Death Stranding

In Death Stranding, your character Sam carries a small baby in an orange bottle strapped to his chest. It stays with him at all times. The child, called a BB, is essentially a tool: it alerts Sam to ghostly apparitions called BTs, which dot the post-apocalyptic landscape he must traverse. The whole situation is unsettling. BB cries when it gets scared — whether it’s because of imminent danger or because you keep falling down a slippery mountain — and the haunting sound is piped through the speaker on the PS4 controller. This makes it even more unsettling.

Over the course of the game, which lasts upwards of 50 hours, my feelings toward BB changed. At first, it was an uncomfortable nuisance, but eventually, I became attached to the kid. When it cried, I’d find a safe space to rock it until it calmed down, and I always made sure to check on it when we’d bunk for the night. During the few moments in the game when Sam and BB were separated, it felt like something important was missing.

The relationship between Sam and BB mirrors my experience with Death Stranding, the latest epic game from enigmatic director Hideo Kojima, who is best known for his work on the Metal Gear Solid series. It’s not a game that makes itself easy to enjoy. There are few concessions for uninterested players. It’s ponderously slow, particularly in the early chapters, which largely consist of delivering packages over staggering distances. Early conversations are filled with phrases and words that will be incomprehensible to the uninitiated — and, honestly, much of it remains a mystery after the credits roll. But over time, that sense of bewilderment slipped away. Eventually, I found myself engrossed, digging deep into the game’s arcane lore to understand, as best I could, what was going on. It’s not easy to get to this point.

Death Stranding is a game that seems to fight you every step of the way, whether it’s with clunky menus or nonsensical dialogue. It can be downright boring, but there’s also beauty and heart to discover if you can stick with it.

Death Stranding takes place in a distant future, one that has been ravaged by a largely unexplained phenomenon called the death stranding. It wiped out cities and almost all life while opening a gate between the worlds of the living and dead. Those ghostly BTs haunt forests and mountains, and certain humans called repatriates are able to return to life from a strange underwater space known as the Seam. Sam, played by Norman Reedus, is one of these repatriates. He’s also something of a post-apocalyptic delivery man, shuttling supplies from one settlement to the next. Early in the game, he’s given a particularly ambitious task: reunite America (now known as the UCA, or United Cities of America) by traveling across the country, connecting settlements to a sort of internet-like network. At the same time, Sam is trying to reach the west coast of the country to rescue his sister who has been captured by a terrorist organization.

It’s a lot to take in, and the game doesn’t do much to ease you into its world. Characters throw out terms like “DOOMs,” “chiral network,” and “stillmother” without explaining what they mean. For the first few hours, you will likely have no idea what’s going on. Luckily, the gameplay is much more straightforward than the storytelling. Initially, all you’re doing is walking. The company you work for, Bridges, will provide a package, and you have to deliver it on foot. Like most video game characters, Sam can carry an incredible amount of stuff; but unlike his contemporaries, Sam has to account for everything he carries. Before you set out on each mission, you have to carefully arrange your load — from healing items to precious cargo — so that Sam can stay balanced.

The remnants of America look like a postcard from a particularly dreary day in Iceland. Much of your time is spent amid a steady drizzle and rocky terrain, punctuated by the occasional brutalist structure housing the remains of humanity. Your main adversary, at least in the early going, is gravity. With the uneven landscape and copious packages to deliver, Sam has to stay balanced in order to keep his precious cargo safe. You do this by adjusting straps on your back. The trigger buttons on the PS4 controller handle each side, so if Sam starts tipping to the left, you hit the left trigger and he tightens up his backpack to keep steady. Essentially, this means that while all you’re really doing is walking, you need to stay intently focused. One small slip, and your cargo can be ruined. At times, Death Stranding can feel like a big-budget remake of QWOP. Other times, it’s achingly beautiful as you stumble through a ruined landscape while ambient rock plays in the background.

Gear is an important part of the experience. You’ll have access to ladders and ropes to help you traverse difficult terrain, and eventually, you can drive vehicles like trucks and motorcycles. It’s a slow burn, though; new upgrades come at a glacial pace, making each one feel significant and important. The first time you hop into the seat of a pickup truck, you’ll be overcome with joy. (Though that might be short-lived when your battery dies in the middle of nowhere.) There are also other obstacles, including terrorists who are obsessed with stealing packages and those pesky BTs that you have to slowly stalk past, holding your breath to avoid being detected. If you get caught, you’ll be thrust into battle with a massive squid-like monster swimming in tar.

The process can be incredibly tedious, and it’s not made any easier by Death Stranding’s clunky menus and controls. But it also makes a certain kind of sense. These trips should feel arduous — and they do. It may not be fun, per se, but it’s in keeping with the themes of the game. Death Stranding takes the prototypical video game fetch quest and stretches it out to epic proportions.

