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Review of Death Stranding

Clockwise from top-left: the bridge baby showing approval, a truck in front of an upgrading watchtower, a truck on the roof of an incinerator, and Sam standing in front of an upgrading power pole.

In the end, Death Stranding delivers on its promise.

Death Stranding (Wikipedia: “Death Stranding”) is an open-world delivery game set in a post-post-apocalyptic (but also peri-apocalyptic) future. You play as Sam, a porter, delivery guy, carrier of things. The game opens with you already in action, with a reputation, but the game also treats you as though you’re just starting out. This is common in games, where there is a tension between plot and story on one hand, and gameplay on the other.

And there are immediate cutscenes to start building the story. The story is great. The cutscenes, the cinematic nature of the game, which preferenced animation and lots of it, get a bit tiresome. It’s not that there’s something wrong with blending cinema into games, but how it is done is another thing entirely. And the clumsy and untelegraphed nature of Death Stranding‘s cinematics are part of its larger, though mostly forgivable, problems.

The basic story is there is rainfall that causes accelerated decay (and timeflow in general) of whatever it touches, and in those storms there are ghosts that, if they grab you, can cause matter-antimatter explosions. The world (though we only see America) has been devastated by these events, which also involve other supernatural elements. It is your job as a cargo carrier to help reunite humanity and hopefully put an end to the supernatural stuff. It’s more involved, of course, and beyond the scope of the review. But it’s a nicely told story.

You don’t have too much knowledge or control of when the next set of cinematics will come, and they tend to come on top of completing some lengthy cargo run, just as you need to go make dinner. Surprise! Here’s a ten minute short you didn’t expect to watch right now!

I’m not sure what the best way to handle the issue would be. One might be warning the player that “after this mission are about ten minutes of expository scenes.” Another might be to make it easier to skip them and come back and watch them after the fact. (If you search, you’ll find people online explaining how they watched some cutscenes on YouTUBE as there was no in-game way to watch the ones you skip.)

The only other note on cinematic presentation is that every time you first encounter the rain ghosts, a ten-second animation kicks in to make sure you’re properly warned. You can disable it playing every time you leave and return to the same storm-area (this was apparently added in a patch), but you can’t turn it off entirely. It’s quite annoying, as were the longer-than-needed animations for getting in and out of the truck. There are a few other spots where this over-indulgence crop up: deliveries, recycling, and the private rooms (including activities in the private rooms). The only place where it was completely forgivable was the interactions with the “BB” (bridge baby), as (some) babies are adorable and silly.

The other big problem of Death Stranding sits in the interface. I played the game on PC, on Linux through the Proton (WINE) translation layer, but my impression is that my experience is representative of the PC experience, and it may well apply to the console experience as well. The interface often fights you by being less clear and more complicated than necessary.

One example is crafting. Because of the time-corrosive rain, you have to craft replacement items fairly often. There are six or so resource types, which are available at various locations to craft items. Each craft location has a finite amount available and a maximum. You can recycle. But if you want to recycle and the resource is full, the excess is discarded. But the game doesn’t let you recycle, fabricate, and then balance whatever’s there. If you need to maximize resources, you need to fabricate, then recycle.

Of course, maximizing resources is not required. If metal’s already full, you’re probably not going to run out by trashing a bit. But if you’re playing faithfully ( “Faithfulness in Games”), you shouldn’t waste resources. The game warns you if recycling would spill, and the game should wants you play faithfully, right? If it doesn’t matter, the game shouldn’t set the artificial limit to begin with. It’s unnecessary to the player experience, but it tripped me up until I lowered my faithfulness.

Another example is vehicle repair. You return to a distribution center, and you can store your vehicle and retrieve it to repair it to new, to recharge the battery. When you do this, it also deposits all vehicle cargo in the private locker, meaning you have to move it back on the vehicle every time (or you forget to, get half-way to your destination before you realize you left something behind). You can also rest in a room to refill your ammunition and canteen. I say can, but I should say must. You have to do these silly little interface dances to improve your status rather than the game simply being honest with the player and giving you a repaired vehicle and full stats and resources because you got to the place where, if you wanted to do the interface dance, you could have gotten them.

I assume both of these things have something to do with how multiplayer works in Death Stranding, which is among the coolest parts of the game. The game features a kind of metaverse for areas you have connected to the in-game network. Other players can build several types of structures, as can you, and these structures are shared between your world and theirs. You can upgrade their structures, and they and you get “likes” (equivalent to experience points) based on these (and other) interactions.

But why would the problems be caused by this novel multiplayer system? My guess is they wanted to encourage it to be used and therefore certain interface choices were made to distinguish consequences. If you don’t store your vehicle, a multiplayer might find it sitting out. If you do, they might retrieve it from their garage. If you could overfill the resource coffers, you might start sharing the extra resources via postboxen and shared lockers, and there might be overabundance.

Whatever the reason, the game suffers from the kind of extra-steps-necessary interface that was quite annoying. At one critical point in the plot, if you don’t decide to sleep in a room, you miss a cutscene that gives you critical information about what to do. You will fail the mission and be put back at its start, but still won’t be told to go sleep in a room.

The mail interface is about as annoying as e-mail in real life, except there is no spam filter in the game. The “Likes” system can feel spammy sometimes as well, though it’s generally nice and the game does a good job of making you feel appreciated by receiving “Likes.”

The interface also did a poor job of surfacing useful information. You can’t tell the health of items at a glance, so you have to poke around at each one to see if you have items falling apart, lest you be caught without critical kit when you need it.

And when you select orders to take on, there are several types in separate menus, which you cannot select in one go. You have to take on some orders, go through the end of the process (mandatory crafting screen, vehicle selection, load up those items, exit interface to world) and then go back and add the next set. This may have been done to try to avoid you overburdening the character with too many orders, but in practice it was a messy way to fix that problem.

The other interface issue was the HUD color of light blue being of terrible contrast in snowy areas. That should not be a thing. Either add a shadow to the HUD or let me change its color or change its color yourself. But don’t put invisible stuff on my screen and say, “Go ahead, try and read that.”

There were a few smaller gameplay-feel issues worth noting as well. The reverse-trike vehicle felt terrible to drive other than on roads. (Though the few speedruns I found after beating the game seem to prefer it.) The truck felt fine, except it could get funky on some slopes. (Slopes in general could be a problem. Walking down a snow-covered slope, I somehow managed to slip-and-slide at high speed causing a death event at one point, even though it wasn’t that steep, but that was an aberration.)

The non-human fights, against boss-style “catcher” BTs (beached things, or monsters) were often annoying, particularly because the character would not always respond to commands during them. On more than a few occasions, I had hematic grenades aimed and primed, but they would not throw, and as a result I got sort of stun-locked and suffered for it. I was mostly able to salvage those encounters, only having a few deaths and only one voidout (i.e., matter-antimatter explosion).

All of that said, Death Stranding was mostly a fun game that I enjoyed. I don’t play big games very often. The graphics were excellent. The world feels nice and big. The different take on multiplayer is a step forward and something that other games must explore. It’s a fun game.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a slightly-purer delivery sim than it was, but the story was a good one and I adjusted my game-faith to the annoyances over time. It took me 135 hours to get all 63 achievements. It’s worth a look.

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