Death Stranding is finally out next week. And the first, and most important, thing you should know is that it's primarily a multiplayer game.
The almost hour-long gameplay reveal for Death Stranding gave a general indication of what the moment-to-moment gameplay is like. If you're being uncharitable, you could describe it as The Norman Reedus Amazon Prime service, where poor Sam Porter (Norman Reedus) straps 80 plus kilograms of smart drugs, CDs, and other random items from people's nostalgic wish lists from one town to another.
The process of getting there is more mechanically complicated than you might think. Before heading out, you have to take a shower, a dump and a pee in a private room — because that generates more EX grenades which you need to survive against the BTs, hunters and various underworld beings that have split the world apart. Once you've gone through all the cutscenes for that, you collect primary and secondary delivery orders from a terminal, sort out how much you're carrying, how you're going to carry it, and then you plot your route and head out.
You're graded on how much damage cargo takes along the way, which prevents you from just sprinting all over the shop (and finishing the game infinitely quicker). Unfortunately, there's a ton of obstacles, rivers, enemy NPCs called MULEs, and the miserable reality of Hunters and Catchers.
BT's are the ghostly beings from the world of the dead that have crossed over, but what makes life genuinely miserable is when you get caught by one. If BT's get too close to Sam when you're out in the field, a massive pit of tar appears and a bunch of creepy hands start trying to drag you down. You can shake them off with the square button, but if that fails, you're effectively pulled into a mini boss fight.
You can get out of the fight by running away, if the geography allows. Having already used most of my hematic grenades because all my cargo was attached to a trike and I didn't want to leave it behind, I found myself stuck in a boss fight with a boss that looked something like a whale crossed with Cthulhu.
If you can't climb or crawl your way out of it — because the Catchers create a sea of oil that makes movement slow as all hell, and nobody's running particularly fast when you're carrying a minimum of 25kg on your back, depending on how much cargo you lost when you got dragged down in the first place — then you'll have to fight.
The most effective way is usually with the hematic grenades, which use Sam's blood as fuel. Blood's more or less your HP in this game, but encumberance is really your biggest problem. You're restricted by how much you can carry, and everything weighs something. Construction portals for things like bridges and generators are usually five kilos a piece. Resources for upgrading those can way a lot more. One ladder is handy, but if you're playing alone and for the first time, chances are you'll need to be popping down multiple ladders to make travel easier. So that's 10kg or so gone.
By the time you hit over 80kg, Sam's basically buggered. Some cargo might be 30kg, 40kg or 60kg, so there's not much room for too many extra ladders, blood bags, grenades, construction modules, and so on. Once your total weight is about 60kg, you have to either run with the L2 and R2 buttons permanently wedged down or you'll lose your balance, stumble, and maybe damage the cargo.
So the game is really about building bridges and connections for other players, working together to rebuild something bigger than yourself. Not everyone can finish every delivery; you might only be able to take the package part of the way. That "part" might be to a distibution centre halfway to your destination, where another player can pick up the gear and take it on. It could be at one of the hundreds of postboxes players have already built. Either way, the game is gracious: you'll get a percentage of "likes" for doing your part, just not as much as you'd get for finishing the entire delivery.
And if you find yourself getting dragged into the world of the dead, then you might definitely need the help of others.
Even without seeing other players, you can't really escape their influence. Once different parts of the country are connected to the chiral network, your map gets filled with tons of icons. Some of those might be other ladders or climbing ropes left by fellow players, tools you can use to traverse trickier bits of terrain that you simply couldn't manage.
But there's time where you'll need their help. You can call out to other players using the touchpad, but they can't jump into your session. They're only capable of bringing in items to help you out — spare blood bags, grenades, assault rifles, and so on.
If you're patient, however, you shouldn't really run into the Catchers outside of the mandatory set pieces. BT's become visible as long as you're not moving, and you can hold down R1 to hold your breath while sneaking around. Certain grenades will also freeze the metaphysical nightmares in place, so you're not short on options.
What's really being hammered home, however, is the small things like this ladder above. Having made a short run to a wind farm through a thick forest of BTs, I began scouring the cliffside for routes past and objects that would keep me from having to burn an hour quietly sneaking around. Unsurprisingly, other players had left a string of connected ladders, climbing ropes and virtual signs highlighting safe passage.
It's all designed to emphasise the value of connection. The world of Death Stranding was one capable of sending items from one spot to any spot on the planet, but people became more nationalistic, more insular, and more fearful of people. "The ones the most far gone, they didn't trust the country to defend them if something really went wrong — war, terrorism, natural disaster, you name it. So they built shelters and stocked full of supplies in preparation for the worst," an in-game log reads.
Does rebuilding those connections make for an interesting game? That's a trickier question. There's no real way to avoid BTs and the enforced stealth sequences unless someone has explicitly put up enough signs warning everyone off, along with some ladders, bridgers or climbing rope to avoid it all. And there's some gamers that will absolutely bounce off that. Finding ways to climb mountains safely when Australia Post doesn't bother ringing your doorbell half the time isn't everyone's cup of tea.
There's a lot more that could be said about Death Stranding, of course. But for that, you'll have to wait a while. A second embargo is lifting when the game is officially out for PS4 on November 8, followed by a further post-launch embargo allowing all press, influencers and so forth to release the last bits of footage, content and so forth.
But for those wondering if you can play Death Stranding offline: yes, you absolutely can. Should you? Given the way the game is designed, no. You're never really alone anyway, so don't force it if you don't have to. Especially if a bloody Catcher grabs you.