As you make deliveries, you’ll slowly learn more about the world. You’ll discover what happened to America, what a BT really is, and plenty more. It won’t all make a lot of sense, but you’ll hear plenty about it. Some of this will come from talking to the people as you make deliveries, who, after complimenting you on your delivery skills, will usually explain why they do or don’t want to join the UCA. (If they don’t, that means making even more deliveries to change their mind.) There are also plentiful cutscenes in which characters with typically Kojima-esque names like Fragile, Heartman, and Die-Hardman will opine about the state of the world and how to fix it. Much of the real nitty-gritty details come from optional sources, like the many emails you can read through to learn about the history and science of the world.

Death Stranding touches on all kinds of contemporary issues, particularly when it comes to technology. Sam is essentially a part of the gig economy, taking on a constant stream of small jobs, which range from disposing of nuclear weapons to delivering a pizza. You’re able to replenish your supplies via 3D printing — that includes everything from weapons to ropes to motorcycles — and you can even automate some of your deliveries by sending out a two-legged drone on simple missions. Meanwhile, seemingly the only non-human animal to survive is an enlarged version of a tardigrade, which is Sam’s main form of sustenance. But the game never really explores these subjects in much detail, instead focusing almost entirely on its own insular story of ghost-detecting babies and the end of the world.

The game is, for the most part, painfully self-serious. Don’t expect to see Sam smile much; he even has a curious allergy that causes him to cry while staring at the sky. The world is eerily empty — you don’t see the people in the cities, aside from a hologram of whoever is in charge of the distribution center — and it’s perpetually bleak and gray.

At times, though, Death Stranding can be downright silly and occasionally veers into plain stupidity. For some reason, the only brand to survive the apocalypse is Monster energy drinks, which Sam drinks to regain stamina. And when he goes to the bathroom, you’ll see an advertisement for AMC’s reality show Ride with Norman Reedus. One of the strangest aspects of Death Stranding involves the creation of grenades. As a repatriate, Sam’s blood is deadly to his ghostly enemies, and the scientists at Bridges use this to create all kinds of weapons. But it turns out that all of his bodily fluids can cause harm as well. Whenever you rest up in your room, you have the option to shower or go to the bathroom, and everything is collected to replenish your armory. One of the grenade types is called the “number two.” Later in the game, a sick character is diagnosed with “jet lag on a molecular level.”

Meanwhile, in true Kojima style, there are many fourth wall-breaking moments. Sam will acknowledge the camera, sometimes pointing you to where he wants to go or simply winking, and if you look at his crotch too long, he’ll get angry. There are bosses that call themselves bosses and a handful of other moments that poke fun at video game tropes. There are also a lot of celebrity cameos — and not just the main cast, which includes Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Guillermo del Toro, and Margaret Qualley. Explore a bit further, though, and you’ll meet a cosplay-obsessed survivor played by Conan O’Brien or a character called simply “the film director” played by Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

As weird and silly as all of this can be, it does produce some truly human, touching moments. Despite their ridiculous names, the cast of Death Stranding is interesting and even lovable. I found myself pushing on late into the night to find out about Heartman’s quest to find his family, and I eagerly listened every time Deadman told me his latest research on the nature of BBs. It’s a surprisingly small group of main characters, considering this is a game that lasts dozens of hours, but each one feels well-developed in their own way. By the end, when everyone bands together Avengers-style, it’s genuinely touching. The first time Fragile says “I’m not that fragile,” you’ll probably roll your eyes. But eventually, you can’t help but smile when she says it.

The same goes for many of the minor characters who have their own tragic backstories. Even some of the smaller moments add to this sense of humanity, whether it’s forcing Sam to take a shower after a long, gross journey or a button that lets you simply sit down and enjoy a moment of peace. The juxtaposition between goofy and dramatic lends the game its own particular flavor.

Over the course of Death Stranding’s lengthy run time, I spent hours with these people, read over their correspondence, and literally walked across the entirety of America trying to bring them all together. By the end, I can’t say that I fully understood exactly what was going on. In fact, as Death Stranding approaches its climax, around the same time I felt I was finally coming to grips with everything, it somehow becomes even more convoluted. But ultimately, that didn’t matter much. Yes, the mysteries are a big part of the draw, and it’s disappointing that you won’t get all of the answers you’re looking for. And even some of the ones you do get don’t make a lot of sense. (Just wait until you learn BB’s origin story.)

