Death Stranding’s genesis is perhaps one of the most well known controversies in recent memory. Hideo Kojima, ousted from his position at Konami, reformed his company Kojima Productions with the assistance of Sony. Their first order of business was to begin working on a new franchise and, some 3 years ago now, he unveiled the first trailer of Death Stranding. For someone who’d never really gotten into the Metal Gear series of games I knew little of Kojima’s work directly, but I knew of the large following his games had developed thanks to their heavy story focus and inventive mechanics. However the trailer alone was enough to sell me on the idea of the game, giving us precious little details about what the title would actually be but teasing a few concepts that had me intrigued. Suffice to say I don’t think anyone back then expected the game we have today but, after spending the last 3 weeks playing my way through it, I can say that it’s likely 2019’s best game in almost all respects. Truly this is a product of an industry veteran who knows how develop unique, inventive concepts but also have the drive to see them through to reality.
The game’s namesake is an event that occurred some time ago, ravaging the world and blurring the line that separates the world of the dead from the living. Now Beached Things (invisible creatures originating from the “Beach”, a land said to be the link to the world of the dead) roam the earth seeking to drag anyone they come across to the underworld. You are Sam Porter, a member of the Bridges corporation, who’s ultimate goal is to reunite the now shattered United States into a new order called the United Cities of America. It’s your job to deliver goods from one place to another, navigating the ravaged world and avoiding all the horrors that now lie within it. However it’s clear that there’s some history between you and the new leader of the free world and you soon find yourself reluctantly agreeing to work with Bridges to unite all of the fractured cities together.
Death Stranding comes to us via the Decima Engine which has brought us other such gorgeous titles like Horizon Zero Dawn. As you’d expect from a late-in-the-generation game Death Stranding makes full use of the PlayStation 4 hardware, delivering amazing visuals in all respects. The environments are not immutable either, with dynamic weather systems, interactions from other players in the shared world and even your own actions. All of this is wrapped up in amazing game direction with many aspects of the game expertly crafted to have maximum impact on you as a player. Finally the game’s soundtrack and foley work is second to none, rounding out the experience completely. This high level of craftsmanship makes for an extremely immersive experience, beyond that of any title in recent memory. I guess I should’ve expected no less from someone who’s been a leader in this industry for over 2 decades.
Mechanically Death Stranding is a mix of various different standard game tropes with a core game loop that’s really unlike anything else out there. At a basic level you’re a delivery guy, tasked with taking cargo from point A to point B whereupon you’ll be rated by various metrics like how damaged the cargo is, how long it took you to get there and whether or not you helped out others along the way. In all honesty I wouldn’t blame you if your eyes were rolling back into your head at this point but past a certain point, once a few of the more interesting mechanics have been unlocked, the game loop really starts coming together. That’s when the challenge starts to ramp up as well and some other core mechanics, like the third person shooter part, come into play. You’re also part of a shared world with other players, enabling you to utilise structures and items that have either been placed or even lost by other players. I could go on for some time about the various different mechanics that the game throws at you as it never really feels like you’ve unlocked everything, even when you’re right at the game’s conclusion. Suffice to say Death Stranding is an experience that evolves significantly over its play time, giving you a good reason to keep plugging onwards.
One piece advice I read about early on was to get to Chapter 3 as quickly as you possibly can and that advice is sound. The early game is a slow, plodding experience as you don’t have access to some of the core tools which make the game a lot less frustrating to play. Additionally areas after the initial one have far more structures thanks to many players in the community contributing resources to things like roads or strategically placing all manner of buildings to make your life easier. Indeed if you’re playing this game after reading this review there’s a good chance your world will likely have highways that stretch to most of the game’s most important points, charging stations at various points to ensure you never run out of juice for your vehicles and signposts everywhere that do many things from warning you of upcoming danger to even giving your vehicles a boost. Honestly I felt a little spoiled in the mid-game because of this but I see that this is actually a part of the overall experience and it encourages you to pay it forward.
It was for that reason I spent quite a bit of time farming materials to complete 2 sections of road and built numerous structures along routes I took when I noticed that say, the charge on my vehicle was running low or there was 2 zip lines that, for some reason, didn’t have an interconnecting middle section, rendering both of them useless. Of course part of this is motivated by likes, which are basically just an in-game metric of how much you’ve contributed to other’s experience of the game, as there’s nothing quite like see a roll of names go by indicating that you’ve actually done something that’s impacted another player’s game. I’ve had inclinations to go back now that I’ve finished the game and help out with getting the roads fully completed but, after some 35 hours in game, I figured it was time to let the experience breathe for a little bit.
Stealth is a not-so-small part of Death Stranding’s experience although it comes in two flavours: avoiding BTs and sneaking up on the human enemies (MULEs and Terrorists). Initially the BT avoiding sections are a bit of a pain in the ass as it’s not made entirely clear how they actually track you. For the most part it doesn’t seem to matter how much noise you make (although I didn’t test firing a gun next to them…hmmmm) and it seems to be mostly related to how close you are and whether or not you’re holding your breath. I found the most successful way to navigate your way through a BT field was to get close enough so that the Odradek is spinning and still blue and then walk in such a way that you’re gradually putting distance between you and them. Then, if you accidentally get a bit too close, hold your breath and leg it past them and then take a breath once you’re back in spinny blue territory. That likely makes zero sense if you haven’t actually played Death Stranding but if you’re going to play it keep that in the back of your mind.
