Title: Death Stranding
NOTE: This review covers the original release of Death Stranding on PS4; for an updated version including all changes included in the Director's Cut, follow the link below...
Since its somewhat iconic reveal at 2016's E3, Death Stranding continually teased its prospective audience with cryptic and symbolic messaging that has intrigued and confused in equal measures. The self-claimed genre-defying experience carries many of the hallmarks of its creator and, this first title from Kojima Productions is undoubtedly one of the most original in recent times, as well as one of the most visually impressive.
Despite originally launching without a photo mode, something of a surprise given the underlying technology from Horizon Zero Dawn, its recent addition means that Death Stranding's inherent quest for multi-level engagement is now matched by true virtual photography credentials. So, has the version 1.12 photo mode update delivered on the promise to prioritise free camera movement and do we now have a game that could be as intricately bound to virtual photography as I previously theorised?
Death Stranding's real trick is that it genuinely adds interest to the ordinary and mundane
Set amidst the aftermath of a supernatural cataclysm in a fictional USA that more obviously resembles the barren scapes of Iceland and Australia's Snowy Mountains, the game sees protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) endeavour to "save mankind from annihilation". Largely, this is done by making deliveries to various pockets of a fragmented civilisation while carrying a baby in a bottle and purveying access to the almost omnipresent Chiral Network. It may sound bizarre but that's not even half of it, Death Stranding's journey through past war zones, multiverse beaches and spectral beings is layered with enough of Kojima's trademark jargon and convoluted storytelling to keep you thinking for some time.
It is not as baffling as may be expected though; along with several easily relatable themes such as the need to rebuild a community from deeply established isolation and some uneasy obsessions with social media interactions, even the more outlandish concept of connecting with the spirits of the dead is made easily digestible through accessible game mechanics and outstanding visual presentation. Death Stranding's real trick though, is not that it makes you believe the unbelievable but actually that it genuinely adds interest to the ordinary and mundane.
In a game that wants you to find beauty in every detail, virtual photography is one the best ways to do so
An obsessive attention to detail pervades all aspects of the game, from the visual fidelity and nuanced physics to BB's stress levels and the degradation of your footwear. At its worst, this desire to interrogate everything to the nth degree can be responsible for some tiresome micromanagement and the over complicated menus but at its best, it is transformative, elevating even basic tasks into something altogether more involving and rewarding. The fact that your cargo's centre of gravity or the prevailing wind noticeably affect Sam's balance as he walks across the uncannily realistic terrain, or how an object thrown with his dominant right hand will fly further than with his weaker left will make you interpret more details in a highly convincing and realistic way.
Of course, games are often great at making connections with the player but Death Stranding does so on such a fundamental level that it's hard not to be lured in and this is something that works all the more when virtual photography is thrown into the mix. At risk of repeating a previous post, it is the words of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, shown with the very first reveal of the game, that provide the common thread. In a game that wants you to find beauty in every detail and become entwined in the time you spend there, virtual photography and the unique way in which it facilitates exactly that is surely one the best ways in which to do so.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Huge focal length range with manual & auto focus
Extensive character pose options
Staggeringly realistic landscapes
Controls & Implementation:
Using Guerrilla Games' Decima Engine as a starting point, it stands to reason that the photo mode tools implemented here should be familiar to those who have spent some time photographing Horizon Zero Dawn. Aside from the time of day options, given that Death Stranding has no day / night cycle, everything else found in the one-time console photo mode benchmark has remained, with several areas having been improved upon.
Easily accessed with a single press on the left-side of the DualShock 4's touchpad, the familiar tabbed UI is easy to navigate and rich in features, not least thanks to the inclusion of two tabs dedicated entirely to Sam and his foetal companion BB-28. Settings may only be altered while the UI is visible, an unfortunate though not uncommon limitation, but do benefit from the extremely helpful option to be saved when exiting. Activated in the games options, under Game Settings > Temporarily Save Settings, the photo mode setup will persist from one instance to the next until the game is rebooted. As anyone familiar with repeatedly applying a similar set of options will know, this can be a tremendous quality of life improvement and makes it very easy to take a series of themed shots using consistent settings, much like you would with an actual camera.
at first, all seems to be in order with a sensible control scheme
On the technical side of things, Death Stranding opts for the very welcome use of real-world camera terminology, even if the odd title is misused. An incredible range of lens focal lengths cover everything from 10 mm for a super-wide field of view, up to an extreme telephoto 1,000 mm, each with full DoF control via aperture settings of f/1.4 - f/22 and manual focus from 0.3 - 150 m. Along with a highly effective exposure compensation range and the ability to dial in noise to replicate higher ISO sensitivities, your virtual camera kit bag is well stocked with everything you need for a wide variety of styles. Personally, I like to choose lens lengths that I am already familiar with to produce expected results; 20 - 35 mm for landscapes, 50 - 85 mm for natural portraits, 200 - 500 mm for compressing scenes and isolating subjects etc. but don't be afraid to experiment with different setups in different scenarios to see how the resulting shots vary.
