Last time I praised the fun worldbuilding of Control. If you’ve been reading this site for more than a month, then by now you know it’s time for me to pull a face-heel turn and start bitching about stuff.
All Remedy gamesI haven’t played Quantum Break, but I hear this rule holds true for that game as well. draw from the same general template: A third-person protagonist with a gun, plus a superpower or two. Fights are frequent to the point of being constant.
The gameplay in Control is working very hard to thwart everything the environments are trying to accomplish. It’s difficult to enjoy that weird sense of isolation and dread you should feel when exploring a haunted space if there’s a stupid mook fight in every other room.
I think of the Remedy style combat as chopping firewood: You’re using a powerful weapon to break stuff, but it’s not exciting and the experience is very repetitive. It’s a routine chore the game designer gives you every couple of minutes to keep you busy. This is totally understandable in something like Bulletstorm, but in a world as interesting, complicated, and wonderfully realized as Control, it comes off as a nuisance.
Like Alan Wake, Control is in desperate need for more quiet time. There’s a little here and there, but the fights are too frequent, too long, and too repetitive. The game never tries to mess with you. It never tries to make you feel tension. It doesn’t foreshadow a fight and then let you stew for a couple of minutes, waiting for the other shoe to drop. You just walk into a room and mooks fall out of the ceiling and you chop another load of firewood for the overbearing gameplay designer.
This is what killed Alan Wake for me. The setting made me expect a game with a sense of foreboding and suspense. That’s a pillar of scary stories. But suspense requires uncertainty, and there’s nothing to be uncertain about here.
Suspense: I’m all alone and I can’t call for help! Am I going to be attacked?
Not suspense: You will be attacked. Without a doubt. Like clockwork.
Suspense: Who’s that guy in the distance? What’s that sound? What’s behind this spooky door?
Not suspense: Whatever that is, I’m sure it’s actually just another fight. You get used to them after the first dozen or so.
The constant fights don’t hurt Control as much as they hurt Alan Wake. Control has more empowering combat and a lot more variation in its fights. Once you can hover and throw machinery around the room the whole thing starts to feel a little interesting in a way that Wake‘s flashlight mechanic never did. Having said that, firewood-chopping is definitely still a problem. Both of these games would have benefitted from more subdued pacing where the player could explore for several minutes between fights and the game could spend the intervening time threatening fights, just to keep them guessing.
Too Much of an Okay Thing
I don’t know what the deal is at Remedy. Sam Lake writes a thoughtful and interesting story that calls for carefully-paced tension, and then a gameplay designer takes the design notes and writes MOAR COMBAT!!!!!!! on them in crayon.
It’s not that it’s bad. I’m not saying Control would be more fun as a walking simulator or a Telltale-style puzzle game. I’m saying that if you asked Remedy to cook you a Big Mac they’d give you this:
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we complain about quantity we should discuss the quality.
The combat is actually pretty good. In small doses. Once it gets going. And before you get tired of it. By the halfway point you’ve unlocked all the powers they showed off in the trailer: telekinesis, hovering, shielding yourself with levitating debris, and a shape-changing firearm. The fights are a little bland in the early stages while you’re waiting to unlock stuff, and they’re monotonous in the back half when the game runs out of ideas and has you do the same fights over and over again until you’re numb, but between these points it felt like a decent action game.
Here’s how a fight will go:
Some mooks will teleport in from the mook dimension. You fling debris at them until you’re out of mojo. Then you shoot them until your mojo recovers. Repeat until they’re all dead. When the last one dies, another wave teleports in. Their teleport positions are fixed, and if you moved to the middle of the room during the first wave then you might find yourself getting shot from all sides. So you take down the second wave, and then a third wave teleports in. If the game designer is feeling really extra clever and devious they might surprise you with OH NO A FOURTH WAVE I BET YOU DIDN’T SEE THAT ONE COMING!
Once you know your way around, it’s feasible to skip the fights. Just give the mooks the finger as you jog by. You don’t earn any sort of XP for fighting trash mobs. They’re just a time sink for no benefit. You have to do the fights on your first visit to a space, though. Sometimes the game locks the doors until you’ve done your chores, and the rest of the time wandering around looking for the exit is a good way to get shot in the back.
