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Death Stranding

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: Sept. 24, 2021

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PS5 Review - 'Death Stranding: Director's Cut'

by Andreas Salmen on Sept. 23, 2021 @ 5:00 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.

Buy Death Stranding: Director's Cut

When Death Stranding was released almost two years ago, it was one of the last major console exclusives for the PS4 — and it was a divisive one. I very much enjoyed the Norman Reedus postapocalyptic parcel delivery simulator in my initial review, but I was eager to see if it would hold up as well on a second playthrough. The announcement of Death Stranding: Director's Cut for PS5 seemed like an excellent excuse to give the title another go two years (and one pandemic) later. Apart from expected increases in visual fidelity, Death Stranding: Director's Cut adds a few extra modes and missions for its PS5 re-release that will cost owners of the PS4 version a tenner ($10/£10/10€) to upgrade.

The initial review scores for Death Stranding were all over the place. Say what you will, but Death Stranding is one of the most unique AAA releases in recent years. If you weren't on board with the title then, the same will be true for the Director's Cut. It adds a full list of new features and items, but very few feel like meaningful additions, like the teased extra missions that didn't add anything new to the experience. Most of my impressions of the PS4 version haven't changed.

The story is the backbone of the experience. We step into the shoes of Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, in a postapocalyptic America. An incident referred to as "Death Standing" led to humanoid monsters called B.T.s invading our reality. Trapped between this world and the afterlife, B.T.s are a threat to the citizens of this world, who live segmented from one another in underground bunkers. Sam is tasked with reconnecting the settlements across the country to a Chiral Network while completing essential parcel deliveries in the hopes of rebuilding the nation. His work also involves facing a terrorist cell and freeing the President's daughter. What unfolds in the story is best discovered on your own, such as the origin and use of the BBs, or Bridge Babies, which are devices strapped to your chest that let you see B.T.s that would otherwise be invisible to the human eye. Sam has special abilities like repatriation, AKA being unable to die.

Much more is going on, often with very specific lingo that doesn't make sense outside of the game's context. In the end, it works well enough because it's told and executed in a self-contained way, always abiding by the rules that it sets for itself. Experiencing the story a second time in the Director's Cut didn't hold up quite as well. I enjoyed understanding some references that were over my head in the early hours of my first playthrough, but other aspects of the story felt blunter than I remembered. Some dialogue lines are oddly phrased or don't make sense, and Kojima's tendency to break the fourth wall or repeat obvious metaphors can needlessly jeopardize impactful scenes. Very strong performances from the star cast salvage those moments, which is likely why I didn't pay attention to them initially. Its mix of strangely weird and serious moments creates an interesting tone that feels distinct and fun, making occasional story blunders seem less drastic and out of place. The story still holds up, but it is long-winded and inconsistently executed.

The gameplay is likely where people decide to love or hate Death Stranding. Ultimately, it's a parcel delivery or walking simulator, but that isn't necessarily a downside. Mission objectives are rarely more than a request to deliver something from point A to point B. The main challenge lies in the delivery itself. Death Stranding's terrain is heavily inspired by Icelandic scenery, so even the most straightforward route is littered with rocks, slopes, and wild riverbeds. As Sam, we need to manage the weight of each delivery; wrongly balancing or overloading causes Sam to sway and lose his footing, but there's a button that automatically load-balances for you most of the time. A trusty scanner shows the safest path forward by analyzing the terrain and becomes a necessary tool to survey the surroundings. This creates a low-engagement but constantly engaging gameplay loop within a hauntingly beautiful landscape. There is a certain catharsis that is rare in video games today, but there's more to it than just walking around.

