Title: Death Stranding Director's Cut - [ reviewed on PS5 with a digital copy provided by SIE ]
The dawn of a new era for famed creator Hideo Kojima and reformed studio Kojima Productions, Death Stranding arrived as one of the most original titles of recent times, one that has both engrossed and bemused audiences ever since those early teaser trailers. Having often transcended classification as one of a kind during that time, the self-claimed genre-defying experience is now back, expanded and remastered for PS5 in the definitive Director's Cut.
- DEATH STRANDING DC // KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS -
Building on the initial PS4 launch and the subsequently enhanced PC release, which also heralded the arrival of the previously absent photo mode, Death Stranding Director's Cut promises to be the best version of the game yet. Along with the usual PS5 adaptations including faster load times, 4K visuals, immersive 3D audio and bespoke integration of the DualSense Controller's adaptive triggers & haptic feedback, this latest release also delivers fresh new content to expand the experience.
Extra missions take players to new locations with more enemy types, while a range of new gear and improved introductory mechanics are woven in from early-on in the game along with several quality of life improvements to ensure that this is not just end-game content for returning players, but a better experience from the start. There is even a shift towards a more fun-loving version of the game as things like the Cargo Catapult have all the hallmarks of a Kojima classic, while the added race track and firing range bring competitive challenge modes that interweave with the game's trademark social strand system.
Extra tools to ease the burden...
Of course, all of this is still set amidst the aftermath of a supernatural cataclysm in which protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) endeavours to reconnect a fractured society and save humanity from succumbing to the next mass extinction. The fact that this is done largely by making courier deliveries and purveying access to the omnipresent Chiral Network, all while using a baby in a bottle to detect spectral beings from the afterlife, is testament to just how "one of a kind" the game really is.
Death Stranding's real trick though, is not that it makes you believe the unbelievable or normalises the bizarre, but that it adds genuine interest to the ordinary and mundane with the same obsessive attention to detail that drives the visual fidelity and uncannily realistic landscapes, also doing wonders for the incredibly nuanced physics. The way that prevailing winds or the centre of gravity of a cargo stack affect Sam's balance, or that an object thrown with his dominant right hand will fly further than with his weaker left add more to the experience than is immediately obvious.
- PACKAGE COLLECTED // YESSS!!! -
At its worst, this desire to interrogate everything to the nth degree can be responsible for some tiresome micromanagement and the overly complicated menus, but at its best, it is transformative. Even basic tasks are elevated into something altogether more involving and rewarding; the spectacular result being that players are utterly drawn in as they start to interpret details in a highly convincing and realistic way.
With the Director's Cut also throwing in a few leisure activities and extra tools to ease the burden, there has never been a better time to spend a while in this absorbing virtual world, and this time the photo mode is right there waiting from the get-go. In a game that wants you to find beauty in every detail and become entwined in the time you spend there, virtual photography is surely one of the best ways in which to do exactly that.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Huge focal length range with manual & auto focus
Extensive character pose options
Staggeringly realistic landscapes
21:9 cinematic widescreen mode
Controls & Implementation:
There may be a certain expectation these days that any new iteration of a game will also come with some form of updates for the photo mode, so let's get one thing out of the way first. The Death Stranding Director's Cut photo mode is virtually unchanged from that of the original game, but that does not mean that there is nothing new to report.
In fact, one of the most impactful changes is found not in the photo mode itself, but in the game's Graphics Settings options. A brand new Widescreen Mode changes the presentation of the game to a permanent 21:9 cinematic view and it is undoubtedly a great improvement. Not merely a simple screen crop as you might get from a photo mode frame, the widescreen mode renders the game with a wider field of view which is then scaled onto the screen.
- NORMAL 16:9 // WIDESCREEN 21:9 -
The result is a much wider and more cinematic look during gameplay, and a wider field of view that carries over directly into the photo mode to give much greater frame width, even when using the same focal length and camera positioning. Death Stranding has always been a cinematic experience, and the extra width of the 21:9 rendering absolutely emphasises that, leaving the regular 16:9 view looking narrow and cramped in comparison. If you ask me, this is easily the best view through which to play Death Stranding on console, and one that photo mode shots will also benefit from.
