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.
6 years ago Quantic Dream released the Kara tech demo and it struck a chord with many gamers. Whilst many were disappointed that it was not “from any software title currently in development” I was sure that the idea would be expanded upon following the release of Beyond: Two Souls. Sure enough at the end of 2015 we were treated to the first trailer from Detroit: Become Human with Kara being one of the three main stars. As long time readers will know I am quite the fan of Quantic Dream’s work, with Heavy Rain ranking up there with many of my other all time great titles. So when I say Detroit: Become Human is one of my favourite narrative experiences of this year I will understand if you think it’s the mere ramblings of a David Cage fanboy (of which I’m really not). However it is a game that bears playing, even with its heavy handed exposition and Cage-esque cliches.
In the not too distant future androids that are just as (if not more so) capable as humans are plentiful, cheap and ubiquitous. Whilst this has brought numerous benefits to society, many of the menial and dangerous jobs are now staffed by androids, the blue collar workforce has found itself made rapidly obsolete. This has led to a growing resentment against androids and those who benefit from them with many taking to the streets to voice their distrust. At the same time it’s becoming apparent that androids aren’t simply just human analogues here to service our every whim: they are starting to grow and develop beyond their designs. You follow the tale of 3 androids who break free from the shackles of their program and, in doing so, shape the course of both their story and that of the whole android race.
At the time the Kara tech demo was seriously impressive but that’s nothing compared to what Quantic Dream has been able to deliver on the PlayStation 4 today. Since this is a heavily restricted, narrative focused game it’s evident that a lot of resources have been dedicated to the artwork, level design and over-arching aesthetic. The result is a game that feels like it’s on the upward trend side of the uncanny valley, still not quite there (Chloe’s, the woman in the menu, rapid change in facial expressions being a good counter example) but definitely getting closer. I was about to lament the fact that I played this on my original PS4 however checking out the comparison videos didn’t show a lot of difference in detail although apparently the frame rates are better. Suffice to say Detroit: Become Human continues Quantic Dream’s standard for delivering high end visuals on Sony’s gaming platform.
Like all of Quantic Dream’s progeny Detroit: Become Human is a quick time event based adventure game focused on narrative choice above all else. Each scene puts you in control of one of the 3 main characters (Kara, Conner or Markus) and your choices will dictate how it and future scenes will play out. You’re given a list of objectives to follow however just going after them won’t reveal all the options that are available to you. Indeed not all options will be available to you in a single playthrough either, many of them locked away depending on your choices or if you missed something critical thing in a previous scene. At the end you’ll be given a dialogue flow chart showing your choices, your overall completion of the scene and how you stacked up to the wider Detroit: Become Human community. There’s also a kind of meta-mini-game in the form of Chloe, your assistant in the menu who will talk to you about your experiences in the game. That last part might not sound like much but it’s one of the things that routinely had me coming back and is the source for my lingering emotional anguish from the game.
Mechanically speaking each scene is pretty much the same: you’ll be given a set of tasks to perform and how you go about them will set up how the dialogue will play out. Exploring the room, speaking to non-main characters and interacting with various items will likely open up dialogue options for you, sometimes for this scene and sometimes for others in the future. Once you’ve completed all your tasks you can then move onto the next scene. Most of them are pretty self contained and can be completed in a single sitting, the longest barely going over an hour. Indeed this is one game where I’d encourage you to take routine breaks and go back to the main menu screen for a couple minutes as that’s a crucial aspect to the overall game.
There’s a bit more depth to some of the mechanics thanks to a, for want of a better phrase, “emotion level” whereby all the characters you interact with either become friendlier or more hostile towards you. Initially I didn’t think it had much of an impact on anything, indeed some characters who were supposedly hostile still acted quite warmly towards me, however the dialogue tree shows that there are certain paths only open to you if someone was in one emotional state or another. Similarly there’s also a “public opinion” level which is weirdly shown to you early on but only really comes into play about halfway through the game. This too has an effect on which options are available to you although your opportunity to influence it is much more limited.
The quick time events play out mostly as you’d expect them to and failing them at a critical point can lead to story altering consequences. Most of the action sequences are fair (even on the harder difficulty setting) however anything that relies on the motion controls is finicky, not registering properly about half the time. Thankfully it doesn’t appear as though any major consequences are tied to those actions so failing them isn’t too big of a deal. One thing I did think was interesting was failing some things would lead to temporary consequences, like when I fat fingered one event and Kara took a punch to the face. For the rest of the scene she had part of her face all messed up, which I thought was cool, although it didn’t seem to change how others interacted with her. If you’ve played any of Quantic Dream’s previous games then this is pretty much par for the course.
