Rambling About Death Stranding

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JasonR86

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#1  Edited By JasonR86  Online
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So, I beat Death Stranding over the weekend and feel the need to talk about it. I don’t have anyone in my personal life that plays video games so I figured I may as well write out my thoughts and what better place to post those thoughts than a forum, right? I’ll try to organize my thoughts as well as I can but be prepared for rambling. I’ll also try to not spoil anything but I’m not sensitive to spoilers myself, so I don’t know what a spoiler is and isn’t with this game, honestly. I won’t talk about the narrative of the ending, for example, but I will discuss the mechanics. Anyway, here goes some rambling about Death Stranding.

Preamble Before the Ramble

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So, before I inundate this post with too much rambling, I figured it would make sense to talk about my overall impressions of the game. I put just over 31 hours into the game, focusing primarily on mainlining it but doing enough to level up quite a bit (I believe my final level was 209). I thought the main experience, delivering packages, was pleasant. Maybe I should contextualize my experience with games currently. I work as a mental health therapist in my own private practice. Between work, friends, family, and other types of self-care video games lately have gotten less and less of my focus. There was a time, like when I was in college, when video games were fighting head to head with my academics as my sole focus. Now, it’s one of many focuses. Further, when I’m home I’m usually exhausted. I’m an introvert so socializing and social situations in general, though I do very much enjoy them, take it out of me. So, work drains me, as do my friends and family, so when I do get back to self-care, I’m mentally exhausted much of the time. Though there are exceptions, I’m finding that I more and more gravitate toward games that are easy and take less overall focus. Or, better yet, don’t require fast reflexes. 85% of Death Stranding involves holding L2 and R2 and pushing up on the left stick as you progress through pretty environments. Those are the parts of the game I really like, even though on its surface that sounds boring. No doubt it will be to a lot of people, but for where I am in my life that experience was extremely pleasant.

Let’s Talk Narrative

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So, I’m going to break up the narrative of this game into three parts; the lore, the plot, and the characters. First, let’s talk about the lore, or world building, or however you’d like to put it. Which might seem weird as the starting point when discussing a narrative as you’d expect the plot to lay the foundation for everything else. But, in Death Stranding, the lore is the groundwork, for better or worse. First though, let’s talk about Kojima. See? I’m rambling. I already had one ‘first’ and now there’s a second ‘first.’ Anyway, my experience with Kojima’s games started with Snatcher on the Sega-CD. I played MGS on the Playstation when it first released, as well as MGS 4 when it released, went back to play 2 and 3 when they re-released, and then played 5. I liked them all well enough but was never enamored with the story. I appreciate the tone all those games struck, even when those tones conflicted with one another. I have a predilection toward over-valuing tone in my stories, sometimes leading me to overlook problems in the narrative. Death Stranding strikes a strong tone and mostly consistent tone. It is deathly serious primarily with small moments of levity. It’s also very earnest and sincere. As an occasional grump, bothered by the state of the world currently, it’s nice to see a genuine, sincere, and earnest look at what the world could be under dire circumstances. But where the game’s lore falters is part and parcel with Kojima’s writing. It either over or under-explains everything. Let me explain. In MGS, for example, the science behind Snake’s equipment is over-explained much of the time. Take the codec. You know, as a player, that the codec stimulates the small bones of his ear so only he can hear the calls and dialogue. This explains how he can receive calls and orders without being detected. That’s fine and good but that explanation leads to more questions that the lore can’t account for (unless I get comments below that prove the MGS lore does account for these things but at least you’ll get my point). Guards can’t hear the codec calls and dialogue from Snake’s team, but they can hear him talking, right? Which how would a device implanted in his ear pick up his voice anyway? Unless there’s something built in his suit, which why wouldn’t they explain that detail? Unless the codec is picking up his thoughts. Which, if it is, how the hell does it do that? You see what I mean? An over-explanation opens the possibility for your audience to over-think what they’ve been told. It also then sets a precedent that the lore will be explained, no matter how hole-filled that explanation might be. So, when the game doesn’t explain the lore, or does so in a thrown-off and cavalier way (nanomachines, for example) it can be frustrating to the audience. Death Stranding has the problem of a having a complex world that is not explained too well through in-world story telling and so relies heavily on codec, codex, and cutscene exposition to explain that lore. But falls prey to the over and under-explaining that plagued MGS. It’s distracting for the audience and leads to questioning the logic of the world, which underpins everything else.

