Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Control Ultimate Edition (PS5)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Control, The Foundation and AWE.

Sometime after the release of Quantum Break, Remedy Entertainment would announce their next game, Control, which released in 2019 and played on themes of the paranormal while adding in a mild sci-fi twist. Since I enjoyed two of the studio’s previous games, Alan Wake and Quantum Break, I looked forward to Control, despite not knowing much about it. Since the game had its own set of DLC, I waited for the physical Ultimate Edition of the game on PS4 and took advantage of the free upgrade to the PS5 version. After playing the game without any expectations, but with the knowledge of a crossover with Alan Wake, I found myself having a good time with the final product, even if it’s not perfect.

Jesse Faden is guided to the Oldest House, the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), and enters in search of answers regarding her past. As she makes her way through the building, she comes across the lifeless body of FBC Director Zachariah Trench and picks up his gun, the Service Weapon. When she does, she’s taken to the Astral Plane, where the Board appoints her the new Director of the FBC. Shortly after, Jesse fights her way through FBC agents possessed by a paranormal entity she dubs “the Hiss” until she cleanses the Central Executive Sector. There, she learns that the Oldest House is on lockdown and agrees to help contain the Hiss in exchange for information on her missing brother, Dylan.

The greatest strength in Control’s writing comes not from its interesting lore and consistent and engaging characters, but from the dedication to its theme. Since the FBC is all about secrets, the game knows when exactly to withhold information from the player and introduces just enough information at the right moment to keep players engaged. Relevant information about the main story usually comes from dialogue between Jesse and another character, but pre-rendered cutscenes help make certain interactions more cinematic or visualize Jesse’s thoughts between the main missions as her motivations shift. Admittedly, it isn’t hard for players to figure out certain twists a little bit before their formal reveal, but the writing can still give these twists the proper weight. Although the FBC’s internal language is also thrown in, there isn’t much and their definitions are clear enough that players can easily follow along.

While Jesse can learn the most relevant about the FBC through dialogue, she can learn even more at the same time as the player through collectable documents and audio logs. These collectables provide unique insight into the FBC from multiple perspectives and help answer some questions while also sparking the player’s imagination through some redacted elements. Piecing together some of the redacted information based on later information can actually feel fun at times, though there’s enough knowledge out of the players’ reach that keeps the air of mystery alive. This delivery, which includes descriptions and containment procedures for both Altered Items (AIs) and Objects of Power (OoPs) can also bring to mind the fictional SCP Foundation, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as those who are fans of that universe may enjoy seeing such a concept fully realized with a much bigger budget.

This style of presentation adds an air of mystery to the FBC.

One thing I appreciated was how the game incorporated live-action to help deliver key information diagetically. In key areas of the Oldest House, Jesse may come across a projector or TV screen where FBC scientist Dr. Casper Darling explains certain concepts as they become relevant. Since Darling’s recordings appear during gameplay, the normal flow isn’t broken and players can absorb the story at their own leisure, since the full recording can be viewed later in the Collectables menu. Similarly, after Jesse uses the Hotline (an OoP resembling a 1960s red Bakelite phone) for the first time, she will occasionally hear a message, which the player sees as a live-action version of the character projected into the space ahead of Jesse. Although the player can only hear a fragment of the message this way, the Collectables menu will also contain a full version of the message. Another storytelling element that I picked up on was that Jesse occasionally speaks with an entity named Polaris throughout the game, but the way she does so can give the impression that she’s speaking with the player, which adds a new level of immersion depending on the line.

Throughout the game, there are also numerous references to characters and events from Alan Wake, both in the story itself and through optional documents. I’ll get more into this later, but as a fan of the game, it was cool to find these references once I realized what they were.

As Jesse makes her way through the FBC, she can fight off the Hiss with a combination of the Service Weapon and various psychic abilities. The Service Weapon can take on many forms for multiple functions, including the basic Grip, Spin, which has rapid-fire capabilities, and Pierce, which can ignore armor, among others. Only two forms can be equipped at any one time, meaning the player will have to figure out the right combination to help clear out the area, though I found that most of the time the second weapon didn’t matter and I could get away with the basic Grip form. Either way, all forms draw from the same (infinite) ammo pool and need time to reload.

Jesse will need her powers and the Service Weapon to stand a chance.

Throughout the journey, Jesse will become bound to different OoPs, granting her new psychic abilities that she can access all at the same time. For instance, the Floppy Disk OoPs lets her telekinetically grab and launch objects or parts of the environment and the Benicoff TV OoP grants her the power of levitation. Much like the Service Weapon, however, every ability except Levitate requires a certain amount of Energy to use and will all draw from the same source. Jesse’s Energy will regenerate over time, but can make her a sitting duck if players use her powers recklessly. As such, combat easily turns into a balancing act between using the Service Weapon and Jesse’s abilities, which can make encounters more thrilling at times, especially once you figure out the right rhythm.

