Steam review bombing is gaming's most powerful method of protest: 3 takeaways from Helldivers 2's weekend meltdown

Helldivers 2 best weapons - Soldier with a rocket launcher
(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

You might have heard about Helldivers 2's terrible, no good, very bad weekend. It went like this: 

  1. Last Friday, Sony announced that Helldivers 2 PC players would soon need a PSN login to play, in the name of security
  2. Players said "that's messed up" 
  3. Arrowhead reminded players this is technically how it was supposed to be at launch
  4. Players responded by flooding the game with 200,000 negative reviews in less than 48 hours

By Saturday, Helldivers 2's "Overwhelmingly positive" overall Steam rating had flipped to "Mixed." The air got even nastier when it became clear Helldivers 2 owners in the 177 countries where PSN isn't supported would lose access to the game. Soon after, Helldivers 2 was pulled from sale on Steam in those territories and Valve began issuing refunds to users regardless of time-played (it's unclear whether Valve or PlayStation made this change).

Late on Sunday, Sony blinked. The whole planned update was promptly unplanned, and for now, it seems like Helldivers 2 Steam players are free from the arbitrary linkage of a Sony account. 

I've been watching this whole situation closely as it's unfolded, and keep coming back to a few thoughts on Steam reviews and their lopsided influence over a game's reputation:

Steam reviews are uniquely powerful

This whole episode has me wondering why we pay attention to Steam reviews in a way we don't on any other platform. Steam ratings can singlehandedly elevate an unknown game's profile overnight, or turn the air sour on an otherwise promising project. Steam reviews are constantly active, and we genuinely care what they have to say. A handful of things contribute to this:

  • Prominence: Steam's review labels are placed front-and-center below a game's title and description.
  • They pass a collective judgment: It's significant that Steam itself doesn't simply use numbers or symbols, but phrases like "Overwhelmingly negative" to interpret the results of aggregated yes/no voting.
  • Steam reviews are a minor social platform: Users can react to reviews with emojis, leave comments, receive official replies from developers, and bask in the internet clout of a review voted "most helpful" by consensus.
  • Proximity: Unlike consoles, PC gamers are playing games with the same tools we use to communicate online. 

helldivers 2 polar patriots warbond

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

That last point might prove the most important factor. On PC, the distance between having a bad experience and sharing it with others is exceptionally short. Helldivers 2 launched on PS5 and PC simultaneously, but the Steam version has eight times more user reviews. It's also just easy to gloss over white stars on a store page. What's not easy to ignore are the words "Overwhelmingly Negative" plastered in fiery red ink.

It's a different effect than a low Rotten Tomatoes score or a negative review in PC Gamer. Steam ratings are attached at the hip of the product, becoming an implied subtitle to the game itself (though "Helldivers 2: Overwhelmingly Negative" does sound strangely in-fiction).

Like the damning gaze of a green "C" health rating in the window of my favorite childhood restaurant (RIP Panda Palace), a poor Steam rating is the sort of reputation indicator developers yearn to correct as soon as possible.

helldivers 2 steam reviews

A weekend snapshot of Helldivers 2's Steam review graph. The has since partially rebounded with tons of positive reviews. (Image credit: Steam)

Review bombing is a sharp weapon for minor offenses 

Steam ratings can singlehandedly elevate an unknown game's profile overnight, or turn the air sour on an otherwise promising project.

Some of the earliest misuses of reviews on Steam (the Firewatch/PewDiePie beef and the Totalbiscuit/Titan Souls beef come to mind) were petty actions from ticked-off fanbases of YouTubers. But years of watching review bombings succeed in getting a company's attention has trained PC gamers to turn to Steam reviews as a first reaction to anything they object to. And given how openly Arrowhead itself validated and engaged with Helldivers 2's review bombing, I'd expect more of this kind of activity this year.

When the cause feels just, like dinging a billion-dollar corporation for enforcing an arbitrary login and locking out customers in dozens of countries in the process, it's easy to believe in review bombings as a pro-consumer force of good. 

But when the issue at the center of a review bomb is inherently small or has little to do with the product itself, we rightly question if user reviews meant to guide our purchasing decisions are the ideal battleground for short-term conflicts. 

helldivers 2 polar patriots warbond

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

Review bombings can be confusing and entirely misleading for people who aren't plugged into a game's happenings. I've had friends who were scared off from playing great games they heard were "mixed" or "negative," not realizing they were only poorly rated for a few weeks because of a balance patch nobody remembers. The 200,000 people who thumbs-downed Helldivers 2 over the weekend do not actually believe it's a bad game, but how is a new Steam user looking for a fun co-op game supposed to know that?

Of course, that is the point of tanking Steam reviews: it works. The aggrieved want publishers to panic, watch money leave the room, and course correct. If Steam users were forced to take their review bombing elsewhere, such as a less visible corner of Steam like the Discussions tab, they simply wouldn't bother. Review bombs only matter because reviews matter.

Steam reviews aren't really reviews

I don't love the reflex of punishing game developers for minor infractions by sinking Steam ratings that are supposed to be overall buying advice.

But the games that get hit hardest by angry review mobs aren't in danger of going under because of them. Its new "Mixed" rating be darned, Helldivers 2 is still the best-selling game of 2024 and a homerun success for Sony and Arrowhead. I find Steam reviews genuinely useful for finding cool games and gauging safe skips at a glance. When there is a genuine instance of toxic or off-topic review bombing, Valve is pretty good about flagging it.

One thing I might change is the name: "user reviews." What Valve says you're getting is an aggregate of user reviews, but what you're actually reading is a smattering of jokes, single-issue complaints, some detailed reviews, and a lot of attention-seeking memes. It's not a reviews hub, it's a forum with measurable cultural sway—a highly visible chatroom that imperfectly represents how pissed off or delighted its posters are.

Sometimes a gut-check reading of the room is exactly what you need, just make sure you check who's in the room and what they're mad or happy about.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.