Before going into detailed thoughts about my experience, allow me to get this out of the way: Death Stranding: Director’s Cut looks stunning on the PlayStation 5. Admittedly, this isn’t a feature exclusive to the PS5 as even on weaker machines like the base PS4, the game’s terrain, models and weather effects look stellar. The lighting plays a big role in the success of the presentation, light reacts and bounces off surfaces like water, skin and metal in realistic ways and while again, this isn’t a new feature when it comes to projects of this scale developed on modern hardware, here it adds a great amount to the atmosphere the game is aiming for at any one time. For example, when there is no imminent danger, the world while desolate is quite peaceful and the presentation succeeds in delivering a relaxing feeling akin to taking a nice hike in a wilderness retreat, whereas when fighting a BT, the stormy weather and thick tar surrounding you immediately rachet up the tension, plunging Sam into a deep darkness only interrupted by colourful explosions from his blood and piss grenades. This is also the best motion capture work I have ever seen in a video game, the character Die-Hardman delivers a monologue in the late stages of the game that underlines why this is a big deal, the technology captures every ounce of Tommie Earl Jenkins’ performance, giving a healthy boost to both the immersion and emotional stakes involved in the scene.
The Director’s Cut offers two graphics presets to the player: Quality and Performance. The primary distinguishing feature between the two is the resolution. Other aspects of the presentation including texture, shadow and lighting quality seem to remain the same across all modes. In terms of resolution, the Quality Mode hits native 4K and the Performance Mode, while blurrier, still looks sharper than the PS4 Pro Performance Mode footage, which means it’s still a big upgrade over the 1080P resolution from the previous generation. Interestingly enough both modes target 60FPS. The Quality settings hit 60FPS more often than not and with the exception of select encounters with MULEs and BTs, the performance doesn’t falter during regular gameplay. The boss fights are sa different story altogether and don’t run well at all on the Quality Mode, particularly in the late game. This is where the performance option comes in, while both modes target the same framerate, the performance mode holds to 60 flawlessly and it was essentially a routine of mine to switch to it at the beginning of a boss fight.
Separate from those presets, there is the widescreen mode, which changes up the aspect ratio to, as the name suggests, show off a wider view of the game world. The results are definitely interesting as it does a serviceable job of showing off more of the immediate horizontal surroundings and it adds a different sense of scale to the full screen mode, however, ultimately, I don’t feel this alternative view justified sacrificing the good chunk of display space that is lost due to the aspect ratio change. It’s worth noting the PS5 doesn’t have native support for Ultrawide displays, so even on an actual ultrawide screen and with the widescreen preset enabled in this game, you won’t get a typical 21:9 output and thus there will now be black bars on both the sides and the top of the image. Personally, I would recommend playing on the Quality mode, due to the sharper resolution and its ability to hit 60FPS often, but if faced with a combat section that is having a noticeable performance impact, switching to the Performance mode is a safe bet to keep framerates smooth.
Feel free to also check out Matt’s thoughts from a few years ago for a day one perspective.
The Cost of Connection
At its core, Death Stranding is a game about making connections. The actual gameplay revolves around the protagonist Sam Bridges, completing deliveries and bringing the various disparate areas of the game world back together using a device (that doubles as a neat necklace) called the Q-pid. With a core gameplay loop that for the bulk of the game boils down to a cycle of receiving a delivery order, protecting and transporting the cargo, completing the delivery then repeating that loop dozens of times over, it’s not hard to imagine why hounds of gamers were displeased with the end product. Unfortunately, I do identify more with those who weren’t pleased with the game but what really frustrates me is how much quality is present here, just buried under hours of unengaging gameplay.
The quality I am referring to is found primarily in the game’s unique premise and characters. The idea of having to unite a society that’s been torn apart by disastrous events and on a more specific level, doing it as a postman, physical travelling to these remote areas, giving people what they need and reconnecting them to the rest of the world, it’s a legitimately compelling and wholesome concept. The characters are also quite compelling. Their backstories aren’t all that subtle so you can get a general idea of their backgrounds from their names alone but they each have a purpose in the story and it was still entertaining to see them interact with Sam, who by nature of his work, rarely gets to have conversations in person. My personal favourite of Sam’s aides was Heartman due to his unique state of ‘living’ and obsession with the game’s ‘Beaches’, a purgatory of sorts that features heavily in the narrative. Although I must say I am biased as a fan of filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn, whom the character is modelled after. The ensemble cast delivers strong performances across the board which are captured incredibly well by the aforementioned excellent mo-cap technology. If I had to pick a standout in this department, it would be Mads Mikkelsen. He is impressive on so many levels but it’s the range in his performance that really sells the character.
