This title was reviewed on PlayStation 4. A PC release is scheduled for 2020.
Death Stranding is a game that everyone knows about, but no-one knows anything about it. With the launch of the title being tomorrow, allow us to untangle (or attempt to) your questions with our review of this “social strand simulator”! But keep in mind that Sony/Kojima Productions were super strict on the guidelines around early days review content: nearly everything I mention happens in the first half. They didn’t want us hacks to spoil some of the surprises for everyone else!
Hype, in modern video games, is a dangerous thing. With social media being such a driving force, gamers can be whipped up into a frothing frenzy that outstrips the pre-internet age of slow-burn information (although I do have fond memories of bunking off school to excitedly pick up Gran Turismo and Zelda: Ocarina of Time). Since Metal Gear Solid pretty much revolutionised action gaming back in 1998, Hideo Kojima’s titles have been the focus of gamers and the gaming media’s attention ever since. Daring and complex in narrative, rich and engaging gameplay, and strong use of the latest tech have been hallmarks of Kojima san ever since. The build-up to Death Stranding‘s release this month has been as pedestrian as the olden days: five years in development, very few images and videos of actual gameplay, cryptic tweets. Kojima hanging out taking (adorable) pictures with celebrity friends such as Mads Mikkelsen, Guillermo del Toro, and others. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is still regarded as one of the best videogames of all time, but few could argue that the plot was at least a small bunch of bananas at points. Does Death Stranding tread this same path? Or does it deliver a different, more subdued parcel altogether? Well, read on and find out friends!
The majority of the Death Stranding media shared to date has been of cutscenes and the likes. This is fairly normal practice and you cannot judge a game’s looks on pre-rendered alone, but Death Stranding has a lot of them. Not quite to the 1hr+ lengths of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, but you’ll be doing a lot of watching things play out in front of you. Kojima-san’s influences are clear from both the cameos in-game (Gullermo del Toro and Nicholas Winding Refn) and who he cites as his inspiration in various interviews (David Fincher, David Lynch); the quality of direction and cinematography is honestly second to none. It’s like watching a Hollywood movie at times.
Working with other Sony studios during development, such as Guerrilla Games, the Decima Engine behind Death Stranding is a powerful beast. The real-time visuals are delicious, with detailed character models and lush effects up close, complemented by some of the most stunning scenery I’ve had the pleasure of playing these gamed-to-death peepers on; living in New Zealand, the first region around Central Knot City gave me some serious feels! Enormous vistas pan out in front of you with so much detail, you can plan your routes across the landscape a mile away (literally). You can even watch clouds spewing over distant mountains – handy when the rain is deadly in this post-apocalyptic world.
Interestingly, there’s a visual aspect of the game that weighs heavily on the gameplay side of things – physics. A decent physics engine could make or break a game that is mostly around carrying stuff, and luckily Death Stranding nails it. The jiggling and lurching of your cargo as you pile it high is almost enough to make your own knees ache, and the type of terrain affects the way you interact with the world. Anyone who’s been camping and had to side shuffle up a wet crag with a huge backpack will appreciate the realism! As in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, moving around the environment can cause some minor glitching such as climbing halfway into thin air and odd foot placement, but when the physics are so intricate, you can forgive it. Performance-wise, it does really well too – locked at 30fps, with it only dipping whilst hooning around in a vehicle or dashing through an incredibly detailed storm with 300 kilos of stuff dissolving on your back.
Just to add that I played through the game on an old, chunky, standard PS4 on a 1080p HDR monitor: the visual fidelity even on this modest setup is something that Kojima Productions should be commended.
OK. Grab a coffee and some fresh air, and come back to reading this when you’re alert. We good? Great – then I’ll have a stab at explaining *some* of the elements of Death Stranding…
Set in the near(ish) future, the prospering United States of America suffered a cataclysmic event, the titular Death Stranding, where the world of the dead and living came together with explosive results. But this isn’t a harmonious union: the dead-in-situ, ‘BT’s, seek to drag the living into their realm too and whenever this happens, a ‘voidout’ occurs. These are effectively huge explosions, enough to level small settlements and leave sizable craters. As if this wasn’t enough, time-accelerating rainstorms sweep the already buggered lands, decaying all that are exposed. So, with civilisation effectively up the creek, it’s down to brave Porters to get crucial supplies between people. Sam Porter Bridges, played by The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus, is one of the most esteemed and efficient. If he was an Uber Eats driver, he’d definitely be rated 5.0.
Wait, wait – I’m not done! The ‘social strand simulator’ theme comes from the organisation Bridges, part of the United Cities of America (basically what was left of government post-stranding). Bridges are, or were, a pioneering team with the goal of linking whatever and whoever is left out there, to garner a better chance in the ghostly face of extinction. The icing on the cake of the bleak situation is the fact that not everyone wants to hold hands in happy unity, and terrorist cells seek to screw up any hard work that Bridges (or other peaceful folks) do.
Throughout your journey, you’ll meet a handful of other main characters, such as Mama (resident tech expert), Die-Hardman (commander and actually a pretty friendly guy for such a badass name), Fragile (owner of a delivery firm, Fragile Express), and Higgs (part of an initial Bridges expedition, but now very much a baddie).
There are too many other side characters to list here, but part of the joy of Death Stranding is that the world is so desolate, it’s a real joy when you find a new settlement or get some human interaction! Acting and world-building is a specialty of Kojima and his teams, and this game is one of the best examples of ‘games as art’; if this makes you cringe a little, I can assure you that it’s still very enjoyable, even when new elements, acronyms, and twists are introduced. Think of it as an interactive Netflix sci-fi drama series!
