I’m going to go on record and say, I’m not a huge fan of Kojima. I’m not a huge fan of David Cage, but I’ve enjoyed his games. Ken Levine always struck me as an arrogant person, same as Kojima. Yet, Bioshock is still my favorite game of all-time. Being able to separate a product or an experience from the person responsible for providing it can be tricky sometimes, though I would argue it shouldn’t be. Going into Death Stranding, I was expecting to find a game that was well put together. I expected it to play well, at least from a mechanical side. For the most part, I was right. I also expected the story to be a bit out there. I was wrong; completely wrong. It wasn’t a bit out there, it was way out there. The challenge was putting these preconceived notions aside and try to be as objective as possible which is not always easy.
Sometimes a game comes along that changes the landscape of gaming. Most recently, titles like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 brought with them almost universal praise, for various reasons. And sometimes a game comes along that divides the gaming world straight down the middle. Nothing like this though. Death Stranding has garnered very polarizing impressions ranging from “game of the generation” to “a glorified walking simulator“. The newest entry from Hideo Kojima has sparked a potpourri of emotions. In reality, it’s neither of those things. In reality, it’s both of those things. This game is Kojima unchained. For the most part, to my surprise, that’s actually a good thing.
Let me be clear, regardless of what you may have heard, I don’t think that this game is a new genre. At least not in any conventional ways. At its core it’s a third person, open world action/adventure game. It’s not unlike Red Dead Redemption 2 or God of War to a lesser extent. What distinguishes all of these games from one another, obviously, are its different gameplay options. So what does Death Stranding bring that sets it apart?
First off, while asynchronous multiplayer isn’t anything new, how it is implemented here is. Thematically, the game is about making connections. You play as Sam, the man charged with connecting America through information terminals across the country. Much of the game is traveling the world (more on this later) with different cargo, sometimes in ridiculous quantities, to different stations in the hope that they will join the network. Throughout your journey you’ll come across various signs, structures, vehicles and cargo left behind by other players. You can then “like” these items which in turn will help those players “level up” allowing them to carry more cargo along with other perks. This system is key to the experience of the game. A well placed bridge or a charge station can be life savers. You can also create specific bridges with other players which I assume takes some of the randomness out of what you come across. It also encourages you to help out when you can. It’s like Twitter or Facebook in a way, but almost a completely positive experience from a social aspect. There are a lot of neat little things you can do in the game as well. I saw a giant Longneck hologram from Horizon Zero Dawn walking in place near a structure at one point. Scared the crap out of me.
Here’s an example. Your main enemy in the game, at least the one that you’ll come across the most, are the BTs (beached things). They can be a hassle depending on several factors, including terrain. I was having a rough time in the higher elevations so I built a network of zip lines that allowed me to go between three different locations. A little extra effort on my part resulted in not only evading the BTs, but also accounted for a ton of use and “likes” by other players. There’s a weird sense of satisfaction in that though, if I’m being honest, my intentions were entirely selfish. Ultimately, it did help me gain a handful of levels.
There are a few issues with this system however. I came across several unfinished structures in areas that probably didn’t need them. Or, for example, a zip line in the middle of nowhere that wasn’t connected to another. I don’t know what to chalk that up to. From some research I’ve done, it appears that what appears is completely random. Possibly based on the number of “likes” but I don’t know for sure. It’s very vague in execution or explanation. I would say 90% of the time, it worked as intended and as it turns out, was one of my favorite parts of the game. It wouldn’t surprise me going forward seeing this kind of system implemented in other games. It’s definitely unique. Part of me wonders if the people who took issue with the game suffered from a low population of players. As of this writing, only 1.6% have finished chapter 14 ,essentially the end of the story. It’s still a brand new game though, that number makes sense. I don’t know how many review copies went out, but I can’t imagine it was a ton. It’s a huge part of the game and the lack of structures could have impaired their experience.