The only character that didn’t work for me was Amelie. She wasn’t particularly likeable, and her bond with Sam could have been communicated to the audience better. This bond is important to the narrative as it’s supposed to act as motivation for Sam to complete his duties within the story but because of the limited knowledge we have of the character before the final chapters, as players it’s a little difficult to feel the same way and empathise with Sam in his quest to help her. There are other spoilery elements of the character I didn’t enjoy but exist to serve the story so I can understand their purpose. While we are on the topic of negatives in relation to the narrative, the pacing is really rough. There are so many revelations in the closing hours of the game, it’s almost comical. The overall experience would have benefitted from spreading those out more evenly amongst its forty-hour main story. There is also a metric ton of exposition which drags the pacing down, explanations of equipment, lectures on dangers in the world and backstories of characters, how they came to be and the events that defined them. There was a shared fear among gamers that they would not understand this game, that it was too unorthodox or unusual but fear not, for there is enough explanation throughout the narrative to help you understand pretty much everything. Not that the information itself can’t be intriguing, the issue is with the delivery method being inorganic.
The gameplay is where my impressions become a whole lot more negative. You’re likely to spend a good chunk of your time delivering orders on-foot, especially in the initial chapters where vehicles aren’t available and when delivering to mountainous areas that are tricky to scale on wheels. There is a respectable amount of depth to the boots on the ground gameplay which I can’t deny. The cargo weight has to be managed and distributed evenly on Sam, weather conditions like Timefall degrade the cargo quicker and have to be accounted for, all the while, MULEs, a group of crazy thieves, will try to steal your delivery contents and have to be avoided or bested in combat. I recognise this depth exists but I can’t say it added much enjoyment to my playthrough, as I saw these mechanics as just more busywork to keep track of while I power through the game, in the hopes that it will get better. And it does… eventually. I will concede that the last 3 chapters of the game are more eventful than the ones that precede it. The stakes increase, the atmosphere is eerier and the mission structure finally exhibits some variety. But that’s still a fraction of the experience. For the majority of your playthrough, your objective is to. Deliver. Packages. If you’re okay with that, you will more than likely enjoy this game. I am not one of those people. I needed more from the first 25-30 hours when I was bored senseless, holding out for more to happen and when the game started to ramp up towards the end, I felt a sense of frustration knowing the developers had the ability to make an exciting game but made me suffer through a toothless one for so long.
A gameplay mechanic I did enjoy were the BTs, who added a much-needed level of tension to the gameplay. These enemies from beyond the world of the living can only be detected by Sam’s handy Bridge baby, and act like sub-bosses, making ominous entrances and possessing the ability to leave a serious mark on Sam and his cargo if not dealt with swiftly. The scale and design of these beasts is impressive and attempting to escape or fight a BT is when the gameplay is at its most thrilling, heightened by the surprising responsiveness of the platforming and gunplay. This version of the game also adds the Maser Gun, a non-lethal taser-like weapon and the Support Skeleton. Both of these can be unlocked relatively early on and make the game’s initial chapters slightly more accessible, however, their effectiveness is limited beyond this point as they are eclipsed by far superior equipment the player is able to acquire shortly afterward.
The only consistent highlight of the gameplay is the construction and multiplayer mechanics. In the early game, much of the fun to be had is in returning to an area that Sam has connected to the Chiral Network, which allows structures that other players have created to appear in your own world. The presence of these makes your own journey easier and I found myself returning the favour by upgrading them or erecting some of my own to assist those who are yet to reach the area. The aforementioned structures start out quite simple like ladders and climbing anchors but eventually the player is able to build Zip-lines and Highways that make future deliveries exponentially more convenient. Collaborating with other players to build roads, knowing that it will make a difference in not only my own playthrough, but others as well is an extremely satisfying feeling. This is also where the Director’s Cut makes its biggest accessibility improvement, with highways now capable of being built into the ‘Mountain Knot’ region, which is by far the hardest area to deliver to on-foot, thanks to the altitude of the mountains and the heavy presence of Timefall Snow slowing you down and degrading your cargo. Ultimately, it’s fascinating that even with the game being hyper focussed on making the player feel Sam’s loneliness, Kojima has managed to create a surprisingly memorable multiplayer experience, one that I can see people enjoying for years to come.
With that being said, I was disappointed with Death Stranding overall. The gameplay is mostly devoid of the most important quality I look for in a video game: F U N. The first three chapters are especially painful as the construction mechanics haven’t been fully introduced yet and the equipment available to you is limited. After you gain access to vehicles, traversal becomes less cumbersome but it doesn’t magically make the game fun, only less tedious. Even the enjoyable elements come with catches. Yes, BT encounters are entertaining but they are also rare, only happening two or three times an hour, something that can’t be changed by turning up the difficulty. Yes, the collaborative mechanics in the multiplayer are clever but on your first run through each area, they aren’t available as there is no Chiral Network and it’s your job to connect the area to the Network. I understand that this is Kojima’s vision that he was given the freedom to execute and I respect that but when I can count on one hand the hours I enjoyed out of a forty-hour video game, it becomes a difficult one for me to recommend.
Summary: Death Stranding: Director’s Cut is a solid remaster with smart upgrades that build upon the original release without taking away from what made it a unique experience. The game itself has a lot to say and some of it is genuinely compelling, however, the pacing is abhorrent and the core gameplay is a deadly pill made out of tedium and boredom, that I really wish I hadn’t swallowed. Let’s hope I’m a Repatriate.
Death Stranding: Director’s Cut
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Action Adventure
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Release date: 24 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.