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The plot, then, requires that the audience accepts some of that lore in order to buy into its conceit; that a disconnected society, on the macro level, and disconnected individuals, on the micro level, can’t survive. That on both scales connections with one another are required for humanity to not only survive a dire situation but thrive. This is the part that is sincere and earnest. On some level, I too very much believe that sentiment. But the game doesn’t do much with that idea. As a player, you know connection is ‘good’ and disconnection is ‘bad’ and sort of why, from some of the characters’ perspectives. Though, much of the ‘whys’ are “humans weren’t meant to go it alone.” They don’t do any work to explore the systemic problems with the old connected world and how it might be different this time. Or how different cultures may impact the view of ‘connection.’ It’s base and simplified and goes nowhere.

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The same could be said of the characters. There was a Youtube video I saw long ago that jokingly asked people to describe Star Wars characters without describing their jobs or their look. Obviously, that’s an overly simplified way to look at Star Wars, but it makes a good point. I guess call me captain obvious, but some stories do a bad job at making characters well-rounded and developing them. Sure enough, so does Death Stranding. I think there’s more to them then I was expecting given most of their names, since I apparently judge characters by their covers, but by and large the characters in Death Stranding are defined by what they do or what they’ve done. Let me make a point of reference and be a cliché at the same time. Look at the character of Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane (yes, I went there). Part of what makes that character work so well is that you learn a ton about him through numerous avenues. You’ll get the exposition like you get Death Stranding, given in that movie from the varying perspectives of the characters talking to the reporter doing the article on Kane’s life. But you also see Kane through multiple stages in his life and how his environments change his perspectives, motivations, and intent. You see how he can be charming but also vindictive. He can be caring and earnest but selfish and egotistical. You see all that because you’ve seen where he’s come from, what he’s been through, what his drives and motivations are, and how all those things interact with his strengths and weaknesses. Now look at Sam Porter Bridges. You know he’s antisocial, in part because we’re told he has a phobia (why didn’t they just say he has social phobia or social anxiety?), but also by his actions. He’s gruff, laconic, and often quiet. But he develops while keeping some of those characteristics that define him. At the end, he’s still gruff and laconic but he allows for more moments of intimacy with others. He is in character form the embodiment of the theme of the game itself; human connection is vital to human existence. But how that information is delivered to us as an audience is through either expository conversations or sudden character shifts. We don’t know what motivates Sam other than his connection to his sister. We don’t know why that connection than generalizes into intimacy with Fragile, for example. It’s hard to even infer a reason for that character change. We just know that it happens. We know what he’s been through, as we are controlling all of it, but we aren’t privy to his mindset leading us to know why he choses to change his behavior from self-concerned to altruistic at points. He just makes those shifts, we as an audience observe the shift, are occasional told about said shifts (or need for an upcoming shift) through expository dialogue, rinse and repeat. With Charles Kane, we know what drives him. We know his intent, his motivations, how his actions either align or go against those motivations, and how all of it leads to the character’s development from a child to an old man. With Sam, or really any of the characters in Death Stranding, there’s just action and reaction with each action symbolizing character development.

But What About the Gameplay?

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The gameplay of Death Stranding can be broken up into chunks. There’s delivering items, developing the world and your character, stealth/combat, BT encounters, and boss fights. I’m totally pulling this number out of thin air, but I’d hazard a guess that 85% of the game is focused on deliveries and world and character development. To be clear, the world and character development basically means doing things like public works projects and providing avenues for traversal, delivering lost cargo, taking shelter, etc. that lead to likes for your character, leading to leveling up and new skills and improved stats (like being able to carry more weight), and, when done by others, leads to smoother experience for you. It is another way the game delivers (hahahaha) the theme of the game to the player; doing things to improve the world and connect with others helps you as much as it does everyone else. I mentioned in my preamble that I enjoyed the delivering of goods. Those two components are the bulk of the game and despite the narrative problems and any other qualms I have with the game that most of the game was enjoyable to me should be a big takeaway.

