Red Bull limited edition flavors and some other stuff

Boy howdy, this week’s review of all the so-called Limited Edition Red Bull drinks promises to be hard to judge. They’re all just so good, and unlike Monster’s candy-inspired flavors, they taste like real fruit juices got added to a can of regular Red Bull. The new summer edition with Juneberry is certainly delightful, but is it better than dragon fruit, watermelon, or apricot mixed with strawberry? Yes sir, a hard competition indeed.

Or, we could review Death Stranding, which I finally finished. That’s on me for getting tangled up with two massive games at the same time and failing to juggle them right. (To be fair, I suck at real juggling, too.)

If you’ve followed me long enough, you know I’m not really a fan of Hideo Kojima. I’ve played several versions of the original PS1-era Metal Gear, the PS Vita remasters of Metal Gear 2 and 3, and the PS4 release Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. In all cases, Hideo’s penchant for overwriting by way of repeating the exact same information twice or even three times rubs me the wrong way, and it gets in the way of what I really want to do, play the games. In all these cases, I’ve ended up repeating a similarly worded lament, “Dude, if you want to talk so much, write a movie or a book!”

Obviously, I skipped out on the release of Death Stranding. No positive review could get me to play a postal worker simulator with Norman Reedus, and that’s not because of the game itself, but with who made it. I ain’t a fan. But then Epic Game Store gave the game out for free, and I thought, Well, if it sucks, I can just delete it and move on.

Knowing me and my tastes, it may come as a surprise that I liked Death Stranding after all. Not really the story, though there was a plot twist that took foreshadowing cut scenes and then dropped a bombshell reveal to cleverly subvert my expectations of where the story was heading. But apart from that, the vast majority of characters are flat and stereotypical, and there’s still Kojima’s penchant for repetition that grinds my gears (Solid Metal Gears, if you will.)

But the actual game, the job of delivering packages to remote locations, really clicked for me. It’s a surprisingly Zen experience, punctuated occasionally with some nervous tension, and despite some missteps here and there (one of them involving a misstep off the side of a cliff in a blizzard, so that one was my bad), it ended up being one of the most satisfying games I’ve played this year.

Let me try to wade slightly into the story in a way that I hope will avoid spoilers. A supernatural event wiped out most of the human population and left the remaining survivors stranded and separated. The remains of the US government set up an expedition called BRIDGES to try and link these people together, and they ran into resistance from terrorists, who blew up a city to stymy the government’s progress.

Somewhere in the midst of these proceedings, a courier by the name of SamPorterBridges (Play the game for even two hours and this is going to make perfect sense) struck out on his own to make deliveries without dealing with his mommy issues. Which sounds derogatory, I know, but his mother is revealed in the opening moments of the game to be the US President, and she’s dying of cancer. After she dies and Sam is contracted to deliver her body to an incinerator, her right hand man *shudder* Die-Hardman *shudder* convinces SamPorterBridges to rejoin BRIDGES for a second one-man reunion tour to link all of these outposts and Make America Great Again.

(By the way, there are a lot of people in this game with asinine names, given out with explanations that make Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four naming scene seem almost cerebral. “They call me Mama because I’m a Mama.” Ugh, feh, and meh.)

To reconnect all these outposts, SamPorterBridges is given a necklace with a bunch of magic keys to connect everyone to a super-fast wireless network that will let them share information and even print equipment. It’s like the internet, but supernatural.

So SamPorterBridges goes out on his tour of the Pygmy US, where walking two kilometers is enough to cross from one state to the next, or even to cross two in some cases. The game falls into a kind of rhythm, with SamPorterBridges making a delivery, maybe unlocking new gear, and then taking another job to go somewhere else. Sometimes a new route will unlock a new song, and that’s a bonus because the soundtrack is a great collection of melancholy songs that fit with the world and the themes the game is covering.

I’ll break away from the story to cover controls, which are a little different than most games. A lot of the time, you have to keep holding down the triggers, which control SamPorterBridges’ hands to grip the straps of his pack. Otherwise he has a tendency to stumble and fall, which damages his packages, and breaking cargo is bad, mm’kay? And sure, it’s a weird hand position to keep hold of for long stretches of the game, but once I got used to it, it wasn’t all that different from a driving game or an FPS. Once I got used to it, the grip itself became part of the chill out experience.

Then, the tension comes in. Throughout the world there are pockets of ghosts floating around in the rain, and if they catch SamPorterBridges it turns into this whole struggle in supernatural tar to get away from dead people and dolphins and giant squids. (If I make it sound dumb, it’s actually visually stunning the first couple of times to see it in action.) I’m told that if I got dragged down into the tar, it would cause an explosion big enough to wipe out the entire area, including all the settlements. I wouldn’t know, because I managed to escape the tar pits each time with some expedient jumping and screaming. (I’m pretty sure the screaming helped.)

These moments of tension are reduced to routine gate checks once SamPorterBridges gets access to Hematic Grenades, blood bombs that can exorcise ghosts and let SamPorterBridges get on with his job. At first, just having five grenades can lead to tension if I miss with one or two in a particularly dense haunting. But then SamPorterBridges gets a backpack upgrade allowing him to carry a LOT of grenades. No, like A LOT of grenades. So, so many.

Let me pause here and explain how much this upgrade trivializes the threats of the game. The first time Super Terrorist Higgs (winner of the least dumb character name in the game, while still being pretty dumb, award) shows up to drop a boss monster on SamPorterBridges, there aren’t enough grenades on hand to deal with this new threat. So SamPorterBridges has to leap from one building to the next to hunt for more grenades and finish the job. It’s very tense and scary, yes?