Perhaps a Comparison Would be Useful
Sure, Control is more interesting than Generic Tentpole Cover Shooter #283, but that’s not a high bar to clear. I played this game fresh off the heels of Rage 2Although I’m publishing their respective reviews in the opposite order, for whatever reason.. Compared to Rage 2, Control feels like a one-input mobile game. Rage 2 has 10 guns, a couple of varieties of throwablesGrenades and such., and numerous special abilities. In Rage 2 you have a ground-slam, a point-blank blast move that launches foes into the air and blows off their armor, an overdrive that you charge by killing chains of mooks, and a black hole ability that draws foes in to set them up for some AoE damage.
For contrast, Control just has telekinesis spam and the ability to carry two weapons at a time. It’s incredibly one-dimensional. And that would be fine in limited doses. But frequent fights + long fights + same-y fights is a deadly combination.
Shamus, did you forget that Control gives you the ability to fly??? Did you even PLAY this game you addled old dunce?
Flying is indeed very cool, but I was comparing damage-dealing abilities. But if we’re including passive / mobility powers then Rage 2 also has double-jump and super speed.
Well Control ALSO has a dash move to evade incoming rockets, AND the ability to summon a shield, you slack-jawed codger!
Yeah, Rage 2 has that too. Both of them. Plus the ability to remotely detonate barrels. Plus the car combat stuff.
Does Rage 2 have the ability to mind-control foes? Huh?
You mean the ability that can only be used on foes that are already near death, where you have to hold still for several seconds and the camera is locked onto them, thus robbing you of both your mobility and your situational awareness? The power that’s only safe to use when you’ve already whittled the pack down to a couple of stragglers? Is that the power you’re talking about?
I didn’t use it very often. I can’t imagine why.
You made a big deal about Rage 2 having a ground-slam move, but Control has that too!
Yeah, except the one in Rage 2 obliterates foes, and the ground-slam in Control obliterates your mana pool. Since mana (whatever it’s called) powers your telekinesis, evasion, and your shield, this move effectively leaves you powerless and defenseless for several seconds. It looks awesome, I’ll give you that. It’s way cooler than the same move in Rage 2. But it’s just not as useful and it doesn’t change the fact that most battles in Control are one-note TK spam.
You’re just looking for things to complain about! Lots of people loved the combat in Control!
It sounds like lots of people need to try Rage 2. The story is maximum cringe, but the combat makes Control look like chopping firewood.
Well, I had a FANTASTIC time with the game. You must have been playing it wrong.
Actually, you’re right. Although I’m not sure how much of the blame for that should fall on me.
Making a Bad Situation Much Worse
I made three terrible mistakes during my first playthrough:
- After dying a few times and REALLY not liking itThat loading screen makes me crazy., I decided to invest in survivability. I sunk all of my skill points into raising my max health. This was a disastrous move for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
- The game starts you off with a gun, and for the first hour or two that’s your only weapon. Eventually you unlock the ability to throw objects around. I mistakenly thought this was a sort of a class-based thing, like choosing to be a knight or a wizard. I thought you could focus on guns OR magic. Since I was already comfortable with the gun and had some upgrades in it, I decided to focus on that and I put a lot of resources into unlocking stuff to let me get better upgrades.
- Somewhat randomly, I chose the “Spin” weapon form, which is roughly the SMG / Assault rifle.
I made these decisions because I wanted a casual experience with short fights and low stress. I was really having a lousy time with the combat and I hated dying, so I was trying to go for the obvious easy way, even if it’s not the most interesting. All of these are 100% the opposite of what you want to do if you want shorter fights and less dying. Telekinesis is your main DPS, and firearms are for finishing off strays and stunlocking guys while you wait for your telekinesis juice to regenerate. The Spin weapon form is, as far as I can tell, the worst weapon in the gameShatter (shotgun) is pretty good, and Pierce (railgun) is really good if you like the brinkmanship that comes with a weapon that has huge DPS and a long charge-up time..
As for boosting your health? I went through the game twice. The first time I spent a huge number of points on health, and then used mods to boost it further. My health bar was huge. And yet, getting tagged by a rocket or a heavy projectile was enough to take 75% off my health. The second time through the game, I spent NOTHING on health and invested heavily into damage-dealing. My health bar was hilariously tiny, yet I found that rockets and heavy projectiles took about 75% off of it.
