Since its announcement at E3 back in June 2016 we’ve wondered what Death Stranding would be about. Hideo Kojima’s games are always unique experiences, and you’ll never know what’s truly going to happen from a trailer because he’s very good at building mystery, avoiding spoilers and not revealing anything about the plot. For over 25 years we’ve been used to entries in the Metal Gear Solid series from him, Z.O.E. excepted, and with the acrimonious split from Konami we were concerned that maybe we’d seen the best already. Or more accurately, we at Codec Moments lamented the fact there’d be no more adventures with Snake and Kojima would forever live under that shadow. We shouldn’t have doubted his talent though, nor his ability to read his own fan base, because there’s something very special here that explores the themes of isolation, co-operation, repetition and what the limited time we have on Earth should mean to us.
The game is named for a cataclysmic event that has wiped out the major population centres of the US, and it’s assumed the rest of the world too. The Death Stranding happened and caused the Earth to become merged with the Beach – purported to be a link to the afterlife – and entities that were supposed to be moving through to the other side were suddenly trapped in our world. This resulted in the phenomena where if someone dies they became one of these Beached Things (BT’s) if they aren’t disposed of soon after death. If a body is allowed to necrotize a new BT is released into the world and will attack and consume other humans, and in doing so cause a Voidout which are massive explosions akin to small nuclear blasts, just without the radiation. The Voidouts have been the cause of putting the human race on the brink of extinction, and are the single biggest threat to survival in this bleak future. Aside from the BT’s, the Death Stranding also introduced a new particle called Chiralium which drastically altered the landscape, created Timefall: Rain that ages and corrodes whatever it lands on, and cut off any satellite and standard radio frequency communications.
With communities decimated and isolated, the environment hazardous on multiple fronts, and no way of remotely contacting each other, the survivors became dependent on couriers who traverse the lands moving essential supplies around. With the majority of the remaining populous seeking refuge in various Knot cities, getting equipment and rations between these places is where our hero Sam Porter Bridges comes in. Played by Norman Reedus, Sam is the best of the best when it comes to lugging cargo around, and when there’s a way discovered to start reconnecting the fractured society using the Chiral network, he’s tasked with heading out and making it happen. He’s also a Repatriate, meaning that if he dies and ends up on the Beach he can find his way back to the living world; and a DOOMS sufferer which is a syndrome afflicting some of the population giving them higher resistance to the effects of the Chiralium particles and a sensitivity to the Beach. For Sam this results in the ability to sense the presence of BT’s, and comes with the drawback that physical contact (even through clothing) causes an allergic reaction. He’s given the job to trek through the harsh lands and reconnect what’s left of the United States.
That’s a really, really brief summary of what’s going on in Death Stranding. There’s a lot of plot fleshed out through multiple characters portrayed by the likes of Mads Mikkelsen, Guillermo Del Toro, Sea Leydoux, Emily O’Brien, Troy Baker and a whole host of others. With this being a Kojima production you can expect decent levels of exposition, lengthy cutscenes and a wealth of documents to wade through that will piece the story together, but there’ll still be gaps in understanding if you don’t spend some time thinking about the over-arching theme of connection, and the liberal use of string metaphors. Much like his previous work, the story is mostly there as justification for the gameplay – “Hey, I know! I’ve a concept of being a wasteland postman… how can I work that into a narrative?”. It’s this that will probably polarise what people think of the game. Looking past the supernatural elements it’s all about getting from A to B and keeping the cargo that’s on Sam’s back in the best condition possible. There’s difficult terrain to tackle, Timefall to shelter from, BT territories to traverse, and even marauders called MULEs that want to steal everything that’s not bolted down. This forms the main gameplay loop for the 40-odd hours on hand.
Fortunately, it’s in the mechanics that this begins to shine, and for those looking for some sign of the MGS legacy you’ll find that this is very similar to the last entry in that series. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this is Metal Gear Solid game – it’s clearly not – yet I can’t shake the feeling that if the Konami split hadn’t happened, we could have seen Snake in the lead role. Stealth is quite a large component of the encounters in the world; there are lethal and non-lethal weapons, though with the Voidouts you want to keep everyone alive; the character movement and equipment design could be lifted from the previous series; the boss fights… I could go on with the comparisons. It feels like it’s just the central premise that’s different. Whilst there’s an argument that maybe it should be more of a departure from his past endeavours, there’s something very comforting about it that enables you to accept the preposterous nature of what’s going on. Like carrying an unborn but conscious fetus around on your chest, or the ground beneath your feet turning to tar and dolphins leaping out, or a main quest giver being called Die Hard-Man who wears a creepy mask with absolutely no explanation. It all gets accepted without question.
