Strand and Deliver, with Tactical UPS-Pionage Action
THERE WILL BE NO SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
Where on earth do I start with Death Stranding? When a code for one of the most anticipated games of the year, if not all time, shows up in your inbox almost a full month before release, you get an inkling that Sony are probably quite confident in the game. Fortunately, they’ve every right to be. I attempted to stay away from a lot of the pre-launch media for Death Stranding. After sitting in the audience for the insanity that was the reveal back at E3 2016, and as a self-professed fan of Hideo Kojima’s work, I wanted to go in as blind as I could.
One of the biggest questions that I had going in to the game was “What exactly is it?”. Kojima himself was talking about it spanning genres, or at times suggesting that it would create an entirely new one for us to get stuck into. Truth is, it really is something unlike anything I’ve played before. It’s a delivery simulator, it’s a stealth game, it’s a ghost story, and it’s utterly bonkers. To put it short, it’s the most Hideo Kojima game that Hideo has ever Kojima’d.
Let’s get started then, shall we? Sam Bridges is a delivery man. A Porter, to give him his correct term. The game is set after the titular event has taken place, as Death Stranding is a quite literal term. The dead’s souls have been washed up in our world, and caused complete havoc. Worldwide communications have gone down, planes can’t fly, and the country is fragmented. Sam’s job is to reconnect the country from the East to the West coast, by delivering packages and re-forging relationships in order to bring the United Cities of America (the States have crumbled) together as a country once more. Standing in his way are a deliciously evil cast of enemies, as well as a never ending stream of Beached Things, or BTs to you and me. These are a kind of invisible, floating ghost, and will pop up throughout Death Stranding, with the only way to detect them will be via your Odradek (a kind of neon, blinking radar), as long as it’s hooked up to a Bridge Baby (or BB). The BB is, essentially, a BT detection system contained in that yellow pod in the front of Sam’s suit. Oh, and due to a condition that Sam has, BB also allows you to “repatriate” whenever you die, leading to your revival. This is done by the now infamous “thumbs up” sequence that you’ve doubtless seen a thousand times by now. Is everyone suitably confused? Good.
THIS IS THE MOST HIDEO KOJIMA GAME THAT HIDEO HAS EVER KOJIMA’D
The bulk of the game takes place over 2 areas, the Eastern and Central regions of America. In order to reconnect cities and facilities, you have to connect them to the UCA’s Chiral Network, allowing communication to be re-established, and the infrastructure to be put in place to allow America to become whole again. These areas are pretty vast, and will see Sam traversing them with varying amounts of cargo, and indeed at varying speeds, depending on the surroundings. There is a definite joy to be had with figuring out the best route to take, and although there are occasionally some moments where you get unexpectedly caught on the geometry, it’s a wonderfully social take on solitude. That sentence may seem contradictory, but it’s in the traversal that one of the key themes of Death Stranding starts to emerge. Early on in my playthrough, I encountered a mission that required me to retrieve some cargo that had been stolen by an enemy faction. I could have tackled an enemy head on and run into the camp to take back what was mine, or I could sneak round the back and through a cave to retrieve it. As I neared the cave, I realised that I couldn’t have climbed back out of it. However, at the back, going straight up and out of a small opening, was a ladder. A ladder that was placed there by another player. As I climbed it, the prompt came up for me to tap the touchpad and issue “likes” to the other player to say thank you for laying down this route. On the other side of the opening was a sheer drop, but somebody else had crafted a climbing anchor with a rope leading down to the bottom, allowing me to sneak in undetected, incapacitate a guard with a rope of my own, plunder the booty that was being held hostage, and escape without so much of a hint of my intrusion.
As the game progresses, these little helping hands from others manifest themselves across the entire world. It actively encourages you to become part of this evolving environment, and allows you to create structures that will make life easy for other porters who are pining for a helping hand. It’s taking some of the mechanics from the Souls series (leaving notes etc) and amping them up to 11. Seen a big river that you need to cross? Plop down a bridge. About to head up a steep and snowy incline but don’t need all your cargo? Stick a post box down to allow people to temporarily store stuff. Vehicles become available, which can be left in facilities or just out and about in the world for others to pick up and utilise. You can even contribute materials to other players’ structures to upgrade them, or protect them from falling victim to the other, more natural, enemy in the game. Timefall.
