Where do I even begin? I’ve been wrestling with this question for days now on how I should approach my review of Death Stranding for PC. This game, as much a symbolic rise-from-the-ashes for Hideo Kojima as it is an actual one, has been in my head for nigh on a full month.
Once, There Was An Explosion
I realize that despite releasing on the PS4 last November, many of you still have yet to play Death Stranding. I know I was waiting for the PC version to hit in July this year, and therefore avoided any and all story spoilers. To that end, this review will contain no spoilers.
In Death Stranding, you play as Sam Porter-Bridges, masterfully portrayed by Norman Reedus. Taking place after a catastrophic event known as the Death Stranding, America is left in ruins. It is completely unrecognizable from the world we know today. This future America is physically broken, physically divided, and physically isolated. Rather, in its place is left a broken ghostly shell of what America used to be.
To that end, you are tasked with reconnecting America – literally – by traveling across the country and linking up disparate settlements and bringing them online. By connecting them to the Chiral Network – more on this jargon later – you and your compatriots stand a chance at rebuilding America.
In a nutshell, that is the entire premise of Death Stranding. But to simplify Death Stranding as “just a walking simulator” is woefully, catastrophically reductive. It fails to recognize the singular point of the entire experience – connection.
Death Stranding is the single greatest example of games as art I have ever experienced. But it’s more than that. Hideo Kojima has been described as video gaming's first auteur, a proposal with which I wholeheartedly agree. Death Stranding is his magnum opus. And it’s not because of any one single element of the game like the graphics, the all-star cast, or the writing. Rather, this vision is a result of all of these elements combined.
Take, for example, the core mechanic in Death Stranding – walking from Point A to Point B. As with many other games, traversing a game world is relatively straightforward: you push forward and move. By and large, you can traverse the world without much thought to your obstacles. Sure, you might have to look for some handholds to climb a mountain, but it’s not really a task you think about.
This simply isn’t the case in Death Stranding. Every single footstep, every square foot, every small rock must be carefully measured and considered. You may have seen such inverse kinematics mechanics in games before wherein your character adjusts their legs as terrain changes (think Horizon Zero Dawn). But Death Stranding takes the simple act of walking and elevates it to a functioning, fleshed-out mechanic.
Every single square foot in Death Stranding has its own terrain height map which contains elevation data. My footsteps react to these changes, with even small rocks carrying the potential to throw me off balance. And because I’m carrying cargo – and therefore, weight – on my back, this has a profound effect on overall stability.
Suddenly, I have to consciously think about where I place each and every footstep at the micro level. Looking out on the horizon, I must balance this moment-to-moment footwork with the longer ordeal of working out how I’m going to traverse this environment to get to my objective.
This gamification of the simple act of walking is something I’ve never seen before. Never before have I been forced to think about every single footstep and work out how to cross a field. In most games, crossing a field is so easy that one doesn’t give it much thought. In Death Stranding, even a relatively flat field will contain undulations which will affect your stability and balance, forcing you to adapt and plan.
Fortunately, Kojima and team provides plenty of tools to help you along the way. Of the dozens and dozens of such tools I was provided, it is no exaggeration to state that every single one of them felt significantly useful. From the simple ladders you can use to ford small rivers and climb short distances, weapons like the bola gun used to restrain (but not kill) enemies, to vehicles like transport trucks – they all had their own significant but unique use.
And because you unlock these tools constantly, it always felt like I made significant, genuine character progress, paralleling my adventure across America itself. This is something I feel is incredibly rare in games these days, and it was refreshing to experience it in Death Stranding every step of the way.
However, Death Stranding isn’t perfect. The extensive jargon I mentioned above can potentially be a barrier for those unaccustomed to Hideo Kojima games. Personally, I didn’t find this to be an issue as everything is eventually explained. But it is worth mentioning.
Additionally, another criticism lies in the UI. I’ve never thought that Kojima has been particularly good at designing menus and submenus, and that remains the case in Death Stranding. For example, just look at the image below.
This is a typical screen you receive during missions. It’s only because I saw this screen so many times throughout my 43 hours of play that I became accustomed to its layout. But it’s simply a mess. It’s too busy, too cluttered, and somehow manages to feel simultaneously overdesigned and under-designed. The UI is one area where Kojima and team really need to improve upon.
The Stick, Or The Rope
I previously mentioned this notion of connection. There is an asynchronous multiplayer baked into Death Stranding to drive home this point. The first time you travel to a settlement, you have to do so blind. This means that while you can use simple tools like ladders and ropes to traverse the environment, you cannot build structures like bridges or zip lines to aid your travel. This is because building actual structures requires the usage of that area’s bandwidth which you can only use once you connect that area to the network.
