When Hideo Kojima stated that his next project would bring about an entirely new genre, he wasn't joking. Death Stranding may feel familiar in minor mechanical means, but it's also wholly unique among a sea of AAA titles eager to take advantage of the latest RPG levelling system. It's a social experience where you never see another human player, a narrative-based affair that rivals Metal Gear Solid, and a harsh, thankless undertaking full of otherworldly menaces. Death Stranding is unlike anything else that has come before it, making for one of the very best PlayStation 4 games around.
Despite a handful of lengthy trailers and over an hour's worth of in-game footage, Kojima Productions' first title since splitting from Konami still very much remains a mystery. That's on purpose, but gameplay-wise, Death Stranding is exactly what you think it is. Making deliveries is the name of the game, and it's your job to work out a reasonable route to those designated destinations.
Split across various sprawling maps, it's an open world similar in vain to Rise of the Tomb Raider. You'll accept numerous orders from Preppers spread across those landmasses and deliver whatever it is their hearts desire. But when it comes to Sam Porter Bridges' role in all of this, it's about the journey which gets you there more than anything else.
Equipped with various tools and pieces of equipment that aid you in your travels, you must navigate the harsh terrain of an America in ruins. The desolate landscape can be crossed with the use of ladders to scale cliff edges, climbing anchors which aid you in your way back down, and bridges to circumvent dangerous bodies of water. It's an arsenal of apparatus which may seem a little lacking, but it’s enough to get the job done.
The most important factor you'll have to consider as you deliver packages is weight. Sam, played by The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus, can only carry so much on his back so you'll need to work out a method of distributing the burden effectively. Piling it high is always an option, but that means our protagonist will constantly be off-balance as the cargo swings from side to side in the wind. You could attach some items to Sam's suit, which in turn makes him slower as he lugs about more than just his own body mass. Or you could opt to carry a couple of objects with your hands, which takes away a couple of interactive actions away from you. That's thanks to the L2 and R2 buttons having to be held for the entire trek to ensure you don’t drop them.
Striking a balance between the three options is key to making a successful delivery, otherwise the load will be damaged the more you drop it. It's a fascinating, incredible set of mechanics that serve as a perfect introduction to Death Stranding. You're made to think about what you will be taking with you as soon as the first order comes through, making for a weight management mini-game that competes with the very best: the inventory sorting of Resident Evil 4.
Weight distribution and environmental hurdles are two things you can plan for, but there is a threat you can only anticipate so much. Enemies roam certain parts of the map, scanning for the cargo you're carrying. Referred to as Mules in-game, they're a faction you'll want to avoid confrontation with in the early game. Combat, at least in terms of hand-to-hand action, remains fairly simplistic throughout. Throwing punches and kicks with the square button will down most foes, or you can choose to chuck some of your payload at a Mule to kill them instantly. Without a day and night cycle to speak of, you'll have to stay on your guard at all times as the cover of darkness isn't about to serve up a stealthier means of attacks.
There is another type of enemy that is completely immune to the typical damage dealing weapons of Earth, however. BTs are supernatural entities hell-bent on devouring the living, and the only way you can even detect their presence is through the use of a Bridge Baby. Found within Timefall showers, guns and grenades are injected with Sam's blood in order to take them down. You can instead choose to sneak around them by holding your breath, but it's risky business when coming into contact with one kick-starts a boss fight that wouldn't look out of place in Bloodborne.
There's a harsh, unforgiving world out there to explore which makes planning the routes you'll take and the equipment that'll be on your back all the more important. Should you risk a shorter, more treacherous journey through the mountains or play it safe across flat terrain but almost assuredly encounter Mule encampments? These are the sorts of questions Death Stranding needs you to answer.
Although, there is some help to take advantage of along the way. What makes Hideo Kojima's latest project stand apart from quite literally anything else is its social features. You will never encounter another human player out in the open world, but you will see their contributions to that map. Thanks to an online connection, other users' structures appear in your game, including their bridges, generators, and safe houses. Likes can be awarded to the most useful creations, but it's the way that players can come together which really changes the experience.
Roads can be built along certain pathways, mitigating the struggles you'll have in the early game of trying to steer a vehicle through uneven terrain. They require a lot of resources to build, but other players can contribute their own materials to your creation in order to get that highway up and running much faster. We laid the foundations for a street ourselves a few hours into the game and returned to the area a handful of days later to find that a road stretching half the length of the map had been constructed during our absence. It's an incredibly impressive feature that turns the title into something that doesn’t even need your input in order to change its ways.
Death Stranding is packed full of systems and mechanics to master, but its biggest flaw is that you'll have wrapped your head around them much earlier than the game expects you to. Making deliveries is a satisfying joy for the first ten or so hours, but when you consider that the title is more than triple that in length, it makes for a rather middling set of chapters in the centre. The delivery you make in chapter seven feels exactly the same as the one you completed five missions ago. This, in turn, makes the complete lack of a major change in gameplay that many had been hoping for all the more heartbreaking. It's justified narratively, but we can't deny the slight sense of tedium we felt halfway through.
That lacklustre feeling is only going to be around for a few hours though because boy does Death Stranding pick things up as you head towards its latter chapters. Gameplay becomes much more action-focused as the elements that fans of Hideo Kojima are here to see kick into overdrive. Supremely special settings and locations linger in the mind, outstanding boss fights that harken back to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots create unforgettable moments, and that Kojima-brand of humour and charm seeps its way into every cutscene. Let it be known that the game's last couple of chapters contain some of the very best sequences and moments of the generation.
That's something you need to discover on your own, but Death Stranding's narrative really is quite extraordinary. It's Sam Porter Bridges' job to re-connect the United Cities of America by making his way from the east coast to the west and signing Preppers up to the cause. In doing so, he'll bring the Chiral Network back online and take a major step forward to forming some sort of society and governmental backbone all over again.
That is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Told through beautifully shot cutscenes and in-game chatter, it's the type of plot that could only come from the mind of Hideo Kojima. Exceptional performances from Jessi Corti, Mads Mikkelsen, and Léa Seydoux in particular carry the story through its various twists and turns to an emotional conclusion that goes beyond bringing together a single country. It stands toe to toe with the very best, and if the weird and unusual brand of Hideo Kojima’s storytelling takes your fancy, then you're in for yet another wild ride.
What's more, Death Stranding is the best-looking video game currently available on PS4. From its lifelike character models through to the jaw-dropping beauty of each and every landscape, there's something stunning to be found around every corner. Environments can seamlessly transition from a snowy mountaintop to the dull greens of a rolling countryside, containing a cascading waterfall to give it life. There's a certain allure to be found in its emptiness, complemented further by an uncanny soundtrack that can provide relaxation during downtime and intensity when needs be.
Following years of mysterious anticipation, Death Stranding delivers on all fronts. An accomplished, fascinating set of gameplay mechanics allow you to make deliveries the way you want to, while social features let the game live on once you've put the controller down. It may become slightly tiresome as you hit the halfway mark, but the phenomenal narrative is on hand to pick things back up again and its outstanding visuals are the cherry on top. Death Stranding doesn’t raise the bar for any particular genre, it creates an entirely new one.