To fully embrace Death Stranding, you have to let go of that desire to know everything. Much like watching Lost or playing pretty much any JRPG, the overall narrative is just a means to an end. It’s a setup for creating dramatic, emotional moments. It’s not always easy to get to those moments, and you’ll have to suspend your disbelief quite often to fully enjoy them, but for a certain kind of player, that long, exhausting journey will be worth the effort.

Metro Exodus

It turns out that what makes Metro – a series named and known for its dark, subterranean survival-horror atmosphere – work was never really dependent on being underground at all. The third game, Metro Exodus, successfully brings its lengthy single-player campaign to the post-apocalyptic surface without sacrificing any of the series’ signature tension.In an era where most first-person shooters seem to be intent on constantly upping the tempo, Metro Exodus is refreshing in its demand that you take your time. This is not a run-and-gun experience; it’s a stay-low-and-go-slow crawl through some of the most atmospheric and detail-rich settings I’ve ever experienced in a story-driven shooter. With a storyline that sidesteps the supernatural themes of its predecessors in favour of focussing on a more affecting human experience, and level design that affords you significantly more freedom without giving you too much room to relax, Metro Exodus feels like the full realization of this series’ potential.

Picking up two years after the events of Metro: Last Light, the largely self-contained story of Metro Exodus follows the plight of main protagonist Artyom, his wife Ana, and a crew of surviving Spartan Rangers led by Colonel Miller as they set out from nuclear-war-ravaged Moscow in search of safe harbour aboard the train Aurora. That mobility brings a dazzling variety of settings we’ve never seen in a Metro game: their year-long, cross-continental journey ushers in a seasonal shift as you reach each stop, taking you from snow-blanketed sprawls of urban decay to sand-swept deserts and lush forest settings, each incredibly well-realised and populated by a healthy variety of deadly mutants and pockets of humanity both friendly and hostile.

These levels are also far more open than what we’ve come to expect from the previous two Metro games, but that’s not to say you won’t spend a considerable amount of time exploring the traditional dank underground corridors. Many story objectives still require you to descend into the sorts of dread-filled subterranea that the Metro series was built upon, and thanks to a generational jump in lighting effects and high-quality ambient audio they feel more ominous and claustrophobic than ever.

Up on the surface, the larger, sandbox-style levels relax the leash and let you sniff around with more freedom, finding enemy camps and abandoned houses that can be scoured for precious resources or diary scraps and audio logs which flesh out the fiction. But even when you’re out in the open, Metro Exodus finds ways of keeping your anxiety levels in the red by obscuring your surroundings with intermittent sandstorms in the Caspian desert level or introducing packs of snarling dogs in a forest valley section that can attack from any direction and have you frantically scrambling for higher ground. The day/night cycle also dictates that when the sun goes down, more mutants come out to surprise you on your way from A to B (it’s a cycle which, if you’re more risk-averse, you can manually shift by using one of the beds littered about the landscape). With all of those factors in play, Metro Exodus successfully manages to put you in wide-open spaces without ever giving you much room to breathe.

Metro Exodus features incredibly detailed environments and exceptionally eerie sound design, but its strict minimising of intrusive menus and on-screen indicators is of equal importance as far as successfully grounding you in its world. Your next objective isn’t spelled out for you by a garish waypoint marker hovering on the horizon, but by the subtle swing in direction of the compass needle on Artyom’s wrist. Similarly, there’s no map in the corner of the screen overwhelming you with areas of interest; instead, the flickering candlelight of a cabin in the distance was typically enough to pique my curiosity and tease me into an exploratory detour.

If the HUD elements in Metro Exodus were any more organic they’d be blended with wheatgrass and served as a smoothie. However, the one thing that does dent the immersion is that, despite reading out aloud the diary entries that open each level, Artyom is once again an entirely silent protagonist in Metro Exodus. It makes no sense to hear his voice one minute and then see him go mute when spoken to by other characters face to face, and even more absurd when they’re contacting him by radio from the Aurora when he’s out in the field. How do they even know he’s listening when he can’t even mumble a meagre ‘copy that’? If you’re going to do a silent protagonist you have to commit to it completely or it doesn’t work.

Metro Exodus does away with the ammunition-based currency system and weapons merchants from its predecessors in favor of workbenches that can be found in a handful of locations across each level and a backpack that can be used to craft certain items on the fly. Since the backpack can only be used to craft stealth-oriented projectiles such as crossbow bolts and throwing knives, and bullets and shotgun shells can only ever be created at workbenches or scavenged from fallen enemies one handful at a time, this system is still very much geared around conserving ammunition and making each shot fired a carefully measured one.

