I was pleasantly surprised by the Death Stranding trailer released today because it finally established in more clear terms what the main plot and game structure will be about, and showed off more genuine gameplay, including gunfights, fight fights, and motorcycle riding. If Kojima had continued to delay and tease without revealing the core of the game, it would have been a massive red flag for me, and a sign that the game itself isn’t worth advertising. Unlike Metal Gear Solid games, Death Stranding has no established fan base or legacy to fall back on, so it needs to attract people. This trailer showed that they have confidence in the core game, if nothing else.
The idea of entering a hellish, abstract warzone after you die was admitted, answering one of the biggest questions so far about what happens when you die and where those war scenes were from. Suddenly the game’s flow and consequences seem much more tangible. We were introduced to many new characters, including the President of the USA — a sickly old woman who believes in reconnecting the broken states of America. Many people were unsure that there would ever be an explicit, traditional plot at all, and were excited about the prospect of a totally abstract and enigmatic postmodern storyline. Now, with that theory out of the way, Kojima can invite more people into his upcoming experiment and mess with them in other ways. It’s good to create a broad appeal if you want to be quirky: if you only have quirky people interested to begin with, they’ll anticipate all your tricks in advance. You need normal people playing if you really want weirdness to pay off. Sony no doubt insisted on a bigger reveal as well.
The million dollar question
Will Death Stranding be engaging to play? According to the footage we’ve seen so far, I’m afraid the answer is “no”. In no way, shape, or form does Death Stranding look to be even close to matching the Metal Gear franchise in terms of tension, interaction, strategy, creativity, or that raw driving force keeping you going. If I’m being perfectly neutral and putting aside my Kojima hype glasses, the world is extremely bland, and the mission you’re on is unclear — not exciting in the slightest. The reaction to the gameplay from general gaming audiences proves this beyond a doubt, with many laughing at the boring and clumsy enemies, generic combat, and lack of creative solutions to problems. For an “open world adventure” game, it lags way behind what many others are offering these days. And even if you don’t count it in that genre (which is doing it a massive unwarranted favor) I still defy anyone to explain what is exciting about the gameplay.
My biggest criticisms of Death Stranding from the start has been the creatively bankrupt use of “black goop monsters” as enemies. I will say the same about any game, including Resident Evil VII and its horrible goop designs: amorphous, shapeless, generic enemies made out of goop are the literal bottom of the design barrel. They are the absolute dead end. You cannot get worse. Even a child can think of it, and it requires no artistic talent to include. Nobody is scared of black goop monsters. Nobody cares about them. They are not funny, interesting, or playful. Metal Gear has been one of the world leaders in improving the fun factor of generic enemies, allowing you to hold them up, knock them out, grab them, drag them, and even target specific body parts for cruel shenanigans. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain took away a few of these features, but added more in the context of the open world and all the tricks you could play. Death Stranding has human enemies, but we have seen no evidence that you can play around with them in fun ways — just slow and dull punch and kick combos, and swinging around a briefcase. It’s a crying shame.
On the other hand, the exploration aspect is visually pretty in some places, but also fairly shallow and uncreative. The game was already being accused of being a “walking simualtor” before, and the addition of a motorcycle, rappelling, and deployable ladders is hardly revolutionary. The bar is simply higher than that these days. Not only was Metal Gear Solid V far ahead in terms of movement and transportation options, but other open world games have been pushing the limits in their own ways. The Just Cause series has gone the furthest perhaps, but even Nintendo and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rejected big desolate walking sections, and tried to inject more creativity into climbing and gliding. I’m not saying Kojima should copy them, I’m saying he is falling short of the bar in terms of world exploration. Making things slow and trepidatious is fine for somebody else to explore, but from Kojima? That’s not what we want from somebody famous for innovation.
Update: Conflicting Takes
I’ve received an email from a reader about the Death Stranding trailer and I wanted to share the main points he made. He sent this before I wrote the article, so it’s not an echo of my own observations. The bold parts are my own emphasis…
We have the same open world traversing ideas, some light shooting and fighting mechanics, regular enemies, the supernatural, parasite people, open areas, and a gruff guy talking to his team of probably bland sidekicks. I just can’t believe that, given his new freedom, this is the game Kojima decided to make, the same one as before, just without MGS stuff. This trailer even has the same supernatural dream sequence like when that whale is flying around in the Phantom Pain trailer (WW1-2 scene).
My question now is, will this game be complete? Whereas MGS5 was billed as open, it turned out to be largely not, and when it was it was empty. The climbing mechanics they mentioned only existed in very few, designated spots on maps (that I never found in my playthrough). Can you pull out that ladder or repelling mechanism anywhere, or were those specific spots where those things will work? The story seems more fleshed out, but just as shallow. The connection to soldiers who died in wars seems interesting, but I have high doubts it will amount to anything.
I learned from Phantom Pain that you can’t trust Kojima’s trailers and that the tone they establish is completely unrelated to the actual tone of the game. However, this looks especially lacking in any consistent tone. Even the movement in the field looks strange to me. The aesthetic reminded me of No Man’s Sky.
If you’ve followed the work of Kojima over the decades, I think there are two ways of viewing his mysterious trailers: either it’s exciting and your imagination fills up with amazing possibilities, or it’s worrisome and you see the potential failure to deliver. I don’t blame anyone for being skeptical at this point, since no Metal Gear game (except perhaps Peace Walker) has lived up to the promise of its trailers.
On the other hand, I’ve been told that the hype around Death Stranding is big. Apparently its reaching a whole new audience and hooking them.
There are several reasons why this makes sense. The baggage of the MGS universe is gone. People loved the P.T. demo and the Silent Hills footage. People are sympathetic to Kojima and want him to make a comeback after the humiliation he faced with Konami. Plus this will be a PlayStation exclusive in a pretty dry release season. This could be a perfect storm for Kojima to hook a big new audience.
In this case, the pressure might be even greater to deliver on a story and game experience. Are people going to accept an “empty” world with a disjointed plot, if that’s what it turns out to be?
Sony X Kojima: Is this their best?
At the end of the day, Death Stranding is a clear collaboration between Hideo Kojima’s famous studio and Sony’s gaming division. This should be a match made in heaven. There should be no limits. This is finally the chance for Kojima to fulfill the amazing visions he’s had for decades as he was forced to work on Metal Gear games non-stop. True liberation!
And what do we end up with? A gruff and cynical protagonist mumbling and complaining as he trods around an empty world, surrounded by weird science-fiction stuff that isn’t really scary or interactive. A big walking/sneaking game, driven by some of the most cartoonish villains this side of Saturday morning TV, complete with black capes and controlling big black goop monsters that want to gobble you up!
I mean… Wow. Really?
Throughout the development of this game we’ve seen Kojima utilize his marketing skills, pushing merchandise, posters, mugs, clothing, logos, and branding as if this new Kojima Productions is the greatest studio in history. And the diehard Kojima fans have played along, waiting for answers and hype as their purchases are guaranteed. But what about the rest of the world? What happened to the idea that Kojima was only being held back by Konami and their damned executives?
Obviously I believe Death Stranding includes a very clear allegory for Kojima’s own life and career, and the choices behind it are almost entirely driven by this meta-narrative. However, creating a new intellectual property out of thin air just to tell your personal allegory is not the same as weaving it into a big and amazing franchise with a deep history. This trailer has ensured that I probably won’t buy the game myself, even though I enjoy analyzing the meta-narrative more than anyone. Not only does it look like a B-class game to play, but with a fairly obvious allegory at the heart of it.
I hope that I’m wrong in this assessment, but that’s where it stands.