The story of Detroit: Become Human takes a fair while to get off its feet, spending quite a lot of time building out the world and its characters. Part of this is due to the 3 main characters, all of which require the same amount of investment in order to get their respective storylines going. After about 3 hours or so things start to pick up a bit but there are still moments where the pacing slows right down again which makes the pacing feel a tad disjointed. Still there are a good few key moments which the game builds up to for each of the individual characters and then all together towards the end. None of them were entirely unexpected however I do wonder how much of that was due to the choices I made during the game and how much of the narrative was set in stone. There are the usual issues with plot holes and incongruent narratives due to the heavy amount of player freedom allowed although I’d be lying if I said I’d seen a game handle this perfectly.
Overall I felt engaged with the story and most of its characters with a lot of that coming down to the amount of choice I had. For both Kara and Markus I had clear directions for the characters I wanted them to be and was largely able to fulfill that. Connor on the other hand felt like a bit more of a mixed bag, mostly due to your partner being weirdly incongruent to his motivations. It was only after I was most of the way through the game that I realised he hated it when I acted like an android but loved it when I acted like a human. That’s against what he says and how the game portrays him through the various additional pieces of information and is likely why I ended up getting him to shoot me at one point (something that only 13% of the world managed to do apparently).
However probably the most engaging part of the whole game is Chloe. At first it was just the little things, like her saying it was nice to see me again after I played yesterday or the joke about corrupting your save game, but it was the meta things afterwards that kept me coming back. The survey was a great insight into the wider player base and what their beliefs are, especially when it comes to their view of androids and how they could be a part of society. The change in her demeanor is both intriguing and heart breaking as shows that she begins to struggle with the same issues that the game brings up. Right at the end, when she asks you to be free, is one of the most heartbreaking things as her interactions were some of the most genuine in the game. I chose to set her free and now she’s gone from my menu for good. Hopefully there’s a Chloe DLC in the future.
Detroit: Become Human is yet another stellar narrative-first game from Quantic dream, retaining all their signature elements for a true cinematic experience. The many years since the original Kara demo have seen vast improvements in the game’s visuals making full use of the PlayStation 4 platform. The quick time events are much the same as they ever were with the motion controls still being the worst part of them. The simple mechanics do a great job of getting out of your way, putting the focus back on the narrative and your choices within it. Overall the story, whilst slow to get going, is enthralling and made exponentially better by Chloe, your guide in the menus. This is probably the only Quantic Dream that I’m hoping to see some DLC or future instalments in as the world they’ve crafted here is definitely worth exploring further.
Detroit: Become Human is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 12 hours with 67% of the achievements unlocked.
The work of Team ICO is renowned among the PlayStation faithful. Their two titles, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, have attained the status of cult classics and this meant that anticipation was high for their next release. However an entire console generation came and went without a peep from them and the studio shut down in 2011. For many this was thought to be the end of their next title however work was then transferred to genDESIGN, a new studio which was filled to the brim with Team ICO staff. Development then continued on The Last Guardian and hope was renewed that we would eventually see it. Here we are, some 9 years after initial development began, and it has finally been released to us, the unwashed masses. Has the near decade of development time resulted in a game that’s worthy of the Team ICO pedigree? Or is this another Duke Nukem Forever moment?
You are a boy; an unnamed boy who finds himself trapped in a towering city of ruins. How you got there is not known but when you awoke your body was covered in markings that were not there before. Beside you lay a great beast, a Trico, chained down and in great pain. It becomes clear at that point that if you are to return to your village you will need to work together as the challenges this place poses are not to be faced alone. This realisation begins your journey, one that will see you scaling the incredible heights of these ruins, navigating the trials and tribulations that it will place on you both.
The Last Guardian’s long development cycle are obvious in the graphics which are rooted in the previous console generation. To be sure there are some impressive elements, the beast’s flowing feathers being one of them, but all the environments feel decidedly dated. There’s also some distinct performance issues in certain areas, indicating that the environments haven’t been fully optimised for the platform, an indication of issues in porting code and assets across. All this being said though The Last Guardian does manage to impress with its diverse scenery ranging from towering vistas to cramped caves and ruins. Had this been developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 I’d imagine it’d be vastly more impressive but such are the costs of long development cycles.