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By ‘stealth/combat’ I’m specifically referring to the interactions with the ‘mules’ faction. These are the humans who have become ‘addicted to likes’ and will attack transporters just for their goods for no rhyme or reason. This is the most ‘Metal Gear’ this game gets. Essentially, you can sneak around these enemies, take them out stealthily, steal products back from them, lethally and non-lethally attack them, or just avoid them entirely. In design, these encounters are open-ended and in concept they seem like a great break from making deliveries. In practice, however, the controls that are designed for delivery don’t translate very well to combat and stealth. This is especially true when you are in the process of making a very big, heavy delivery. They become more of a hassle than a fun diversion. I heard a person on a podcast refer to them as the ‘inclement weather’ you as a deliveryman must deal with on your way to making a delivery and I couldn’t agree more. Then there are the BTs, who at the start of the game are meant to be terrifying, almost as if they are an enemy in a game like Outlast wherein the goal is avoidance at all cost. Until later, when you are given the tools to destroy the BTs almost more swiftly than you can the mules. When you are caught by the BTs, you enter an ‘encounter’ almost like a battle arena from a real-time RPG wherein you can fight the BTs or escape from the arena, which is made difficult as the ground is flooded and hard to move through. You can use platforms to move faster, but the game’s controls don’t really translate to platforming, either. If the mules are the rain for the deliveryman, the BTs are the snow.

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Then, the boss fights. Boy. So, take the comments I made about the control being bad for combat and platforming. Now consider that the boss fights are all almost entirely combat and platforming. Yeah, I think the boss fights are one of the worst parts of the game. The control just don’t work for them. It all feels mushy and clumsy. I will say some of the boss fights look cool and maybe in a better controlling game they may have made for fun encounters. But, not here. Which leads me to the worst part of the game.

The Ending

This is probably the most spoiler-ish I’ll get in this whole write up. So, for those that don’t want any spoilers at all I’ll say that the end of the game, maybe the last 15-20%, is far and away the worst part of the game. All the gameplay components that don’t work in the game are doubled down on in this section and the credits, the first credits (yes, there are two versions of the credits), are some of the most self-indulgent credits I’ve seen in a game. Now, on to some ramble-y, spoiler-y details.

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The game is broken up into two maps; a starter, tutorial map and a second, bigger map. After a terrible boss fight that tries to call back to MGS 4, the player must traverse from the south end of both of those maps to the north to get back to the very start of the game. All the while, BT encounters are forced, mules are still present, and it’s raining the entire time so all your equipment is degrading (and you can’t build new equipment because of narrative mumbo-jumbo). Then you get to a last boss fight, which is about the 4th or 5th boss fight over the last 2-3 hours of gameplay when, for me, I’d had about 2-3 boss fights the last 30 hours prior. After, the player character is placed into a state of limbo where you are forced to sit through a segment of the credits (the actors, the leads, and Kojima four or five times) broken up into, I believe, 3-4 segments. Each segment lasts about 2-5 minutes where you as a player just run around until the game squeezes out a bit more ending before another chunk of credits. Then it ends, you get cutscenes, the rest of the credits, and then the game asks you to make one more mother-fucking delivery. Luckily, it’s a fast delivery. But I almost shut the game off at this point. Then you are dropped back into the world to do more deliveries if you’d like. Which, you know, I’m good.

Conclusion?

