The first several hours of Death Stranding have you (as Norman Reedus (as Sam Porter Bridges)) delivering dozens if not hundreds of kilos of packages on foot through a ghost-infested wasteland. Your shoes are wearing out, you’re forcing Sam to jack-hammer six bottles of Monster Energy to stay awake, you’re tumbling off a cliff and watching all your precious packages scatter to the winds. It is rough. It is so rough that once you finally unlock the privilege of constructing your own trucks you will feel like the god of this Icelandic nightmare. From the high perch of the driver’s seat you WILL ensure people get their pizzas on time.
The distinct beauty of this truck is that it behaves very much like a truck. It is not the horse from Skyrim, capable of standing perpendicular to ninety-degree cliffs. It does not have the impossible-road-hugging-silkiness of Forza Horizon 4’s Toyota #1 T100 Baja Truck. In Death Stranding, your truck is a Real truck. It is powerful, but it has limits that you must respect (or rather, you will respect them after cratering into a ravine that you naively tried to shortcut over). From beginning to end, Death Stranding is a game about overcoming struggle, not removing it entirely. The Death Stranding truck (henceforth DST) allows massive, speedy deliveries, but you forgo nimbleness and manoeuvrability until you obtain intimate knowledge of its behaviour.
In appearance, it’s a bit like a lifted UPS truck. It has a large cab, covered bed, and bulbous curves. With the press of the X button, it can do a little hop. It does a cool stilt-leg thing when driving through deep water that keeps the chassis from getting wet. Press in the left stick and its electric-engine offers up a hefty speed boost. While you can (and I did) construct highways across the leftovers of the United States, the real beauty is found in taking your DST off-road. The DST was custom built for the end of the world. It can go up nearly any incline, but it will tumble if you make one wrong move. With enough persistence, it has the power to let you get yourself into deep, deep trouble when you lose traction and start sideways-sliding downhill towards a terrorist outpost.
You will get yourself high-centred on some basalt pillar or outcropping. Any other truck, and that’d be it. With the DST, you can wiggle and writhe, using the hop function to bop the vehicle up and over the obstacle. Passes that seem far too narrow can be overcome by preemptively jumping into them such that half your wheels are riding on the rocky incline while the others spin through mud. Under the hood (the metaphorical game hood anyway), I could almost swear that hopping briefly modifies the DST’s hit box. Sometimes I’d jump over rocks I know that I had no chance of clearing. The DST rewards speed. On flat ground it simply will not tip over no matter how hard you try. Taking sharp turns with five-hundred kilos of painkillers at max speed will make you feel like you are in a crossover training course for USPS and stunt drivers. Going downhill, it turns into a bobsled capable of great speed but with a razor thin margin for error.
With a combination of hops, spins, slides, stops, and starts you can mount any hill. I took it as a challenge. Paths that were clearly designed for hiking — narrow, plenty of switchbacks, unreasonably steep — became courses that, with practice, I could drive up with my eyes closed. Punch it to the boulder, take a sharp right, flip a U-turn around the rock, drop down into the stream bed, climb slow and straight to the pass, hop to get the front wheels in and gun it to the drop-off point. Coming back down: reverse hard the second your tires clear the rocks, jerk the wheel to the left, use the boulder to stop, follow the foot path, hop down several berms and recharge by the creek.
The DST has the necessary complexity to give the thrill of mastery without being a full on simulation. I’ve seen people say that the vehicles in Death Stranding “feel bad” or “suck”. These people are wrong. I will, in full knowledge of how absurd this sounds, invoke my authority on the topic of off-road vehicle feel. Every vehicle I have ever driven I have taken off-road: 1995 Isuzu Trooper, 1998 Ford Ranger, 1995 Jeep Wrangler, Mid 2000s Subaru Outback and Forester, a rented BMW M3, Hyundai Sonata, a Specialized Triathlon bicycle, a Quintana Roo triathlon bicycle, my boss’s Specialized downhill bicycle, a (now totalled) vintage Urago bicycle. Most importantly, I have worked on a ranch and driven a Husqvarna HUV4414 Utility Vehicle. I know how vehicles feel off-road. I know which ones feel “good”. Understand that when I say I would pay good money for a DST I mean it. I would drive it to Idaho, tool around in Craters of the Moon National Monument, drive it into — and then out of — Bruneau Canyon, and finally use it to clear the old logging trail behind my not-grandmother’s ranch.
The DST is at times clunky and janky, but only ever in ways that lend it personality and demand your attention. Master it, and you will summit the world.