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Review – Death Stranding

The typical game these days is 70-90% fun stuff and 10-30% busywork.
Death Stranding is not the typical game.

This is a game built so the busywork from other games is the dominant gameplay mechanic. Through its 45-odd hours, you’ll spend most of that time doing the things other games force you to put up with in small stretches so you can get to the fun bits: walking through empty terrain, arranging your inventory, watching cutscenes, and doing fetch quest after fetch quest.

You play as Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, who is a porter – basically a post-apocalyptic UPS guy – for a company called Bridges…and yes, you read that right, his middle name is his job and his last name is the company he works for. The name game continues with Heartman (who suffers continual heart attacks), Die-Hardman (who doesn’t die), and another courier named Fragile…

Oh, and your mom is the President, but she’s the President of a United States that has undergone a disaster and *queue the Wayans brothers from In Living Color shouting ‘MESSAGE’ here* it is now a nation that’s fractured, in need of healing, and you’re just the man for the job.

And that job is delivery boy.

To spread the ‘Chiral Network’ – a futuristic form of WiFi that allows you to 3D print everything from generators to ziplines – you’ll need to walk from settlement to settlement, find out what they want you to do and getting it done. Earn their trust and you’ll establish the network in the area, renewing connections to the rest of the country and allowing you to start 3D printing some modern amenities – if you have the resources. To get the resources you’ll do more side missions, almost entirely fetch quests, including somewhat inane ones like delivering a pizza…in the apocalypse.

You’ll want to grind out some side missions, as they give you the resources needed to put up shortcuts in the terrain that make movement much easier. Those additions may also appear in other player’s games, and their builds in yours, which is the extent of the game’s multiplayer interaction. It’s not much, but it is nice to be out in the middle of nowhere and have a bridge created by another player provide an easier path to your objective.

These additions aren’t permanent, however, as ‘timefall’ rain or snow causes it to age, rust, and rot away. Timefall affects most things it hits, including the packages you carry, so the game encourages you to take shelter during it – but an easily-crafted repair spray will return your packages to full health at the drop-off spot, whether they were damaged by timefall or abuse, so it’s kind of a pointless game mechanic. It’s also a bit selective, as timefall won’t age a person into dust, and doesn’t affect your clothes – though you see Sam’s ass a fair amount even without that, but the science not making sense isn’t really the weakest part of this story. It’s also a pity you can’t use the repair spray on your shoes, which continually wear out and have to be replaced, but again – it’s just something you accept as the way things are.

I hear that the “Ok, but what do you DO?” chorus that followed No Man’s Sky around has also plagued Death Stranding, so here you go: the dominant gameplay mechanic in Death Stranding is tapping L2 or R2 to keep your balance when you slip while trudging down a slope or turn your ankle over a bump you didn’t see.

Recognize the mechanic? That’s right, it’s the ‘walk while drunk’ or ‘keep your balance crossing this log’ minigame from other titles. If you’re tired of playing it, you can hold L2 and R2 at the same time to hunker down, become more stable, and walk at about two-thirds the pace you normally do.

Outside of that, this is a game about inventory and encumbrance management that has you packing multiple parcels onto Sam in a configuration that lets him carry as many as possible in a way that hopefully leaves him balanced enough that he won’t tip over constantly. It can be a fight to get parcels with special requirements – like the pizza, which needs to be transported horizontally – to sit the way they need to, but usually you can simply hit the ‘auto-optimize’ button and make some minor tweaks.

As you play you’ll pick up exoskeletons that upgrade your weight capacity and/or speed, and there are vehicles that can be used – but unless there’s a highway set up, you’re often better off walking to your objective instead of trying to coax a bike or truck through the rocks or over a mountain.

The game has a slow open, with the bulk of the first three hours spent watching cutscenes, and it never really turns into the action game some of the trailers made it seem to be. There are scattered action sequences in the open world when you run into the Mules, former couriers who have gone rogue and now set upon former colleagues to take their parcels, but these are somewhat clunky affairs that are best avoided. From time to time in the campaign you’re pushed into otherworldly boss battles, and these are a highlight – but too few and far between to save the game from the grind the rest of it entails.

Even the game’s supernatural enemy, the BTs, aren’t the jaw-dropping encounters they were played up to be. Using your Bridge Baby, an unborn child stored in an artificial womb that can sense the approach of the BTs – and yes, this is ridiculous but so is the whole damned story, you can avoid most of the BTs that draw near though there are some in narrow passages that seem placed there to force combat. Early on you have few tools to handle these creatures, though they’re apparently scared away if you start to urinate – and to be fair most people would be, but by mid-game you’ll have abilities that turn them into a trivial encounter.

Just when you think the game is really starting to hit its stride, it starts to wind things down with a massive mission that highlights how boring the minute-to-minute gameplay is, removing all the creative options given to the player over the previous 30-odd hours and segueing into a linear, cutscene-filled ending that falls flat. Bookcasing the opening three hours of cutscenes with a number of massive cutscenes at the back end and a pair of credit sequences to sit through, Death Stranding just goes on and on well past its welcome.

What I liked:

  • gorgeous environments and character models
  • interesting ‘cross-world’ interaction with other players

What I didn’t like:

  • busywork, the game: inventory management, skirting encumbrance, fetch quests…
  • ridiculous story that sets, then ignores, reality’s rules
  • start slow, ends slower
  • why are there ads for AMC’s ‘Ride with Norman Reedus’ when you use the toilet?
  • really subtle *MESSAGE* metaphors about *MESSAGE* today’s top issues

Reviewed on PS4 Pro using code provided for review. Death Stranding releases November 8th on PS4 and PS4 Pro, and will hit PC in Summer of 2020.