Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions' Death Stranding is perhaps the most divisive game of the year and one of the most polarizing AAA game releases in a long time. And that's a wonderful thing.
Reviews of Death Stranding have been mixed, to say the least, with some calling it a revolutionary masterpiece while others find it to be meandering and plagued with poor writing. Everyone can agree that Death Stranding is truly something new, with gameplay that clicks for some and not others, innovative social features, and a story that may or may not be a complete mess. This range of responses reflects less on the quality of Death Stranding and more on the growth of mainstream criticism.
In a way, that same mix innovation and storytelling weirdness have been the staples of the Metal Gear series. Kojima's work has always polarized its audience, and he even expected reviews to be mixed for Death Stranding, especially as the developments went on. From a numbers standpoint, Death Stranding has 83% on Metacritic, while Metal Gear Solid 4 and V are at 94% and 93% respectively. It's worth noting, too, how the media landscape has changed in recent years. The number of leading game publications that don't score their reviews is larger than ever, even compared to 2015.
In comparison to Kojima's previous works, which are certainly not infallible, Death Stranding is receiving a divisive response in reviews that actually correspond with what feels like the general consensus so far. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a perfect example of a flawed game getting almost universal praise, walking away with its fair share of 9s and perfect scores. It's pretty common knowledge that through the tumultuous development of the game, it never was as finished or as fleshed out as the team at Kojima Productions would have wanted. It is a sometimes brilliant, sometimes incoherent game in the same way Death Stranding is, but only four years later, it feels like the critical landscape has expanded enough for diversity of opinion.
Or maybe this is simply a case of a clean slate. Is there something inherent in Death Stranding being a new IP that feels easier to criticize? The game is the Playstation 4's biggest exclusive of the year and one of the most anticipated games of this year. This is Sony's tentpole game for the holiday season, despite not being a sequel in an established franchise or starring a popular character like Spider-Man, so it's clear that its treatment as new IP is not near as universal as its criticisms as a new IP.
A trend in games coverage has been that there are some franchises and creators that will get high review scores no matter what, regardless of the legacy the game leaves. Rockstar is one of the rare studios that has this reached this level of ascendance. Any new Grand Theft Auto release will achieve top marks due to the sheer amount of production value and the seemingly limitless budget. This happened with Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that had problems that many reviewers and critics called out following its release. A good portion of gamers had issues with the finicky and complicated controls and Rockstar's refusal to evolve its mission design. Kojima felt like, for a while, he had hit this ceiling too. Have we hit a point where it no longer exists?
This all is not to say that now that Death Stranding is out, games writing can finally be critical and nuanced. Good writing about games exists and has for years. Niche games criticism and Youtube essays have been going against the grain of popular opinion for as long as they've existed. But when it comes to reviews, Sony exclusives usually knock it out of the park with Game of the Year contenders like God of War or Horizon: Zero Dawn, or development is extremely troubled and we end up with Days Gone, a 2019 game already mostly forgotten. Death Stranding doesn't quite fit into this binary.
Plenty of great analysis of games cannot be done until months, sometimes years, after the release of a game. Game reviews are done before release, on a deadline, and in conditions which can not always accurately reflect the average player experience, especially in a game with social features like Death Stranding. In some cases, like with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game is an instant game-changer for obvious reasons. Sometimes, it takes years to see how a game has influenced the industry.
Of course, every major release these days seems to have its detractors. Death Stranding getting review bombed by Metacritic users for no discernible reason aside from a group of people did not like Kojima is just one case. Twitter arguments that begin weeks before the game's release is to be expected from any major game release, especially a console exclusive. These carry no weight on what the actual critical consensus ends up being when reviews out, and often have very little influence on a game's lasting legacy. Death Stranding, it seems, speaks for itself and critics are divided on whether or not they like what it has to say.
The general consensus around Death Stranding seems to be that there is no consensus. That makes the game fascinating and, more importantly, opens up the critical conversation around the game to be about more than whether its good or bad.
Launch sales of Death Stranding is the biggest IP launch we've seen this generation yet (Knack doesn't count).— Game Data Library (@GameDataLibrary) November 13, 2019
I checked quickly and seems like it's the biggest new IP launch since the original Dark Souls, and if you don' want to count that either, then the original Wii Fit. pic.twitter.com/qPmhlmTLuJ
Plenty of players are seeing for themselves, however, as Death Stranding has already broken records woldwide, topping certain UK charts and becoming the best-selling new IP of the generation in Japan. Negative reviews will almost certainly not have an effect on how well the game does commercially, which means that we still have yet to see how a majority of the people who play Death Stranding will react and what the public consensus will be, if there even is one.
Death Stranding is available now on PS4, with a PC release coming in Summer 2020.