Helldivers. There are a hundred different things I could talk about with this game. From the meta-game of saving Super Earth to the moment-to-moment struggle of dodging your friend’s drop pods. Today I’m going to zero in on the mechanic of deploying stratagems and how this simple mechanic adds a considerable amount of tension to the game.
Quick background info:
Helldivers is a top down twin stick shooter where players drop into procedurally generated levels and complete objectives while trying to not die in the process.
Stratagems are special items; they range from a mech to a UAV to a nuclear missile. Some can be used more than once (but have a cool down) others only once. When a player calls in a stratagem they have to do a combination of buttons to program the beacon. Once the beacon is set the player must throw the beacon and wait X seconds (it varies based on stratagem) for the pod to fall in an area near the beacon.
Players typically use Stratagems in one of three scenarios.
1st: The beginning of the level, to get ready and geared up for the oncoming mission.
2nd: The end of the level, when they must hold out against the enemy for a minute and a half until their extraction transport arrives.
3rd: (And my personal favorite) When sh*t is hitting the fan.
In the first scenario, the beginning of the level, typically there are not many enemies around (Though I’ve seen players drop into hives.) And players are on the look out for patrols while calling in their stratagems. Typically not a lot of pressure here; nor is it particularly difficult.
In the second scenario at the end of the level usually players have run away from a recently completed (or failed) objective and most of the enemies. They are in a similar situation as the beginning of the level, typically not a lot of pressure here either. That is until they call in a drop ship for extraction. This leads me to my third and favorite scenario.
When sh*t has hit the fan and enemies are swarming over the players. The best way I can explain how this feels is like Starship Troopers. Or better yet in Aliens when the marines are firing into a hallway, dropping alien after alien only to realize they are out of ammo and the aliens are still coming. That’s the third scenario; this is when players start to drop in everything they have. Ammo, guns, mechs, airstrikes, the list goes on. This is where the button combinations get tricky. Usually when there are no enemies around tapping the 5 arrows in order is easy because you can relax and think. When a player is running away from hordes of enemies after they just ate all his friends, he’s out of ammo and he is frantically trying to hit the correct buttons to drop in a mech, it becomes a thousand times more difficult than it really is. Not to mention every time he gets it wrong he has to start over entering the button combinations. This simple mechanic makes the game much more interesting and tenser than if each stratagem were attached to a single button press.
Interestingly this mechanic isn’t reserved solely for stratagems. It is used as well to activate some objectives, calling an extraction and even calling in reinforcements (Respawning players). Here it has the same effect, not particularly difficult but the hardest thing on the planet when pressure is put on the player.
I really like how this little addition escalates the tension and helps the game achieve what it is trying to do by making a situation go from feeling bad to dire. It works perfectly for this game because it isn’t difficult normally but escalates stressful situations exponentially. And it only becomes difficult in specific situations, which have been expertly crafted into the game. The way this mechanic increases tension reminds me of how Resident Evil increases tension by not letting the player move quickly while shooting. The player has to stand still or walk slowly while aiming at charging enemies. But that will be for another time.