I found the backpack to be an invaluable addition to the Metro Exodus experience, particularly since it also brings with it the ability to swap out weapon parts without returning to a base. When night fell I was able to quickly swap the eyepiece on my sniper rifle for a night vision scope, for example. Or, if I found myself up against a more mobile set of enemies, it was always handy to tweak the components of my shotgun in order to increase its stability.

In fact, steady aim is more crucial than ever this time around since human enemies seem noticeably smarter, communicating with each other during a firefight and intelligently maneuvering around to flank. While you can still unscrew light bulbs or extinguish lamps in order to fill an area with shadows to hide in, if an enemy notices that a light goes out they will now come to investigate it. That keeps you a bit more on your toes even when you’re trying to play things safe.The Weapons of Metro Exodus.

Metro Exodus still gives you ample opportunity to scratch your itchy trigger finger, though, since the covert approach goes out the window anytime mutants unleash their more erratic and hurried attacks and you invariably end up spending your hard earned, lead-based life savings within the space of a few panicked bursts from your assault rifle. There are also a welcome handful of special sequences that shift the pace considerably – such as a thrilling shoot ‘em up through an installation overrun by axe-wielding cannibals – so that you’re not experiencing the entirety of Artyom’s journey in a permanent crouch walk.

“The gunplay is nice and crunchy and there’s a broad range of mutant enemy types to tackle, from the humanimals that camouflage themselves in the desert surroundings and surprise you at the last minute to the light-fearing spider creatures found in the deeper underground sections that must be weakened with the beam of your torchlight before you can finish them off up close. Each mutant type requires its own unique strategy to overcome, which means Metro Exodus’ combat rarely becomes mired in repetition.

Since so much of your time in Metro Exodus is spent on tense and lonely excursions away from the Aurora, the playable vignettes aboard the travelling train that bookend the main levels give you an opportunity to relax and bond with the rest of the characters. Whether it was sharing a smoke with Colonel Miller, or spending quiet time with Ana in the privacy of your shared cabin, I relished the chance to get to know the crew a little better as the journey went on and I became more invested in their individual plights as a result – despite the inconsistent quality of the voice acting.I particularly liked seeing the more minor impacts of my actions in these sections too; I went out of my way to take on an optional and dangerous hunt for a lost teddy bear in one level for the sole child passenger of the Aurora, and I was happy to see her playing affectionately with it aboard the train several hours later. Of course if you’re only into Metro Exodus for the action, you can just head straight to the map in the main cabin to trigger the next stop and resume the horror at will.Other actions in Metro Exodus have much more dramatic ramifications, although the stakes in play aren’t always made clear to you. When I disobeyed one character’s instructions to steal a boat from a cove of pirates without shedding blood, she subsequently took vengeance on one of the members from the Aurora crew, which seemed just. Yet at another time I finished a level and got an achievement for keeping the character named Duke alive, which surprised me since I wasn’t actually aware he was ever in peril. Since all of these actions snowball into determining which of the possible endings you will achieve, it’s hard to try for a different outcome at the end of a second playthrough when the parameters that influence them aren’t always obvious.The most exciting moments of Metro Exodus are centred around the middle act.

“Speaking of that ending, while the plot delivers an emotional payoff, the lack of any main antagonist in Metro Exodus means there’s no climactic showdown to speak of at the story’s end. After surging forward with slow-paced yet sustained momentum for the bulk of its 20-hour runtime, Metro Exodus ultimately grinds to a halt as opposed to going out with a bang. I was compelled towards its conclusion by the strength of its story and I was ultimately satisfied with how it resolved, but I can’t help but feel that the most exciting moments of Metro Exodus are centred around the middle act.

Metro Exodus takes the fear-inducing formula of the series and transplants it into expansive, sandbox-like levels without losing any of the oppressive tension that makes the Metro games memorable and distinctive among post-apocalyptic first-person shooters. It’s a frequently exhilarating and densely atmospheric journey across a Russian dystopia brimming with detail and deadly inhabitants, and well worth the trip for its consistently effective use of survival horror and hair-raising action.

Days Gone

Days gone kicks off relatively simply: you play as a biker riding through an open-world zombie post-apocalypse, seeking answers around his dead wife and smashing enemy faces in with crunchy, weighty melee weaponts. Sometimes, there are spectacular hordes of them. So far, so straightforward. Yet through its 60-odd-hour ride, Days Gone loses its focus with repetitive missions, a meandering and thematically unsatisfying storyline, and an excess of bugs and busywork. When you slow down for a minute or two, these issues combine with a dreary, uninteresting open world and add up to an uneven and mostly toothless zombie experience.For a gruff biker dude traveling through a zombie-infested (okay, they’re technically virus-infected humans called Freakers, but functionally the same thing) Oregon, Deacon St. John is an endearingly gentle and sweet-natured protagonist. His gruff charm and unassuming ‘I ain’t no leader’ demeanor is mostly well voiced by Sam Witwer (AKA Darth Maul on Star Wars: The Clone Wars), aside from moments where he inexplicably yells during stealth missions and an occasional tendency to over-act in more frantic sequences.His bike is your constant companion, and it handles well and feels great to ride – especially after several damage-absorbing upgrades and the addition of power-boosting nitrous. Drifting around a tight corner is a lot of fun, as is sailing over a break in the road. For a PS4 game that’s so centered on riding, I’m glad that developer Sony Bend nailed that fundamental mechanic.