Dude, I don’t know. Like I said, I like 85% of the gameplay. I love the way it looks. I appreciate its tone and sincerity. I’m happy I played it not just so I could be a part of a zeitgeist or because ‘I just had to know.’ I liked a lot of this game on its own terms and despite itself. But I’d also not recommend it to anyone I know. In a way, it reminds me of Dear Esther. Unlike Death Stranding, I love Dear Esther. But I completely understand why others wouldn’t and I couldn’t recommend it to anyone I know. But, for me personally, it’s a phenomenal game. I don’t feel that way about Death Stranding, mind you, but I do like it all the same despite knowing that it is not a game for anyone and has gigantic problems.

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Anyway, I think I’m done rambling. Oh, ok, I’ll end with a piece of advice. Don’t watch someone playing this game. I can’t think of a worse game to watch someone play than Death Stranding. If you want to experience this game, play it yourself. There we go. Some sound advice to make this post have some value. You’re all welcome.

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Rahf

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I do think we have "Biggest Splash of the Year" locked up now. :D

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Seikenfreak

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#3  Edited By Seikenfreak

I only skipped one story cutscene in this whole game and it was the last one where you're on the Beach and going in the loop with the credits and she's rambling. That's the only time it broke me. I held out through 90% of that whole beach segment. And I was like.. I'm not absorbing any of this. I'm not sure but I want to say nothing about her story made any sense to me. It was just noise. And I skipped it. Luckily, that was the last one and then it started progressing again.

I will say I thought the Cliff Unger character and story beats were the real narrative thread. It made some sense and it was sort've relatable. And alongside that, his story and character had all the best scenes and moments. My god, his intros with the soldiers were AWESOME! I can't get over them. Why has that not been a game already? We've done a billion first and third person action shooters.. But somehow no one thought to make one with fuckin skeleton soldiers and time traveling through different wars? Kojima knows military stuff clearly. Part of me wonders if Mads Mikkelsen and his character with BB was the original story idea and then he tried to build up this wild narrative around it. I thought those special combat levels were fantastic looking and I like the feel of the combat in this. Horizon: Zero Dawn was my GOTY and I loved it, and it seems safe to say the character movement and combat feels similar, no doubt due to the "Decima" engine. Yea.. I just can't get over that character and those scenes. I want that game.

And then what I consider the real ending of the game: The journey with BB to the end and the accompanying cutscenes. Loved it. Zoomed out view so you can take even more of the sights in. Some nice music playing. No gear or whatever to worry about. Just that very same walk from the beginning of the game. At the start of the game I didn't think I care much for BB but clearly I did as the story progressed. I didn't grow attached to him through gameplay alah sensing BTs or rocking him in his container, but as just an innocent child being dragged around and used in all this crap. I definitely teared up at the end for BB.

A pretty wonderful game for me. Remove most of the story and I'd have liked it just as much. I suspect its going somewhere in the middle of my 2019 GOTY list.

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Also, can you imagine if this crazy mother fucker actually did a full horror game?! His completely bizarre shit would probably lend itself to that much better and be ridiculously terrifying.

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I just want to say that's an amazing poster for Death Stranding (did it really need 4 Kojimas?) I'm a little confused though, is that a gender swapped Higgs in the background? Whats going on there?

Anyway, i'll admit I only read the summary of your post (it's quite long, sorry) but I feel like I share your feeling towards the game. I'm glad I played it, It's a good delivery man game with a bad albeit interesting story with very impressive production values. You dont get many of those.

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JasonR86

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#5 JasonR86  Online

@boozak: It was certainly a unique game.

@seikenfreak:I did like the stuff with Mads. Well, I guess I just like Mads. And the changes in environment helped. But, yeah, the gameplay felt off to me. The shooting felt better than the stealth, but the aiming felt swim-y and I didn't like that I spent so much time in the inventory dealing with blood bags and weapons.

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kmj2318

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@jasonr86: Interesting read.

"This is the part that is sincere and earnest. On some level, I too very much believe that sentiment. But the game doesn’t do much with that idea. As a player, you know connection is ‘good’ and disconnection is ‘bad’ and sort of why, from some of the characters’ perspectives. Though, much of the ‘whys’ are “humans weren’t meant to go it alone.” They don’t do any work to explore the systemic problems with the old connected world and how it might be different this time. Or how different cultures may impact the view of ‘connection.’ It’s base and simplified and goes nowhere."