With such a versatile range of optics at your disposal, it is crucial to have the spatial freedom to put them to good use. You may remember Kojima Productions' patch notes specifically stating that "free camera movement has been prioritised", along with a note that this may result in collisions with the environment. This sounds very promising and, at first, all seems to be in order with a sensible control scheme including the use of LS for truck & dolly movement lateral to the camera body, L2 / R2 for vertical craning and a 180° centre-axis roll available via the first UI tab. However, things start to unravel slightly with the decision to make the RS function as a camera orbit rather than with truly free pan and tilt axes.
The result is that the camera is forever bound to Sam, as though at the end of an enormous selfie-stick, and while this can have its uses, particularly when focusing on character portrait work, it is at odds with the free camera philosophy. Couple this with the way in which camera collisions result not just in limited movement, but also with the camera hopping in front of objects such as nearby rocks in order to maintain a direct line of sight, and fine tuning your composition can, at times, become unnecessarily frustrating. The limitations are mitigated somewhat by the generous dolly and more minor side-to-side truck adjustment which increase the freedom of movement, but would be remedied completely with the use of pan and tilt rather than a tethered orbit. The free camera implementation that was intended to be a priority is perhaps this photo mode's most apparent failing.
manual body tilt and torso twist settings give you great control
Like with the variety of optics though, the rest of the photo mode's feature set continues to excel. The aforementioned character tabs take virtual subject posing to a whole new level with 45 custom body positions for Sam and 21 for BB, as well as a completely different set found while resting in a Private Room. These imaginative poses include everything from regular walking and combat moves to mock interactions with invisible objects and are a lot of fun to use, especially with the 18 complimentary facial expressions and 8 directional eyeline tweaks. For Sam, separate turn-to-camera options can be used to automatically adjust his face and body position to follow your camera movements while manual body tilt and torso twist settings give you great control in finding the right posture. BB may be unable to match this but even he has adjustable pod illumination to add a certain ambience to the scene.
Similarly capable of changing the mood are a set of 14 varied colour filters and lens distortion options which can be blended in subtly or exaggerated for a more pronounced effect. Of the 15 preset frames available, some interesting cutouts present the opportunity to work with the game's more symbolic elements while an extremely wide 29.5 : 9 crop adds a highly cinematic style. Curiously this does also mask parts of the image to the left and right of the screen, ultimately lowering the captured resolution, but it remains easily my favourite presentation for Death Stranding shots.
Finally, the highly flexible logo placement options allow you to position the stylised Death Stranding brand 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.
a large portion of Death Stranding is made up of movies...
Much like its creator, it could be said that a large portion of Death Stranding is made up of movies, or at least familiar movie-centric themes. The near-future sci-fi setting with creeping robotic autonomy and the faceless horror of ghostly figures attached to otherwordly umbilicals mean that you will find no shortage of inspiration and some rather distinctive subject opportunities. Supplemented with an abundant use of symbolism, such as the chirality of hands or the support offered by ropes and bridges, there is great scope for artistic interpretation; perhaps in the nobility of Sam's task to reconnect a failing society or the way in which BB-28's ever-growing personality defies the preconception that Bridge Babies are disposable tools to reinforce the preciousness of human life.
This is certainly a game which wants the player to connect with its themes in a multitude of ways and, while wonderfully nuanced mechanics highlight unseen details, there are also some more obvious photographic attractions. Character models are of a particularly high standard with alluringly realistic skin and eyes matched by fantastic reflections, richly detailed clothing and a gradually increasing amount of ancillary gear and decorative charms. Indeed, there are unending opportunities to get Sam and BB in front of the camera as you roam the desolate landscapes with your latest piece of tech although sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of the game's all-star cast. Despite benefiting from similarly exceptional fidelity, Death Stranding's talkative supporting characters are rarely encountered outside of a cinematic cutscene where photo mode tools are limited to colour filters and frames. This is a desperate shame, not only because the character models are so good but they would also provide some highly interesting subjects; the shape-shifting jacket of Léa Seydoux's Fragile and Troy Baker's maniacally masked Higgs deserve more.
Death Stranding exists in an open world quite unlike any other
Despite this, there is still more than enough compelling content to capture, with the staggeringly realistic landscapes, which overshadow the less prominent man-made structures, being some of the most striking. Thanks to the way the game makes you naturally pay attention to the world beneath your feet while choosing your path, and the meticulous detail with which it is generated using Decima's GPU-based procedural object placement, Death Stranding exists in an open world quite unlike any other. A tremendous sense of scale is accompanied by soothing surges in the soundtrack as you move through the deceptively varied environments, each managing to ease you into their own distinct personality with totally convincing transition. The moist grasslands, arid planes, geothermal hotspots and snowy mountain tops alike, are made all the more interesting by a particularly well implemented weather system that can drastically change the mood. With no dynamic time of day to speak of, these weather cycles, and the ability to predict their patterns over the next 30 minutes, can be especially important when searching for the right lighting conditions for your next shot.
