The Most Polarizing Game Of The Year
Hideo Kojima reminds me a lot of George R.R. Martin and George Lucas. With a bit of restraint, these men have managed to achieve greatness in their respective fields. Without that overarching influence to keep them on the straight and narrow, and with free reign to conjure up something wholly self-published and original, these artists have struggled to reign themselves in and rekindle that early career magic, producing lacklustre and ever-so-slightly egotistical pieces of fiction. Death Stranding then, is Hideo Kojima following in that same vein.
On the surface, Death Stranding is a delivery man simulator; reconnecting America one parcel at a time in order to bring this nightmarish world back from the brink after an extinction event known as the Death Stranding. At the centre of this hellish existence lies Sam Porter-Bridges, a gruff veteran in his field and the weary hero we control, tasked by President Bridget to reconnect the Chiral Network and bring America back online. Of course, in true Hideo Kojima fashion, this surface-level story paves way for an epic dose of creative weirdness, as you’re joined on your adventures by BB; a living baby inside a glass jar that can sense the supernatural antagonists of the game – BTs.
As the story progresses, you’re introduced to a whole host of other colourful characters, including cartoonish Higgs and the deliciously dark character Mads Mikkelsen plays. To give much more away about the story would be divulging serious spoilers but suffice to say, the game world is utterly compelling and sucks you in from the opening cut-scene right the way through to the exhaustingly long cut-scenes and interactive elements that round things out in the 2 hour finale. While most of the story beats are explained at the end, whether you make it that far to see the conclusion is another matter. Death Stranding is, without doubt, the most polarising game released in quite some time.
Death Stranding is a difficult game to explain to those who haven’t played it. The best way to compare this though is to a marathon run. Watching a solitary marathon runner on TV isn’t particularly engaging or interesting and while you’re taking part the experience is a grueling, painful and frustrating one. However, when you cross that finish line the sense of elation and achievement offers up an addictive and exhilarating dose of dopamine; overcoming the odds and achieving something truly great. Death Stranding attempts to emulate this feeling but it does so in such a way that it stumbles more than it sprints.
This is a game about the journey rather than the destination and because of that the wealth of options and metrics to satisfy are excessive; borderline game-breaking at times. Between stamina and boot degradation are meters for your bladder (which directly affects your stamina and BB’s stress), inventory management and balance, the latter of which can be adjusted by flicking L2 or R2 during on-screen prompts.
The result is a game that forces you to take your time planning, adjusting and mapping your route before even setting out on your mission. If you’re not prepared, the game will punish you with an intense exercise in patience and frustration as you stumble over small rocks and frantically hit the triggers until you reach your destination…or fall and smash your cargo to bits. Water is a constant pain to try and tackle while cliff-faces and sharp descents pose another problem altogether to try and overcome.
The early hours of Death Stranding are a painful experience but as you start to settle into the rhythm of the game, unlocking more tools to help you on your travels, the game opens up in the best possible way. Between ladders and climbing anchors are floating cargo platforms, trikes, guns and even poop grenades. Delivering parcels becomes addictive, borderline exciting, as you see your progress during cleverly informative UI screens at the end of each order. These show you how far you’ve travelled and give a handy score for your efforts, which in turn levels up metrics that allow you to carry more weight, achieve greater balance while sprinting or even allow you to further connect with the community (more on that later).
In a bid to try and shake things up from the repetitive nature of delivering orders to different waystations, Death Stranding throws numerous BT areas into the game to try and add some variety to proceedings. Unfortunately these only make the journey more tiresome and irritating, complete with a 10 second, unskippable cut-scene which kicks in everytime you wander into these areas. These encounters are pretty simple to get past as well, forcing you to crouch and hold your breath as rain lashes down from the sky. If you’re caught by one of these spirital entities, the landscape changes to an inky, black sea of death, forcing you to outrun the water or fight a monstrous boss. Most of the time you’ll choose the former for convenience.
It’s not all deliveries and traveling though as Death Stranding does break things up with combat and stealth elements. If I’m honest, both of these feel pretty half-baked by comparison to the traveling and given the excruciating, meticulous detail put into every part of the game mechanics, picking up a gun and simply firing off a round of floaty bullets or aiming and firing a grenade launcher feels strangely simple by comparison.
The world design, topography and general graphical quality of the game though are utterly magnificent. Seeing the sun reflect off the fast-flowing rivers that believably turn into waterfalls and lakes or coming over a large hilltop to marvel at the scenery below are among some of my favourite gaming experiences of the year. By contrast, navigating mountains as the snow crumbles around you and biting winds cake frost on your face show off the level of detail put into this game and offer some truly unique moments that stuck with me for a long while after I finished this one. Death Stranding is a beautiful game no doubt but like the more controversial pieces of artwork out there – it’s not for everyone.
Thankfully the social aspects of the game enhance Death Stranding in such a way that it makes the more mundane segments a pleasure to play through and push this up from a mediocre to enjoyable experience. With a connected world, the different players shape the landscape with shareable structures to help traverse this world, including safe houses, generators (for recharging exo-skeletons and vehicles) as well as timefall shelters to avoid the pesky rain. That’s to say nothing for the various different signs that offer speed boosts while riding a bike or words of encouragement as you ride through them. All of this makes for a really unique experience, extending to wear and tear on roads for commonly used routes. It’s one of the more ingenious pieces of community-driven video gaming I’ve seen in quite some time and props to Hideo Kojima for this, it’s absolutely one of the highlights of the game alongside the world design.
My experience with Death Stranding has swung back and forth like a pendulum during my 35+ hours playing this one. There’s been moments where I’ve outright hated the game, and the expository heavy dialogue, along with cringe-worthy names have really soured the experience. The final twist at the end feels like an intentional troll too and the various different fourth-wall breaking nods to the camera are tonally jarring and ill-syuited to the game. That’s to say nothing of the numerous times Hideo Kojima’s name flashes up on screen both during the opening and closing credit sequences that feel like a bit of an ego-stroke if I’m honest.
By contrast, breaking the mechanics and finding unique ways to complete missions in the fastest way possible (zig-zagging trikes up mountains, intentionally wandering into Mule territory to max out my stamina to run etc.) were all fun ways to try and overcome the challenges the game posed. It helps too that every part of this gorgeous world is dripping in visual splendour and the different landscapes you explore are varied and interesting to look at.
Watching clips of this game online does not do Death Stranding justice. This is a game worth renting first to experience firsthand and if you’re not hooked after the game opens up a bit, don’t buy it. From a creative standpoint, I hope we get more games like this one but as a mainstream appealing sci-fi game, Death Stranding is a difficult one to recommend buying but it is an experience not to be missed.
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Verdict - 6/10