Does this game offer the ability to upgrade your health bar while also having damage that’s calculated as a proportion of your max health? I don’t know. I don’t have the source code. But something here is seriously wrong.
So for my first trip through the game, I basically threw away a majority of my skill points on a do-nothing skill that didn’t help me in any way. This means I wasn’t putting points into telekinesis, which is your main source of damage output. This was a disaster. See, the big foes in this game get a free shield recharge every N seconds. This shield is at least as large as their HP bar. This isn’t like a regenerating shield in games where their shield recovers when you stop damaging them. This is a full refill that can’t be delayed or interrupted.
An Example Fight
Let’s assume I have enough power to use telekinesis 8 times, and that each usage takes 25% of the shield / HP bar. So I fling 4 objects at the mook to blow off his shield, and then another 4 to drain his HP. He dies. That’s a lot of repetitive flinging and I don’t enjoy fighting damage sponges like this, but fine. It took me 8 attacks, but at least this guy is dead and I can move on to the next one.
But now let’s say I invested my points differently so that I can only use telekinesis 5 times. I’ll fling 4 objects at the foe to burn off the shield, and then my final throw will knock 25% off his HP bar. Now I’m out of juice. By the time that recharges, so does his shield. So I have to go through the entire loop again: 4 attacks to burn down the shield, then one more for the HP bar. Then wait, and repeat again.
This way, it takes 20(!!!) attacks to kill him, with several seconds of wait time between salvos. Going from 5 attacks to 8 is only an increase of about 60%, but the result is that the fight with the under-powered mana pool will probably take four times as longTaking into account the recharge time. without that extra power. And that’s just one guy in a group! And that group is just one of three or four I’ll fight in this room!
It’s even worse when you take into account the general ebb and flow of a battle. You need to keep evading and moving around to avoid getting hit. This will often spoil your attacks, and by the time you’ve recovered, your foe’s shield is back up and you haven’t made any progress. In games like Borderlands you can forestall or halt shield recharge by harassing them with constant damage, but in Control the shields get a full refill at regular intervals and there’s nothing you can do to interrupt that process.
The health upgrades in this game are apparently a placebo, and the TK upgrades have a massive impact on the length of fights.
Which means there’s going to be a huge variation in player experience. Some people love the combat and other people loathe it, but I wonder how much of that divide is shaped by this grossly unbalanced skill tree where some powers have no perceptible effect and others are needed to save you from torturous Sisyphean combat encounters. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that skill points are based on story progress rather than as a result of combat. There aren’t enough points to fill out the whole skill tree, so players that invest poorly can wind up permanently gimped.
Shamus, it serves you right for making bad choices on the level-up screen. This is what you get when choices matter!
This would be a valid point if the game provided enough information so you could make an informed decision. But this game doesn’t show HP numbers, or damage numbers. It doesn’t display the cost of TK powers as a number that you could relate to your bar, which also has no numbers. The upgrades promise 20% of this or 10% more of that, but without context this feels like any other generic shooter where you’re choosing between a dozen or so very minor upgrades. And of course, even the “choices matter” excuse doesn’t excuse placebo health upgrades.
Having such a wonky, poorly-explained, woefully unbalanced upgrade system wouldn’t be a big deal if this game didn’t have such an intense focus on combat.
My second play-through was a lot more fun. I ignored the health upgrades and just got more mojo juice to power my TK ability. Fights were less of a chore, but that doesn’t mean they were fun. The Control combat exists in this frustrating middle ground. It’s not varied enough to be exciting like Rage 2, and it’s not subdued enough to give a sense of unease and mystery.
And yet, this isn’t my biggest gripe with the game. I’ll cover that when I wrap this series up in the next entry.
 I haven’t played Quantum Break, but I hear this rule holds true for that game as well.
 Although I’m publishing their respective reviews in the opposite order, for whatever reason.
 Grenades and such.
 That loading screen makes me crazy.
 Shatter (shotgun) is pretty good, and Pierce (railgun) is really good if you like the brinkmanship that comes with a weapon that has huge DPS and a long charge-up time.
 Taking into account the recharge time.
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