Connect with us
Death Stranding Death Stranding

Games

‘Death Stranding’ Review: A Mixed Bag of Wonder and Frustration

‘Death Stranding’ offers some of the most amazing and emotional moments of any game this year. However, it also packs in a ton of frustration.

Advertisement

Published

on

Death Stranding is a gorgeous piece of art. It’s a wonder to look at, a joy to experience and… well, also kind of a pain in the ass. Few games will be as difficult to review in 2019 as Death Stranding is. Rarely will a player find so much to fall in love with in a game, while also feeling totally frustrated with some of the most basic mechanics which drive it.

Initially Hideo Kojima’s no holds barred, apocalyptic, courier sim is a charming curiosity. After that it evolves into an all-encompassing odyssey. Then it becomes a tedious test of skill, and finally, it becomes an emotional tale of connection and grief. In the midst of that journey are going to be moments of absolute awe and abject irritation.

Let’s start with the positives, though, shall we? Death Stranding looks so good it could be a PS5 tech demo. From the expected Kojima attention to detail, to the amazingly intricate motion capture, to some of the most jaw-dropping art direction in any medium — Death Stranding is truly a sight to behold. Rarely will you find yourself snapping that PS4 share button so much as you will be here.

Death Stranding
Neither is there anything so novel in the AAA space as Death Stranding in 2019. Kojima Productions have made a game that may bear a slight resemblance to a couple of other titles (Breath of the Wild and Metal Gear Solid V come to mind) but is still, wholly and completely, its own unique thing. Think of it as Ghostbusters crossed with Delivery Simulator and you’ll be part way there.

The score and soundtrack are also incredible. While melancholic creations from Ludvig Forssell punctuate some of the games bigger moments, licensed fare from the likes of Low Roar and Silent Poets haunt the background of Death Stranding, folding themselves immersively into your gameplay experience.

Further, if you happen to be a Kojima fan, Death Stranding is like a mainlined hot shot of pure batshit insanity directly into your veins. Ghost babies, piss bombs, and courier-terrorists are just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, if you’ve been buying what Hideo has been selling since 1998, this is maybe the purest dilution of what Kojima-san’s singular mind can produce with little to no restriction applied to his creative control.

Death Stranding
Unfortunately, this is where we start to swerve into the more frustrating aspects of Death Stranding as well. It seems like, perhaps, there wasn’t anyone in a position here to rein Hideo in a bit on some of these more divergent gameplay elements. Take, for example, the balance mechanic. As Sam carries packages and equipment across America in hopes of rebuilding the country, he will struggle with terrain, obstacles and his own increasingly weighty load of goods.

The player is tasked with using L2 and R2 to shift Sam’s weight as he runs, or dig his heels in as he climbs a hill. He can slip on rainwater, lose his footing in snow, or just go tumbling down a series of rocks if you’re not careful. While these aspects can present a stiff learning curve, they’re generally not too bad once you’ve become accustomed to them. They become second nature almost, after a while.

No, where the real trouble comes in is when you’re presented with a threat. Though the MULES (delivery junkies who get off on the high of well… delivering packages, and yes that’s as ridiculous as it sounds) you’ll encounter in the game initially only come at you with futuristic EMPs and stun batons, the terrorists from later on in the game will fire real bullets and explosives your way. Now, since any dead body presents a threat to the world of Death Stranding (they are the source of interdimensional ghosts and antimatter explosions), Sam can’t kill anyone unless he wants to return later to collect the bodies.


This leads to truly maddening situations where the player is tasked with either running from trouble, often tumbling down a hill as a result, splaying his many packages all over the place, or attempting to fight off a dozen or so assault rifle wielding terrorists with non lethal means. The more times this happens, the more players are going to be squeezing their controllers in agony while holding in a guttural growl of rage.

Similarly BTs, the game’s most ubiquitous threat, appear at random intervals directly in the path of the player. Players must then tiptoe around, sending out sonar blasts, to either avoid or take out the ghosts. This, again, isn’t so bad initially, but once the player begins using vehicles, they will have to get out to deal with these situations time and time again. The added frustration of not being able to carry larger orders, outside of the vehicle they’re currently in, is another hiccup players will run into here.