What wasn’t impaired, I’m guessing, was their experience with the traversal aspect of the gameplay. You are delivering items all the time, normally walking from place to place. While there are vehicles in the game, and I tried to use them liberally, there are several areas that are impossible to get through with them. The key is being able to find balance. Literally. If you’re running full speed up a mountainside full of rocks with a 5 foot stack of items strapped to your back, it will probably turn out poorly for you. There are ways to balance these things through upgrades and different gameplay mechanics, and it does get easier as you go on, but there’s no denying it can be clumsy. There is a learning curve for sure. It’s also not without tedium. Some missions, especially during the mid game, have a tendency to drag out. While a large portion of the game can be described as fetch quests, most of the time there is purpose behind what you’re doing. At one point though, it becomes laborious and meandering. Difficulty ramps up all of the sudden and frustration sets in. It lasts for half a dozen missions or so, but it really interfered with the flow of the game at that point. Otherwise, the gameplay often resembles Metal Gear Solid V. The stealth, mechanics, gunplay as well as item names and how they appear all are very similar to Kojima’s last game, which makes sense.
I have over 300 hours in MGSV. Don’t ask, I can’t explain it. About 70% of the way through the story, I was lost. My expectation here was about the same. Could Kojima, finally free of the constraints of Konami, bring a well thought out story and tie it all together in the end? The short answer is yes. I’ve touched on the main objective, but that doesn’t even begin to encompass what the story is. I think it it fits into the Inception/Interstellar category in that it’s kind of out there with different twists and turns. In the end, Kojima actually brings it all together very well. I won’t spoil anything, but by the end of the story, I actually understood what happened and it tied everything together nicely. The cast did a tremendous job with their portrayals of the various characters. They were really brought to life with a combination of the motion capture and their performances. My only hangup is that the main protagonist, played by Norman Reedus, could have been more fleshed out. He’s out-shined by much of the cast throughout the game. Not until closer to the end does he come out of his shell. That could be a narrative choice, but it’s still a missed opportunity in my opinion. Also, if you don’t like cut-scenes, skip the game. It is full of them. Almost every action when not running around making deliveries, has one. Most of them can be skipped without missing anything. You’ll start to learn when to skip and when not to. It’s a little annoying at times, but mostly avoidable.
Graphically, the game is next level. Kojima Productions used the Decima engine to bring the world to life. They were aided by several Horizon Zero Dawn developers from Guerrilla Games, and it shows. The world is huge, gorgeous and detailed. The mo-cap is amazing as well. Compared side by side, the actors resemble their in game characters in a way that’s borderline creepy. I had a few graphical glitches, but nothing game breaking. In fact, I didn’t see many glitches at all. It’s nice to see that with most games releasing with all kinds of problems. This is the second game in a row, Outer Worlds being the other, that I saw very few issues in such large games. It’s been refreshing for sure.
The game uses various music as well to help you traverse the world. It’s not my style normally, but fitting. As far as the rest of the audio goes, it’s remarkably average. Nothing, save the music, really stood out.
From a content perspective, be ready sink at least 40 hours in. Even if you just do the main story, it’s incredibly long. I did a little over a third of the side missions (standard deliveries) and the entire main story and I’m hovering just above 50 hours. That’s a lot. Those looking for full completion can expect probably double that.
I really struggled with scoring this game. All of these reviews are obviously subjective. I can talk at length, and I did, about how technically the game plays. What the tricky part is, is how you feel while playing a game. What kind of responses does a game invoke? This is true for any game and it’s different for every person. No review is 100% right, nor 100% wrong. I understand why people loved it. I understand why people hate it. On a pure technical level, it’s objectively well done. From a pure enjoyment standpoint, it will continue to divide players and critics. I was honestly surprised on how much I enjoyed my time with Death Stranding given my feelings leading up to release. What I’ve learned playing, while incredibly cliché, is not to judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, a game by its creator. Kojima has brought us a game that does a large number of things very well, while having very few stumbles along the way (pun totally intended). What it proves, in my opinion, is that he’s able to make a high quality title on his own. I’m excited to see what he can do from here.