Beyond this, Death Stranding Director's Cut is furnished with the familiar evolution of the Decima Engine photo mode tools in a clean tabbed UI that is easily summoned with a single press on the left-side of the controller touchpad. Be sure too, to activate the extremely helpful option to save all photo mode settings from one instance to the next until they are reset or the game is rebooted; a tremendous quality of life option that makes it easy to take a series of themed shots using consistent settings, much like you would with an actual camera.
Well stocked and ready to tackle a wide variety of different styles...
Through similarly welcome use of real-world camera terminology, the photo mode offers an incredibly versatile range of lens focal lengths, covering everything from 10 mm for super-wide shots right up to the extreme telephoto 1,000 mm, and provides full depth of field control for each of them via aperture settings of f/1.4 - f/22. With autofocus to keep a convenient lock on Sam, and full manual focus control from 0.3 - 150 m, there should be no problem in getting the desired subject sharply in view.
Personally, I like to choose familiar combinations that produce expected results, such as a 20 - 35 mm f/11 lens for wide landscapes, 50 - 85 mm f/2.0 for natural portraits, and anything in the 200 - 500 mm range to compress scenes and isolate a subject, but don't be afraid to experiment with everything on offer. Along with a highly effective exposure compensation range and the option to dial in noise to replicate higher ISO sensitivities, your virtual camera kit bag is well stocked and ready to tackle a wide variety of different styles.
With such a versatile range of optics at your disposal, it is crucial to have the spatial freedom to put them to good use, and a control scheme that boasts the use of LS for lateral truck & dolly movement, L2 / R2 for vertical craning, and a 180° centre-axis roll via the photo mode UI seems to suggest that the camera controls have been well thought out as it buzzes about with a mechanical whir. However, the truth is that these functions are really just modifiers for the position of the third-person game camera and significantly, that means the the RS still functions with an orbit rotation that is centred on the playable character rather than being truly free to move and look in any direction.
- ORBIT CAMERA // COLLISION AVOIDANCE -
Despite this, it is a fair point that the provided workarounds are useful in helping to enable more varied compositions than a regular orbit otherwise would. The reasonably generous dolly extends the length of the orbit tether by around 8 m from the camera's starting position, and the lateral truck adjustment shifts the frame sideways so that Sam is not always centred, but the fact is that these are essentially still workarounds for something that could be so easily and completely remedied with the use of free pan & tilt controls instead of the tethered orbit. Couple that with the fact that the camera detects collisions anywhere along the length of the orbit tether and automatically jumps in front of the offending object to maintain a direct line of sight to Sam, the fine tuning of many compositions can become unnecessarily frustrating at times.
Thankfully, the rest of the photo mode features excel much like its optical prowess, and two dedicated character UI tabs arguably still set the standard for virtual subject posing. A large range of preset body positions for for both Sam and BB-28, plus the complimentary and characterful facial expressions are imaginative an in-touch with Death Stranding's slightly "out there" threads. With the likes of regular walking, combat moves, mock interactions with invisible objects, and a completely different set found while resting in a Private Room, the selection is impressive, but it is in the customisation that is afforded on each that really takes things to another level.
For Sam, separate turn-to-camera options allow his face and body position to follow your camera movements, while manual body tilt & torso twist settings, and 8 directional eyeline tweaks grant the user overriding control to find exactly the right posture. BB may not be able to quite match all of the same options, but even she has adjustable pod light to add a certain ambience to the scene.
- DEATH STRANDING // POSE -
Similarly capable of changing the mood are a set of 14 varied colour filters and a highly effective contrast slider that can mask an image in flat greys or drench it in heavy blacks, while lens distortion and vignette options are ready to be blended in subtly or exaggerated for a more pronounced effect.
Complimenting these post-processing options, the 15 preset frames present some interesting ways to work with some of the game's more symbolic elements, although it should be noted that most of these have not been scaled to match the new 21:9 widescreen view. As a result, the frames tend to create a smaller 16:9 crop within the wide format, so it is probably worth reverting to the standard presentation before making use of these.
NOTE - the same actually applies to the optional thirds grid guidelines. In the standard 16:9 view, the grid marks out the frame in equal vertical and horizontal thirds, but in the 21:9 widescreen mode, the vertical lines have not been adjusted for the extended width. It is not a problem as such, just something to be aware of if using the grid for compositional guidance.
