Developer: Kojima Productions, Guerrilla Games Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment (PS4), 505 Games (PC) Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC Price: $59.99 Release Date: November 8th, 2019 (PS4), Q2/Q3 2020 (PC) Date reviewed: […]
- Developer: Kojima Productions, Guerrilla Games
- Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment (PS4), 505 Games (PC)
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
- Price: $59.99
- Release Date: November 8th, 2019 (PS4), Q2/Q3 2020 (PC)
- Date reviewed: November 23rd, 2019
- Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 Pro
- Review Code Provided: No
In what is arguably the most polarizing game of the year, Hideo Kojima challenges us to come together in the face of danger. The notorious creator of Metal Gear sets out to try and make a new kind of game, one that isn’t about conquering your foes in combat; killing mountains of enemies in the pursuit of defeating some kind of Big Boss. Instead, Death Stranding sets out to create an experience that’s about building up rather than tearing down.
Coming together is a point that is illustrated beautifully through Death Stranding’s gameplay. Though it may seem dull at first glance, but once you get settled in, it becomes apparent how incredible the game can truly be. It’s a single-player experience, but you’re never really alone thanks to the online component of this game. When connected to the online servers, you’ll find yourself connected to other players as well. You’ll never encounter each other, but you will always share a world; what happens in that world is up to you. Players can pool resources together to contribute to various structures in the game world such as roads, power generators, safe houses, or even overhangs to protect you from the ever-present Timefall.
Timefall is rain that rapidly ages whatever it touches in the world of Death Stranding. As you traverse through the game’s beautifully realized landscapes, it won’t be too long before you encounter it; observing how it causes the flowers in the ground to rapidly sprout, whither, die, and repeat makes a powerful impression on the state this world is in. The effect of Timefall isn’t purely aesthetic, however. Timefall will degrade player-built structures as well, which can prove troublesome should it endanger something you’ve found great use of during gameplay. Lets say you built a bridge. This bridge enables you to cross large gaps that you otherwise would not be able to — at least, not without a long detour. Timefall will inevitably destroy this bridge if it is left unattended, so, naturally, you contribute some materials to help build it back up. It’s okay if you don’t have that many materials, because sure enough, there will be another player or two who rely on that bridge just as much as you do, and before you know it, more materials will be contributed, and everyone benefits from their collaborative efforts. The online component of Death Stranding is what truly makes it stand out from the rest. This communal experience manages to make even the most tedious parts of the game have some sort of redeeming quality by knowing that you’re not alone in this hazardous, apocalyptic new world.
In Death Stranding, you play as Sam Porter Bridges — a freelance porter who must travel from one end of the United States to the other in an effort to reconnect a post-apocalyptic America. On your travels, you’re sure to encounter a few threats along the way — such as the cargo-obsessed MULEs, or worse: the Beached Things (BTs), which can only be damaged by ammunition made from Sam’s own bodily fluids.
Sounds pretty daunting right?
Safe to say, there’s a lot to manage here. Fortunately, you’ll have just as much equipment in your arsenal to handle them — so long as you can manage the weight of said cargo. Carrying things from point A to point B is a large part of Death Stranding’s gameplay, and it’s a little harder than you might think. Putting too much weight on Sam can cause him to become off-balance, stumble, and fall, which damages cargo, which results in you receiving a lower rank when you complete your delivery. The shoulder buttons are assigned the function of shifting Sam’s weight to the left or right to prevent this, but can quickly prove to be a nuisance in the early sections of the game. In fact, there’s a lot that you might find yourself annoyed with early on in the game, mainly having to do with the lack of options in gameplay; The beginning of the game is slow, but sticking with it will prove to you just how much fun it can be to be a delivery-person in the apocalypse.
When the game opens itself up, you’ll know. As more and more options become available, completing deliveries becomes less of loathing the thought of walking from point A to point B, and more strategizing — figuring out how you can get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself trying to mix and match different combinations of equipment to see just how much equipment you can load onto Sam’s back without exceeding his weight limit. If that sounds too tedious for you, the game streamlines this by including an optimization feature when loading cargo, enabling you to get right back out there even faster. The burden of being thrown off-balance and having to constantly shift your weight will is alleviated by technology such as stabilizers, or exoskeletons, which can not only increase your stability but help you out in a variety of ways — whether that be scaling snowy mountains, carrying egregiously large amounts of cargo, or even making a hasty getaway from the game’s various enemies.
MULEs and Terrorists are two such enemies in this game. MULEs simply want to knock you out and steal your stuff, while terrorists are out for your head, should you cross over into their territory. Keeping in line with the game’s goal of rebuilding instead of destroying, the best course of action is generally to avoid them. but if you’re itching for a fight, by all means, go ahead — just don’t expect it to be an easy one. Death Stranding has guns, but it is not a third-person shooter, nor should it be played like one. Combat in this game gives off a sense of worried excitement; the kind that you get when you’re caught doing something you shouldn’t be. The game gives you enough to manage when it comes to these encounters, but its power dynamics ensure you will never have the upper hand, making for countless thrilling encounters on your journey. The same cannot be said for the otherworldly beings that populate this strange new world, however.
The BT’s are creatures from beyond the grave trying to reach their way back into the world again. They are made out to be a major threat throughout the game — what with being invisible, and their ability to cause void-outs — enormous craters upon contact with human corpses. Unfortunately, their bark ends up being a lot worse than their bite. The first few encounters with the BTs are thrilling in their own right, but they wear out their welcome once you realize how routine these encounters all are.