Sadly, Deacon’s charisma and bitchin’ bike aren’t enough to carry Days Gone story, which is clumsily handled. Days Gone insists on tedious, barely interactive flashbacks of Deacon and his wife Sarah which play out like bad high school drama – her demand that he “promise to ride me as much as you ride your bike” at their wedding is a line that sticks in the mind – and repeating missions which begin and end with a stationary Deacon spouting overly-long monologues about their love.

For the first half, this storyline at least forms a consistent emotional throughline and motivation for Deacon beyond simply staying alive, but it loses its direction in the second, where the focus shifts toward new characters and changing relationships with old ones, and I was left confused as to why I was meant to care. Of course, one cutscene played out for me entirely in slow motion, without audio, so maybe I missed it.

It doesn’t help that Days Gone takes itself almost religiously seriously, and story missions are wrapped in dramatic importance that they don’t earn. Its desire to elicit emotion is also constantly at odds with the decision to structure even non-interactive story delivery as missions: there were a couple of times I had an extremely brief conversation with another character that would net me XP. It’s hard to be invested when its drama is so tied up in cold, numerical achievement.

Mixed in with the crowd are some enjoyable supporting characters. Deacon’s primary relationship with his best buddy Boozer (aka “Booze-Man”), is heartfelt, and their bro dynamic is one of the more affecting in Days Gone. There’s also some flavor to the world-weariness of the older survivors Deacon encounters, particularly the former prison guard Tucker and all-around hard-ass Iron Mike.

The human antagonists, on the other hand, are as interesting as cardboard cutouts: they’re virtually all roughly sketched bad guys who are bad for bad’s sake. One, who is introduced in the later stages, feels particularly redundant, and is there purely to cause conflict rather than exist as a fully realized character in his own right.

Still, human marauders and feral Freaker-wannabees, called Rippers, who occupy camps (aka outposts), are fun to rumble with, even if they present a somewhat easy challenge because of a very forgiving style of stealth gameplay. While long grass and plenty of cover help, run-ins with human enemies are made easier by the fact that enemy AI is rarely clustered together. Though you can’t hide bodies in Days Gone, enemies are spread out enough that you can stealth kill one and often leave a body in broad daylight without it being noticed. As long as they’re not facing you, they’ll rarely become aware of your presence.

Even so, I found compulsory stealth-only story missions the least welcome variety in Days Gone. To unlock much of its central mystery, Deacon must snoop on the comings and goings of the National Emergency Response Organization, aka NERO, as they research the freaker outbreak. This involves a several-mission-thread of sneaking into NERO-occupied areas and eavesdropping on them from behind obstacles or within long grass as they explain world lore, which is not particularly interesting and annoyingly repetitive if you fail (and I did, by rushing through in sheer exasperation at having to do the same mission-type over and over.)

If it does end up in an all-out gunfight, there’s more fun to be had. Guns and crossbows in Days Gone feel mostly good to use, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained by clearing out clusters of enemies – zombies and humans alike – with giant napalm molotovs. Deacon can also unlock a focused shot ability from his skill tree early on in the game, which allows him to slow down time in battle. It’s a somewhat inexplicable skill for a regular guy (that he served in the military is the somewhat shaky rationale), but it’s nice to have a way to relieve the pressure for a moment if you get overwhelmed.

Melee, in particular, is a weighty and bloody blast. The crafting system in Days Gone is based on found objects being combined with other found objects, and there’s crunchy satisfaction to be found with combining together a baseball bat with a saw blade and killing an enemy in a single hit. I found myself more invested in crafting the right weapon to swing over finding one to shoot.

Of course, Days Gone’s humans aren’t the only threat. Its world is peppered with Freakers who come in a range of sizes and speeds, but you’ll mostly encounter the garden variety zombie that can be swiftly dealt with by a headshot or thwack of an axe if split from a pack. Hordes, however, are a different story, and fighting these create most of the thrilling moments in Days Gone. Usually found in squared off, elaborate geographical areas, these huge, hundreds-strong writhing masses of gnashing teeth and grasping limbs are easily Sony Bend’s biggest technical achievement. Operating consistently as a single-minded entity as they relentlessly pursue you, they have to be taken out with a degree of strategy and employing familiarity with your surroundings. Every single horde encounter was a sprint for survival.

