For years, former Metal Gear Solid mastermind Hideo Kojima has been one of gaming’s more unique voices. So it should come as no surprise that his new open world, third-person action game Death Stranding (PlayStation 4, PC) is also unique — and exciting, and engaging… — even though the main action in this action/adventure game is walking.
Set on Earth,
in the far future after a cataclysm, Death Stranding casts you as Sam Porter Bridges (The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus), a freelance courier who travels the hilly grasslands between cities. Which would be a lot easier if it wasn’t home to large rocks, wily bandits, slippery surfaces, and spectral enemies that drag people off somewhere so terrible that suicide is a viable alternative. But Sam’s job takes on added urgency when he’s asked to deliver packages that will connect these outposts in the hopes of reviving society.
In many ways, Death Stranding plays like a lot of open world action games. Along with missions that drive the main narrative, you have side quests and random combat encounters. You also scrounge around to find resources you can craft into more helpful items, as well as lost packages you can deliver.
What starts to separate Death Stranding from similar games — especially such fellow post-apocalyptic ones as Fallout 4 and Horizon: Zero Dawn — is that Sam isn’t a soldier, or even that trigger-happy. Instead, he’s just a guy with a good pair of boots who has to carry something from one place to another. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t get to shoot people sometimes — he does, and in some interesting places — just that it’s not the focus of this little adventure.
walking in Death Stranding isn’t simple, either. The terrain is rocky, with fast moving rivers as well as steep hills. Your ability to walk is also influenced by how much you’re carrying, how its weight is distributed on your back, and how tired you may be. Which is why, at times, you have to hit the right or left triggers to keep from falling.
What helps is that Death Stranding gives you a scanner like the one Batman had in the Arkham series and Lara Croft had in Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. Along with finding resources, lost packages, and enemies, it also scans the terrain and tells you how hard it will be to traverse. More importantly, it does something Lara and Batsy’s scanners didn’t but should’ve it: it keeps items of interest highlighted once they’ve been identified. Which means that if your scanner locates a package in the distance, you don’t have to keep hitting the scan button to find it.
There are a lot of similar mechanics in Death Stranding; ones we’ve seen in other games, but work better here. Take your stamina, which is drained when you run or are fighting the current of a river you’re crossing. While it does recharge quickly, it doesn’t drain as fast as stamina does in a lot of games. More importantly, Sam’s normal footspeed is a nice brisk jog, not an inconsistent casual saunter like you have in such games as The Outer Worlds. Still, you have to be mindful of your stamina level, since being winded means your footing suffers and you may fall down, and even drop your packages. Which, as you can imagine, is a real bummer if it happens when you’re crossing a river.
It also helps that your deliveries aren’t all the same. Sure, most just require you to make your way from point A to point B. But there are times when you have to absolutely, positively get it there on time, or not jostle the cargo too much, lest it explodes. It’s during these less typical moments you’ll be glad you can also sometimes requisition a truck or three-wheeled motorcycle.
The world of Death Stranding…
is also different from ones we’ve seen in other post-apocalyptic games. While there are times when you’ll see moss-covered skeletal remains of structures like you did in Horizon: Zero Dawn, most of the terrain is grassy hills and rivers that are littered with large rocks. The weather is also overcast, and often rainy.
Death Stranding takes advantage of this bleak world, and its focus on travel, by not having as many enemies as such similar open world, post-apocalyptic games as Metro: Exodus and the Fallout series. The bandits are few and far between, and the ghostly enemies, called BTs, are also relatively spread out. The location of the latter are also telegraphed; Sam can sense them, while BB, the baby in a jar you carry strapped to your chest, can help you see them. Just make sure you keep the kid happy by not jostling him around too much, and rocking him back and forth when he’s fussy.
Now, when the kid and your feelings fail you, and you do run into the BTs, Death Stranding goes into stealth action mode. But not always in the way we’re used to in a Kojima game. While the bandits will attack if they spot you or ping you with their scanners, and can be attacked if they don’t, the BTs don’t rely on line of sight or sonar radar devices. Instead, it’s about being too close and making too much noise, like you’re sneaking around a room with motion and audio sensors but no armed guards.
It’s these moments that are among the game’s most effective, as they’re immensely tense and require absolute patience. And while Sam can struggle when he’s caught, or run away (not easy given how the terrain becomes even tougher in these moments), he can also attack…assuming he remembered to bring the necessary items.
The irony of Death Stranding being so unique,
though, is that it also has some unique flaws. For starters, while getting the electric trike or truck makes it somewhat easier and quicker to get around, it’s only slightly better than walking. Like when you rode your horse in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, you constantly have to dismount to pick up lost packages and resources. There are also times when the truck will get stuck between two rocks, and even using its ability to do a small hop won’t pry it loose.
There are also some incongruous elements in Death Stranding, ones that are so out of place that they take you out of the moment. Not only is there an ad for Reedus’ reality show Ride, but there’s also cans of Monster Energy Drink. It’s also inconsistent that the aforementioned trikes and trucks have lousy tires and batteries, and are clearly not built for such rough terrain, even though all of the terrain is rough no matter where you go.
Then there are the audio issues. Though, oddly, they’re not glitches but choices. For starters, the character Deadman is modelled to look like Shape Of Water director Guillermo del Toro, but is voiced by a piss-poor imitator.
More annoyingly, there are times in Death Stranding when approaching a building will trigger a music cue. But not only can you not turn this music off or down, but these songs replace the game’s sound effects while they play. Even worse, the songs are just awful, like Coldplay doing lifeless covers of Radiohead. Thankfully, these mood-killing tunes don’t play all the time; most of your walks are accompanied only by the sound of footsteps and running water.
It’s also tedious…
how so many actions prompt short cinematics. When at a city or outpost, you have to sit through short clips whenever you drop off a package, pick one up, recycle some resources…. And sometimes there’s two in a row, like when Sam takes a shower. Granted, you can skip them, but it’s sadly not as easy as just mashing a button, like you do when you don’t want to listen to a character prattle on. And man do they prattle.
Combat in Death Stranding is also problematic. If the BTs overpower you, you’ll have to face off against a larger one in a mini boss battle. But since Sam is a courier, not a soldier, his equipment is organized as cargo, and is not combat ready. Grenades, for instance, come in packs of five. Which means that if you have fifteen grenades, you can’t toss fifteen grenades, you have to toss five and then go into your inventory and switch to another batch. And it’s worse if you’re using a gun because Sam doesn’t know to switch weapons when one runs out of ammo. All of which wastes precious seconds; seconds that could mean the difference between life and death. Well, life and reloading your last save file, that is. Good thing you can always just run away.
There’s also an online component to Death Stranding which allows you to leave messages, items, even structures for other players, and you for them. But while this may not break the fiction — it makes sense that there would be other deliver people walking around — the messaging aspect still gets annoying since said messages are presented as floating icons, and when a lot of people leave messages in the same area, as they are wont to do, things get messy.
Death Stranding also has a problem so common that I just cut and paste this paragraph into every relevant review: some of the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your TV, you’ll have trouble reading the menus, including the parts that detail your missions, the maps, and the instruction text. But not, ironically, the subtitles, which are nicely sized.
Yet despite all of its flaws…
— and the fact that you can sum up this game with the cliché, “…and we’re walking, we’re walking…” — Death Stranding actually works, and well. Sure, it can get a bit tiresome if you play for too long in one sitting. Or too much in a single day. But when spread out over a few weeks — as I got to play it — Death Stranding manages to make a simple act like walking into an engaging adventure that’s, well, unique.