Therefore, the first time you approach a new settlement, you are doing so blind. You have to work out your own route, gauge the dangers, and traverse the landscape completely unaware of the enemies’ location. It is designed to be a lonely, isolating, and completely disconnected experience.
However, once you bring that area online, suddenly the buildings and signposts of other real players become visible on the map. You can now not only see their structures – such as bridges, zip lines, battery recharge stations, and the like – but you can also use them. In fact, any structure you then build can be used by these other players.
This may sound similar to the system in Dark Souls, but it’s so much more. Unlike Dark Souls where other enemies can “invade” your game, you never actually see another human player in Death Stranding. The only proof of their existence are the remains of their buildings, signposts marking efficient routes, or even just encouraging words to keep you going.
You can also “Like” their signs and structures. Crucially, you cannot “Dislike” anything. I genuinely love this. By only allowing us to provide positive feedback, Kojima further embeds this notion of hope. And with such an asynchronous multiplayer system overall, Kojima has created a way for all of us playing the game to feel inherently connected. And more than that, I felt like these other players had my back, even though I will never meet them in-game.
This, therefore, is in direct contrast to Dark Souls. While the “invade” mechanic of Dark Souls created an antagonistic relationship between yourself and the invading player, Death Stranding’s approach creates and fosters an inherently symbiotic relationship between yourself and others.
This then becomes its own core loop. Every time I booted the game, I was given a readout of everyone who used and Liked a structure or signpost I created. And this felt good. I felt compelled to help other travelers because I knew that someone would cross this same path and would find my ladder helpful. This loop becomes addicting in the best possible way. I wanted to help other people just as others had helped me.
Those who know me will tell you I’m an unbelievably cynical person, and I have good cause to be. But somehow, Kojima was able to instill this sense of hope in me when I was playing Death Stranding. This unseen bond of connection created by Kojima is beyond value. This sense of hope and connection to other human beings is something which has rooted itself in my mind ever since I completed the game.
“I’m Fragile, But Not That Fragile.”
During the course of your travels, you’ll meet several characters, all performed by all-star actors. Norman Reedus, Troy Baker, Lea Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen, Margaret Qualley, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and more make up this ensemble cast.
What I find most effective about this cast is Kojima’s decision to use the likeness of the real actors for the characters they portray. However, this carries a massive risk. For example, we all know what Norman Reedus looks like. Therefore, any portrayal of him using his likeness must effectively be flawless. If the character model is even slightly off, we’ll notice. And this will create a disconnect.
Kojima gets around this by creating unbelievably detailed character models for these actors. The character models in Death Stranding are simply the best character models I have ever seen in any game. People who know me will tell you I place a large premium on graphics and technology. Therefore, when I say that there were times when these in-game character models crossed the uncanny valley, it should speak to the incredible technical achievement on display.
Every wrinkle, every wisp of hair, every stalk of stubble is so intricately modeled and captured with painstaking accuracy. Even the pores of the characters stretch as they emote. And it’s this recreation of the human face which sells the believability of these performances. These aren’t video game characters. These aren’t video game renders. These are actual human beings. I cannot express just how paradigm-shifting this truly is. The character rendering in Death Stranding is the game’s greatest technical achievement.
This is then paired with the largely brilliant performances of the actors themselves. Norman Reedus was Sam. Lea Seydoux was Fragile. Tommie Earl Jenkins was the excellently named Die-Hardman. I was convinced of these characters as real human beings.
There was, however, one exception. Troy Baker portrays the game’s villain, Higgs. And he was by far the weakest character and performance of the ensemble. I think a large part of my disconnect here has to do with the fact that we’ve seen and heard Troy in countless games this generation. Therefore, he is a known quantity to some extent. We can understand how good his performances can be.
His performance as Higgs simply wasn’t convincing. And as a result, Higgs was not compelling. He never once came off as the threat he was clearly meant to be. This may be in part due to the writing of his character, but I do place a lot of my disconnect at the feet of the performance on hand. Higgs was simply “Troy Baker trying to be a bad guy,” and never more. It simply didn’t work.
The Beauty of Decima
Much has been said of the graphics and visuals of Death Stranding, and rightfully so. Developed on the Decima Engine, the same engine powering Horizon Zero Dawn, the visuals on display in Death Stranding are simply outstanding.
The landscape has an ultra-realistic quality about it on both the micro and macro levels. The vistas are absolutely stunning to behold, but this same level of beauty and detail hold up when viewed up close. For example, take a look at this zoomed-in image of a beach. You can notice how virtually every single pebble has geometry, it’s not just some flat normal map. There is actual geometric detail extending to virtually every single rock on this beach – and this beach extends for miles.