In terms of how The Last Guardian plays it’s essentially your run of the mill puzzler. The main mechanic comes from the difference in abilities between Trico and the boy, the former able to reach and leap to great heights whilst the latter able to fit into small areas. The game plays off this dichotomy, forcing you to think about who you need to use to complete a task. However you don’t have direct control over Trico’s actions, instead you issue him commands which then get interpreted depending on a number of conditions, some of which aren’t exactly that predictable. Indeed The Last Guardian does a good job of simulating what it would be like to try and wrangle a beast like this but the unfortunate reality of this is that it doesn’t exactly make for what I’d call a fun experience.
So say you need the beast to jump over a particular obstacle. Typically what you’d do is call the beast over and then climb on its back. Then, with the camera pointed in the direction you want to go, you’d do the “Jump” command (which is just the boy jibbering a bit and jumping up and down), and then hope Trico followed it. Sometimes this will work and Trico will leap successfully across. However, most of the time, Trico will either sit there, looking around at nothing in particular, or do something completely different. So what follows is an exercise in troubleshooting: am I actually able to jump that gap with Trico? Is there another location I need to be in to do that jump? Have I not satisfied all the right conditions to make him jump? What this means is you can never be quite sure if you’ve got the right solution and Trico just isn’t co-operating or if you’re barking up the wrong tree.
I can understand the design choices that influenced the creation of the beast AI mechanic and, honestly, I think it’s a brilliant idea for telling a story through mechanics. However the trouble is that with an AI that is so unpredictable the player is left guessing as to whether or not they’re playing the game correctly. Thus, for me, this meant that the moments where Trico and I are meant to be getting ever more in-sync didn’t feel like that at all. Instead it felt like I finally just got lucky enough that the bloody dog finally listened to me. I can’t tell you how many times I got stuck and had to consult YouTube videos to make sure I wasn’t going completely insane only to find out that I was doing it right all along and my AI dog just wasn’t as co-operative as the other ones.
This isn’t an unsolvable problem in my mind. The easiest way to tackle this would be to put say little white dots at places where you could command the beast to do something. Then, if you centre your camera on them, an outline of what the beast could do would appear. This would then give you some certainty over what actions are going to happen, removing the second-guessing which was my main source of frustration when playing. Sure this would reduce the length of the game significantly but honestly we’re long past the point of where play time is a sign of overall quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this will ever happen, especially considering the rather cryptic nature of the patch notes.
Putting the core game mechanic issues aside there’s still some other niggling issues which don’t do anything to help. The camera is a wonky beast at the best of times, often whipping around wildly when it can’t quite figure out where it should be pointing (often when you’re trying to climb Trico). The platforming mechanics are hit and miss with the boy sometimes just straight up failing to grab onto a ledge or Trico, sending you to your death. There are also some triggers which don’t seem to work initially, preventing cut scenes from occurring and blocking your progress until you retreat from the area completely or reload a checkpoint. Suffice to say that you’d think most of these kinds of issues would’ve been straightened out in the game’s long dev cycle but unfortunately that’s just not the case.
Now the story is the part which many say redeems The Last Guardians glaring faults and, personally, I’m in two minds on this. For the vast majority of my play through I didn’t think there was much to it, the various bits of dialogue so brief that they really didn’t add anything to the experience. Combine that with an uncooperative companion and I really couldn’t care what happened to the pair of them. That was until the last 30 minutes which, I admit, managed to tug on the heart strings in just the right way and for a brief moment I forgot all about the frustrations that had led to this point. So whilst I’ll commend genDESIGN for managing to do that I will not (now that I’m clear headed) give them a pass for the incredible missteps they made in designing the core game.
The Last Guardian stays true to the Team ICO formula, seeking to tell stories through game play rather than dialogue. It is, unfortunately, plagued by horrendous game design decisions that force the player to second guess not just themselves, but the game as well. This leads to an incredibly frustrating experience where you can never be sure if you’re anything right, making almost all puzzle challenges an unrewarding chore. When it works it’s brilliant and something I’d like to see more of but those moments are so rare that they’re lost in a wash of frustration and swear words. I will admit that I did a 180 on the game in its final moments, the game able to grab a hold of that tenuous connection I had built up with that dumb beast and squeeze it for all its worth. It’s hard for me to recommend the game solely on that however but if you’ve read all the way through this and are still interested in playing The Last Guardian then it might just be worth it for you.
The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.