'Death Stranding' Review: Don't Let Preventing Extinction Distract From Your Delivery Job

Newsweek 1 month ago

It wasn't until 15 or so hours into Death Stranding that the game finally clicked. One of the most hyped game releases in recent memory, Death Stranding has defined itself by eerie imagery—of dead whales, baby-powered devices and "Beached Things" crossing over into our world. But whatever bizarre directions Death Stranding takes, buried at its center is a graceful, inventive and surprisingly simple gameplay experience.

It's not that anything in the grand presentation of Death Stranding is deceptive; just that the gulf between its form and content is vast. Take the Death Stranding launch trailer, which overflows with drama, guns, cosmic import, something called an "extinction entity" and every character introduced weeping openly, with a cast credited like a prestige murder mystery ensemble. That's all there, in the game. But it's not what you actually do in Death Stranding.

What you do in Death Stranding is deliver packages.

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Death Stranding's Gameplay Core

As Sam Porter Bridges (but really as Norman Reedus, more later), you are a gloomy Philip J. Fry, hoofing pizzas, medical supplies, sculptures by up-and-coming artists, ornaments, alloys, fountain pens, assorted resins, the occasional antimatter bomb and junk parts from one post-apocalyptic underground shelter to another. Take an order contract at a computer terminal, accept the goods, manage your inventory, then walk or drive to an identical computer terminal (often in an identical-looking shelter), plop your packages down on a conveyor belt and accept a new order contract.

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There are vast, diverse and inventive elaborations on this simple premise, but acculturating to Death Stranding is easier once this is understood as the game's core. There are few exceptions. Sometimes you'll be asked to go to a location, retrieve something and pack it back, but that small variance is about as diverse as the structure of missions get in Death Stranding. Periodically, you'll also tackle boss battles or fall into a historical warzone, but these one-off breaks from the main state of play are a small percentage of the game, almost certainly totalling less gameplay than the collected cutscene runtimes.

These moments also vary in quality. Only one boss battle is downright tedious, a handful are fun, but most hover somewhere around "forgettable Resident Evil encounter" on the all-time video game bosses board. Much more harrowing is delivering a fragile package over rough terrain, forcing you to a tense crawl, like the trucks delivering sensitive explosives over bumpy mountain roads in 1953 movie The Wages of Fear.

Once a delivery order has been accepted, it's time to load up Sam's backpack with the cargo and whatever other equipment he'll need to complete the delivery. Inventory management is a substantial part of the game—one of the first and most obvious examples of Death Stranding's remarkable secret project, which seems to be taking all the most tedious mechanics from other games, then breaking, rebuilding and refining until it's core to the experience.

There's always too much equipment to carry in Death Stranding, so packing requires difficult decisions. Opt for the Power exo-skeleton and use the extra carrying capacity for weapons, or construct a Speed Skeleton and outrun the MULEs on your delivery route? Would that endless rock field be more easily negotiated on-foot, or is the extra speed worth the hassle of zig-zagging a Reverse Trike through the columnar basalt? Will I have chiral network coverage or not? Am I carrying enough blood bags to fuel my hermetic grenades? Is there some extra room to carry enough raw materials to upgrade a bridge, generator, timefall shelter or zipline along the way?

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The Death Stranding Open World

Once your preparations are complete, Death Stranding becomes a traversal game. Here, if anywhere, is creator Kojima Hideo's new genre—a genuine departure in its design philosophy from other open-world games. Groundbreaking open-world evolutions like Skyrim, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Red Dead Redemption 2 chart progression in detail and complexity, measured in metrics like map size, environmental detail and a diversity of quests and things to do, which together achieve the sensation of a world that moves on its own. Anyone who has journeyed over the increasingly stale open worlds of Bethesda know the rhythms of interruption, where every few minutes there pops up a chance for combat, an NPC to speak with or an opportunity to explore. In Death Stranding, the world itself is meant to be enough. The map is not a flat field of events, checkpoints and side quests, but so solidly underfoot it becomes the chief embodiment of gameplay.

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This makes Death Stranding the best video game about hiking ever made. Finding new mountain passes, dropping ladders across gaps for other players, rappelling down sheer cliffs or recovering your balance right before Sam faceplants at the bottom of a chaotic run down a fellfield—this is Death Stranding at its most satisfying. But describing specific gameplay instances doesn't convey the overall sensation of traversing Death Stranding's substantial open-world map: a combination of rhythm, tactile landscape, rewarding vistas and awe before nature.