Rounding off the photo mode customisations is the highly flexible placement of a single stylised Death Stranding logo, fully updated with the Director's Cut text. In fact, there is no option to use the original non-Director's Cut version although like before, it can be positioned across any of 441 locations with 360° rotation and 24 preset colours to best suit the underlying image. I only wish that this exceptional flexibility had been afforded to the mock-movie poster overlay for that final level of creative license and a chance to further embrace Hideo Kojima's well known love of cinema.
Much like its creator, it could be said that a large portion of Death Stranding is made up of movies, making it perhaps the game that is best suited to the notion of a Director's Cut. The new, more cinematic presentation is totally in keeping with the movie-centric themes, and by revisiting the delivery of early content as well as splicing in a little new material, this is very much an improved edit of the game rather than a dramatic expansion.
Of course, that focus on cinematics also means that the majority of the game's talkative all-star cast are rarely encountered outside of a cutscene where original photographic composition is not possible, and the Director's Cut does nothing to change that. While it is a desperate shame that these otherwise iconic and highly interesting characters play no real part as photographic subjects, it does make it easy to focus attention on Sam and BB, and the game now offers more layers of variety for them.
More ways to get them in front of the camera...
The enhanced visual fidelity of the game in general, and significantly expanded customisation options make the pair's impressively detailed character models look better than ever, while new gear types and different activities mix up the time you spend with them. Whether that may be taking on the cargo-hungry MULE's with new shock and stun weaponry, heading out with a robot buddy in-tow, or burning some rubber in a roadster around the freshly constructed race track, there are simply more ways to get them in front of the camera.
It is a similar story with the ever impressive landscapes too. With staggering realism, the deceptively varied environments transition from one to another in a totally convincing way, and the ability to use a wider field of view makes it possible to further emphasise the already tremendous sense of scale. Anywhere from the grassy wetlands and arid planes to geothermal hotspots and snowy mountains, the challenging traversal throws up constant opportunities to capture moments of dependency on your gear or helpful structures, or perhaps just to explore the imaginative ways in which they can all combine.
- DEATH STRANDING // LANDSCAPE -
Time spent in the world is certainly not always a relaxing stroll though, and some form of threat is never far away. The onset of rain or snow is met with a particularly ominous time-altering effect that signifies the presence of the haunting BT's while also causing visible deterioration and patina on equipment and vehicles, all of which only add to the photographic appeal. Should you find yourself pulled down by the grabbing horrors, highly stylistic battles in rippling pools of black tar and ruined building will see the arrival of much larger and more impressive enemies that take the form of squid or lion-like creatures and provide some brilliant subject matter, not least with the landscape scarring consequences of losing the battle!
In Death Stranding's final thematic surprise, story-related jumps to various historic warzones bring playable encounters with Clifford Unger (Mads Mikkelsen) and his un-dead soldiers that are totally unique, even within Death Stranding. These events, along with a scattering of BT boss fights, provide a notable change of pace and are incredible experiences. Although each section can be short, especially once you are better equipped and more proficient in combat, each one can be replayed via Sam's plastic model collection found in any Private Room, meaning that their unique opportunities are always available to go back to.
- DEATH STRANDING // THREATS -
When it comes to post-game exploration, a time that can be so easily filled with inventive use of the photo mode, Death Stranding Director's Cut again takes cues from cinema and TV with some satisfying pop-culture nods and blatant references to other game franchises. The reward of branded cosmetics is sure to please fans and add to the share-worthy content, even if really just in a superficial way.
While there is a branching narrative that ventures deeper into one of the main story's more poignant themes, the exploration of it seems to wrap up just as you realise where it is going, and the new Metal Gear-inspired facility is similarly underutilised, but I guess that is partly the point. This Director's Cut is not intended to deviate or distract from the original, but to add variety and alternate takes. The game keeps the same fundamental threads like the near-future sci-fi setting, the uneasy invasiveness of social media and robotic autonomy, and the faceless horror or ghostly figures linking life and death with otherworldly umbilicals, but now the symbolism is complimented by more pragmatic entertainment.
In the same breath, Death Stranding reminds us of the preciousness of human life, but also that it shouldn't be too serious all of the time.