Sam’s journey across the blasted landscapes and stunning countryside of Death Stranding is underpinned by his courier services, so ensuring the packages and parcels are strapped down securely is a key component of gameplay. Weight distribution and managing these loads is essential whether he’s striding across fields or wading through rivers. Arranging the cargo so that there’s a low centre of gravity will help, and for the times when there’s not option except pile things high, he can steady himself by holding L2, R2, or both. The triggers act as a balance and there are visual cues for when things are going pear shaped. Stamina has to be managed and can be replenished through drinking and standing still, though can only be fully restored by resting, and without reserves of strength movement will be very slow or he’ll topple over. There’s quite a distance to cover, this is supposed to be reconnecting isolated communities remember, and with the vast majority on foot get ready for some epic walks and the use of ladders and ropes to get over trickier areas. Once a new strand on the network is made though, it makes it easier to backtrack to previous settlements, shows up emerging pathways from other couriers, and brings out one of the more interesting elements of the game – shared Chiral printing.
Once on a network strand, information and structures by other porters become available. Sam can create structures for his own use at any time through his personal Chiral printer, but get the area online and these are shared with other players. Postboxes, bridges, watchtowers and Timefall shelters start popping up all over the landscape, and even roads become a possibility. There’s a limit in each region so it doesn’t get overcrowded, and there is an option to dismantle them in your specific instance if any happen to be in your way. Alongside the structures there are plenty of markers that can be used to signal to the community what’s coming up, provide encouragement, and if you want some help building some of the more resource hungry pieces. It’s a brilliantly implemented solution to not only enable positive co-operative play, but also embodies the spirit of breaking through the imposed isolation to build something greater as a group. Everything can be “liked”, and the number of likes increases one of Sam’s skill levels that builds the potential to develop stronger bonds with more players, so it has a continual levelling up effect with very little effort on the players part. Getting notifications of people using and liking something you’ve placed in the world never gets old.
The “like” system is the main currency for the NPC missions and quests too, and having a higher rating unlocks additional equipment and customisation options. With orders split into several categories it’s easy to see which are going to progress the story and which are there to help strengthen the communities, and whilst in the beginning it’s easy to see them as a chore, once there’s a road network in place that mostly bypasses enemies and with access to vehicles that cut the journey times down, there’s a certain satisfaction in becoming the best delivery man in the country. It also opens the way to seeing some of the more weird and wonderful situations for the NPCs, as well as downright unusual items for transporting, and the rewards can be one off items with a special purpose. The variety and detail that are put into these side missions is impressive, and in most there are new faces manning the outposts (even if the asset reuse makes every interior look the same). None of the side missions in Death Stranding are mandatory, but it would be a great shame to miss out on some of the surprises in store for the more curious and dedicated.
On top of everything else there’s how fantastic things look and sound, and I’d say you’d be hard pushed to find any other game that comes close to it at the moment. The Decima engine sourced from Guerrilla Games is amazing and probably better than the FOX engine Kojima Productions developed and had to leave behind. Lighting, colours and textures all combine to provide a truly hauntingly beautiful landscape punctuated with pockets of an advanced yet crumbling civilisation. It’s able to portray from the high level photo-realistic skies and panoramic views through to the low level rust and ageing of the containers on Sam’s back as he gets caught in a Timefall shower. It also does wonders with the character models and is all the more evident when in a private room and there’s a chance to clean up and examine Sam and his kit in more detail. Play this on a PS4 Pro with an HDR compatible screen and you’re in for a visual treat, hook it up to cinema sound and it’s an aural delight too. This does bring about probably my biggest complaint of the game – there’s no photo mode. First world problems, eh?
Death Stranding is far deeper than it initially feels it will be, and what seems like a repetitive mechanic is surprisingly well layered so that if you’re bought into the premise it doesn’t feel onerous. It will split opinion and there’s no other way to put it – you need to get through the first 6 to 8 hours for the game to really show you what it can do. If you make it that far then you’ll be in it for the duration and it might well be the best game you play this year. The concept is so different to any other game, the pacing deliberate and considered, yet the familiarity with the director’s work helps to mentally smooth over rough edges and makes it a bit of an anomaly. If this was from a less experienced set of hands it would likely collapsed under its own unbalanced weight. However, it’s delivered with a sense of purpose and clarity of vision that allow it to stand tall and proud. It tackles tough themes and has come to market at just the right time to draw parallels with the current state of the real world, and managed it through not appearing preachy. To top it all off, it’s a AAA game with major financial backing that’s been allowed to do its own thing… it should be celebrated for that on its own.
Death Stranding is available now on PS4 for around £45 and will be released in 2020 on PC.