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Similarly spectacular is how the immensity and texture of this terrain act upon Sam. There's dirt, blood and other aesthetic indicators, but it's exhaustion that Death Stranding captures best. An Endurance Gauge activates when crossing rivers, climbing up steep hills and performing other strenuous activities. It overlaps with a Stamina Gauge, which can drain to exhaustion (or refilled with a swig Monster Energy Drink)—a tired Sam sways, sometimes drops to his knees, or takes any pause in your control as an excuse to sit down or slump over.

The controls also reflect just how close Death Stranding draws you into its environment and into Sam's body, like the pinch of QWOP in the way R2 and L2 are dedicated to grasping the left and right straps of your backpack to recenter Sam's gravity. Every other interface is equally well-refined and loaded with contextually powerful information, like the functions of the cryptic, spinning odradek scanner, which become secondhand with experience.

Death Stranding Combat Is Not What You Think

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Death Stranding's design philosophy is to build complexities upon essential human actions like walking and managing burdens. Combat, multiplayer and most other gameplay elements are all attached to this central labor of delivery. The ghost-like BTs, which Sam can detect with the help of his Bridge Baby, Lou, are more environmental obstacle than enemy. They act as invisible landmines; get to close and risk getting pulled down by the grasping hands of the dead, or unleashing even stranger effects and deadlier enemies. Making deliveries unlocks more ways to dispel BTs, including conventional weaponry (with your toxic blood providing the ammunition), but confronting a field of the spectral, umbilical things rarely feels like combat. Instead, it's clearing a path, each BT like another fallen tree between Sam and completing his package delivery.

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The human MULEs—packaged-obsessed cultists—behave more aggressively, swarming with shock sticks and trucks any time you trip one of the many sensors on the edge of their territory. Infiltrating a MULE camp, which becomes occasionally necessary to retrieve a lost package, involves more familiar action beats: stealth, desperate fights and narrow escapes. More often, it's safer to chart a course around, or select your equipment for speed and charge through MULE territory before they have the opportunity to organize a pursuit.

But even against MULEs, Death Stranding de-emphasizes death and violence, instead always wrapping the in-game stakes around your delivery manifest. Typically, the worst outcome from a run-in with MULEs or BTs isn't dying, but instead having your packages damaged and strewn across the landscape.

Sometimes, Death Stranding Gets Lonely

All other threats are strictly environmental, including the pervasive timefall rain that ages everything it touches, degrading the equipment on your back, vehicles and structures. At its best, Death Stranding feels desolate—underlining your mission to reconnect the scattered remnants of humanity—but sometimes it just feels empty.

In more than 50 hours of gameplay, I crossed paths with fewer than a dozen NPCs, often other porters like me, perhaps grimly trudging up a hillside. It creates a sensation of loneliness that contrasts powerfully with plot and cutscene interactions, but I still often found myself wishing Death Stranding's world was slightly less vacant. Walking the last hundred meters down a windblown hill into a Knot City with a heavy pack creates a powerful mood, especially when the music kicks in (an intrusion rare enough to remain effective). But then, entering the city, you find it empty, with the same layout as the last. Some of the cities Death Stranding visits has on-paper populations in the tens of thousands, but you'll mostly interact with the same three holographic projections lit off the top of the same computer terminal.

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Exploration for its own sake also yields few rewards in Death Stranding. My disappointment peaked during a two hour attempt to set off into uncharted territory. Other than some beautiful vistas, there was little worth finding and doors were locked to me. Make no mistake, in Death Stranding, you are on the job, and the game unspools for those who put in the contract labor.

The Death Stranding Plot Is Mostly a Distraction

Instead, Death Stranding is a linear campaign, telling a story almost wholly divorced from the workaday efforts that make up most of the gameplay. With timefall and BTs roaming the world, the person willing to carry goods across mountains is elevated to the status of hero, whose interactions are mostly confined to the inner circle around the President of the United Cities of America. It's a funny contrast stomping off the muddy trail to take new orders from the hologram of a man wearing a cravat.

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Asked by the president to complete a "chiral" network stretching from the east to the west coast of the United States, Sam is accompanied on his journey by a cast of holographic associates, who typically pop in via holographic projection, though you'll get to meet each one in person as you cross the country—a road trip conceit that feels entirely abstract. It's bizarre to deliver a package two kilometers over a ridgeline, then activate the chiral network link at a new settlement and see the map indicate you somehow crossed Missouri (the landscape itself reads more like Scottish moors and rain-soaked lava fields).

