Last time I whined that there was too much combat in what should be a slow-burn mystery thriller. But that’s not my biggest gripe with the game. My biggest gripe is how the game manages difficulty. For you.
Death-Based Difficulty is a Terrible Idea. Please Stop.
I should have remembered that Remedy is fond of auto-balancing difficulty based on death. That’s a system where the more guys you kill, the harder the game hits. The more you die, the more foes are nerfed. In racing games we call this “rubber banding”, where the other cars will drive faster if you’re ahead and slower if you’re falling behind. It makes the race exciting and interesting until you spot the cheating, at which point it ruins the entire experienceFor me, anyway. The practice is so common I figure it must be what most people want???.
The last chapters of the original Max Payne were an exercise in obsessive save-scumming to compensate for the ridiculous insta-deaths you’ll experience when entering a new room. Once you’ve killed enough mooks without dying, the rest of them are turned into flawless killbots with millisecond reaction times. You’ll open the door and instantly three mooks will snap fire directly at your face for an abrupt and unavoidable trip to the Game Over screen. When this would happen, I’d deliberately charge face-first into the room a few times and let them murder me until the difficulty system had backed off again.
It wasn’t a very good system.
A system like this will, by necessity, always ramp past you, so you will inevitably die at intervals to bring the game back down to your level. It sort of guarantees a “one death every N encounters” sort of deal. I hate this system. It’s like a magical dumbell that increases weight so you can never lift it more than once, no matter how strong you get. Am I getting better? I can’t tell! I’m here to master a video game and feel myself getting better, and an auto-balancing system prevents me from having that experience!
Imagine a version of Quake where the difficulty increases every time you beat a level and goes down when you die. After a few levels, you’re either dead or you’re on Nightmare. Even if I can play on NightmareFor context, I’ve beaten Quake on Nightmare mode with permadeath, so I can indeed play on that level., maybe I don’t want to play on Nightmare right now, you know? That’s a very intense experience. I might go for something like that if I’m looking for new challenges in an old game, but for a first play-through I really don’t want to have to push that hard. Once I’ve been alive for an hour or so, the fights start taking a lot of time and it kills the fun, empowering feel that the game seems to be going for.
My goal is to not die. If I’m dying, then I’m not good enough. At the same time, I want to feel like I could die if I get sloppy. I want the game to keep me on my toes, but if I’m doing my job then I shouldn’t be dropping dead. But here the game designer has decided that a death every N encountersOr perhaps N foes. is the “proper” experience, and they’ve decided to force that onto everyone else. If you suck, the game will ramp down until you only die every N encounters. If you get better at the game, you’ll have successful encounters until the game escalates to the new equilibrium and then you’re back to dying every N fights.
In Batman, I can tell how well I’m doing because my foes are a fixed, known quantity. They’re not going to take a dive if I’m rubbish or cheat their ass off if I’m “too good”. They just play the fucking game according to the rules and everyone has to live with the result. Same goes for Dark Souls. The designer doesn’t feel the need to put their thumb on the scale to make you “feel” skilled, they just put up a barrier and you can try to climb over it.
Let’s Compare this to Half-Life 2
Half-Life 2 also tries to fudge the numbers in the name of balance, but that system is based on player health instead of deaths. When your health is low, health pickups give you more healing and foes do less damage. When you’re healthy, the reverse is true. This sort of funnels everyone into a same-y experience where everyone has health in the mid-range and if you manage to max out then it will get taken back down very quickly. The game tries to keep everyone into a state where they feel like they can’t be careless.
Both games punish skilled play and reward failure. But Half-Life 2 does it based on player health and Remedy games do it based on deaths and kills. Half-Life 2 makes it feel like you could die at any time if you get sloppy, while a Remedy game requires you to actually die at regular intervals regardless of your skill level. Moreover, Half-Life 2 has multiple difficulty levels for the player to choose from, while Control adopts a one-size-fits-nobody approach to balance. If you’re bored and want the game to keep the challenge high even if you die, too bad. If you’re frustrated and want fewer setbacks, too bad. If you just want a constant experience to measure yourself against, too bad. The game doesn’t have any way to adjust that.
Auto-balancing based on deaths is a system that obfuscates mastery in order to push everyone into a homogenous experience that makes a lot of unfounded assumptions about the user’s frustration level. This might be acceptable if not for the 30 second post-death loading screenNo, I’m not playing from an SSD. Yes, I’m aware that would speed things up. But my SSD isn’t NEARLY big enough to hold my library, and splitting your library across multiple drives is a huge pain in the ass.. What is that thing even for? You get it even if you’re respawning in the same damn room! What’s my computer doing with those 30 seconds and why can’t I spend them playing the game?
To be clear, I can’t prove that Control is using death-based auto-balancing. The game uses health bars without numbers so you can’t track damage values to see if / when the game is fudging things. But Remedy has been a fan of the practice in the past and my experience with this game was consistent with that design.
An experiment: I died to a super-aggressive foe. So then I killed myself six times in a rowI endured three solid minutes of loading screens for this knowledge. You’re welcome.In the research area there’s a spawn point right beside a handy ledge for some terminal skydiving.. When I went back to the encounter, I found the foe was far less aggressive. His attacks were very far apart and they were very well telegraphed. Regardless of what the invisible difficulty slider was doing, the attacks always did the same damage. The first hit took 75% of my HP. The second took me down to 1 pixel of HP. Then one of the lesser mooks would finish me off with their low-damage firearms. This was always true regardless of how large or small my HP bar was.