Never mind that BTs are accompanied by timefall, a special kind of rain that gradually breaks down everything it touches — including the very packages your carrying. Now, timefall can be seen as a necessary evil, as Death Stranding‘s online allows all the players to share a world. Since each player can create objects in this world, timefall’s ability to break them down and eliminate them gradually keeps the world from turning into a theme park of player creations. Still, just try to hold in the sigh of frustration every time the camera zooms in and plays the animation that lets you know that BTs or timefall are entering the fray.


In some ways, these problems make Death Stranding feel like two different games jammed together. The first, a courier sim, is a fun trek with a satisfying gameplay loop that consistently rewards the player with NPC gratification and equipment upgrades. The second is a survival-horror/action game where the player battles terrorists and ghosts in hopes of reaching a safe haven. Both of these games could be fantastic on their own, but when forced into a single entity, many of their central mechanics are in direct contradiction with one another.

Now, this seemingly never-ending series of complaints may seem unnecessarily negative for a game like Death Stranding. Let it be said that there is plenty to enjoy in the game, especially if you’re a fan of Kojima’s previous work, particularly the Metal Gear Solid series. We don’t assign scores here at Goomba Stomp anymore, but if we did, mine would still skew higher than lower. Whether this is a game worth recommending though depends largely on what you enjoy about games.

Death Stranding is very story heavy, with long stretches of uninterrupted cut scenes punctuating the game. You can sink from 50-120 hours into the game, depending on how much side elements you decide to explore, and despite the troubles I’ve noted above, there is a ton of fun to be had here… it just happens to be broken up by occasional bouts of frustration, like being unable to limp a vehicle up a seemingly barren hill or dropping Sam six feet down, only for him to react as if he’s fallen three times that distance.


Still, the game is a gloriously immersive experience that locks you into its world with the sort of confidence one expects from experimental or arthouse cinema. It’s a one of a kind game, and if you’re tired of the AAA stagnation that has become commonplace with the rise of development costs, Death Stranding may be just the palate cleanser you’re looking for.

Speaking of the cinema, Death Stranding‘s near exclusive use of recognizable faces, painstakingly motion-captured and rendered into its world, is maybe the closest a game has ever come to mimicking real life without entering the dreaded uncanny valley. Because these are such talented performers, and they are so wonderfully immersed into this world, you will find yourself able to empathize with them in ways you might not expect.

Indeed there is a lot to love about Death Stranding, it’s just a shame that the game is so often held back by its own ambition. What we’ve got, after all of the years of speculation over one cryptic trailer after another, is a sort of mixed bag that will either skew more to the positive or the negative depending largely on what you enjoy about gaming as a medium. As a first effort for Kojima’s new studio, it’s certainly one of a kind, but the divisive responses Death Stranding has ignited across the community will only flare up further as more and more gamers enter into its world.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement

Games

PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

Published

on

PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

PAX South

Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Animated GIF

Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

PAX South

Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

Animated GIF

However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

PAX South

It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

Continue Reading

Games

PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

Published

on

Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

Continue Reading

Games

An In-Depth Analysis of FIFA’s Career Mode

Published

on

Fifa’s Career Mode

It’s a well-known fact that career mode on FIFA has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, FIFA is currently the main option.

The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about FIFA career mode works properly. 

Two of the most game-breaking bugs in FIFA career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion. 

The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need. 

For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback. 

This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number. 

There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it. 

Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk. 

After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of FIFA 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet. 

For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted FIFA for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.

Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.

As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”

The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team. 

But neither of these claims is accurate. 

Fifa’s Career Mode

You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team. 

This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game. 

I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in FIFA, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that it’s more immersive to just turn it off entirely. 

What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.

The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (FIFA 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team. 

Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of FIFA.

FIFA

But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in FIFA 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from FIFA 17 to FIFA 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.

FIFA have made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect. 

The major changes over this period have included: 

A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all. 

None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.

It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media. 

Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode. 

The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details. 

In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after FIFA19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.

  • Evan Lindeman
Continue Reading

Popular