You'll reconnect with people at computer terminals, or while resting up in the identical private rooms strewn across the map. Here's where Death Stranding's impressive cast comes in, though only a handful are well-served by the narrative. Léa Seydoux (Spectre) as Fragile, the owner of a rival delivery company with unsavory terrorist connections, brings a quiet sorrowfulness that not even an obnoxious catchphrase—"I'm Fragile, but I'm not that fragile"—can dilute.

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Also excellent, as a co-conspirator, comic foil and exposition firehose, is voice actor Jesse Corti as Guillermo del Toro as Deadman, who steers some of the funniest and strangest scenes in the game. But as much as Death Stranding insists it's about human connections, breaking down barriers and building powerful ties, the expression of its themes are more often clinical than emotional. Even the tears streaming down everyone's face have an in-game rationale: a side effect of exposure to time-warping chiral matter.

This leads to performances full of flat affect, as Death Stranding's characters pour their elaborate and tragic backstories in your ear. Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) feels particularly wasted (at least until late in the game), most often appearing in snippets of memory, captured through the blinking eyes of a baby in a bottle.

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In his other persona, leading a squad of skeletal soldiers, Mikkelsen's Cliff serves as a puppet for empty, stylized gestures—I lost count of how many times Cliff dramatically lit a cigarette, or exchanged goth gazes with the distressed baby doll from all of the 90s nu-metal videos. Worse is when Death Stranding mistakes wordplay for philosophizing, expressing fascination with the multiple meanings of words like "strand," or hopping back and forth, as the story requires, between metaphorical and literal umbilical cords.

The plot of Death Stranding gets more narrow and dull as you uncover the mysteries of the game's world. It's hard to believe in Death Stranding's world-scale events when it keeps coming back to the same handful of people you already know. Just as flimsy is the ostensible opposition: a never-seen terrorist army, seemingly comprised of exactly one man with no discernible motivation for nuking the last few human cities other than pure death drive. It's part of a pattern, where Death Stranding prefers the symbolically powerful to explicably human motives.

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While there are explanations for all of the mind-blowing weirdness on display in trailers and cutscenes, it coheres unevenly, with elements like a network of afterlife waiting rooms called "Beaches" stacking, non sequitur, atop edible tardigrades, "ka"/"ha" duality, time storms, dead whales and superpowered "sufferers" of the DOOMs disease.

Is there an explanation, perhaps buried somewhere in your voluminous email inbox (which helpfully highlights relevant passages in yellow, so you can play the game without feeling like you're working a second cubicle job in addition to your delivery work), for every strange thing in Death Stranding? Almost certainly, but it feels like disparate concepts, united by flimsy ties.

Death Stranding vs. Cinema

While I didn't like the story much, fans of Kojima's work are likely to find just as much to love in Death Stranding as in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, with a military thriller swapped out for a science fiction epic in the Arthur C. Clarke mold. Death Stranding bears all the Kojima hallmarks: didactic cutscenes, women who symbolically embody an allegorical femininity (motherhood and beauty feature prominently here), heady themes and idiosyncratic political fixations. There will be many attempts to map Death Stranding's America—more a quasi-mystic symbol than a real country—on to contemporary politics, but those reads deserve to fail. Where it works, Kojima's narrative is best on its own strange terms, sustained in a state of tonal eccentricity by his combination of the playful and meditative.

His stories work worst as cinema. As much as Kojima seems to want to be a movie director, his strengths as a game designer are what shine through. Death Stranding succeeds least in its writing (just wait for the worst Nintendo pun ever conceived) and most in its experiential sensations.

Norman Reedus Is Unforgettable in Death Stranding

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It is in the actual playing of Death Stranding that Norman Reedus as Sam becomes something groundbreaking in the history of video games. Taciturn, most expressive when scowling or quietly swearing, Reedus maintains a perfect balance between hanging back enough to be a player avatar and having sufficient personality to feel alive, letting slip the occasional glint of good humor or pointing impatiently to the toilet if you wait too long between rest stops.