This part above caught my attention the most. I felt like there was a lot more shades of grey in the ideas presented. I'll paste in my opinion about it that I posted elsewhere:

The initial premise of the game is that people need to be reconnected. This game, on it's surface, advocates for "bridges not walls," with strong utopian overtones. The plot undermines this message as much as it supports it, showing that connectedness has good and bad sides. At the end, the entire premise of traveling west to reconnect America is revealed to be a ruse. Sam is being used by Amelie. She wants Sam to connect everyone so that she can commence the final extinction.

While it looks like on the surface, this game is saying, in simple fashion, that we all need to be connected, it's not that clear throughout the game. It shows that by being connected, we are able to acquire more resources, but that we are also more vulnerable. There is talk about the "price of progress" in some emails that push this further.

Sam never shows much interest interest in reconnecting America. Even at the very end, receiving accolades from the president, he walks away from that profession. Bridges and Amelie are misleading Sam to "work for the greater good" but really they have their own nefarious plans. Sam turns his back on this. What looks like a lofty goal "to make the world a better place" is really just the elites framing their success as good for everyone. "Make the world a better place" is a meme that big tech companies use. They push the idea that connecting everyone is a universally good thing, when really it's more complicated. I also see this game as questioning big institutions as a whole that act like good citizens. I can't help but to see this as a reaction to corporations being woke when really they don't care, which in light all this Hong Kong controversy, is timely.

Sam turns his back on the larger society to become a dad. This looks like a rejection of national or global connectedness in effort to regain interpersonal connections. The Cliff storyline supports this too. The elites in the government take away his child (and possibly kill his wife to create a BB, I don't remember if that's why happened or if she died naturally) in the name of progress. I see this as a statement that the desires of people in government and big business is antithetical to the people. Large institutions gain in tearing families apart, and what actually is heroic is pulling back from the culture and focusing on family.

This game makes a statement about people in power. It's funny that the president that wants to build bridges is as evil as the one that wants to build walls. There is some back story that there was a Trump like president that proceeded Bridget. Bridget seems more like a Clinton type of president. This game a massive rejection of neoliberalism.

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Topcyclist

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@kmj2318:Funny about the last bit. the massive rejection of neoliberalism. I read tons of comments on ign and other sites where conservative gamers or at least those who are very pro conservative ideals, were off board when the trailer dropped showing the plan to build bridges and connect people since it seemed like it was a political jab. I know all kojima's things have politics, but some people and not just Dan, believe the games don't usually have politics. Thus, people where put off and thought the game was anti T prez or something. Reading your claim, it looks like those same people were reading surface level or had hot takes that overlooked the nuanced argument that the game discusses. They might have liked it if they played it. Glad kojima said something even if i don't mind when a game just puts up ideas to argue over and never answers them.

Far cry 5 (im playing right now seems to have bowed to pressure and says such confusing nonsense with no sides no point bs that i have trouble caring.

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Topcyclist

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@jasonr86: @kmj2318: Surprised by how often hot takes are so valued these days but i still see well done critics like this forum. Maybe journalist are placating to a mass audience that they think is less willing to dive deep into material but that is only hindering the respectability of their profession since they go to school and learn to write exceptional deep pieces but do fluff and catchy click bate knee jerk reaction pieces like WHY DEATH STRANDING IS A WALKING SIMULATOR or TOP REASONS DEATH STRANDING IS KOJIMA WEIRD. Rise of video essays should let sites know that well done, written deep work is not dead. IDK just rambling. Thanks for the read. I think you put jeff's points into perspective. Like a game he respects for coming out that has mechanics he cant get on board with because its not really appealing to a twitch shooter gamer (super glad big budget games that arent twitch explosion heavy are being made for you jason!) and appeals to a different crowd. The story also seems to be what you wanna put into it. Kinda like how dark souls can feel unfulfilling till you embrace its storytelling and overlook that its was never going to be some tight perfect outing.

