America - Front
America - Back
By Issa Maki 19th Oct 2021 | 1,704 views
Hideo Kojima is the Nostradamus of my generation; his 'visions' of our future have not only come to pass, but are demonstrable. His commentary concerning the American government's influence over the world, emergence of internet echo chambers, increasing prevalence of AI in human affairs, and what would become 'fake news' was 20 years ahead of its time. When characters in Metal Gear Solid V undergo medical treatments that only existed in theoretical models in our world, but which have since become reality, the man knows something. As a tasseographer divines tea leaves to tell us about tomorrow, Kojima uses the medium of video games for those willing to listen.
Released in 2019, Death Stranding gave mankind another glimpse beyond the vale of today; one it was hesitant to examine. Baffling critics and consumers alike with its unique mechanics and bizarre (yet beautifully told) story, the gaming community tried everything in its power to look away from Death Stranding and the messages held within. But like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, its relevance and place in the world is farther ahead of us than we thought. Let's hope it doesn't take two decades for society to catch up again.
Death Stranding relates the story of The United Cities of America and the collapse of a once proud nation. Set roughly 30 years from the present, a metaphysical pandemic has resulted in the merger of our physical world with the land of the dead. Should a departed soul of the deceased (a 'Beached Thing', or 'BT') consume living flesh, a 'Voidout' occurs - the equivalent of a nuclear explosion. If this wasn't enough, a new form of matter called Chiralium has contaminated the Troposphere of the planet, resulting in an miasmic rain known as 'Timefall' that can significantly age an organism in seconds. Forced underground, the vestiges of humanity fester in unseen despair, awaiting a fate they can barely hope to comprehend.
Into this dying world Sam Bridges is born. A 'Porter' (deliveryman) by trade, these brave men and women risk the safety of themselves and everything around them by transporting precious supplies to the remaining pockets of society, in one last attempt keep the flames of liberty from fading into oblivion. If any of that seems to resonate with the world today, keep in mind that Death Stranding came out the month before 'coronavirus' and 'COVID-19' became household names.
Entreated by an ailing President of the United Cities to install the 'Chiral Network' (imagine the internet combined with Star Trek's replicator technology) across the land, Sam travels in search of those willing to connect with each other, while attempting to find his estranged sister waiting at the other end of the country – the successor to the Presidency. Aided by a Metal Gear-like support staff, alongside an indispensable, lovable ally, the fate of existence rests on the tired shoulders of a broken laborer and his ability to navigate through shady government politics, legions of the dead, and a Porter's worst fear: rival deliverymen out to steal their work!
After 93 hours of playtime, I finally have a consensus about what type of game Death Stranding is: I don't know! How it can appear like almost everything that's come before on the surface, yet be unlike anything almost defies explanation. Compellingly, the answer falls along the lines of: “it is whatever you want it to be”.
With body parts to equip, armored plating, and upgradable exoskeletons, added to the emphasis on traversing terrain and proper navigation, I see more than a few parallels with the mech-genre games I've encountered over the years. Fans of the soothing presence that a good farming simulator can provide have more to discover here than they could imagine. Gathering resources to plant generators and drop boxes evokes similar feelings, but with the added benefit of helping others. This community aspect of Death Stranding, where the structures fellow players build affect your playthrough and vice-versa, is vital to progression – despite there never being direct interaction at any time. Imagine From Software's fanbase without the emphasis on trying to ruin someone's day. It's strange to ponder that 'contactless-multiplayer' preceded contactless delivery, but this is the world we live in.
Even so, the fingerprints of Metal Gear Solid are all over Norman Reedus' cookie jar, to the point where I thought that Death Stranding was made using Konami's FOX engine. The similarities between the two from both a gameplay and narrative perspective alone are more than enough to keep Kojima acolytes adhering to the faith. Regardless of whatever Death Stranding exactly 'is', by the time you're 3D-printing Akira-inspired bikes and roads, while fighting spirit beasts using weapons laced with Sam's blood (that also injure him in the process), any attempts to dismiss the game as a mere 'walking simulator' hold no water; yet traversing the open land is the core of the journey! Timefall ensures that Death Stranding will be different whenever it's played, changing with every passing hour, day, week, month, and year. Much like life, you can't step into the same river twice.
Like a good episode of Star Trek, Death Stranding uses the future to comment on contemporary issues relevant in our era. This is a running theme throughout much of Kojima's work, but it feels especially incisive this time around for how subtle it is in its directness.
One thing that comes to mind is the sheer amount of 'Likes' Sam receives for almost any action he performs; down to something as banal as walking. The dozens of superfluous metrics that deliveries are graded on and hefty amount of menu-based item management give the impression of being unnecessary or 'fluff' – and that's the entire point (which is why most of it can be ignored). This inflated sense of accomplishment and the constant need to be rewarded permeates life so strongly today, who among the 'Like, Share, Subscribe' generation are even aware of the message being conveyed directly to them – at their own expense, no less? I could go on for the next half hour citing examples about the loss of privacy, data collection, or the ersatz nature of cloud technology; if this way of life isn't already here, it's not far off. Let's just say receiving an email from a doctor replete with emoticons doesn't exactly inspire much confidence in their practice.
Imperative outburst aside, it's the additional features to Death Stranding that ultimately bring us here together. Rather than focusing on a post/side-story that expands the narrative beyond its breadth, the Director's Cut takes an introverted look at itself, refining the groundwork established on PlayStation 4. It's all great stuff, and barring a couple of inclusions that intentionally expedite the earlier sections of the game, there's little to complain about – especially taking into consideration the asking price.