Timefall is, for all intents and purposes, rain that speeds up time. Of course, this sounds like a typical “video game” concept, and I suppose it is, but what it does do is add a sense of urgency to your deliveries and traversal, as Timefall not only damages the containers for your cargo, but heavy storms also signify the presence of a gang of BTs. When your Odradek stars spinning and BB starts crying, you need to move as silently as possible (enabled by holding your breath), lest ye be caught by a floating BB and dragged off through a sea of black tar and potentially resulting in what’s called a “voidout”. This will obliterate anything in the vicinity, and leave a crater in the landscape as a reminder that you screwed up. Of course, you can leave helpful signs around which warn people of a BT infested area, enabling them to either work their way around it or brave the consequences.
If it’s not clear so far, I think I should probably state. I absolutely loved Death Stranding. However, there is one glaring thing staring me in the face when I say that. I’ve tried to stay away from specifics in this review, but at times it does feel like the game is asking you to do one too many pointless trips in the early going. The problem with this is that I’ve criticised plenty of games in the past for doing this, most notably Final Fantasy XIII, which prompted cries of “A game shouldn’t take 15 hours to get good” at the time. Thankfully, Death Stranding has something to offer from the get-go, but there is a definite uptick in the pacing after a certain point in the game. At the time of writing, I’ve completed the main story and am currently mopping up side objectives, with well over 50 hours played over the past two and a bit weeks.
That said, I know it won’t be for everyone, and I have no doubt in my mind that this game will divide people right down the middle. As much as Kojima fancies himself as a screenwriting genius, there are some exceptionally on-the-nose moments of writing (particularly with some of the character names), and plenty of self-referential aggrandising if you dig into some of the texts and expositional lore within the game. The reliance on one artist providing the majority of the soundtrack because they happen to be his new favourite band is a bold choice, but it honestly works. A gentle ambient intro and soothing vocals from Low Roar coming in as you’re in the middle of a long trek to your destination is so subtly done that the only blight is when the title of the track and artist pop up in your HUD to give you the details. There is something a little out of place with some of the branding in the game as well (your canteen will extract water and craft it into Monster energy drink, for example), and there’s an advert for Norman Reedus’ new TV show in a couple of spots in the game too. As for the numerous cameos, well that’s up to you to decide on. Personally, I thought it was quite nice to see some familiar faces pop up (and yes, that includes Conan O’Brien) as I ventured through the landscape rebuilding the UCA.
With regard to the technical side of the game, it is mostly spotless. Running on a PS4 Pro, the game runs at a near locked 30fps for the entirety, with the only struggles I’ve seen coming in the late game, when boosting a vehicle through a particularly busy area with lots of user created structures in place. With that being said, Death Stranding does things visually that I’ve simply never seen before in a video game. There are some absolutely gorgeous set pieces, and even the moment to moment gameplay has some spectacular views, as well as plenty of suitably weird imagery to go along with it. The game runs at a checkerboarded resolution if you’re able to hook it up to a 4k set, and the HDR implementation is up there with Horizon Zero Dawn for just how good it looks, which is unsurprising as it’s on the impressive Decima engine. The base PS4 runs at a steady frame rate when on foot, with a slightly reduced texture quality and the odd effect being left out as well, while seemingly running at a lower resolution.
DEATH STRANDING DOES THINGS VISUALLY THAT I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE IN A GAME
Almost 1600 words in and I’ve not mentioned one of the key components of Death Stranding, which is of course the cast and their performances. Legitimately incredible face-scanning technology, combined with some of the best performance capture and voice acting that I’ve seen combine in the game to create a brilliant cast and an engaging narrative. Admittedly some of it is absolute nonsense, but it’s engaging nonsense nonetheless. Troy Baker is a standout here, as is to be expected, but Mads Mikkelsen and Norman Reedus have equally impressive turns for actors who are largely unfamiliar with the video game world. The supporting cast have an important role to play, and aside from one particular cameo in a shelter, I can’t think of a moment when anyone really puts a foot wrong.
There’s a point in the pilot episode of Futurama where Fry, having been cryogenically frozen for 1000 years, gets told he’s going to become a delivery boy. He reacts with “Oh no!” and tries to escape his fate. Later on in the episode, he’s on the run and escapes in a spaceship to be told he’s going to be part of an intergalactic logistics company. His response? “So… I’m a delivery boy? ALRIGHT! I’m a delivery boy!!”. After spending enough time with Death Stranding over nearly 3 weeks, that’s exactly how I feel as well.