The wind, rain and snowy blizzards are not merely cosmetic inclusions though. Here, precipitation induces a novel time-altering effect on anything it touches resulting in the remarkable spectacle of seeing plants sprout, grow and then die in a matter of seconds, and causing damage to the surfaces of containers, vehicles and armour to add an almost unavoidable patina to your gear and comedically high cargo stack. What's more, if you spend any length of time in a downpour, you can expect to encounter the haunting Beached Things that are somehow intrinsically linked to it.
Sneaking amongst the BT's, or even confronting them head-on, does become easier as you progress through the game and grow both your defensive and offensive arsenals, but encounters with them get no less appealing from a photographers point of view. Whenever a group of smaller horrors do manage to pull you down, a highly stylistic battle in a rippling pool of black tar is invoked with a much larger and more impressive BT as ruined buildings rise up around you. Usually taking the form of squid or dog-like creatures, these larger enemies, along with a scattering of boss fights, provide a notable change of pace some brilliant subject matter, not least with the landscape scarring consequences of losing the battle.
these relatively short sections are incredible experiences
Other forms of enemies can be found across various territories in the game, such as the human MULE's who will chase you down to sate an addiction to cargo, or their more deadly Homo Demen counterparts, but it is the story-related jumps to various historic war zones that offer Death Stranding's final thematic surprise. Set across three different periods in history, these relatively short sections are incredible experiences and mark the places in which you will encounter Clifford Unger (Mads Mikkelsen) and his un-dead soldiers. Ordinarily, these unique sections are precisely the type of area that I would suggest keeping manual save files to be able to revisit for future shots but thankfully there is no need. With knowing forethought, each one can be replayed via Sam's plastic model collection found in any Private Room. Along with regular fast travel to and from the locations you connect to the Chiral Network, you will have a huge variety of areas to revisit and explore long after completing the story.
Originally missing in action, the addition of a photo mode to Death Stranding has been a great success. By giving its creative team the freedom to explore the intricacies of their ideas while building on the strengths of some very capable underlying technology, Kojima Productions has given us some memorable artistic influences and a focus on detail that naturally translates into virtual photography appeal. The game's sometimes labourious nature may not suit everyone and the majority of the characters are all too camera-shy but, if this is a "walking simulator", consider my boots to be laced and ready to cover some ground with camera in hand.
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: Left-side of Touchpad
Camera Movement: Free (with bounding area)
Orbit Horizontal: 360°
Orbit Vertical: <180°
Angle (Focal Length): 10 - 1000 mm (± 0.1 at <100; ± 0.5 at 100-300; ± 1.0 at 300-500; ± 5.0 at >500)
Roll: -90 to +90° (± 1°)
Show UI: On / Off
Show Signs: On / Off
Show Odradek Scans: On / Off
Show Sam: On / Off
Sam's Pose: None + 45 Presets (None + 16 Presets when in Private Room)
Sam's Expression: None + 18 Presets
Sam's Eyeline: Normal / To camera / 8 Directional Presets
Turn Face Towards Camera: On / Off
Turn Body Towards Camera: On / Off
Tilt Weight: 0 - 100% (± 1%)
Detailed Tilt Settings: On / Off
Face & Body Tilt Horizontal: -1.0 to +1.0 (± 0.1)
Face & Body Tilt Vertical: -1.0 to +1.0 (± 0.1)
BB's Pose: None + 21 Presets
BB's Expression: None + 18 Presets
BB's Eyeline: Normal / To camera / 8 Directional Presets
BB Light: 0.00 - 1.00 (± 0.01)
Depth of Field: On / Off
Autofocus (to Sam): On / Off
Focus (manual): 0.3 - 150.0 m (± 0.1 m)
Aperture: f/1.4 - f/22 (9 stops)
Exposure: -3.0 to +3.0 (± 0.1)
Contrast: 0.00 - 2.00 (± 0.01)
Colour Filters: On / Off
Filter Type: 14 Presets
Effect Strength: 0.0 - 2.0 (± 0.1)
Noise: 0.00 - 1.00 (± 0.01)
Vignette: On / Off
Vignette Size: 25 - 100% (± 25%)
Vignette Strength: 0.0 - 1.0 (± 0.1)
Lens Distortion: 0.00 - 1.00 (± 0.01)
Chromatic Aberration: 0.00 - 1.00 (± 0.01)
Frame: None + 15 Presets
Logo: On / Off
Logo Colour: 24 Presets
Logo Position Horizontal: -10 to +10 (± 1)
Logo Position Vertical: -10 to +10 (± 1)
Logo Rotation: -180 to +180° (± 1°)