PS. If you could modify DS for the american audience (I think that was the audience that disliked it most out of other places.) what would you do to fix it. ie add more shooter sections, levels, upgrades, games as service, destiny like loot, robots, simpler story, more wierd less explained story, etc.

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kmj2318

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#9  Edited By kmj2318

@topcyclist: I don't know what I would change. I think the shooting sections were weak so I wouldn't add more. I would have made the shooting mechanics feel better, like MGSV. If I had my way, this game would have been a long trek westward, with no backtracking. The size of the map is hilariously small to represent America. Maybe I'd prefer a wide-linear game, that made the world feel larger. Open world games have a way of making the world feel small to me. And, I would make this game even more of a walking simulator. I wish my character improvements were slower, and the upgrades weren't so substantial. Soon into the game I never had to worry much about the terrain, other than water and steep cliffs.

As for the story, to appeal to American audiences, it would have to be more straightforward. And I mean bordering on propaganda. Most American media has a very clear message that doesn't challenge itself, other than strawmaning. Death Stranding also reminds me of the story telling of Souls games and other Eastern media, in that there is a message presented, and that message is put through the fire relentlessly, and the viewer has to make up their mind. So many American films in the last decade take the premise that traditionalism = bad, do your own thing = good, and then the movie goes on to prove itself. It's getting bad as the writing of Ayn Rand. Death Stranding is like Dostoevsky (lol I know) in that it presents the good and bad of both, throws up it's hands and says "well, we need to keep on living". Maybe, that is unfulfilling to most people.

I think the dialog in Death Stranding is pretty bad. I don't know if that's because Kojima is playing off American action movies or what. A criticism that I disagree with is the idea of "show, don't tell". That has been getting conflated heavily lately. The idea of "show, don't tell" does not mean explanation is bad. I've seen this used for when Fragile was talking about the bomb that leveled a city, and people would rather see the bomb go off instead of be told about it. Being told info instead of seeing it is fine imo. "Show, don't tell" means "she smelled the flowers, closed her eyes, and smiled" is much better than "she liked the flowers", it has nothing to do with being told information. If we are playing as Sam, than we would be getting info from other people telling us, not by being magically inserted into a cutscene where Sam wasn't, which is why the Fragile/Higgs cutscene feels out of place to me.

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Shindig

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I wouldn't even compare this to the writing in Souls games. Kojima's so expository. As for the dialog, it's probably a product of him getting all his lines from movies rather than books and other media.

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DrM2theJ

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It's pretty interesting how different your experience of the end game was from mine considering I spent more than double the amount of time you did with the game. The chapter where you have to "run" from one end of the main map to the other? I literally had ziplines set up across the entire map. Took about ten minutes, didn't encounter a single BT or MULE... lol.

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Topcyclist

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@drm2thej said:

It's pretty interesting how different your experience of the end game was from mine considering I spent more than double the amount of time you did with the game. The chapter where you have to "run" from one end of the main map to the other? I literally had ziplines set up across the entire map. Took about ten minutes, didn't encounter a single BT or MULE... lol.

I think this is the part of the game that confuses people who like and hate the game. Unlike most AAA games where everyone gets the similar packaged tasty yet not really super insightful meal you get a bunch of food and your given all these sauces and options to enhance the flavor. If your lucky and creative you get through with a great experience otherwise you call the game a walking simulator with no action and quit in the first few hours. Its similar to how the staff has mixed opinions on it. It really feels like the old school demon souls game debate where people couldn't quite figure out why so many outlets gave it good scores yet your playing it for the first hour of slog and seeing a boring and not usual game. It follows few paths of prior games and is harder to put your finger on. I think it will be more liked later in life but still always debated by those who got bored or played it in a way that didnt get them the rare cool experiences. Also...most reviewers had to play it early with less crowded servers for better or worst it was a chunk of the game the dev wanted that was missing. Who knows.

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