Rainfall, or "Timefall," in Death Stranding advances time for everything it touches before hitting the ground. That means your cargo deteriorates in the rain, leaving your items vulnerable to damage when you tumble over. Timefall is also frequently accompanied by B.T.s. Initially, Sam can't take damage, so he needs to sneak around B.T.s in some tense encounters. Every time you are caught by a B.T., a boss fight occurs, and that can have drastic consequences. Every death causes a void out, so the area around a dead body disappears and leaves behind a crater. That also applies to Sam, regardless of his ability to repatriate, so we should be careful around B.T.s. Eventually, there ways for Sam to actively avoid and combat B.T.s, making this aspect of the game much easier.

Apart from invisible monsters stalking the land, there are also human opponents that you'd want to avoid. Stray porters, called MULEs, have set up camp to steal deliveries from you. Scanners detect when you enter their territory, quickly sending a ping to all units to start the hunt. You want to get out of there as quickly as possible while maintaining undetected, or you may take back some of their stolen cargo to deliver. Like with B.T.s, Sam eventually gets a range of new tools that make it easier to deal with MULEs, especially with some of the new additions to the Director's Cut.

As Sam completes deliveries and connects new settlements to the Chiral Network, new tools unlock at a steady pace. At the outset, Sam has limited tools, such as ladders and climbing anchors. With each area connected to the Chiral Network, Sam can build more complex structures and use the structures that other players have built in the area. At first, you can create post boxes to store items or share them with other players, but soon, a range of structures is added, including bridges, streets, vehicles and zip lines. Some can be created right away, but others need certain resources before the structure can be completed. The Director's Cut provides new tools — the maser gun (non-lethal weapon) and a support skeleton — to make it easier for beginners to progress faster. It's still a slow start, but once you push through the early part, the game opens up and offers more things to interact with.

Once you reach the main map, things speed up, and you'll get a ton of new structures and items at a steady pace. Since you can't build structures or see other players until an area is connected to the network, you'll still have the initial challenge of venturing out and connecting a new area on your own, but once that is done, you can use a lot of structures to make future deliveries much easier, like an elaborate zip-line network around snowy peaks. It's addicting to create the perfect delivery routes and build strategic structures to expand your reach. It's equally satisfying when you discover a perfectly placed structure by another player that aligns with your delivery plans. If not, all structures are easily dismantled; some may even need to be dismantled since you're limited in the number of structures that can be built in a given area (although the limit is still pretty generous). None of this has changed. I still had a blast playing through the game a second time for the same reasons that I had enjoyed the first playthrough. It's surprisingly cathartic, and since there haven't been too many releases as "out there" as Death Stranding, it hasn't lost its edge with time. Its message and scenario might be more applicable than ever during a global pandemic, such as the rampant failings of humanity in key areas like climate change and getting out of the social media echo chamber.

I don't want to skip over some of Death Stranding's weaknesses. Interactions with NPCs occur in repeating buildings with mostly inanimate holographic interactions. It's repetitive in many respects, which is likely due to budgetary constraints, but it can make getting from point A to point B more repetitive than it should be. It can also be annoying when the game wants you to make certain trips multiple times, sometimes in quick succession. Regardless, it feels like I'm making genuine progress in reclaiming and mastering the barren landscape. With a clever structure with routes that avoid high-risk areas, you may not see any enemies on your delivery paths.

Even if you do get caught by enemies, Director's Cut is still an easy experience regardless of the chosen difficulty level. The only challenging parts are the occasional shooter and stealth segments, and even those are not too bad. The building mechanics aren't balanced, either. For example, streets are fixed structures that cost a lot of resources to build. Zip lines can be freely placed, cost next to nothing, and enable you to go almost anywhere in a flash. As a result, I build almost nothing except zip lines, and I'm not sure that's the point.

Does the Director's Cut change that with newly added structures? It does not, but it adds a few other interesting things. The main additions to structures are the catapult, which flings a certain amount of cargo for a distance; a footbridge that only Sam can use; and a buddy bot that carries cargo and follows you. That means you can build a catapult in front of a MULE-controlled region, catapult your cargo beyond that area to eliminate the risk of losing it in an ambush, and pick it up after clearing the area. I still resorted to carrying my cargo through those areas most of the time, but it's an interesting addition that could come in handy when carrying a lot of cargo that affects your agility. Apart from the new structures, the game also adds customization options for the backpack and your BB pod in case the default orange color scheme does not strike your fancy. They are small but interesting additions that feel like quality of life improvements rather than being transformative.