One such event saw me taking out half the horde from a balcony with molotovs and grenades before leaping down into the remaining fray and scrambling to find resources to build more, all while they nipped at my heels. It’s frantic stuff, and if you get overwhelmed it sends you back to the beginning of what can be an hour -long encounter: I regularly enjoyed the sense of real stakes, which ratcheted up the tension. On the other hand, once a horde simply disappeared three-quarters of the way through clearing it – I lost a couple of hours looking for remaining stragglers before dying, which resolved the bug upon restart.

Even with strong combat, things get boring after a while because Days Gone’s missions suffer from repetition across the board. As Deacon explores Oregon he stumbles across a number of survivor camps, each which has a leader with their own to-do list of various jobs you have to do in order to build enough trust and credits to unlock new weapons and bike upgrades. These jobs tend to be variations on tracking down a traitor or rescuing a hostage or clearing out a camp, and all tend to play out in a similar fashion. A few dozen of hours of this same mission structure took its toll on me.

This extends to the plentiful missions found in the world, as well. Tracking down NERO checkpoints in order to earn vital upgrades to your various stats – health, stamina, and focus – is laborious, as they always required power to properly infiltrate. That means scouring the area to find a gas tank to fill a generator, occasionally replace a busted fuse, then rinse and repeat. It’s never a good sign when you hear your character remark on the repetition of a game mechanic – it suggests the designers are well aware that they’ve played a card too many times – and at several points, Deacon is heard to remark: “Okay lemme guess: outta fuel, of course.” “Hilarious!” I thought, as I went through the same routine for the eighth time.

Elsewhere, dozens of Freaker nests scattered throughout Oregon, which Days Gone urges you to attack by blocking off fast travel access on certain infested routes until they’re cleared. These are satisfying at first – it’s a relief to drive down a Freaker-less highway – but eventually the sheer number of them without any real sense of variety from nest to nest made me lose interest. At a certain point it’s faster to just ride past the nests than to fight through them and then warp.

Its repetition and excess are exacerbated by Days Gone’s fragile bike, which suffers severe damage from contact with just about any object, including, sadly, Freakers themselves. While I don’t mind the sense of vulnerability and urgency this mechanic brought to the table, especially during moments of frantic escape when my bike was on low fuel or ‘health’ and I needed to find parts to repair it, it becomes more of a drag when you simply want to get from A to B to complete a task without the fuss of uncompromising physics. There’s a reason cars in GTA V, for example, can take unrealistic amounts of damage before they catch fire and explode; now imagine the drudgery of not being able to simply grab another one when yours breaks down and you have someplace to be. There’s something ill-fitting about requiring a badass biker with a sweet bike to ride slowly and carefully to avoid scratching the paint.

There are also notable framerate dips while playing on a PS4 Pro at 1080p, and constant instances of objects (or whole areas) popping in and out. The former issue is most troubling when you’re riding at speed on your motorcycle and Days Gone momentarily freezes as if struggling to keep up. It’s nothing game-breaking, but it was a constant reminder that things aren’t as smooth as they should be.

There are also dynamic events that play out through the world for you to discover. Though these aren’t as interesting as say, Red Dead Redemption 2’s encounters that were the basis for countless water-cooler conversations, I did appreciate the occasional unexpected hostage rescue situation or trap to escape from. You’re generally free to simply hop on your bike and ride away if you don’t want to bother with them, but they go some way to fleshing out the otherwise sterile world.

Days Gone’s world certainly needs all the character it can get. While it’s pretty enough and full of dense forest, winding roads, and snow-capped mountains, if you look closer it’s also relatively sparse, with little world-building to differentiate one area from another and not a lot of surprises to be found in its sprawling land mass. Its gutted buildings are particularly dull, shells to house resources without much sense of history. Who lived here, and what happened to them? They left no trace, save the rare collectible note here or there.

It is, in a word, dreary. A series of abandoned cars, tunnels, empty houses against a dull, slate-gray sky. I understand this is a post-apocalyptic setting and don’t expect cheeriness and rainbows, but a general lack of environmental storytelling left me wanting more out of it. This was a world that was once lived in, we’re told, but its uninspired interiors and barren exteriors certainly don’t feel like it.

Even areas populated by humans, like camps, feel curiously characterless. When an NPC in a camp does utter an incidental line, it’s likely one that you’ve heard multiple times before, and though there are optional conversations to be had with a camp’s various mechanics/cooks/bounty collectors, I found very few compelling enough to stick around and listen to. Again, part of the problem here is a self-seriousness – a little humor or sense of weirdness (this is the zombie apocalypse, after all) could have gone a long way.

