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Helldivers 2 Should Become Even More Like Starship Troopers

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Helldivers 2 channels the satire of war and propaganda that makes Starship Troopers memorable and meaningful, but it risks using them as aesthetic and little else.

Ask someone what Helldivers 2 is and what it's like, and there's one constant touchstone in every description: Starship Troopers. Spending a few seconds with the game makes it easy to see why the 1997 film is invoked so often, as your early experience of playing as a high-tech human soldier will likely include getting torn apart by a giant insect, just like in the movie.

It's not just the "space marines fighting giant bugs" gameplay that draws from Starship Troopers, though. Helldivers 2 also invokes the presentation of Paul Verhoeven's movie at every turn. The film is set in a future in which democracy has "failed" and been supplanted by a form of government in which citizenship and the right to vote have to be earned, usually through extremely dangerous military service. Intercut between scenes are newsreel-like episodes that always read as propaganda from the governing Federation, and usually double as intensely patriotic recruitment messages.

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Now Playing: Firearms Expert Reacts To Helldivers 2’s Guns

Helldivers 2 takes that general feel and goes even harder, with just about every word spoken or read in the game carrying an over-the-top patriotism that belies a dystopian world. You're not a soldier of Earth, but of "Super Earth," fighting for "Managed Democracy" and killing giant insects on their own planets in the name of "freedom." Starship Troopers' satire of militarism isn't exactly subtle, but Helldivers 2's hits like a wrecking ball, elevating its fascistic portrayal to ridiculous comedy. It's very funny to blast literal insects while your character screams about fighting for democracy, seconds before getting shredded by your own orbital strike and replaced by an identical soldier with just as much Super Earth nationalist pride.

Helldivers 2 successfully channels the feel of Starship Troopers. The trouble is, so far, that's kind of all it channels. The game gets the rhythm of the movie, of things like Federal News scenes in which soldiers laugh and let school kids play with their rifles and bloodied disaster victims glower at the camera and demand the Federation wipe out its enemies. But the longer you play Helldivers 2, the less the satire really sticks. Its use of Starship Troopers as an aesthetic is fun, but not especially deep--and the longer you play Helldivers 2, the shallower it becomes.

In a lot of ways, Starship Troopers is a weird movie. It was panned by critics in 1997 when it was released, as Calum Marsh pointed out in The Atlantic in 2013. At that time, people like Roger Ebert saw the movie as being a schlocky, gory movie about squashing CGI bugs and little else. But over the nearly 30 years since its release, more and more critics have revisited the movie and made favorable reassessments of it.

Those original reviews happened before September 11, 2001, and the United States' War on Terror that followed it. Start recalling real things that happened, like how George W. Bush said the 9/11 attacks were carried out by terrorists because they "hate our freedom," or the House of Representatives voting to rename french fries as "Freedom Fries" in the Congressional cafeteria after France opposed the invasion of Iraq, and Verhoeven's movie stops seeming goofy and starts seeming eerily prescient. Frederick Blichert's look back at the movie for Vice in 2017 suggests that critics in the Trump era would have found it even more resonant.

Between the actual scenes of soldiers waging war, Starship Troopers cuts to newsreels to show how those moments are being repackaged for the rest of the public.
Between the actual scenes of soldiers waging war, Starship Troopers cuts to newsreels to show how those moments are being repackaged for the rest of the public.

For a lot of people, it took seeing the overblown propaganda of the post-9/11 United States to realize what Starship Troopers was trying to say, and that Verhoeven was dead-on. The movie focuses on soldiers who storm headlong into the meat grinder of war for vengeance without ever stopping to think about the situation. (The war in Starship Troopers is a response to the Arachnids attacking Earth with a meteor, although nobody in the movie ever interrogates the astronomical odds of an insect civilization sending a meteor across the galaxy to hit another moving planet, much less that the bugs are pretty obviously responding defensively to humanity's expansion.) Starship Troopers' characters die tragically, and often horrifically, for basically nothing. It ends with the survivors charging into another battle as their images are used to recruit even more people in yet another patriotic newsreel that spins away the fact that humans spend the movie losing pretty badly.

So when people say that Helldivers 2 is like Starship Troopers, it's partially that they're recognizing the game and the movie share a tongue-in-cheek take. That the game is pulling from these ideas at all makes it fascinating as a multiplayer live-game, and it's essential to what makes Helldivers 2 so good. Through its ludicrous elevation of Starship Troopers' underpinnings, it makes it very obvious that you're the bad guys. There are a lot of minor objectives for players to complete in the game's missions, and at least one of them sends you into a bug-infested warzone to delete data from hard drives, ostensibly to keep some sensitive information not from the enemy (who, again, are giant bugs), but the Super Earth public. A "story so far" video released soon after Helldivers 2 dropped uses the in-universe patriotic style, describing your need to defeat the "tyrannical" Terminids (once more, bugs) and the "socialist" automatons. You're constantly dropping onto planets to destroy Terminid nests and robot factories, and the idea that you have to blast everyone you find for the sake of democracy never once makes sense, in an extremely funny way.

