Death Stranding is one of the most divisive games that has ever been released. Some who bow at the altar of Kojima will buy this and love it unconditionally just as others who dislike his work will dismiss it out of hand. It is certainly one of the hardest games to categorize, recommend or criticise in this generation.
You play Sam Porter Bridges, a courier. The United States has been left in an apocalyptic state by an event called the Death Stranding. It has opened the passage between life and death and brought about a number of strange features, that the game uses as mechanics. Ghosts called BT’s can enter the world and try to drag you into theirs. These can be sensed with a baby carried around in a tank on your person called a BB and serve as the main stealth element of the game. When it begins to rain, BT’s become more prevalent and if detected by your BB, you enter a small stealth element while you try to avoid them and continue on your journey. This is both thrilling and annoying in equal measures. Then we have the rain itself referred to as Timefall. This rain ‘ages’ anything it touches so it makes your metal cargo rust, makes people age and generally is not a good idea to get caught out in.
If you can get your head around all of that then you can begin to get into the meat of the game. You are a courier, you deliver packages from A to B and while you do this you reconnect the outposts you visit onto one central network. In doing this you rebuild the USA, through the Chiral Network as the UCA or United Cities of America. In doing this you face story related hurdles in the form of Mules who are faceless cargo obsessed packs that roam the land and more direct threats from shadowy protagonists who become revealed as the story progresses. The fear that motivates people is highlighted in the early missions when you have to take a suicide victim to be incinerated. If the bodies of the dead aren’t incinerated the BT’s can get them and cause a void out, basically an all-consuming event that can level a city and leave a crater in its place. (Phew – got all that?)
After trying to give a brief overview of what is happening you can get into the meat and bones of the gameplay. Here is where the game shines for some inexplicable reason. If you try to explain to someone whether or not they should buy this game the only way is to let them play it.
The core gameplay loop is a highly detailed and slow transportation simulation of extremely heavy packages over a long distance. You can ping the terrain to see large rocks or deep water you should avoid and it checks the gradient of slopes for you. This is all necessary for the hyper-realistic walking and weight carrying mechanic. You can basically stack boxes up to 30 feet high on your back after a few upgrades and the slightest stumble can send them all tumbling. Holding the left and right triggers have the effect of holding the left and right strap of your backpack and you use this to balance the weight. This is both frustrating and rewarding in equal measure and when you add the threats and scenarios mentioned above it becomes a game.
The OCD of getting your packages, planning the route and hitting other depots in order works as a game for me. Coupling with the photorealistic but barren landscapes and haunting music you don’t feel time pass at all while playing. The journey to deliver the package becomes all-encompassing as the more you play the game the easier traversal gets because of the innovative online component.
In Death Stranding, you basically have the worlds most advanced 3D printer. You can use it to build postboxes, bridges, watchtowers, shelters, safe houses and highways. You place a template down and then you contribute the necessary materials to complete the construction, the asynchronous online play then lets others use your structures in their game and vice versa. This is unlocked once the area is connected to the chiral network and before long the once arduous journey could be replaced by a highway for you to ride your electric motorcycle along at high speed. The constant evolution of the routes and landscapes mean more and more packages, more and more ratings and more satisfaction for you from delivering. It is a clever and addicting loop in the middle of the traditionally bonkers Kojima storyline.
The loop shares a lot in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. Imagine if you took out the main story missions and the core game was the journey and the random events that happen along the way. If you enjoyed the vast landscapes and slow play of RDR2 then this element of Death Stranding should be right up your street.
Of course not everyone will like this game and in fact, quite a few will hate it. I went into it with an open mind and despite being a fan of some of Kojima’s previous games I expected something different. There are also a number of niggles that may affect your gameplay more than others depending on your style.
The combat is basic but enjoyable until you have to throw an excrement grenade, this can be awkward and hard to aim. The mules are annoying when they begin chasing and you have to rely on the combat to get rid of them, that being said smacking one of them in the face with a piece of cargo is very cathartic. The rainfall is also extremely annoying. If you see an unexplored area, chances are that the rain will start as soon as you are in the middle of it bringing out the risk of the BTs. When they appear everything slows to a crawl and you are in for a nervy 5-10 minutes.
Inventory management is another fiddly part of the game, while the auto stack distributes the weight as best as possible it can be unclear what you are loading in one go and how much of it is unnecessary. You should be taking ladders, climbing ropes and building templates with you as well as some grenades and your bola gun but them where do you put the cargo or your spare pair of boots or anything else you may need along the way?
These minor niggles aside, Death stranding is one of the most unique games you will ever play. Like a Cricket sim, a Farming sim, a Tour De France sim or others it is easiest to put it in the sports genre. You have here the best sim of a courier that will ever be made and you will only know if you like it by playing it for yourself.