Death Stranding was released on Friday, November 8th. Ever since its release though, critics and players can’t seem to agree if it is good or not. On Metacritic, at the time of this review, it’s garnered about 8000 votes by users each rating the game out of 10. It got 5200-ish positive reviews (8 or more), 2500 negative reviews (4 or less), and only about 300 mixed reviews (5 to 7). Which means people either love it or hate it.
Which is fine. While I understand why some people may believe games should be as widely acceptable by as large an audience as possible, I often feel that belief is ultimately detrimental to games as a whole. After all, it’s that very same drive for commercial success that led to ‘design by committee’ that generated the sequel-heavy cookie-cutter games we have in today’s industry after all.
‘FORGET ABOUT THAT!’ You say. ‘Is Death Stranding GOOD or BAD?’
Well, it depends on your definition of good and bad, doesn’t it?
Death Stranding’s plot is bizarre and highly unbelievable. I can’t tell if the actors sometimes look confused because of the technical capabilities of mocap, current generation consoles, and the uncanny valley, or if they themselves are confused over what the heck they’re saying. (Beached Things? Bridge Babies? DOOMS?) Character names are the most ludicrous I’ve seen since the last Metal Gear Solid. (Die-Hardman? Really?) Reviewers have also accurately stated that Death Stranding takes the quest that all gamers hate (fetch quests) and turns that into the ONLY quest you can play in the game. Why they heck would you want to play a game about a delivery guy in Spooky Iceland? And that bridge baby is legit creepy.
But Death Stranding is also emotional and ethereal. Its vistas are likely the most melancholically beautiful game worlds I’ve been to. As insanely named as they are, I’m actually starting to care for some of the characters. And I have to admit that in spite of all the legitimate complaints we may have with the game, I actually am coming home looking forward to spend some time with Death Stranding’s bridge baby.
Let’s first talk about Death Stranding’s three main modes. Delivering shit, stealth, and combat. Delivering things take up the largest fraction of Death Stranding’s game play, and far from just being ‘max out your carry weight and deliver things from point A to point B’, it’s a surprisingly deep management of weight, centre of gravity, figuring the best route of travel from said points A and B, as well as using the equipment you have to cross seemingly impassable terrain. For example, Sam can carry ladders that unfold, allowing you to surmount a steep cliff or ford deep rivers. And just walking was actually very refreshing, considering how beautiful the landscape was, and especially during the points of the game where they decide to play music over Sam’s traversal over America. Even if it looks more like Iceland than America.
Lo-fi beats to deliver to.
In fact, one of the things I wished I had were in-game headphones. It’s a travesty that you can only listen to Death Stranding’s soundtrack while in your private room, when there’s so much walking you do, so much reflection, so much time you could be listening to tunes.
Compared to walking, stealth and combat feature much less often in the game. Which is a good thing. Some (braver) people would disagree, but I’m thankful that interaction with the ghosts (BTs) is relatively rare. Whenever I try to sneak past the ghosts, the fact that they disappear when you’re moving, the crying emanating from your controller, and having to STEALTH your way through enemies you can’t see is frankly terrifying and something that I could do with less of in my life.
Human stealth/combat (with MULEs) are much less stressful, but regardless of type of enemy, these short, intense bursts of combat and stealth contrast wonderfully with the but the long periods of contemplative quiet during deliveries.
And that Bridge Baby? I genuinely grew to worry for it. If Sam falls, the baby usually gets startled and will start crying, which means you have to rock it back to sleep again. You can also kind of rock it while it’s attached in your private room, and every now and then, even without any in-game need to, I’d look down to check in on it every now and then.
One of the things I didn’t expect but thoroughly enjoy is the online aspect of a seemingly single-player game. When an area is not on a chiral network (Spooky Internet), you can only see structures you built. However, once Sam gets the area on the network, you are suddenly able to access not just your personal structures, but those from other people as well. A well-placed climbing rope that someone else left behind has quite often been the literal lifeline to getting down a sheer cliff safely. And you can ‘like’ these structures, either by using them or actually giving them ‘likes’, which all factor in to another the other player’s scores. Similarly, you can lay down signs to help warn fellow players of dangers ahead, and I have to say some of the signs warning against ghosts have been serious lifesavers.
Larger structures require large amounts of materials, which you might not be able to scrounge up on your own. But this too is a collective task, with you being able to contribute resources to other players’ structures, and vice versa. And while building a road may be difficult, there’s an accompanying satisfaction knowing that it has since been used by hundreds of other players.
This seemingly throwaway aspect of gameplay has made me think of what other players need more than hours any online game, be it MMORPG or battle royale. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a tangential, yet meaningful connection with other players since the credits scene of Nier: Automata (another bizarre game that has a lot of meaning if you care to look).
So, yes. Death Stranding is unlike any other game. I think that Death Stranding is a good game, but I can understand why someone who expected more combat and/or stealth would be disappointed. It isn’t something that everyone can get behind.
But that’s okay. Some people like their movies to be spectacle, and some people like their movies to be abstract and thinky. There’s enough room in the world for both.