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Helldivers 2 kept its most exciting feature secret until launch: human dungeon masters 'responding in real time' and messing with players

 Helldivers 2.
Helldivers 2.

Helldivers 2 launched on Steam today and unfortunately seems to have got off to a bit of a shaky start network-wise: the reviews are currently "mixed," and the mood music is that people are enjoying the game but deeply frustrated by connection issues. The studio admits it's in "crisis mode" and at the time of writing has just pushed out the first hotfix.

Launch woes aside, Helldivers 2 hasn't been especially on my radar—but a new PlayStation Access interview with the game's deputy director Sagar Beroshi made me realise this is a game with big ideas, and none more exciting than its take on in-game dungeon masters.

Developer Arrowhead has kept one aspect of multiplayer relatively low-key, but it sounds both amazing in theory and something we'll have to watch unfold. The core idea is that, at the studio there are going to be humans watching how the game is being played and responding, in some cases in real time, to affect the experience for players.

Beroshi compares it to a dungeon or games master in tabletop gaming. "It's very hard to achieve exactly what you get at a table but we wanted flavours of that in this game," says Beroshi. "This is not a minor part of our game: this is a significant feature we've designed that is by the way quite different from the first game."

So at the heart of this is "a suite of tools and a suite of real life human beings, not just AI bots, that are observing the gameplay as it's happening and responding in real time." Asked if they're observing the play, watching and deciding what to do, Beroshi says "that's right" and goes on to give an example from the preview session they've just played where a particularly juicy bomb became available to one member of the team.

"One of our team members was observing your playstyle and debated what to do and was like 'I'm gonna drop them this extra strategy'," says Beroshi. "You were playing with us at the same time as you were playing with each other, all against the bad guys."

The idea is not just to help players, but where appropriate push them. "We can drop in more or less things like buffs but sometimes debuffs will happen too," says Beroshi. "A good challenge can sometimes be really valuable." He goes on to give the example of holding and defending an extraction point, one of the game's toughest challenges, and a capricious games master deciding to make you do it for twice as long: "especially at those higher difficulties those marginal things can make all the difference."

Beroshi says they're thinking of this as a live experience but don't want the live service label so much, because Arrowhead thinks it's come up with something new. He talks about the traditional model of releasing a game, fixing bugs, and doing DLC ("we're gonna do that too!") but says they take inspiration "from how rapid response some of the industry is." The goal is to try "to respond live to players," and guide their experiences on both a small and large scale.

So human hands will lie behind the direction of Helldivers 2's overarching story, which is going to unfold at a slower pace than Helldivers' did. The original game featured a system where you'd fight the enemy across the galaxy, gradually push them back and win, and the galaxy would reset. The progress here is going to be very different, not least because as you're fighting and liberating planets "the enemies have goals."

"They will look at what you've done, respond to the ways in which you as the community have behaved, and react in a way that changes the face of the galaxy thereafter. So if you are clearing the way to some planets you have to get to, and you take over the next territory and the next one, it's hard to say what the enemies might do in response… they might try to circle around, or meet you head-on, or do something else."

Beroshi says the studio's using the word "functionality" because "it's not just people and it's not just tools, but both are involved." The way things play out can result in your group finding unique missions, for example, or playing a part in the wider meta-narrative.

"The war that you're playing in plays out almost in real time," claims Beroshi. "It's not like in a few weeks the war is gonna be over. Players who join us from day one are going to experience the full story, they'll see everything, as Super Earth as arrogant as it is digs itself into deeper and deeper problems."

Arrowhead reckons that this will be the secret sauce that, presuming it muddles through its launch woes, can set Helldivers 2 apart. The games master impact may not be immediately obvious, but will supposedly make a big difference as they "play out at a longer timescale."

On the micro level you may notice odd things happening in battle: new options appearing, new strategies presenting themselves, new dangers intruding. On the macro scale… well, who knows what's going to happen. But if this thing works anything like Beroshi claims, it's going to be one hell of a sight.