Helldivers 2 may be set in the far future, but it still has a lot to say about the present

A Super Earth citizen laments the death of his family
(Image credit: Arrowhead Games Studios)

Helldivers 2’s co-op, sci-fi action is about as dystopian as you can get. The opening cutscene greets you with a warning that “undivided attention is mandatory” before urging you to join the Helldivers to “spread Managed Democracy throughout the galaxy.” 

What’s ‘Managed Democracy’, you might ask? Well, it’s a system where an algorithm decides how to allocate your votes. If that sounds like it wouldn’t result in a free or fair election, that’s because it wouldn’t. Citizens of Super Earth - that’s Helldivers 2’s human faction - live under an authoritarian regime disguised as democracy. Super Earth is our own planet but given a veneer of futuristic prosperity. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find something horrible. It’s a lot like Reese’s Pieces, except, instead of a delicious center, you’re left with Napalm.

In addition to being one of the best PS5 games we’ve seen so far this year, Helldivers 2 uses its bleak setting to offer biting satire of the military-industrial complex, drawing attention to the tenuous leaps in logic, inhumanity, and cruelty that would be required to sustain a regime as bloodthirsty as Super Earth’s. 

The Helldivers are stuck in a prolonged war on two fronts; against a faction of mechanical automatons on one hand and bug-like aliens on the other Throughout the game, player and non-player characters alike offer hilarious yet chilling lines about their unwavering trust in the government and its wars. In a public service announcement between missions, I’m taught about Super Earth’s system of ‘citizenship levels’ that exists to determine “exactly which citizens are the most equal” by rewarding people for loyal behavior like reporting dissidents. It’s hard not to think that Helldivers 2 might be poking fun at China’s social credit system in the real world, which also ranks people based on their loyalty to the state.

Starships and ballot boxes  

Helldivers celebrate victory by impaling banner into a dead bug

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

In battle, Helldivers yell about spreading freedom and democracy - the words somehow deeply passionate and entirely devoid of meaning. “How’d you like a taste of freedom?” yells my Helldiver as she unloads a heavy machine gun into a swarm of aliens. While silly, these moments also underscore the most intelligent element of Helldivers 2’s satire: its willingness to examine how the meaning of words and the principles behind them can be eroded by toxic ideologies. 

Using dystopian sci-fi as a lens to examine our own world isn’t new. Plenty of reviews of Helldivers 2, including our own, remarked on the sci-fi game’s thematic similarities to movie director Paul Verhoeven’s satirical film adaptation of Starship Troopers - a novel by Robert A. Heinlein that The Atlantic once described as “notoriously militaristic.”   

The world of Helldivers 2 is a meatgrinder into which the brainwashed people of Super Earth are only too happy to throw themselves

Much like Helldivers 2, Starship Troopers offers a whip-smart satirical skewering of military fascism from the perspective of a futuristic totalitarian dictatorship in a perpetual state of war. In an interview with Empire magazine, Verhoeven said: “All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’.”

This is exactly the sort of question that Helldivers 2 asks of its players. The world of Helldivers 2 is a meatgrinder into which the brainwashed people of Super Earth are only too happy to throw themselves. Thanks to propaganda and totalitarianism, the Helldivers just don’t know any better. When a Helldiver frantically yells “Freedom never sleeps” while healing themselves with a stimpack, they believe every word. The irrational fervor of Super Earth’s citizens is as chilling as it is amusingly absurd.  

More than meets the eye 

In-game screenshot of Helldivers 2

(Image credit: Sony/PlayStation)

Despite the similarities to Starship Troopers, Helldivers 2 goes a step further in its satire. The world of Starship Troopers is outwardly authoritarian and openly extols the virtues of fascism, while the government of Super Earth wears the trappings of liberal democracy. Granted, these trappings are paper-thin, however, this allows Helldivers 2 to explore a different satirical space, addressing how ideas like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ can be hijacked by authoritarians. 

Writing in response to the USA’s ongoing “war on terrorism” in 2005, Dr. Richard Jackson of the University of Otago in New Zealand warned that language surrounding modern conflicts can be twisted, such that it “is not simply a neutral or objective reflection of policy debates and the realities of terrorism and counter-terrorism, rather, it is a very carefully and deliberately constructed public discourse that is specifically designed to make the war seem reasonable, responsible and inherently ‘good’.”

Helldivers 2 is clever, harrowing, and side-splitting all at once

Helldivers 2 shows us the worst-case scenario - a society where language itself has been warped to justify endless war. It’s clever, harrowing, and side-splitting all at once. To the mind of a Helldiver their idea of ‘democracy’ is what we’d call military authoritarianism just as their notion of ‘freedom’ is what we’d know as tyranny. Helldivers 2 warns us that words have power and consequences. It’s on us to be critical of how the powerful might use comfortable-sounding words to mask less-than-legitimate goals.  

A shadowy environment in Helldivers 2

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

In 2019, Richard Wolin, professor of history and political science at the City University of New York, openly warned against the rise of “exclusionary [...] models of democracy” in what he called “a new tribalism.” To Wolin, this trend is born from a rejection of “political reason in favor of blind allegiance.” Through its tongue-in-cheek satire, Helldivers 2 confronts this danger head-on, showing us the absurd tragedy of a future dominated by exclusionary attitudes rooted in totalitarianism and conquest. 

A great deal of Helldivers 2’s humor comes from just how unreasonable the people of Super Earth are. Helldiver basic training is comically bare bones, with soldiers being sent into the field after little more than a propagandistic pep talk and a few basic exercises. Starships have overwrought names like “The Ombudsman of Justice” or “The Spear of Family Values”. Even items in the in-game store have fake reviews curated by the ‘Ministry of Truth’. 

Helldivers 2 manages to be a gripping third-person shooter as well as one of the best co-op games of the moment, while also acting as a cautionary tale. As with any well-crafted dystopian fiction, developer Arrowhead Game Studios has built a game that shows us what happens if, as Wolin put it, “blind allegiance” takes over. The shooter is excessive, explosive, and over-the-top, but also makes you think a little about our world, our politics, and how we might stop Super Earth from becoming a reality.   

Want some other games to try? Check out our guides to the best RPGs and the best story games.

Cat Bussell
Staff Writer

Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.