The meat of your time in Death Stranding will be spent on foot, in third-person, carrying goods from one place to another. That may sound extremely simplified (it is), but it’s important to get that out of the way. As mentioned, Sam is a courier, and a damn good one at that. You’re able to make your way across the huge landscapes as you see fit, be that taking a completely arse-about-face scramble up a hill onto a ridgeline, or a more direct sprint through enemy territory at the risk of getting your packages broken. Using your Q-pid scanner, you’re able to plot the best routes and waypoints, as well as pinging the immediate area with a short-lasting sonar effect, highlighting difficulties in the terrain, lost packages, and other goodies. Certain packages have specific criteria on their transit (such as keep flat, or flagged as fragile). Altogether, a game about getting stuff from A to B becomes a tactical affair!
Death Stranding is not a combat-focused game. Sorry MGS fans, but Kojima Productions has made sure that in this story, you are made to feel very vulnerable. MULEs, modern-day highwaymen, have the same Q-pid scanning system as you; if you get pinged, you need to get ready to run, hide, or fight. They swarm you at some speed with electrified weaponry which a) damages and knocks your cargo loose for them to steal, and b) bloody hurts. For at least part of the game, your only way of fighting back is with your fists or one of your packages – extremely satisfying, but say goodbye to any ‘good condition’ bonuses for dropping off that particular item! It’s interesting to look back on my time playing through and thinking that my reaction to getting beaten up was “NOO MY STUFF” rather than Ï DON’T WANT TO DIE”! That is one of the ways that Death Stranding hits the mark – it makes you feel invested in doing a good job, and taking ownership of your choices.
You only really come across lethal weaponry about halfway through the game, and even then it’s generally a bad idea to go in (literally) guns blazing. So, stealth is the name of the day for the most part. You can use it do deal with the MULEs (robbing them blind as well, should you wish), but it is pretty much mandatory when dealing with BTs. You may or may not have seen these in the trailers and teasers over the years – ghostly, floating apparitions which sense any hapless living folk which wanders into the deadly timefall rain. When you enter their territory, you’re made immediately aware by your Q-pid turning into a BT detector (whilst plugged into your chest-mounted baby…of course), pulsing and quietly bleeping in the direction of danger. They aren’t always visible, so pinging and listening to audio cues is critical to making it past them in one piece. Seeing ‘R1 – Hold Breath’ to let you know they’re nearly on top of you freaks me out even after 60+hrs! I won’t spoil what happens if they do catch you, as I believe it is one of the most spectacular moments in the game.
The more settlements you help and tie together, the more your chiral network expands and unlocks the online gameplay elements. Some of these are signs stamped around the environment by other players (which you can do anytime), and can flag a number of things such as good climbing routes and dangers, but also just be wholesome and motivational (‘Keep on keepin’ on’ is my fave). In a Minecraftian turn, you’re able to build things around the unforgiving landscapes as well. Ladders, bridges, and even safe houses that you build can be used by others online. Some of these are absolute lifesavers, and it also feels pretty good to be helping out others. You’re able to build bonds with other players from afar by helping return lost things or donating equipment.
This is why I believe the concept of a ‘social strand system’ works. Death Stranding makes you feel alone, vulnerable, and hopeless, but it also encourages you to help unknown and unseen people, be they NPCs or online players. It’s just really, really cool!
I firmly believe that no game is perfect though, and this game isn’t an exception. Some of the animations and cutscenes for small tasks such as donating materials, or simply leaving a safe house, get repetitive. The more stubborn settlements take a lot of deliveries, feeling like a grind at times. And the vehicles sometimes seem unable to get past the smallest rocks, juddering along. A small price to pay though, for being on a console entering the end of its lifespan.
I do not have what I would call ‘premium’ sound equipment (just some middle of the range Arctis cans). Something that really jumped out at me within minutes of play was the audio experience; I had to double-check what equipment I was using because the quality that was being pumped out of my modest $100 headset was incredible! In such a desolate environment, the subtle noises of your clanking cargo, crunching ground, and howling winds are deafening yet nuanced. The noises that the BTs make are chilling as well – hearing low growls stalk you in the heavy rain and mist gives off Silent Hill vibes.
The musical score is well-curated, with the more dynamic and calm themes when wandering around interspersed by electro-tinged battle anthems. A nice touch during certain story missions is actual vocal tunes play, with the associated song title popping up. It gives a cinematic, music video effect whilst you make your way across the country. It’s well-timed and gives space to reflect and soak things up.
I touched on it a little before, but I want to single out the voice acting in Death Stranding too. It is really, really good, with a mix of classic gaming VA talent (take a bow, Troy Baker) and established big-screen performers. It all gives weight to the big-budget feel.
Death Stranding being described as a new genre, I don’t necessarily agree with. The core of gameplay is familiar adventuring, with many tweaks and twists. And there’s absolutely no shame in tweaking and twisting when it’s to give some freshness to a title – and this game delivers that on all fronts. The intriguing, evolving plot. Genuinely enjoyable social elements. Visual and audio fidelity. The quality that oozes out cannot be denied.
It isn’t perfect, with its infrequent jankiness and grind, and the plot might be a bit too mad for some over the 40+ hours, but it’s a hallmark, memorable title from an epic dev team that you should definitely play through once in your gaming days, be it now or later. It’s a big thumbs up from me.