In gameplay, you can often navigate BT infested areas with relative ease. As long as you crouch-walk and hold your breath when the on-screen prompt tells you to, you’ll likely make it through most of the game’s BT sections without a hitch. Even if you’re caught, it’s not hard to escape; should you manage to get captured, you still have a last chance to defeat a mini-boss in order to prevent a void-out. Granted, the designs of the bosses are aesthetically pleasing, and the battles themselves are exciting, but it often feels like the only way to experience these parts of the game is to let the BTs take you, given how easy it is to escape their clutches. The low stakes of the gameplay surrounding BTs makes them the low point of Death Stranding’s gameplay — turning what is normally a high-stakes, dynamic gameplay experience into a low-stakes, rinse-and-repeat type of gameplay experience.
It’s always important to take some time to relax, no matter what your profession. Death Stranding has a whole section of the game devoted to this concept: the safe house. Here, you can rest, take a shower, check on your BB, or even make weapons out of your own bodily waste when you use the bathroom. The safe house, however, quickly wears out its welcome once you get settled in. The novelty runs dry, as the appeal of watching Norman Reedus chug Monster Energy Drinks, strike odd poses, and punch you in the face staring at his crotch for too long starts to lose ground after the third time. Granted, there are some compelling cutscenes that each tell a part of a story every time you leave the safe house, but they start to run dry when you realize they have a tendency to repeat themselves after you’ve left the safe house so many times.
The safe house is also home to two out of the three largest issues in the game: an overbearing amount of cutscenes, as well as in-game advertising. Virtually everything you do in the safe house is a cut scene. Want to get the dirt off of Sam’s face? There’s a cutscene for that. If you were to want to use the safe house simply to recover and get back out ASAP, you would have to skip four cutscenes. That’s four times you have to pause the game, and hit skip. It feels more unnecessary than anything, and is proof that maybe not everything in a video game should have a cutscene. The nature of the product placement is immersion-breaking, as there’s always a chance you’ll catch a glimpse of some Monster Energy in the background during an intense scene taking place in the safe house. The ad that appears every time Sam uses the toilet sitting down for AMC’s show Ride with Norman Reedus was enough to elicit an audible “oh come on!” When it first appears on the screen. Kojima is no stranger to product placement in his games, evidenced by the inclusion of Calorie Mates in Metal Gear Solid 3. However, it hasn’t been as in-your-face as it is here — leading us into Death Stranding’s biggest problem: its lack of subtlety in its storytelling.
Death Stranding’s gameplay makes a first weak impression before turning it up a few notches later. Inversely, the story makes a strong first impression, but it ultimately falls apart as the game goes on. It sets up some engaging plot elements, introduces a cast of wonderfully portrayed characters, and despite the early portions of the game being plagued by some pacing issues, it bounces it back tremendous fashion. However, whatever impact the story is supposed to have feels diminished by how heavy-handed the messaging is. As the narrative develops, entire cutscenes become 10-minute-long exposition dumps where characters will over-explain every detail about the events you just played through; going as far as to explain the hidden meanings and themes behind the the game, instead of letting you figure it out for yourself. The apparent lack of faith in the audience’s ability to interpret meaning from a work of art results in the game’s story kind of feeling kind of like that one friend everyone has; the one who will spend hours overexplaining the meaning behind every aspect of a film while you’re watching it.
Additionally, the characters themselves often feel like a missed opportunity when you take a closer look at them. Everyone has an arc, but very few of these characters feel like they properly develop over the course of the story. Character development feels kind of like a light switch that some characters will just flip on when it’s time for them to start acting a different way. Sam — the main character — feels like a huge missed opportunity. Sam is a loner who rediscovers the value of human connection throughout the game, but it never feels like he develops as a character; it feels more like he inexplicably changes. The story does have some redeeming qualities, however. The performances of the main cast being the most standout of them all.
The entire main cast breathes such life into these characters with their performances that I forgot any problems I had with the writing while watching them act. Mads Mikkelsen and Norman Reedus are fantastic — especially when sharing the scene, but the true standout here is Tommie Earl Jenkins, who delivers an emotionally raw performance as Die-Hardman that could make a compelling case for the best acting featured in a video-game. The facial animations are commendable, with every nuance an actor might incorporate in a live action role (facial twitches, eye movements) translating perfectly into this game. Death Stranding may not have the best writing in a video-game, but it might have some of the best acting seen in a video-game.
Presentation-wise, Death Stranding is visually stunning. Running on a PlayStation 4 Pro, the game ran at a consistent 30 frames-per-second without any noticeable hitches. It’s landscapes look beautiful, and are more than enough to ensure that you’ll always have something pretty to look at while traversing the apocalypse. The soundtrack is sublime, boasting an impressive amount of licensed music that never particularly feels out of place, while also showcasing a variety of original music that were stuck in my head long after the conclusion of the game.
The main issue in regard to presentation is how egregiously small the in-game text is. This makes sitting back on the couch while playing this game a bit of an impossibility. As someone with relatively good eyesight (when I’m wearing glasses), I ended up stand a little closer than 3 feet in front my 32 inch television while playing the game in order to decipher the menu options. This, ultimately, will be a problem for anyone looking to play the game who has poor eyesight, and continues an unfortunate trend seen in many AAA releases nowadays.
Death Stranding is a game that has a lot of moving parts, and most of the time, those parts create a machine that runs pretty well. Even though the grimy in-game product placement and heavy-handed writing can cause things to grind and come to a halt, its innovative gameplay mixed with its unique online elements are what really keep the machine running. Death Stranding as a story might turn into tens of hours of droning on about the importance of coming together, but Death Stranding as a game is a brilliantly realized piece of art about collaboration; a game about realizing that if everyone can come together, even the apocalypse can’t be all that bad.