Most immediate of these upgrades are the enhanced frame rate and haptic feedback for the controller. From scanning the environment with the odradek to weaving through crags of rocks, it's humorous that the improvements to basic navigation are among the most significant. The mini-game of 'balancing' Sam with the DualSense triggers has improved so dramatically, it's curious that Sony didn't simply wait a year and release Death Stranding as a launch PlayStation 5 title (until you remember the 5 million sales on PS4 and PC). This fluidity simply didn't exist in 2019, nor did the melee attacks that bolster Sam's arsenal.
Eyebrows certainly raised when the Impact Thrusters, or 'jetpack', were revealed. Trailers over the summer depicted Sam hovering over mountain ranges down to lower altitudes in seconds, a journey that previously would have taken minutes of careful navigation to undertake. Diehards may object, but the situational utility of this luxury keeps it from taking center stage, as do the requirements needed for use. Giving up two extra batteries for your exoskeleton is a major proposition under any circumstance, but thrusters can make all the difference out in the Rockies. They do take some dedication to appropriately upgrade, so Mandalorian enthusiasts should exercise patience.
The remaining Quality of Life improvements make a considerable difference. The 'Reverse Trike: Transporter' gets my vote for most valuable contribution. Combining the precise movement of cycles with a carrying capability comparable to trucks, moving large amounts of product to build structures or retrieve loot from a MULE camp has never has been as efficient and enjoyable. A friend (who played in 2019) balked when he saw how much I was able to load onto my ride; as he watched me Matt Hoffman off a bike ramp (shaving a minute or so off my trip in the process), his eyes were green with envy.
Cargo guns are a novel, somewhat cost-inefficient tool with good utility (and they're a joy to operate). Chiral bridges are smaller, ethereal versions of their metal counterparts with far more versatility, but deactivate whenever Timefall occurs, limiting their application. The improved Buddy Bot is also worthy of note. Now able to follow (and carry) Sam out in the wild, this pair of legs with a shelf on top can be useful within the Chiral Network. It does have problems navigating the landscape, and Sam can easily leave it in the dust if he's not careful, re-routing it to the nearest safehouse. Keep its limitations in mind and you won't be disappointed.
The most unexpected features of the Director's Cut come in the form of the Fragile Circuit and Firing Range. Both strip down mechanics that already existed, then essentially step out of the player's way (with the game in tow) so you can appreciate how solid they actually are.
Equivalent to the various Time Trial modes found in Mario Kart and other racing titles, the Fragile Circuit is a fully-functional racetrack where players can compete against their ghosts and the high scores of others, using the vehicle of your choice. Taking the cargo truck for a spin was the last thing I wanted to do in Death Stranding, but after learning how to properly drift it became my preferred mode of transportation. The Roadster can be acquired for use off the course, but it's best to keep it in the trophy room until those highways and byways get built. As odd as it seems, the Fragile Circuit can be a surprisingly effective way to squeeze more mileage out of a playthrough.
Less exciting on the surface, but more compelling, is the Firing Range. What comes across as extraneous quickly becomes an invaluable resource for improving yourself against MULEs and BTs without having to put everything on the line in the field. Fans of the VR missions found throughout Metal Gear Solid will be right at home, testing themselves against the userbase across leaderboards and ranked missions. The size of these virtual arenas is beyond impressive; should you get bit by the bug, hours can be spent mastering the nuances of a game that get overlooked unfairly.
The final major piece to the Director's Cut is the 'Ruined Factory' sub-quest. A coda of sorts to the original release, long-time fans expecting a one-night stand might walk away disappointed, but those content with a kiss on the cheek will leave satisfied.
Tasked with infiltrating a MULE-controlled research facility that bears more than a few similarities to Metal Gear Solid, Sam must gather crucial information to better understand the present, as well as the past. Assisting him in this endeavor is the experimental 'Maser Gun', the latest acquisition to the Bridges weapon catalog. By harnessing battery power, Sam can send powerful torrents of electric current into his human adversaries, taking them down in an efficient, non-lethal manner. Completing these missions grants access to the Support Skeleton, which combines the effects of the three previous exoskeletons into an uber hybrid. These two pieces of equipment are among the most useful in the entire game. My only complaint is how early they can be attained.
Calling a game an 'experience' at this point goes beyond clichè, but there are no other words to describe Death Stranding; you simply haven't played anything like this before, regardless of how familiar it appears. In many ways, the best advice is to disregard everyone's preconceived notions and play it for yourself. Should the next generation be looking for something like The Matrix or Metal Gear Solid 2 to call their own, a zeitgeist that ascends them to the next level beyond what they've been taught, here it stands. The future awaits if you can handle it – and can do so with care.
Shigeru Miyamoto made video games 'fun'; Hideo Kojima made them interesting, proving they could not only be a diversion, but a powerful expression that teaches people, bringing us together as an entire species, instead of just the person sitting next to you. Look at it this way: For $10.00, you could take a discarded copy of the most misunderstood, unappreciated AAA game of 2019, elevate it in virtually every way, and possibly even learn something. Or you can buy a single weapon for Yuffie in Final Fantasy VII Remake for a penny less. Time has already been kind to Death Stranding; I can only imagine how the future will look back on it. As for the world today, we can hope for change but should be creating it ourselves, for each other's sake as much as our own.
Dr. Seuss said it best in three words: “This is Sam”. Sam, I am.