice that shows even a hint of personality. Characters invade alien planets screaming for freedom, and napalm attacks are an unlockable weapon. Everything you do is in the name of capitalism or ‘democracy’, and even the microtransactions have fake reviews that are ‘sponsored’ by the Super Earth government. The satire is of the funniest kind: ridiculous, loud and impossible to miss.
But a lot of games, of Earth Defense Force to official Spaceship Troopers adjustments, have mimicked the tone of the film. What makes Hell divers 2 what is special is that it is also a fantastic game to play.
Players start out as simple soldiers tasked with defending Super Earth from a galaxy full of insects (which basically means going to other planets and killing them wherever they live). You have your own ship, which serves as your home base and with which you (and your team of up to three friends) can launch missions to new planets, customize your equipment and choose recognizable freedom-saving weapons, such as orbital drone strikes and chemical weapons, called Stratagems. The game features dozens of purchasable upgrades and new weapons, which you can earn by completing missions and bonus objectives – although unlocks are admittedly slow if you don’t complete each mission 100%.
But where Hell divers 2‘s rubber doesn’t really hit the road until the bug killing actually begins. Despite the exaggerated tone, Hell divers 2 is an unmistakably tactical game. Even when equipped with airstrikes, EMPs, and automated weapons systems, each player can still only carry a very limited amount of ammo, which is discarded if you reload early, a touch of realism that most shooters simply smooth over. The planets themselves are hostile environments, with rolling fog and blizzards making navigation difficult, not to mention they’re crawling with enemies. One of the most interesting aspects is that mission progression is something that the entire player base works towards together. Each of these hostile planets comes with a percentage meter that ticks further toward “liberation” every time a real team completes a mission there. Once the planet is liberated, everyone will unlock new areas and missions.
Adding to the tactical feel is the game’s tight third-person camera, which limits the awareness you can have of your surroundings. Amid Hell divers 2‘s smartest choice, however, isn’t to just throw thousands of identical, easy-to-kill bugs at you. The number of enemies often reaches dozens, but the masterstroke of developer Arrowhead Game Studios is to make each bug dangerous in its own way. Some have armor that covers almost their entire body, others can become invisible and they all want to tear you apart. Each attack also has a chance to injure your limbs, slow you down, or reduce your accuracy if you can’t heal. Missions also have time limits, and traversing each map requires careful planning and quite a bit of running.
Even if you’re on a full team, the smallest insects pose a real threat, whether they kill you themselves or overwhelm you until their bigger, scarier cousins catch up. Fortunately, insects are also not immune to specific limb-related injuries; you can also shoot off their legs, tails, claws and other parts in a bloody spray that can render them alive but harmless – although still extremely dirty. This small gameplay and gory nuance, combined with the ammo limitations, means that accuracy is paramount, and every little encounter feels like life or death. This all makes for an infectiously fun gameplay loop.
Every second of battle is also fueled by the tension of balancing your cooldowns on a razor’s edge. Using the big guns, like orbital strikes and bombardments, feels perfect for conserving your ammo and grenades, but those can easily dry up before the artillery cooldowns return. In addition to their cooldowns, the Stratagems’ heavy artillery or support must be activated using a wrist-mounted computer that requires fighting game-like button combinations to summon everything from extra ammo to a nuclear warhead. Every gunfight feels like a war between trying to wipe out every enemy on screen and just taking off and running for your life, in a way that’s somehow both extremely unnerving and absolutely hilarious.
That inherent comedy is a huge piece Hell divers 2‘s success. Along with the ridiculous barking, like a hail of bullets followed by a shout of ‘try democracy’, Hell divers 2 also uses gaming’s most perennial comedic gimmick: ragdoll physics. Sometimes a Charger (the aptly named bug that charges at you) accidentally shoots you 100 feet to safety, or maybe your squadmate misplaced a grenade and you see their new limbless body swinging across the screen at the speed of sound. And occasionally the best choice for democracy is to give yourself an airstrike and launch both your enemies and your own body halfway across the map, and then hope that your teammate can quickly revive you – and if you’re smart you might also be able to use your revive for assassinations, landing your launch pod on an enemy. Either of these options is ridiculous. and a perfect and hysterical way to counter this Hell divers 2‘s otherwise tense, moment-to-moment action.
Hell divers 2 is undeniably one Spaceship Troopers tribute (one that may get away with its blatantness by virtue of being produced by Sony, the same company that owns the rights to the film), but it’s also so much more than that. The tight gameplay loop, excellent combat and clever team dynamics also make it one of the best and most fun tactical co-op shooters in years. And that is good news for democracy.