Players can also help give Jesse an edge in the fight against the Hiss by equipping her with up to three Personal Mods that grant certain bonuses or stat boosts, as well as up to three Weapon Mods for each form of the Service Weapon. Weapon Mods come with either a general boost, like faster reload times or improved accuracy, or a boost for a specific Form’s capabilities. These mods are found throughout the environment or obtained through completing various side quests and have different rarities that influence the strength of the boost, with a Common version of a mod providing the weakest boost and the Absolute or Infinite versions providing the strongest boost.

Equipping the right Mods is essential.

Although Control presents its gameplay as a third-person shooter and allows ducking behind cover, approaching the combat like a traditional cover shooter can quickly get you killed, especially early on. Constant movement is key, as is a good degree of environmental awareness, as the Hiss can swarm and overwhelm Jesse if the player isn’t careful. With that said, I noticed that through natural progression, the game’s balance of power gradually shifts in favor of the player. Early on, it can feel like Jesse barely survives large encounters, but with the right ability upgrades and mods, combat can feel trivial. With that in mind, the game does also gradually increase the strength of the Hiss forces in later areas of FBC to compensate. Should the player find themselves struggling more than they should, the game also includes an Assist Mode that can help balance the power gap, including adjustments like damage multipliers, Aim Snapping and Immortality (Jesse’s health can’t go below a value of one); fortunately, Assist Mode doesn’t disable Trophies.

Every so often, Jesse can also claim or cleanse a Control Point within the Oldest House. Cleansing a Control Point usually creates a safe space within the building and opens up new areas while interacting with a Control Point in any way will completely restore Jesse’s health and establish the checkpoint where she’ll respawn if she dies. Jesse can also fast travel between any Control Points she has previously touched or grow stronger through crafting Astral Constructs and spending Ability Points on upgrades for the effectiveness or duration of Jesse’s powers. Crafting Astral Constructs requires Source and other Assets obtained by defeating enemies and can include new or upgraded weapon forms and random mods of different rarities, with the option to upgrade Jesse so the player can generate mods of higher rarities. Jesse can also accept Board Countermeasures, where defeating Hiss enemies with certain restrictions, such as using a specific weapon form, can grant Jesse additional rewards. If you’re at the Central Executive Control Point, you can also change Jesse’s outfit, though the difference is purely cosmetic.

Jesse can grow more powerful as the game progresses.

While Control has a fairly linear progression, the Oldest House is still open enough to reward exploration and finding hidden areas, sometimes rewarding an Ability Point for doing so. Some side areas require a higher clearance level, which encourages backtracking to previous parts of the building as Jesse advances through the story. Once in a while, Jesse may also receive a timed Bureau Alert, which requires returning to a specific area of the building to defeat a new grouping of the Hiss, though this is completely optional. Interestingly, the Health Elements that enemies drop during combat, which can heal Jesse in the field, persist within the environment, at least from my observation while in the same play session.

As much as I enjoyed the gameplay, however, some issues seem overlooked even after patches. When unpausing the game with Options, the camera would momentarily lock in place, which meant a moment of properly reorienting Jesse so she would face the right way once camera control returned. Navigating the Oldest House isn’t difficult, but the map screen, while fine for general distance, doesn’t properly account for elevation, so you’re better off reading the in-game signs if you want to know where exactly your destination is. Then there’s the fact that Jesse loses 10% Source on death, which wouldn’t feel like such a bad penalty if not for the occasional difficulty spike that feels a bit harsh for the player’s placement in the story. These difficulty spikes mostly showed up during the boss fights, which felt imbalanced to the point where I ended up using Immortality and Aim Snapping just so I could advance the story without losing too much Source (though I did so very sparingly).

The in-game map isn't the most helpful.

PS5 players should also keep in mind that there’s a side quest, “Dr. Yoshimi Tokui's Guided Imagery Experience”, that is locked to the PS4 version of the game for whatever reason. You’ll also be unable to access the pre-order Outfits for Jesse.

Another difficulty spike came from the final chapter, which consists of a series of lengthy fights against various groups of Hiss. While I didn’t end up using Assist Mode here, I wondered what exactly I still needed to prove to the game before it let me finish the game. Fortunately, this section also let me skip the fights that I had previously cleared.

Visually, Control may be the best effort from Remedy yet, and not just in its unique combination of CG and live-action elements, which includes a suitably creepy series of puppet-based shorts called The Threshold Kids. The FBC’s brutalist architecture gives the building shifts a unique flair while also highlighting how cold and indifferent it is towards the humans living and working inside. Consistent visual themes help to tie the experience together, such as an inverted black pyramid representing the Board or the color red flashing in the environment as an early warning sign of the Hiss. Other visual effects help sell the ethereal and mysterious qualities of the Hiss and Jesse’s attacks feel like they have a real impact. There was one time, however, where Jesse got into a T-pose during the conversation, which broke the immersion.