Its world is also inconsistent. During missions, your bike’s fuel and damage gauges – normally vital things to keep an eye on – will often disappear as if suddenly unimportant, as will NERO-soldiers in a research area you’ve just finished scouting. These are small complaints, but they break the rules of survival that Days Gone otherwise doggedly lives by, and with them the spell of a cohesive, lived-in world.

I can’t help but wish there was a more rock-focused soundtrack to really complete the biker vibe. Instead, what Deacon does have to listen to is a sort of paranoid, boot-leg radio station featuring the rants of a camp leader who has the unfortunate tendency to repeat himself, as do radio calls from your friends that often come well after you’d expect their in-game cues. In its current state, Days Gone also has a number of audio issues that range from instances like this to complete dialogue dropouts to audio syncing problems.

Days Gone feels bloated, like a movie that goes on for an hour longer than it needs to or should’ve. It’s messy and confused, but peppered with genuinely thrilling encounters with rampaging hordes of zombies and occasionally breathless firefights. There’s a good game in here somewhere, but it’s buried in a meandering storyline, repetitive missions, and just too much obligatory stuff to do without an eye on the smaller details that could have given it much more character. Some fine tuning and editing could have removed the tedium and celebrated what makes this game unique and interesting, but Days Gone rides strictly down the middle of the dusty road and never finds its rhythm.

Mario Maker 2

It’s hard to decide where to begin when talking about all the things I love about Super Mario Maker 2. It does nearly everything better than its already excellent predecessor, introducing some incredible new ideas, level styles, building items, and so much more – all while maintaining the charm of Mario games we know and love.

Despite enabling you to depart so radically from the core Mario style, even the most odd-ball levels still feel like they could belong to some lost Super Mario game. But Super Mario Maker 2 is so much more than just a way to live out your Miyamoto-esque design fantasies: there’s also a robust online mode to play against or with other people, a story mode that could almost stand as a full Mario game in its own right, and an abundance of content available to you before you even start making your first level. Like I said, I don’t even know where to begin.

Story Mode

One of most surprising new additions is Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which has as much depth as you’d expect from a Super Mario story: Undo Dog accidentally presses the reset button on Peach’s castle, destroying it. It’s up to Mario to make it right. To do so means beating increasingly difficult levels, which earns you coins needed to repair the castle. That’s all story mode is and that’s all it needs to be.

Essentially the story mode exists as an excuse to get you to play over 100 pre-made levels, referred to as “jobs,” most of which couldn’t exist outside the bent rules of Super Mario Maker 2. They take the classic Mario formula and use the new building elements to pull that otherwise familiar rug out from under you, with the result being hundreds of ways Super Mario Maker 2 delighted and surprised me.

There’s no central theme or structure to the levels – there isn’t a World 1-2 with a warp zone to World 4-1. Instead, each level stands on its own, and in spite of the barest of narratives, I found myself absolutely in love with the story mode. The levels are so wonderfully creative, each one using the many varied tools of Super Mario Maker 2’s maker mode to create something never seen before. It’s almost like a chef tasting: each artist has created a small dish, unfettered from the constraints of their nightly menus, and you’re lucky enough to sample the fruits of their creativity. Levels range from classic Mario platforming, to levels challenging your technical skills with precarious jumps and timing, to levels where you race on a series of bouncing platforms inside a Super Mario 3D World Koopa Car. A later level takes place entirely in a Koopa car, and it’s one of the most fluid, and most fun, levels in the game.

I mean it when I say the story mode in Super Mario Maker 2 could be its own game. After completing construction on the castle, which required me to beat over 100 levels, I still had five pages of “jobs” left to do. Completing the story unlocks a new option in your Maker levels, so there’s more reason to play through it other than “because it’s awesome.” Honestly, I hope there are more jobs to unlock beyond the ones I have, because I love playing them.

Maker’s Mark

But this is Super Mario Maker 2 after all, not Super Mario Castle Repair Simulator. It comes as no surprise that the section dedicated to crafting your own Super Mario levels is superb. Any concerns I had about controller-based input versus the 3DS and Wii U’s touch input melted away after a short period of adjustment. I actually grew to prefer using the controller to build levels over handheld’s touch input – not because touch is bad, but because using the controller is so good. There is a gentle learning curve, one that’s easy to overcome, and once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t go back. My one complaint is that handheld mode forces you to use touch for most things, with no option to use a controller at all. Again, touch interface works great, but I’m so used to building levels with my controller in docked mode that I’d like to keep that continuity when I swap between Switch modes.

