I tend to roll my eyes whenever I see current affairs shoehorned into a video game review. It’s certainly wonderful to read essays and feature articles that relate video games to the human condition, but when I’m reading a review for the latest Nintendo game or action-packed adventure game, I can’t help but feel frustrated to find paragraphs about the hardships of 2020 or how killing a fictional elder dragon is tantamount to animal cruelty. As poignant and well-meaning as these tangents are, they rarely draw directly from the content of the game.
I say all of this so that you can understand that, in reviewing Death Stranding’s new PC release, it’s almost impossible to not talk about the things that make this Hideo Kojima’s most prescient video game project since Metal Gear Solid 2.
Revisiting Death Stranding on PC eight months after it initially launched on PlayStation 4, I already understood the broad strokes in which the game has ended up reflecting reality since it released. In November, the idea of a country full of paranoid shut-ins only communicating through digital video technology while one lonely, sweaty UPS delivery-man united them by delivering Monster Energy and urine grenades seemed like the most outlandish thing Kojima had ever thought up. By March, the world was literally going through that exact scenario.
I went into my second playthrough of the game knowing that these broad parallels between fact and fiction existed, but what ended up astounding me were how all the little details of the world and the characters that inhabit it have taken on new significance. In the gorgeous opening cutscene of Death Stranding, we learn that protagonist Sam Porter Bridges has a phobia of being touched by others, and just a few moments later he comes across a recently afflicted body as he and another character discuss quarantining, cremating and preventing the threat from spreading through the city.
The second character goes on to reminisce about the old days of America, where you could do crazy stuff like walk around outside and even visit other countries. Nothing about the story content in Death Stranding has been changed or altered or improved, yet it had such a wildly different impact on me compared to when I first played the game back in November.
Just as impactful as the story is how gorgeous the game looks on PC. In cutscenes like these, you won’t notice major differences from the PS4 version. The game was already in 1080p on my base PS4, but the PC version of the game adds softer shadows and beefed up anti-aliasing that makes these moments just a touch crisper to a keen eye. It’s in gameplay that the technical advantages of the PC version start to shine, though. While the original game ran at a solid 30FPS on console, Death Stranding on PC easily reaches a silky smooth 60FPS on my very mid-range GTX 1060, amplifying every moment of the game.
Navigating abandoned valleys and dangerous forests has an added layer of immersion thanks not only to the higher framerate, but the cutting edge DLSS Nvidia technology implemented into the game. DLSS 2.0 uses an AI system to optimise the visuals of the game in real-time, with the official documentation citing improvements like boosted performance, sharper video quality, and reduced visual artifacts. It’s hard to say how much the performance of the game was improved, since my hardware meets the recommended requirements for 1080p60, but I can easily say I never witnessed stray sparkling artefacts on character models and rarely witnessed any other visual oddities. Whenever I panned my camera out and stared at the jaw-dropping vistas in the distance, there was an incredible sense of clarity and polish to them that felt more immersive and mesmerising than any scenes I could remember on PS4.
For all the visual improvements of the game, though, Death Stranding on PC still suffers from the same flawed pacing it had on PS4 – it’s here that this review and my opinions will most significantly diverge from Tuffcub’s original PS4 review.
Whenever I discuss the game with people, I always say that the first 10 hours were some of the most engaging and magical moments I’ve had with a game and the last 15 hours are some of the most impactful, gorgeously written, and astoundingly acted moments of any Hideo Kojima game. The 30 hours in the middle are a drought of repetitive gameplay devoid of narrative significance that sharply brings the entire experience down.
Death Stranding is very much a game that wants to make you feel reflective and humbled, not excited and heroic. The entire game is designed around the repetitive act of slowly and methodically hoofing it across vast stretches of land to reach your next delivery destination. In the best chapters of the game, these torturous moments of monotony serve a purpose as they end up being bookended by striking dialogue, revelatory cutscenes, and jaw-dropping set-pieces, but these narrative bookend barely exist through the middle of the game.
Chapter 3 is, for some reason, nearly 12 hours made up of dozens of delivery missions that culminate into… nothing. You simply do a few dozen deliveries and then Chapter 4 happens. I love a lot of Death Stranding, but it’s this middle portion that ends up knocking the game down from a masterpiece to a flawed yet astounding game.
Back to the PC port. Did you know it supports mouse & keyboard? That’s pretty cool! Maybe don’t play it with a mouse & keyboard, though. I was certainly impressed by how well designed the key layout and UI was for non-gamepad users, but much like many action-oriented third-person adventures, there’s a far more tactile responsiveness in playing Death Stranding with a proper gamepad.
Beyond added keyboard & mouse controls, there’s also a minor series of brand new Valve crossover deliveries present in the game. Don’t expect hours of new cutscenes depicting Sam Porter Bridges waxing poetic with the G-Man and Pyro. Instead, these simple little deliveries see you tracking down Companion Cubes in the world, rewarding you with various Half Life themed cosmetics like Gordon’s glasses or the Gravity Gloves.
There are plenty of little things added to Death Stranding on PC, but none of them add up to a wildly different experience from what you could get on PS4. Instead, the biggest factor in making this version of Death Stranding so different from the initial release is purely time. So much has changed in the real world since Death Stranding initially came out, and what was once a barely realistic sci-fi story delivering a message of hope to Americans has become an all too real spin on current affairs that desperately pleads with the Americans of today to get our shit together.
We need to reconnect, we need to rebuild, and we need to realise that it’s impossible to do any of that alone. Kojima whispered these pearls of wisdom to us in November of 2019, but in July of 2020 his game is screaming them, and perhaps it’s about time we listened.