The brutalist architecture gives the FBC a unique feel.

Control also features some great voice acting and sound effects, especially during combat, that fit in well with the setting. Especially noteworthy, however, are the great songs by Finnish rock band Poets of the Fall, who have previously lent their talents to a number of other Remedy projects. One song, “Take Control” (credited to Old Gods of Asgard), plays during a very memorable sequence in the penultimate chapter while another, “My Dark Disquiet”, can be found in a hidden location where players can listen to it at their leisure.

In March 2020, Control received its first story DLC, The Foundation. In this storyline, the Board summons Jesse to the Foundation, a classified area beneath the Oldest House that houses the Nail, which connects the Oldest House to the Astral Plane. When Jesse arrives, she discovers that the Nail is broken, allowing the Astral Plane to leak into reality. To prevent a full collision, she must enter the Astral Plane and cleanse the Nail from within.

Storywise, The Foundation adds to the lore already present in the base game, offering more insight into the inner workings of the FBC and a previous expedition into the Foundation. We also learn more about the Board and the Former, who previously appeared in the base game as a boss with little explanation. As a continuation of the base game, this DLC does its job well, maintaining the tone and atmosphere very well.

The Foundation has its own surprises.

This DLC also adds two new powers for Jesse, Create and Fracture, that allow her to manipulate the crystals placed throughout the environment. For those who found the base game’s mods too simple, Jesse can also find new ones that offer bonuses under certain conditions, like taking damage from specific attack types. There’s also a new Hiss type, which adds some variety to combat encounters, though they can also arguably make them more annoying at times. I also ran into an issue during the “Pope’s Collection” side quest where it didn’t properly register Jesse collecting the five required ID Cards. These ID Cards also kept respawning, so collecting them again properly allowed me to finally complete the side quest.

A free update from around this time also added a Jukebox OoP, which Jesse can find in the security room in Central Executive, as well as the related Jukebox Token item. Using the Jukebox sends Jesse to a new location called The Formation, where she can take on Expeditions for various rewards. Depending on the difficulty, each Expedition requires a certain number of Jukebox Tokens, which players can either earn from defeating enemies or craft as an Astral Construct. Whether these Expeditions and their rewards, including a unique Outfit, are worth the effort depends on who you ask, but I at least found it interesting that The Formation also expands on the lore of the FBC and gives players another way to extend their playtime.

Later, in August 2020, Control would receive a second piece of story DLC, AWE (Altered World Events), alongside an update that introduced many of the quality of life changes I experienced throughout the base game. In this crossover with Alan Wake, Jesse is summoned by Alan Wake via the Hotline to the Investigations Sector, where a corrupted Emil Hartman, a scientist investigating the Dark Presence, roams free. Jesse must contain and defeat Hartman before he can break out and infiltrate the rest of the FBC.

This DLC storyline gives a massive payoff to the numerous Alan Wake references in the base game, as here it’s firmly established that they take place in the same universe. Despite this, however, some players may feel disappointed that Alan Wake himself doesn’t have a larger role in the story or that Jesse spends most of her time chasing down Hartman. As a saving grace, however, the ending hints very strongly at a second Alan Wake game, which is planned for a release in 2023.

Like The Foundation, AWE also makes its own neat contributions to the core gameplay. The Investigations Sector gives players a whole new area of the Oldest House to explore, complete with its own secrets and additions to the central lore. Jesse can also craft a new weapon form, Surge, a grenade launcher that makes damaging groups of enemies or accessing secret areas easier. More mods are introduced, continuing the trend from The Foundation, and AWE’s side quests now offer Unique Mods as rewards, dramatically increasing the power of the Service Weapon past any point previously thought possible. Every so often, Jesse can use light to banish the Dark Presence, just like in Alan Wake.

Darkness is the enemy in AWE.

Perhaps the best addition, however, is the SHÜM arcade cabinets, which Jesse can come across in the Investigations Sector. The first of the two cabinets, SHÜM, adds an Arcade Mode where Jesse can fight off waves of Hiss until she reaches a certain goal. The other, SHÜM 2, lets Jesse fight unique bosses like The Anchor or esseJ again, as well as replay the incredible Ashtray Maze sequence. These cabinets help make up for the shortcomings of the AWE storyline and make playing the DLC worth the effort.

Even without one of the game’s side quests, Control Ultimate Edition is a great buy for the PS5. Its intriguing setting, unique characters and engaging gameplay all help keep the player invested from beginning to end and those waiting for Alan Wake II may find the crossover in this game particularly enjoyable, even with its imperfections. If you feel you may miss content while playing this version, however, the PS4 version is a good alternative.

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