The way Death Stranding never bothers to pretend Sam is anyone other than Reedus becomes a declaration of principle, the game making earnest effort to connect, and to reach from one mind to another without artifice. It would be easy to overstate the case and make some sort of Warholian justification for why an ad for AMC's Ride with Norman Reedus pops up every time you poop—celebrity as product, simultaneously the surface and the penetrating stare—but whatever it is, Reedus will forever be tied to Death Stranding in a profound way, unlike any other video game performance I've experienced.

Particularly moving is the relationship you develop with BB Lou (I defy anyone to try and hear "BB" in anything other than Mikkelsen's clipped intonation after playing), most often expressed in desolate ruins haunted by BTs, when Lou needs you to calm his crying. Going through the physical motions of rocking a baby in a demon-haunted land is a perfect example of how Death Stranding succeeds most when its story is played, instead of shown.

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Death Stranding Multiplayer

Similarly, it's not the sporadic, but long-winded, cutscenes that makes up for Death Stranding's depopulated world. Instead, it's the game's absolutely essential multiplayer aspect (which doesn't require a PS Plus subscription).

You'll never see another player (though you can sometimes shout to one across the dimensional void) but you'll come to count on their collaboration. Once you've added a new zone to the chiral network—essentially an internet of time, with 3D printing or data analysis using the past as a processor—you'll be able to build useful additions to the landscape, like watchtowers or post boxes, using devices called PCCs. Items you build will sometimes cross over to other worlds, to be shared with multidimensional Sams.

The exact ways other players worlds interact with your own is a little opaque, but generally strikes a decent balance. Grant thumbs-up "Likes" to something a player built and your worlds will overlap more. It's common to find other player's bridges at useful river crossings or generators on top of battery-draining mountaintops, but still find plenty of opportunities to build for yourself. Death Stranding is good at encouraging players to build wherever there's an opportunity to be useful. Crucially, it only costs in-game resources to upgrade constructions (adding additional features and custom music or holographic greetings), with the only cost to building coming from the weight of the PCCs you opt to lug around and your structure's overall burden on the ever-expanding network.

This multiplayer mutual support network extends into the in-game economy, with shared lockers where you can pick up resources left behind by others, or opportunities to do another player a solid by throwing a dropped package on top of your own luggage and completing their lost delivery. It brings to life what would otherwise be inert data—though "Likes" have no discernible in-game effect, I found myself chasing the stat from other players and completely ignoring my Likes count from NPCs. In its multiplayer, Death Stranding truly comes to embody its principles of connection and teamwork.

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The multiplayer is also an obvious area for post-release refinement. For example, I often encountered single zipline towers, but never a networked course of the ultra-fast conveyance, though there's no doubt players are building all sorts of useful routes for themselves. After spending hours building a series of ziplines from a city to a settlement high in the mountains, I was disappointed to find it gathered no likes, despite its obvious utility. Striking the right balance between letting other players impose too much on your world (sometimes I'd like to build my own bridge!) and getting to share your own creations is something I anticipate Death Stranding growing into after release.

But more than balance, it's easy to imagine an expanded palette of possibilities eventually coming to Death Stranding. Particularly intriguing are the presence of environmental collaborations, like the asphalt Auto-Pavers that require a high multiple players dumping resources into them to rebuild an extensive highway system. It was disappointing to learn this mechanic was limited to roads, barely applying a powerful cooperative concept. Still, it's in the many ways worlds interact across the chiral network that's most likely to transform Death Stranding into a playground for inventive players, long after the campaign is complete.

An Honest Day's Work

By the end of the Death Stranding campaign, my Sam had carried nearly 6,500 pounds of cargo over 160 miles of ground. It is this (and the esteem of parallel Sams) that I came to care about more than the fate of humanity in the face of a convoluted extinction event. The twists and turns of the story felt like alien incursions upon the more important work of getting that case of Timefall Porter from its farmhouse brewers to the Head of Distribution at Lake Knot City, all the way to the north.

Still, as much as the plot specifics felt disconnected from the real work, it's easy to respect the thematic inventiveness and daring of Death Stranding. Unlike the over-massaged, generic stories typically found in triple-A, big budget, tentpole games, Death Stranding never aims for anything less than profundity. There's much to discuss in Death Stranding—about the possibilities of empathy, the costs of civilization, the limits of tech utopianism and the meaning of parenthood—but sometimes you just want to hitch your pack up on your shoulders and get that pizza delivered while it's still warm.

Death Stranding, from Kojima Productions, is out for PlayStation 4 on November 8, with a PC version to follow in 2020.


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