The number options here for level creation are astonishing. Across the top of the screen are 12 blocks, each with an item option for building, like bricks, power-ups, enemies and such. Hitting the magnifying glass in touch, or holding down the ‘Y’ button, brings up even more choices. Options depend on what Mario style you’re using, with the 3D World items like the cat suit not usable in the 2D game styles. There are then further, nested options buried inside many of the elements: hold down the Y button over a placed green Koopa, for example, and you can turn it into a red one, or give it wings, or both. You can also choose to the make them enormous, or have them don parachutes. Those are just the options for Koopas; most elements have additional customization options available, like setting the speed of conveyor belts, or deciding whether a floating platform will move or drop when you land on it.

Some of the new options, like different angled slopes, add even more variety to your level designs. But maybe the biggest, literal game-changer comes with the new “clear conditions.” You can set exciting/simple/clever parameters that must be met in order to complete the level. For example, you can set it so players must defeat at least one Hammer Bro, or take zero hits (even when powered-up).

I haven’t seen all the clear conditions used in other people’s levels yet, but I did play an extremely fun and challenging level where Mario wasn’t allowed to jump or even so much as leave the ground. Through a clever use of environmental obstacles like seesaws, note blocks, and conveyor belts, I was forced to complete a fully realized Mario level without jumping once. EVen a bounce invalidated the run if Mario’s feet left the ground. It was part auto-Mario, part-platformer, and it was so inventive (and occasionally frustrating), I started dreaming up my own similar levels immediately after I finished. (Note: they were all bad and I deleted them.)

New switching blocks open up exciting new options for puzzle levels, and snake blocks bring a new element to the popular auto-Mario levels that eventually dominated the first game’s online community. There are also new, adjustable paths for autoscrolling levels, so you can build your very own airship armada at varying levels of altitude and set the pathway ahead of time. It’s so insanely robust and overflowing with creative options that it can occasionally seem overwhelming.

Easing that burden is maybe my favorite extra feature of Super Mario Maker 2, Yamamura’s Dojo. Yamamura is a sentient pigeon who runs a tutorial mode with the help of Nina, a human, but I feel like calling it a tutorial mode does it a real injustice. The Dojo is a game-design boot camp. Yes, there are lessons showing you the basics -how to test your levels, what to do if you mess up, and how to use the various parts and pieces – but there are also lessons on drawing inspiration for your works, giving directions to your players, and even a lesson called “Treating the Player Fairly,” where the ultimate take-away is “no one likes a troll.” Well said, Nina. Well said.

But even those are just the intermediate lessons. Advanced lessons in Yamamura’s Dojo explore more ethereal topics like pacing, effective use of clear conditions, and can even tackle philosophical game design questions like “Does the Way Forward Always Need to be Clear?”

Better still, these lessons are entirely optional. It’s up to you how much, or how little, you want to learn from some of the most creative minds in video game creation. The broader lessons on pacing and respecting the player extend beyond just Super Mario Maker 2. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re now 10 years away from game designers citing Super Mario Maker 2 and its lessons on building competent and compelling levels as the catalyst that started their careers.

Course World

Mario Maker is fundamentally about sharing and exploring levels built by other people, and the Course World section of Super Mario Maker 2 is where user-generated content lives. I liked how easy it was to browse other people’s creations, and more robust search options this time around allow you to drill down to find the exact level you want. I wanted to find a level tagged “Auto-Mario,” so I just deselected all the other tags and the search gave me what I wanted. But I could have gone to much greater lengths of specificity: if I wanted a Super Mario Bros. 3 ghost house level with an expert difficulty level created in Europe and speed-running elements, I could have found one and then sorted the results by popularity or clear rate. (Sadly, none such level existed during the review period.)

I really like Course World, and it does a good job of floating the quality levels to the top -at least during the time I played pre-launch. Playing someone else’s level, and have it be good and surprising, is a real delight. It also helps in the creative process. One of the most popular levels has a great sky castle design with a coin-collecting clear condition, and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to emulate its feel immediately. It’s just so enjoyable finding and playing other people’s levels, I would still be having a lot of fun even if I never had to build my own.

Super Mario Maker 2 is the most accessible game design tool ever created, and that core is just one part of a greater whole. I spent hours building levels, testing them, and starting over again, and I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. The Story Mode has a basic story, sure, but it’s still a great excuse to introduce hundreds of novel, professionally made levels to play. Its design tutorials are so much more in depth than they ever needed to be, and you can take them or leave them as you see fit. Super Mario Maker 2 affords so much freedom in how you play, how you make, and even how you learn, it’s astonishing how incredibly well it’s all held together in one cohesive package.