Helldivers 2 Arrowhead
Screenshot via Siliconera

Helldivers 2 Refines Arrowhead Games’ Style of Emergent Comedy

The year is 2024. You are a shock trooper for an interstellar empire. You’ve trained for entire minutes to prepare for this mission, and you’re determined to cover every eventuality. To that end, you make sure to call in every resource available to you. Unfortunately, a crafty signal jammer has scrambled your painstakingly memorized stratagem codes, and instead of the heavy machine gun you requested, you have instead thrown a call-in beacon for a napalm strike at the feet of your teammate. You have seconds to respond, throwing yourself face-first into a ravine as the rest of your squad is vaporized where they stand. When you poke your head back out, you are greeted by a smoldering crater and a squad of investigating Automatons, who promptly call for reinforcements. This is Helldivers 2.

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Arrowhead Game Studios’ Helldivers 2 is a surprise hit, propelled not just by its solid core gameplay but also the eminently clippable moments of unfriendly fire, self-inflicted injuries, and pure panic. The secret to these moments is that they are emergent, not programmed, but they are encouraged and facillitated by systems that have been developed over Arrowhead’s entire body of work. Not just in the original Helldivers, but even as far back as the studio’s very first game.

Magicka Arrowhead
Screenshot via Siliconera

The year is 2011. You are a Wizard, and you’ve accidentally perforated your companion with icicles instead of your foe. You hastily attempt to resurrect them, but the icicles have melted into water and soaked your robe, causing you to succeed only in electrocuting yourself with the spell’s Lightning component. You cast a quick cantrip of flame to dry yourself out, but now you are on fire. You manage to complete the resurrection right before succumbing to the flames, seeing your companion rise as you fall to the ground. Then they are eaten by goblins.

Magicka, the studio’s first outing, also suffered from a bug-infested launch. But despite the game launching without the developers knowing, Magicka ended up being a huge success for a student team that was operating at the time from a rented university room. And much like the studio’s most recent game, that success was in large part due to word of mouth and viral moments that emerged through gameplay. Though rather than TikToks or Twitch streams, they were spread in YouTube “Let’s Plays” by channels like the Yogscast.

The key mechanic of Magicka was that spells were crafted from a combination of eight elements, each changing the form, function and power of the spell as well as reacting with each other. Fire melts Ice into Water which conducts Lightning, as you might expect, but others react more violently, or simply cannot be invoked while you are affected by other elements. While memorizing a favorite spell’s input scratches the same itch as nailing a Helldivers stratagem code, crafting it required experimentation and Arrowhead made sure failure could lead to anything from a fizzle to an explosion.

Helldivers 2 Salute Missile
Screenshot by Siliconera

Playing solo, crafting spells is a risk, but with a party of friends and goodness-knows how many enemies on screen at the same time, you have a recipe for chaos. Try remembering combos while also avoiding enemies’ attacks and your allies’ spells, and make sure you’re not standing in a pool of an element that might react unpredictably. But far from a straight difficulty increase, the game encourages you to play with more people because as much as they can hinder, they can also help.

For example, healing is far more effective when cast on someone else than yourself, and beam spells can be channeled together into a focused kamehameha of disintegration (provided the elements don’t clash when you cross the streams). Additionally, playing with a friend allows you to be revived and get back into the fight quickly rather than sitting through a frustrating game over screen, though later Arrowhead games like Helldivers would make respawn systems that were less punishing. You can play solo, but you’re so much more powerful as a party, even if they make you explode sometimes.

After Magicka, Arrowhead would then go on to make a side-on shooter-brawler called The Showdown Effect and a new entry in the classic co-op hack and slash series Gauntlet. But it was with 2015’s Helldivers that the studio hit its stride again. While hardly reaching a tenth of the sequel’s success, the first Helldivers is actually remarkably similar just with a more cartoony art style and a more overhead camera angle. The same mechanics of ammo conservation, stratagem call-ins, and galactic war are all there, while equipment sharing, assisted reloads on some weapons and simply being able to cover each other’s blind spots serve to encourage that same cooperation.

Helldivers 1
Screenshot by Siliconera

And it is cooperation that stabilizes the Arrowhead formula. Despite how fun it is to “accidentally” off your teammates in Helldivers or Magicka, it’s even more fun to pull off a boss melting death-ray with a friend and more entertaining still to fail explosively. You can even get incredibly silly with it, while still being somewhat helpful. Nothing says you can’t manifest your healing spell as a field of explosive mines that send allies flying even as their health is restored, or throw a reinforcement beacon into a swarm of bugs so the drop-pod crushes them as it descends. Don’t worry about your friend being caught in the middle of any remaining enemies, that’s a problem they can deal with.

And those options, especially the silly ones, only make it more compelling. Sure, youre could use a perfectly servicable spell or the basic assault rifle, switching out only as enemy weaknesses or objectives dictate, but wouldn’t you rather try one of all these exciting new weapons, or call in an unnecessarily large bomb? You have a lot of nails to hammer, so why not switch up your tools? But of course, every new toy you’re tempted by, like every new enemy type and every objective you need to stop and finish, is another opportunity to screw up, and for the mission to go completely F.U.B.A.R.

Arrowhead Game Studios’ Helldivers 2 is a game that lets you create incredible emergent stories as you and your team bumble around like the Three Stooges on Klendathu, but the apparant simplicity belies several games worth of iteration on systems that allow that to happen. By adding reward to the risk, and incentivizing you to try the more dangerous moves, Arrowhead entices you to coordinate your chaos, while still making failure fun.

Helldivers 2 is available for the PS5 and PC. Helldivers is available on the PS3, PS4, PS Vita and PC. Magicka is available for the PC.

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Elliot Gostick
Elliot is a staff writer from the mist-shrouded isle of Albion, and has been covering gaming news and reviews for about a year. When not playing RPGs and Strategy games, she is often found trying (and failing) to resist the urge to buy more little plastic spacemen.