What results from Helldivers' many spinning wheels is a splendid blend of tactics, improvisation, and mishaps. Missions can range from beautiful examples of cooperation and skill, near-disasters rescued by determination and tooth-and-nail fighting, and complete catastrophes that will leave you gasping for breath. The battles constantly shift in emphasis too - slowly declining situations can be completely averted by a smartly employed Stratagem or the appearance of an extra player, while an abrupt death or a fumbled Stratagem call can turn a sure-fire victory into score one for the aliens.%
The severity of the challenge varies depending on the difficulty of planet you select. These ranging from "Dive in the Park" difficulty level 1 to "Helldive" difficulty level 12. Given how the game becomes seriously demanding for four players around level six, whereupon the aliens start deploying their larger units, you get some idea of just how ferocious Helldivers can be. I'll spare you any specific details about how the three alien races fight; that ought to be a surprise for you to find out on your own. But the combat is raw and spectacular. Even the more basic stratagems, like the Vindicator dive-bomb and strafeing run, rip through enemy ranks like a vindaloo through an intestinal tract.
More generally, I was impressed by how Helldivers sidesteps a lot of potential problems with its structure. The procedurally generated missions, planets and so forth, could easily become repetitive, yet in a way that's reminiscent of Spelunky, the stern and unpredictable nature of the challenge means this is rarely the case. Similarly, like most modern multiplayer games, Helldivers sports an extensive upgrade system. Here you earn new equipment through levelling up, new Stratagems from conquering planets, and research points to improve current equipment by picking up geological "samples" while on mission. Such systems can quickly transform an otherwise ingenious multiplayer game into a tedious grind, but here upgrades are pacey, plentiful, and above all interesting. Unlocking a new Stratagem in particular is always a thrill in and of itself. I fought like a cat in a binbag to get my mech-walker "EVO" suit, and now a little smile creeps up my face every time I deploy it.
While the game is definitely designed with cooperation in mind, it can be enjoyed single-player, although it becomes a far more serious and methodical experience if you choose this path. Picking the right Stratagems is absolutely vital. Above all you need abilities that offer either protection or assistance over straightforward damage output, while planning your route through a mission is hugely important. Single-player Helldivers works, just about, but I wouldn't recommend it, not least because you miss out on much of the emergent humour that Helldivers so obviously plays toward.
There are a few harder issues evident in Arrowhead's game too. Mission have a fair chunk of downtime between them, spent watching various experience bars fill up and having the game proudly reiterate all the things you've just done. Much of this is in service of the "Galactic War" component of the game, whereby all your actions feed into the larger-scale conflict that involves all Helldivers players. Depending on how well players contribute, "Democracy" can be spread throughout the galaxy like weaponised Nutella, or Super Earth can be overwhelmed by extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, unless you're fortunate enough to be playing when a war is won or lost, it has little meaning in the context of your personal experience.
Yet even this fits into Helldivers' exquisitely silly portrayal of the absurdity of war. For all the chest-beating, suicidal patriotism of your teeny weeny Helldivers, the Super Earth that they fight so proudly for doesn't care whether they live or die. There are always more be-helmeted zealots to feed into their democratic war machine. And in this vast mechanism you are but a tiny cog. Even the moral nature of your conquest is highly dubious. What does a hive-minded race of giant alien insect need democracy for anyway? They can't write on ballots. They don't have fingers.
What you're ultimately fighting for is the Helldiver at your side. They may occasionally drop a Hellpod on your head, squashing you flatter than a pancake on Jupiter, but they're still your comrades in arms, braving the exact same nightmare as you. It's a cracking cooperative experience, thoroughly recommended.