But while Helldivers 2 has this satirical undercurrent running through it, there's something of a disconnect between the game's send-ups and what you're actually doing as the game goes on. Early in your Helldivers 2 experience, you're very likely killing yourself and your teammates with startling, hilarious regularity, something that feels like part of the underlying send-up. Being too close to an orbital strike or straying into the line of somebody's machine gun fire usually will squash you faster than the bugs will. The rah-rah sloganeering of the military brass is all the more nonsensical when pitched against your team-killing ineptitude and overall expendability. Just like the soldiers in Starship Troopers, you're being gleefully sent to your death; Helldivers getting liquefied by their own bombs is just what it costs to refresh the tree of liberty.

The longer you play, however, the more the joke fades. Improving your skills means you get better at aiming and timing your orbital strikes, enhance your situational awareness, and more reliably dodge enemy attacks and friendly fire. Though you start out green and stupid--in sharp contrast to everything you're told about the Helldivers being heroic warriors--the longer you play, the more you start to embody the hype. You complete more missions for better rewards, unlock better weapons, guns, and orbital strikes, and help spread Super Earth's influence ever farther.

The joke that you're billed as an elite warrior but then immediately die horribly loses its punch when you start to get good at Helldivers 2.
The joke that you're billed as an elite warrior but then immediately die horribly loses its punch when you start to get good at Helldivers 2.

You stop being a joke on military propaganda and start being the thing that propaganda claims you are. Even when you do die and respawn--which is explained in-game as technically being replaced by a new soldier--the game doesn't linger on the human cost of the war any more than it does on the dead bugs or robots. The satire separates from the gameplay experience more and more, and the gags about protecting Managed Democracy and spreading the rule of freedom start to become just another gimmick.

That feeling makes the Starship Troopers elements of Helldivers 2 start to feel more like set dressing than any sort of meaningful comment. The better you get at Helldivers 2, the more it becomes a usual video game experience--fighting hordes of enemy creatures, gathering rewards, improving loadouts, and fighting more hordes. The ideas developer Arrowhead Games might be borrowing from Starship Troopers and building on through the experience of interactivity become background noise between missions, with characters saying funny things before you get back to the regularly scheduled shooting, the implications of which you're no longer really thinking about.

What has made Starship Troopers an endearing film nearly 30 years after its release is that it had so much to say, even if many didn't realize what it was trying to communicate at the time. Helldivers 2 parrots and amplifies some of that message with its similar presentation, and that presentation is a lot of what makes Helldivers 2 feel like a departure from the usual multiplayer fare--it provides it an identity that feels fresh and unusual. It's something developer Arrowhead Games should lean into further.

Luckily, there's more that Helldivers 2 can draw on--in the first Helldivers. Arrowhead Games has established a lot of lore that hasn't really made its way into the sequel, such as the fact that the Terminid aliens decompose into a whole lot of oil, or that Managed Democracy turns voting into something more like a BuzzFeed quiz. There are already a lot of pointed gags in the Helldivers universe that make the premise even more ridiculous and meaningful.

The live-game nature of Helldivers 2 also means there's room for Arrowhead to add more content over time, which provides the opportunity for the developers to further flesh out the world of Helldivers 2 and its comedic underpinnings. Bringing more of these ideas into the overall story offers a lot of interesting possibilities that could further distance Helldivers 2 from the field of multiplayer shooters and help make it something more unique.

As a longtime fan of Starship Troopers, I love that Helldivers 2 is working to make both the action that defined the film and its satirical elements part of a video game experience. I hope Arrowhead Games takes that thinking further, though. What makes Starship Troopers memorable, and the reason critics and audiences keep returning to it even decades later, is that it continues to say something poignant about the world we live in. Helldivers 2, in its over-the-top way, can do the same, so long as its developers commit to the spirit of their inspirations, rather than just their vibes.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a former senior writer at GameSpot and worked as a journalist for newspapers and websites for more than a decade, covering video games, technology, and entertainment for nearly that long. A freelancer before he joined the GameSpot team as an editor out of Los Angeles, his work appeared at Playboy, IGN, Kotaku, Complex, Polygon, TheWrap, Digital Trends, The Escapist, GameFront, and The Huffington Post. Outside the realm of games, he's the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero's Guide to Glory. If he's not writing about video games, he's probably doing a deep dive into game lore.

Helldivers 2

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