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Death Stranding

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: July 14, 2020

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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PC Review - 'Death Stranding'

by Chris Barnes on Aug. 7, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Death Stranding is an open-world action game that follows the story of Sam Porter (Norman Reedus), who must travel across a ravaged wasteland and save humanity from impending annihilation.

Everyone was curious to see what Hideo Kojima would deliver after being freed from the shackles of Konami. He took that notion to the extreme in his newly founded studio's debut game, Death Stranding. While the game's been out for PS4 since 2019, Death Stranding continues a recent trend by Sony Interactive to release its console exclusives on the PC. It's a welcome change to see such blockbuster hits finally be released to additional platforms, and it's a trend that I gladly support.

Having previewed Death Stranding on the PC last month, I prepared myself for everything that I thought the game could offer. In hindsight, that turns out to be an impossible task. Kojima has created something that teeters between immensely captivating and frustratingly convoluted, and after 50 hours of playtime, I still struggle with these conflicting feelings.

"I'm just a delivery man." This line, delivered by the protagonist Sam Porter Bridges very early on in the game, is the core focus of the game. You are just a delivery man. You will spend hours trekking from mountaintop to mountaintop, sliding down hills, and constantly fumbling with awkward controls across the American countryside. The countryside is nearly unrecognizable from the country we know today. Death Stranding is set in the future, following the titular event, the Death Stranding, a moment when the world of the dead broke through into the world of the living. The dead beings, referred to as BTs, can cause voidouts, or explosions on a near-nuclear level, when they come in contact with cadavers. This creates more BTs and continues the apocalyptic cycle.

The president believes that shared knowledge is the greatest weapon against the Death Stranding, so she asks Sam to help prevent the country's total annihilation. She tasks Sam with crossing the country, making contact with cities along the way, and connecting them to the Chiral Network — basically the internet. During your journey, you encounter BTs as the primary obstacle. To combat this, you're equipped with BB, an infant companion that can sense the BT creatures, which are invisible to most humans.

Have I lost you yet?

If so, this game may not be for you.

Everything I've just described is the foundation of the game's concepts. One of my complaints is that there are lots of cool concepts — so many that it hurts the overall enjoyment of the game. I love the idea of the BTs. I love the concept of a man hiking across America armed with little more than a baby to detect the apparitions that haunt the world. Despite my initial intrigue, the game left me feeling frustrated and disappointed with its massive pacing issues and a convoluted story that's backloaded into the last 10 hours of the game.

After the foundation of the game is outlined, you're left to make deliveries in solitude for a significant amount of time. Depending on the number of side-quests you take on, you can spend up to 40 hours in the first section. The initial hours are awesome: just you, BB, vast landscapes, and chillwave indie music occasionally kicking in to match the solemn mood.

Connecting cities to the Chiral Network shares your structures with the world and gives you access to other online players' structures. This is a massive focus of the game and a clever way to tie the game mechanics into the story. There is power in social connections. Remember that river you couldn't cross before? Someone built a bridge over it. How about that rope you draped over a cliffside? You received 1,000 likes from other online players. In this regard, the game succeeds in what it has set out to do: create a shared, online experience that demonstrates the power of connectivity.

My love for the concepts faded as I continued to explore. The first area drags on for far too long, and it becomes a slog after a while. In particular, the placement of BTs across the map hampered my drive to deliver parcels. Receiving a motorbike to ease the pains of deliveries should be an exciting moment, but it ends up being a useless upgrade, since BTs can capture you in their goo and render your bike motionless. Moreover, the vehicle physics are awkwardly rigid and sometimes buggy. Tiny rocks bring you to a grinding halt, but your bike can traverse cliffsides like the strongest Skyrim horse.

After 10-15 hours of exploring the first section, I was frustrated and decided to move on with the story, not due to a lack of side-quests or because the story forced it. Bad bike physics and frequent BT encounters transformed the tension into tedium, and I couldn't take it anymore.

What surprised me the most was how much the game improves after this opening area. The game starts out painting such an amazing tone, but the tone quickly fades as you deal with the frustrating game mechanics and no tools at your disposal. It's a questionable design decision that I fear will drive many players away from the game. Sure, alleviating upgrades is a common approach to game design, but Death Stranding's drip feed of upgrades is too slow.

If you can power through those early hours, Death Stranding becomes a much more enjoyable experience. The second map offers so many upgrades that ease the pains of the game's early hours. Exoskeletons make it easier to carry multiple cargo deliveries at once. Grenades and guns can be used to take out BTs, making those areas far easier to traverse. I was particularly fond of the shared online highways, which make the lifeless side-quest deliveries a lot more manageable. What would've been a 60-minute delivery in the beginning becomes a breezy five-minute trip. Players can easily spend over 50 hours building out structures for other online users to interact with, delivering packages, and simply taking in all the beautiful landscapes.

And there are plenty of beautiful landscapes. It'd be a sin to write this review without commenting on the graphics and production. Simply put, Death Stranding both looks and runs spectacularly on the PC, which is the definitive way to play the game. Even on my RTX 2070 Super, I was able to easily play the game on 4K at a stable 60 frames per second, with all graphics settings set to Ultra. In part, this is due to nVidia's DLSS technology. It is bewildering that the developers managed to make such a beautiful-looking game run so smoothly. With the use of photogrammetry, the landscapes are a sight to behold in Death Stranding. I even engaged with the photo mode, which is a mechanic that I rarely use in games. The gorgeous graphics aren't limited to the rolling hills of America. Facial animations and character models within the plentiful cut scenes are also absolutely gorgeous.

The stunning production value and visual quality of the cut scenes are a godsend and easily got me through the back half of the game, since the closing hours felt like a series of cut scenes. Had the story delivered, this wouldn't have bummed me out so much, but what I got was a convoluted mess that led to lots of eye rolls. One or two plot twists are fine, but Death Stranding is littered with curveballs and questionable drivel that drags on for far too long. It's a shame because I was completely engaged with the original pitch, but the final hours of the game are a downright mess. Immediately after the game throws an epiphany at you, it throws another and another and another. I don't have a problem with the story having a couple of twists and turns, but these gotcha moments are clumped together. It's as if Kojima set out to make a 50-hour game but forget to tell the story until the closing moments.

Despite my qualms about the closing hours of Death Stranding, I truly enjoyed about 30 hours of it. There are plenty of moments where tone-setting music sets in and the vastness of the landscapes smothers you with solitude and despair. Collecting materials and contributing them to an online structure was engaging and even downright addictive. Moreover, the foundations of the plot intrigued me so much. I think that's what pains me so much about Death Stranding: I can see its potential, but the game went too far in too many disparate directions.

Score: 7.0/10

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