Mosses appear on rocks where you would expect, and they too have a depth about them. They’re not just some flat normal map texture of moss. This depth is achieved through a clever use of shaders. This photogrammetric detail is truly stunning, and is perhaps the best depiction of such landscape I’ve ever seen in a game.
However, all is not roses in Death Stranding from a visual standpoint. The screen-space reflections, for example, are of an older variant. As a result, they’re quite low resolution. Granted, there aren’t too many reflective surfaces in Death Stranding, but for the times when reflections are used – like water or metallic surfaces – I noticed them. And their low resolution did distract me.
The PC port itself is quite excellent from a stability and performance standpoint. Graphics settings are limited and simply not as extensive as I’d like. In this regard, Microsoft’s recent PC versions of their games still hold the gold prize in their exposure of options to PC gamers, plus their comprehensive benchmarking tools.
Nevertheless, Death Stranding looks stunning when maxed out on PC. Running the game on an i7 8700k paired with an RTX 2080 Ti, I never saw the framerate dip below 60fps when playing in my native 4K resolution. However, Death Stranding has an ace in the hole: DLSS.
DLSS, or Deep Learning Super Sampling, is an Nvidia technology which leverages AI and machine learning to upscale and reconstruct an image into a higher resolution from a lower internal resolution. Keep in mind, because DLSS is an Nvidia-only technology, you can only enable it with RTX-branded cards.
Death Stranding has two such DLSS options: Quality and Performance. Both render the game internally at a lower-than-native resolution, but Performance mode renders at a lower internal resolution than Quality. As expected, Performance mode will provide higher framerate than Quality mode.
However, Death Stranding uses the second iteration of DLSS, dubbed DLSS 2.0. This is far superior to DLSS 1.0 which launched with the RTX 20-series back in 2018. In fact, after having poured over several screenshots, I can confidently say that Death Stranding with DLSS in Quality mode looks superior to the game running in my native 4K. Don’t believe me? Look at these screenshots.
DLSS simply resolves more detail in high frequency items like hair, and indeed appears to be more temporally stable than native resolution. When you take into account the performance boost accompanying DLSS, it’s a no brainer. In fact, I was consistently hovering around 100fps with DLSS Quality mode in Death Stranding. When you consider this performance boost, plus the objective fact that DLSS looks legitimately superior to native resolution, the only conclusion to be drawn here is that Death Stranding absolutely should be played with DLSS. This is where we’re at now in the games industry, at least on PC. Nvidia’s innovations in ray tracing and DLSS have paid dividends in 2020. Death Stranding is simply more proof of that.
Apart from the visuals and PC options, key bindings are present and are decent. Audio sliders are present as well and are pretty standard affair. In fact, the music in this game is standout. In this regard, Kojima and I share similar musical preferences.
HDR is implemented in the PC version, and this is how I played the whole game. It’s not as in-your-face as other games. But because of the largely overcast, indirectly-lit nature of Death Stranding, HDR merely amplifies this light and provides a subtle but welcome atmosphere.
In summary, the PC conversion of Death Stranding is quite sublime and is inarguably the best version of the game.
A Hideo Kojima Game
After 43 hours in Mr. Kojima’s world, I am left wanting more. When you create a world this dense and this unique, you have an obligation to answer the questions asked. I can honestly say that the story does answer the questions it asks in the beginning, and I found this extremely satisfying.
Death Stranding is an experience. It has completely stuck with me in a way almost no other game has. The themes of connection, hope, and unity are tragically relevant and downright necessary in 2020. With so much racial, political, and socioeconomic division, Death Stranding stands as a stark warning of what that division can sow.
It doesn’t matter that the world of Death Stranding is that of fiction. Its message is nevertheless real. In that sense, Death Stranding also stands as a mark of hope, of what can happen if we actually stopped and considered others. I realize I’m on the verge of veering dangerously into cliché territory, but this cliché simply happens to be true and entirely relevant to our 2020. This core mechanic of creating real connection is the greatest gameplay triumph of Death Stranding.
I have never before seen nor experienced such a culmination of visuals, story, music, performances, and gameplay as I have with Death Stranding. And I don’t say that with respect to just the games industry. Death Stranding is the best representation of art I have ever experienced. Period.
Death Stranding is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a triumph of one man’s unrelenting, uncompromised vision of hope. So powerful was this vision that it gave a deeply cynical individual like me a reason to hope. It’s a technological achievement on so many levels. But perhaps most of all, its revolutionary story, outstanding characters, and singular theme of human connection is the lingering triumph of Death Stranding. It is simply one of the greatest games I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
It is, in every single glorious way, a Hideo Kojima Game.