Fret not; there is some additional content peppered in the PS5 version. For starters, the special Half-Life and Cyberpunk 2077 items from the PC release are available on the PS5, adding a small amount of extra content. The most exciting addition is the factory mission showcased in the reveal trailer, where Sam interacted with a box in a clear wink to Metal Gear Solid. Sadly, those three brief missions do not add much to the experience. The first unlocks as a side order within the very first area of the game and asks Sam to investigate and recover data from an abandoned factory, with more unlocking over time. All three orders are designed for a stealthy approach but can also be solved with guns blazing. No, there is not a single moment where Sam will use a box for stealth; that part of the trailer is almost misleading, given the very small scale of this extra content. It ties in with the main story, but it's too short and simple to have a profound impact. Then again, for a $10 upgrade, it's something I can live with, but I could see fans hoping for much more than they're getting here.

Apart from extra missions and tools, there are two more additions. There's a shooting range, which is great to train the use of certain weapons and to face other players in training challenges. Based on your placement on the leaderboard, you'll get rewarded for your performance, making this a fun addition to dabble with. It helped me get the hang of the stealth mechanics, since I could use them in a safe environment without the fear of losing my cargo.

There are also ranked orders to compete in and a newly added race track. It eventually unlocks in the second half of the game, and it's built at the edge of the map. With it come special racing vehicles and, again, it's a great way to compete with friends on a leaderboard. This addition is the weakest, since the game does not have great vehicle control or physics that would make a race track fun to use for more than a few races. It's nice to have, but I didn't warm up to it and found its inclusion more puzzling than anything else, when the extra time could have been spent on fleshing out its added story content into a more profound experience.

The biggest impact is not on the content side but on a technical level. Death Stranding is a very cinematic game, so the 30fps cap on the PS4 wasn't necessarily a bad experience, but 60fps is a transformative experience for almost any game. There is a performance mode that locks to 60fps with an upscaled 4K image and a mode to lock to native 4K at the expense of frame rate. I played similar stretches of the game in both modes, and it looked and ran almost identical to the naked eye. There may have been some slight stutters when locking to a native 4K image, but even those were not so noticeable, so this one comes down to personal preference with both looking and performing great.

The Director's Cut makes good use of the DualSense with haptic feedback that ranges from good to great, depending on the situation, such as feeling a rumble to indicate an uneven surface or a heavy load causing a rumble as each foot touches the ground. I would've loved to see the replication of certain surfaces with haptic feedback like in some other PS5 exclusives before it, but even without those, it adds a layer of immersion to the experience that wasn't present on the PS4.

Haptic triggers are also supported, both for the obvious usage of firearms and to balance Sam while carrying cargo, emulating the resisting straps of his backpack against his hands. Even the act of wild urinating has been blessed with both haptic feedback and resisting triggers. I don't know if I needed that, but it's here if you've yearned for it. Also, if you have a PS4 save, you can import it, but the process isn't as straightforward as in Ghost of Tsushima; it requires you to start the PS4 version of the game to upload your save and then download it to your PS5.

I very much enjoyed Death Stranding on the PS4, and that hasn't changed after playing through Death Stranding: Director's Cut on the PS5. It's not perfect in its overall story and gameplay execution, and it isn't a game that everyone will enjoy. If you can get past that, it's still is a uniquely rewarding experience that looks and plays better on a PS5, and it's one of the few PS5 titles that doesn't demand a fortune to upgrade for existent owners. At the same time, the content additions are a bit thin and don't add a lot to the experience, so the upgrades in visuals and performance are likely the main reason to upgrade your version.

Score: 8.7/10

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