Hideo Kojima's new game will cast away Konami's long shadow.
The Death Stranding occurred. There was an explosion, a big bang and from this, supernatural entities called 'beached things' or 'BTs' roamed the lands of the living. If any humans were to come into contact with a BT, it could lead to another explosion or a 'voidout'.
America is broken from this. A country pockmarked by voidouts, societies have splintered—divided by mistrust, internal conflicts, the once-great land of the free is now filled with isolated communities. You play Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus), a delivery man, who has to courier items to settlements spread out across America, so as to connect them, to make "America whole again", if you will, which makes for a timely campaign slogan.
A postman in a futuristic apocalyptic wasteland. Delivering letters and packages, in order to unite a nation: that's the plot for Kevin Costner's The Postman. Death Stranding bears a similar DNA but that's where the parallel lies. There's so much more to this world, where you bridge divisive communities to bolster the Chiral network (a sort of futuristic Internet). There is also a government conspiracy to be uncovered; experiments involving babies in utero; beaches; rainfall that ages you; your bathwater, piss and shit are weapons of destruction—Death Stranding is unlike any video game you've ever played.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
It's strange that the gameplay mechanic is basically, doing the job of a postman. But then again Metal Gear Solid (MGS)was unusual when it first came out in 1998. Under Hideo Kojima's direction, he laid the foundations of 'stealth' in the framework of an action-adventure game—rather than kill your enemies, you can avoid them; rather than a head-on approach, you can circumvent the situation.
For Death Stranding, delivering shit to far-flung places? That is another kind of fun.
Sure, you're often alone in this sprawling world. You journey through wide-open fields or climb mountains. That can be dangerous on its own but when you're lugging tons of stuff that you can't damage? The expedition gains another level of difficulty. You can use your odradek to sense the lay of the land. A map of blues (good to walk on), yellows (still good but caution needed) and reds (dangerous surface) helps you in your decision on where you can go.
Wait, you're not really alone. You're accompanied by a bridge baby or BB as he's known. BB floats in a little pod that you affix to your chest. BBs are seen as tools in sussing out BTs. BTs are essentially ghosts that sometimes appear. Contact with these suckers and it will trigger a massive explosion or a voidout.
But lucky you, your character, Sam is a repatriate—unlike any of the poor idiots unlucky to be in contact with BTs, Sam can return his soul to his body… kinda like opting for the 'CONTINUE' on a 'GAME OVER' screen.
Every time an encounter with a BT happens, it's always a tense atmosphere as you're holding your breath and crouched, while the BTs float on by. This is when stealth comes in useful but you can also hurt or kill (can a ghost be killed?) the BTs. See, Sam's bodily fluids are harmful to BTs—his blood can be used in rounds or grenades. You can even make your own miniaturised grenades when you poo, urinate and shower (uh, semen wasn't mentioned). There's an even an option for you to pee when you're travelling so when you're caught in a situation with BTs, you can whip it out and piss all over them or something.
You also have to deal with human enemies. One of them is called MULES, a bunch of scavengers who will steal your cargo and another is a bunch of terrorist separatists, who do not want to see a united America. Like MGS, you can either take them out with a killer (bullets; bombs) or a pacifist approach (hogtie them; knocking them out).
And while you spend the bulk of your time, you're 'Lone Wolf and Cubbin' it across a great expanse of land, the presence of other players can be seen. There might be a generator left behind by another player that you can use to charge your batteries; there could be a safe house that's still under construction; there could be an abandoned vehicle; here are some materials left in a shared repository. You can't chat with them directly but you can communicate your appreciation by 'liking' what they have left behind or make a request for other players to add their own share of materials to build a structure.
It's an idea that Hideo explored in Metal Gear Solid V called 'Peace Day'. Basically, MGS V players needed to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons at their home base. Like, all of the players. Try as you must, there will be your outliers: the clueless and the dicks who refuse to comply. (The 'Peace Day' event was triggered for some reason, even when total nuclear disarmament hasn't been fulfilled.)
This exploration of interconnectivity continues in Death Stranding. The story theme of connecting settlements blooms into real-life contributions by other players. You might think that the more players in this game, your adventure would be made easier by helpful bridges and items left behind by other players, right? But there is a limit placed on the shared items in the game. Also, there is the constant threat of timefall—rain that accelerates the ageing process of things it touches—so items left behind by other players will dissolve over time.
Another intriguing aspect of the game is how the world reacts to the presence of humans. Virgin lands are scarred with a walking path, the more you travel through it; tall grasses are flattened when you drive over it—these are the minute details of Death Stranding that gives it that extra oomph.
You can put packages in your backpack but there is a limit you can carry. Pile them too high and you're at risk from strong winds. A poor distribution of items on your person and your centre of gravity is shot. Overburden yourself far beyond what you can carry and you'll retard your movements, your stamina takes a hit. Sure, you can pack weapons but that takes up space. These are just some of the things you'll need to take into consideration when it comes to planning for your travel. Eventually, as you progress you get to have better equipment to mule your stuff over or you're physically able to ferry even more items.
Another cool factor is the outfits. They are designed by Errolson Hugh from ACRONYM and they look cool, futuristic and are something that I would spend cold hard cash to wear in real life. And can we get an amen for the music of the game? At certain moments, when you're lost in the travel of it all, the music plays. Sometimes from Low Roar or Lost Prophets but it's the sort of wistful, melancholic tune that you'd also listen to as you scale vistas or run down a rolling hill.
I'll admit that there's a certain labouriousness when you're hauling shit from one place to another. It's long, gruelling task. But like the arduous actions in Red Dead Redemption 2, you'll soon get used to the pacing.
It's a long, strange, bewildering trip of a game. It's a wandering that is never pointless, a journey that you sorta wish wouldn't end.
What we didn't like
Tedium might set in as you get from one area to another, especially when you're first starting out—you don't have the necessary equipment to traverse difficult terrains and such. That is normal for gameplay but it shouldn't be the case for the storyline that seems hard to trawl through at the beginning.
And some might think that the homily of banding together trumping isolationism might be a tad heavy-handed or the dialogue a little clunky but that has always been part and parcel of a Hideo Kojima's game. Succinctness has never been Hideo's strong suit.
Encounters with the NPCs is a welcome sight in a video game where you're often alone. They are individuals, as distinct as the next character but after a long while of interaction, their individualities start to lose their magic through the limitations of repeated retorts and preprogrammed movements.
What to look out for
There are memory chips to look out for. Randomly scattered throughout the world, their retrieval illuminates America's lost history.
While you don't have to get everybody to connect to the Chiral network, if you're a completist, it might be interesting to reach out the recluses. Some of them are cameos of famous personalities like Conan O'Brien or Errolson Hugh that Hideo is acquainted with.
When you start, the game will ask for your birthday. I'm not sure what would happen when you play this game on the anniversary of the day of your birth but let us know if you find out.
Death Stranding comes on out November 8, 2019 and is only available on PS4.