Stealthing around human enemies works in mostly the same way although, if I’m honest, you really don’t need to bother. Sure it’s kinda fun to hog tie up an entire encampment but it takes so long to do it’s just not worth it. Instead you’re probably best served by sneaking up on the first few and then whipping out your weapon of choice and going to town. Indeed I can’t even think of a part of the game that required you to go full stealth as even some of the final encounters, which were ostensibly built around that, can be cheesed somewhat by leveraging other mechanics. If I’m honest though I quite like that as it means you’re always able to use the playstyle that suits you the best.
The third person shooter parts are probably the weakest part of the Death Stranding experience as the aiming feels a little wonky. Granted this may be because it’s been some time since I’ve played a shooter on the console and there’s usually long breaks between shooter encounters, limiting the amount of practice you can get in. Still, there’s a variety of weapons at your disposal and if you put enough effort in the right places you can get some upgraded versions that are much, much better than their lower tier counterparts. I have no doubts that a few sections were made a lot easier for me since I had the Level 3 Non-Lethal Assault rifle almost immediately after getting the Level 2 version, meaning I could carry a single one and still have enough stopping power to get me through nearly all of the game’s encounters. I still kept a bola gun most of the time as that, if used correctly, is effectively a one shot kill for human enemies and with a 14 round magazine I could sometimes take out an entire MULE camp with it.
The core game mechanic of delivering cargo starts off being extremely tedious as you have to walk everywhere and you don’t have any kit to help you move faster or carry more cargo. As you unlock more things like vehicles, powered skeletons and higher tier boots though things start to get a lot easier, at least for the run of the mill deliveries. Of course with more tools the game is able to present you with greater challenges and you’ll quickly start coming across delivery missions that require some planning in order to get them done. For most of the mid game you’ll likely be well served by the standard reverse trike as that can go pretty much anywhere Sam can, even through dense fields of BTs if you manage to play your cards right. Once you’re in the mountains though vehicle use starts to become quite tricky, only really getting you about 20% of the way before it becomes more trouble than it’s worth. If I’m honest the mountain section of the game was probably my least favourite time as it was both challenging and bereft of solid story progress, making it a bit of a chore. Hopefully there’s more zip lines available when you’re playing through this section!
Progression comes at a pretty steady pace although, if I’m honest, it does give the game a kind of perpetual tutorial feel as you can never be quite sure you’re seeing everything the game has to offer. The various ratings shown after each delivery will increase the various stats you have although, if I’m honest, I saw much bigger differences from the various upgrades than I ever saw from the various rank ups I got. Thankfully the game doesn’t punish you for not doing lots of side missions either and, if you’re a player like me, you can basically go through the whole game without doing a single side mission if you want. You’ll likely end up doing a few though just because there’s no reason not to and contributing to the shared world does feel rewarding.
There are a few small issues in Death Standing, some of which can go either way depending on your situation and others that would just be quality of life improvements. The physics engine is a little…generous with its interpretation of how things should work and this can mean you can get yourself into places that really shouldn’t be accessible. At the same time should you do something that the physics engine doesn’t quite understand your likely to find yourself (and your cargo) thrown unceremoniously in a random direction. Now I didn’t get this too often, but there were times when I’d say, try to exit a car only for the game to instantly think I was falling down a steep slope which then ended up with me smashing into the side of the car. Some of the other issues I was going to mention (like not being able to see the Odradek sometimes) are going to be fixed in an upcoming patch, so it’s very likely that your experience will be much smoother from that perspective. Other than that the game runs perfectly well.
What really got me hooked though was the story and the consistent pace at which it was delivered. Completing every main mission was usually accompanied by a cutscene that delivered additional detail which helped immensely with keeping me engaged through the game’s long play time. All of the characters are well thought out, given ample time for their backstories to develop and, perhaps most importantly, are expertly delivered by their respective actors. It speaks volumes when not one, but two of the actors were nominated for Best Performance at The Game Awards for their roles in Death Stranding and one of them (Mads Mikkelsen) took home the award. There’s a few issues with the story that I won’t go into detail about, lest I ruin what it for some, but suffice to say the fact that I’m still thinking about it and processing it some time after finishing it means it’s had quite the impact on me.
Death Stranding is a masterpiece, showing what can happen when high concept thinking meets the dedication to deliver. All aspects of the game are expertly crafted: from the visuals which come from a highly revved up Decima engine, to the game’s audio experience and, perhaps most importantly, the actors that bring the game’s characters to life. To be sure it’s not a game for everyone as the core game loop and the first 8 hours or so are likely to turn quite a few people off it. However sticking through that initial part opens up a world that’s ever changing, growing in response to the collective effort that all players invest in it. I’m glad to have played my part in helping build out that world and for the experience that Death Stranding has given me. It is truly a game for those who seek a deeply immersive experience, one that resonate with you for years to come.
Death Stranding is available on PlayStation 4 right now (coming to PC in late 2020) for $89.95. Total play time was 35 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.