‘Don’t airstrike me, bro’: Helldivers 2’s merciless friendly fire isn’t bad, it’s actually clever design

Helldivers 2 wears the over-the-top brutality of Starship Troopers on its fascistic sleeves. Soldiers bark propaganda slogans dynamically, missions are labeled “Restore Liberty” with no further elaboration on the alien genocide you’re committing, and the opening cinematic is pure Verhoeven.

But I didn’t expect that same brutality to make friendly fire a source of fun.

Helldivers’ friendly fire is the harshest I’ve encountered in a non-sim shooter. You can’t disable it, and even secondary weapons can kill a co-op partner in two or three misplaced bullets. In just three days I managed to kill my teammates with multiple varieties of airstrike, a flamethrower, grenades, a mini-nuke (Hellbomb), and every primary weapon. We won most of those missions, I strain to add. (I am currently banned from using the autonomous mortar turret.)

How Helldivers’ ruthless friendly fire enhances the whole game

The ease with which you and your teammates can annihilate each other isn’t just difficulty for difficulty’s sake, it reinforces that these guns were made to chew up giant, exoskeletal aliens and their robot equivalents. A lot of little systems converge and in turn benefit from this painful FF:

1. Most weapons have a fixed crosshair and a second, dynamic reticle that shows the true aim of your gun. Tracking this bobbing reticle is a major skill in a context where enemies often have armor plating that diminish damage or outright deflect it

2. Guns emit a green targeting laser when aimed, a visual indication of your teammates’ intentions that distributes some of the responsibility of avoiding friendly fire to the recipient

3. You can dynamically raise or lower the rate of fire on some weapons in exchange for better recoil control, making DPS vs. weapon control a lingering consideration

4. Equipment airdrops are fired violently from orbit on variable timers. Usually you want to drop equipment Stratagems in close proximity, but these airdrops can impact players and enemies, killing them instantly

5. Airstrike markers and grenades, when thrown, will often bounce and end up somewhere other than you intended

6. Squads enter each match with a finite amount of respawn tickets, an important mission resource that you feel the loss of whenever you kill a teammate. I think it’s deliberate that your character’s voice can be randomized between a few different presets, underlining the notion that you’re not a single, permanent person in this cruel setting

helldivers 2 is game of the year so far pic.twitter.com/WjXMexX6XHFebruary 11, 2024

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7. Environmental fog is a obstacle on many maps, with harmless puffball mines that kick up dust clouds and giant, blow-uppable Spore Towers that make a huge area soupy—both of these conditions make friendly fire more likely

8. Enemies spawn continuously from bug holes or other areas that have to be blown up by Helldivers. The urgency to close these spawn points is often at odds with fighting carefully and ensuring your teammates’ safety

9. Weapons like the Arc Thrower (a chain lightning gun that can hit multiple targets at once) directly balance high power with an increased potential for killing teammates—this is a weapon you can’t use to rescue a teammate who’s surrounded by bugs. “Fired this thing exactly once last night and killed my partner,” comments PC Gamer Staff Writer and war criminal Morgan Park

helldivers 2 has been a great time pic.twitter.com/sDyivWPQBjFebruary 12, 2024

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This is what great game design looks like to me, a web of interrelated systems folding into one another like origami.

It’s not a coincidence that these elegant ideas come to us from the creators of Magicka, the 2011 co-op wizard game where the accidental obliteration of your teammates by lightning or ice spells is more playful than it is penalized.

Most shooters understandably try to steer players away from friendly fire with heavy-handed systems. Helldivers 2 sees it as just another fulcrum for its core themes. I’ve been shooting my buddies since Quake 2, but Helldivers 2 is the first time I’ve killed a teammate with the respawn pod of another, recently deceased teammate. Poetry.

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