Right, but by the time Higgs shows up for round two, SamPorterBridges can just stand in place and chuck grenades until the boss goes back to the beach it was summoned from. Oh sure, he might have to dodge roll once or twice if the boss gets frisky, but what was genuinely terrifying becomes routine with just two equipment upgrades. (The boss monsters all look cool, though, so there is that.)

There are also some bad guys who like to steal packages for reasons so dumb it hurt my brain to think about it. These guys seem like a threat right up until the games sends SamPorterBridges into a camp to steal back some Very Important MacGuffin. Then once I realized how easy it was to beat them up and steal their stuff, I actually went around their camps like a third grade bully stomping through an unsupervised kindergarten playground. It’s a great way to get spare materials when an outpost is running low on printing supplies, or when a section of highway is in need of repairs. Later on, there’s an equipment upgrade that can shut down their security system, so I was going in all Metal Gear style to sneak up on them and knock them out before they could cry to their buddies for help. Yes, it’s terrible, but it’s also loads of fun.

There are vehicles to unlock, three-wheeled motorcycles and big ass cargo trucks. They’re both nice for certain kinds of deliveries, particularly if you put in the effort to rebuild the highways. But a lot of deliveries still go to places littered with rocks and deep waterways, making the use of vehicles more of a menace than a convenience.

Plus, regardless of vehicle type, all the wheels have less traction than freshly greased Teflon. Try driving on even a slight incline, and they’ll all slide down sideways faster than a stripper doing a pole dance with a fully oiled body. So even after getting wheels, sometimes the best answer is going on foot, usually with some robotic leg attachments to make carrying heavy loads less taxing.

Near the halfway point in the game Mads Mikkelsen…sorry, Clifford Unger (what!?! A character with a nice normal name?!?! What sorcery is this, Hideo Kojima!?!?) enters the game with a flashy introduction that gets SamPorterBridges trapped in a battle with lots of boney dead soldiers led by Cliff, who keeps shouting “I want my BB back, BB back, BB back!” like he was in an old Chili’s baby back ribs commercial.

Now, each time SamPorterBridges previously connected with BB, there’s been a flashback of what Cliff was like before he become a scary boss fight. In this way, he is the only character in the whole game that I could relate to, even as I’m having to empty another shotgun shell into his exquisitely rendered face. Nobody else gets the chance to develop the way he does, not even SamPorterBridges. That’s a tragedy, because I would have liked to know more about Deadman and Heartman so I could connect with them instead of waving my hand while they talk and lamenting, “Ugh, can we get on with it already?”

That’s my biggest complaint, really. Cliff is given character in these little flashbacks that last maybe a minute at most, and everyone else has to talk and talk for ten minutes about the next job, or the next invention. None of them can relay any information that makes me care about them. You’d think Mama explaining her condition or her connection to her sister might get some emotional response from me, but all it really did was make me roll my eyes because it’s lazy writing that falls back on one of the most overused tropes in fiction. I want to say more, but it’s a massive spoiler, so I’ll move on.

Finishing up the game, there was nothing of the story that left an impression with me, but through it all, what kept me going was the job, simple as it was. Look at the delivery, decide if it goes in a vehicle or on foot, and then go do the job. There was a kind of satisfaction in that loop that kept me going right to the very end.

If I have any other complaints, they’re minor but notable. Item durability is shoved into the game mechanics thanks to “timefall,” or rain and snow that will cause stuff to age rapidly. To illustrate this, grass and flowers are constantly moving in a rapid life and death cycle, and equipment and even the roads can break down ridiculously fast because of this effect. Yet for some reason, all the trees in a forest remain unchanging. I’m guessing animating the life-death cycle of a forest would have made even the best CPU and GPU go “fuck it” and explode in a rapid overheating death. In any case, it’s a pain to have to stop playing the game to go around collecting metal, ceramics, and crystals just to keep the roadways from breaking down again.

Second is, the game finally gives real guns, and not a hot second later, here’s Hideo heavily intruding on my fun to say, “Now don’t kill any people with guns, cause that would be bad, mm’kay?” I get it, it’s a staple of his writing to avoid gun violence. But if the game has actual nukes alongside magic ghost bombs, I’d like to use a gun without Kojima sternly wagging a finger at me for being the bad guy. And maybe it’s just that the typical nature of games is to make a gun the easiest solution to most problems. But part of it is also that the game goes on a long time making up poop and pee bombs before going “Oh, yeah, I guess we could re-invent guns, too.” It’s just dumb.

And finally, what the fuck was up with all the Monster Energy Drink branding? Was Hideo close to bankruptcy and needed that sweet Monster money? Okay, that’s fine, but why was it the only corporate branding? There’s literal pizza delivery missions in the game, so why not get in on some Pizza Hut cash? Or have the private room stocked with Taco Bell and KFC, and have SamPorterBridges singing jingles while he eats? Why did Monster get so much love? Is…is Hideo Kojima a Monster addict?

But I can still set aside my complaints and give Death Stranding 4 stars. The tasks it gives are mundane and yet beautiful at the same time, and I’m glad I finally gave it a chance and didn’t miss out. Who knows? I might even one day become a fan of—

Great, now that you’ve got this weather station online, you can see predictions of timefall. Just look on your cuff for the weather report.

Dee deet dee deet dee deet! Hey, Mama here. Great news, Sam. Now that you’ve got the weather station online, you can see predictions when and where timefall will occur. Just look at your cuff for the weather report.

Dee deet dee deet dee deet! Hey Sam, Die-Hardman here. Good news! Now that you’ve got that weather station online, you can see predictions for timefall storms. Just check your cuff for the weather report.

Nope, still not a fan. (‘>_<)__\,|,/