Raiding a MULE camp in Death Stranding always feels like you're slip-up away from colossal disaster. The package-hungry raiders stockpile their trophies in one central box, and that's my target: a barrel-shaped locker full of materials, luxuries, and wayward cargo.
But between there and where I crouch, hiding in the grass, is a small army of guards with electric javelins and tiny radar stakes that will ping my location to everyone nearby at the first audible noise I make. Every step is a gamble. Every guard I incapacitate feels like it should: a gamble to pull off with a blissful reward. Death Stranding's stealth aspects, at their best, live on a razor's edge between pure chaos and perfect planning. It's new, but familiar.
Frankly, it feels a lot like Metal Gear Solid. But maybe not as often as it could, or even should.
Death Stranding is ostensibly a game about walking around and making deliveries. Along the way you manage cargo, build buildings, pave roads, and even do some light babysitting. But for the most part, you are taking an item, whether a box, barrel, or body, from point A to point B.
To put more than just non-ideal terrain in your way, though, Death Stranding also introduces a number of enemy factions to deal with through your westward odyssey. There are MULEs-essentially former Amazon carriers addicted to the chemical high they get from delivering packages-who try to mug you; and BTs, floating specters from the beyond who try to suck you into a tarpit and eat you. Post-Stranding, a mailman's life has a lot more obstacles than just a pack of dogs.
These parts can clash heavily with the otherwise serene, soothing walks between prepper dugouts and distribution centers. But that friction is critical to adding a sense of danger or tension to Death Stranding. What's more, the way these stealth-action moments are integrated seem to take a page from Kojima's own past work.
While MULE territory can reach across vast swathes of the American wasteland, the camp doesn't look too different from your average camp. Guards roam the perimeter, alarm sensors dot the landscape, and as you progress further into the game, trucks full of MULEs travel the plains, ready to chase down anyone thinking vehicular superiority will get them to safety.
MULE camps are dangerous, but they're also rich with vital resources. It's not cheap to rebuild the various roads that span the breadth of the continent, or to build up infrastructure like generators and bridges. Also, if your cargo somehow gets taken by MULEs, you have to recover it there. Thankfully, I never really had to raid it for that purpose. Stealing from the MULEs was usually for fun and profit, not recovery.
The stealth action shines in dealing with MULEs, who use actual weapons and sometimes straight-up guns to stop you from getting away. Spears will short out your ride with a burst of electricity, enemies will rapidly converge on your escape path, and little radar stakes will ping your location, making escape tough.
Your early tools are mostly the bola gun, a Horizon: Zero Dawn-esque tool that will launch a bola at enemies to wrap them up, and the Strand, a line of rope entwined with Sam's own blood. They're not very effective versus groups-later on, the game gives you other tools for handling that-but they're a rewarding first glimpse into how the game handles stealth. Even when you have better tools, it's still risky. One radar pip can reveal your location, and then the hornet's nest descends on you. No matter how well-equipped you are, it can be brutal to deal with an overload of MULEs.
But stealing from the MULEs is intensely rewarding, in a way that's very, very similar to Kojima's previous game, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. Each of the camps is essentially an outpost from one of those games, and it's an opportunity to engage in some stealth action. Death Stranding retains a lot of Kojima's stealth design: a cautious, fluid approach is rewarded, where patience pays off and you make good use of the tools at your disposal.
Preparations like a smoke-emitting bit of decoy cargo will help lure MULEs away from the camp, opening up avenues for sneaking in while they inspect the distraction. Cargo management becomes critical: you want to avoid being overloaded while you run, but you also want to take as much as you can from the locker. Keep in mind that getting to the postbox is only the halfway point, since making it out of the camp with multiple barrels of precious metals and minerals is often harder than sneaking in.
When every gear is clicking into place, Death Stranding can suddenly feel like a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Solid. Patiently moving through tall grass and stalking enemies brings up memories of Snake Eater, and there's no shortage of weird gadgets throughout the game to deal with guards, much like in Metal Gear Solid 5.
It also puts a premium on non-lethal approaches, as killing guards has very real consequences: dead bodies become BTs, and BTs caused voidouts. Sam's not exactly Solid Snake either. He's a delivery man with a decent right hook, and he's often carrying enough cargo to topple him off the side of a mountain. You're not a supersoldier, and the game reflects this, often throwing enough at you that retreat is a better option than a heroic last stand.
Death Stranding's issue is that these moments don't come as often as they should, and while the tools are interesting, they can still sometimes fail to measure up to the likes of Metal Gear Solid. For every moment of brilliance, chucking a piece of cargo at a charging MULE's noggin and picking it up after it beans him, there are moments where the stealth becomes rote or even annoying. It's also frequently off the beaten path, becoming what is essentially a side activity rather than a critical portion of the journey.
The world of Death Stranding is malleable and open. You're free to choose where you want to go and what to do in order to make America whole. Often, when you're looking at where to get resources for that next big road segment, a MULE camp is a handy resource, and Death Stranding can feed its stealth action into the larger meta-game in smooth, rewarding ways through that loop. Raid, build, repeat. When they work in concert, they work.
But for those who are looking for their next Metal Gear Solid fix, that isn't what Death Stranding is. It's a complicated, bold, and perplexing thing that can frustrate any definition applied to it. But I will say that, in moments, you can see the influences shine through in the more commonplace stealth action, in raids on MULE camps and sneaking through hostile, lethal territory. It doesn't eat up the largest chunk of the game, but it does provide a welcome bit of distraction and friction in an otherwise passive world.