Without visible damage numbers it’s impossible to tell how the auto-adjustment works, but it’s clear the game is doing something to tip the scales for or against you. These observations are based on just two playthroughs with different builds, and only with a limited number of foes. Even if I’m wrong about the mechanics of Remedy’s rubber-band difficulty, I can say with confidence that the abilities to upgrade your health are garbage. Those upgrades are indistinguishable from a placebo.
An Example of the Problem
To illustrate both of my grievances with the game, let me spoil one of the isolated sidequests. Skip to the next section if you’re not in the mood for spoiler-y things right now.
The mission in question is called Self-Reflection. You have to enter a haunted mirror and de-haunt it.
I was into this. I was expecting some kind of reverse-text or reverse-directions puzzle on the other side. Maybe someone designed a puzzle like that for this adventure, but then someone scribbled MOAR COMBAT all over the design notes. So when you get into the mirror, you have to fight… yourself.
I was really expecting the game to do something interesting with this idea. Maybe the trick is that damage is reflected back to the attacker, so the solution is to go passive and let evil-you kill themselves by shooting you? Nope! Maybe you need to remain passive and just catch their rockets and throw them back? Nope! Maybe you need to lure them into shooting at a reflective surface and hurting themselves? Nope!
It’s just a fight. Like any other gunfight. Except mirror-you has (deep sigh) a gargantuan health bar.
Fine. We knock down this screen-spanning health bar to-
Okay, we have to fight the mirror image twice to-
Damn it. You have to do the fight three times, back-to-back, with escalating difficulty, and if you die you get kicked back to the opposite side of the level and have to start the whole process over. Not only is this doing nothing with an interesting premise, but it’s belaboring the point beyond reason.
This mission kicked my ass. Mirror Jesse was insanely aggressive. She’d spam rockets like crazy. I’d dodge one and it would hit the wall to make a huge cloud of debris. Then ANOTHER one would come sailing out out of the smoke and I’d take it right on the nose with no hope of dodging. At close range she’d kill me with unavoidable face-rockets and at a distance it was a long, slow job to wear her down with my pistolShotgun wasn’t much use at that distance.. The rockets bend to seek the player. They move fast with a tight turning radius, so dodging too early is just as bad as too late. Sooner or later I’d flub the timing or I’d get caught on a corner or a bit of scenery and eat the rocket and then it was back to the last control point.
It was a loading screen and a long hike to get back to the fight, so after my third death I looked on YouTube. This person is supposedly doing the same mission, but it looks like they’re playing a different game. Mirror Jesse is practically docile in that video. She rarely attacks. She can’t shoot straight. Even her shotgun pellets look slow enough to dodge. She mostly keeps her distance and sometimes she just stands still to eat a bunch of bullets. Her rockets travel in a straight line instead of curving to hit you. I’ve never seen them do that!
This game doesn’t offer a way for the player to adjust the difficulty, which means this discrepancy can only be attributed to the auto-adjusting systemEither that, or the game is balanced differently for consoles. But if that was the case then I think someone would have noticed by now.. My guess is that the moronic auto-balancing is out of whack when it comes to boss fights.
What started out as a fun mystery and a cool idea became a dumb, unbalanced, unimaginative, frustrating repetitive fight.
Get help, man.
Weeks after writing the rest of this article, I’ve come up with an alternate / additional theory: One of the main things to kill me in this game is homing rockets. The mirror mission I discussed above is a good example, but you fight guys with homing rockets all through the game. The turning radius of these rockets often seemed really unreasonable to me. I’d dodge sideways and then the rocket would make a J-shaped turn and hit me in the side of the head. I do not see this happening in the footage of the game I see on YouTube.
This would suggest that I survived long enough to get the auto-difficulty system to adjust to some level above what these other players have reached. I dislike this explanation since it requires us to believe that I’m that much better than all these young kids, and I’m sure that isn’t the case.
I was running the game at 144fps. Could the rocket turning be based on framerate? I don’t know. This would be hard to measure conclusively. You can’t accurately measure angles and turning radius in the middle of a chaotic fight, and more importantly I’m not interested in doing the experiment. I’m just throwing this out there as something to consider.
I enjoyed Control’s world and I’m sure lots of people will enjoy chopping all this firewood, but I’m convinced that both the gameplay and the story would be stronger if they weren’t in the same game. This slow-burn mystery story needs more breathing room and tension between combat encounters, and the relentless combat would probably be better served in a more energetic game where there aren’t so many cutscenes of guarded conversations between sedate characters.
It’s not as bad as I make it sound. I know I spent a lot of page space complaining about the combat, but mostly I was just trying to avoid all the variants of “git gud”, “you’re playing it wrong”, and “You’re imagining things”. It takes a lot of careful demonstration to head off those types of dismissals, which is why I spent so much time on the topic.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this game is an unplayable mess of frustrations. It’s a mostly good game with a couple of design decisions that really rub me the wrong way.
This is a wonderful exercise in worldbuilding. It’s a brilliant gameworld to discover and explore. It’s a fine story with a couple of interesting twists. The graphics are amazing, the animations are cool, and the faces manage to not be creepy except when they’re supposed to be. It has an interesting combat system built around a couple of (admittedly overused and one-note) superpowers.
The main thing wrong with it is that the designer decided to take the difficulty slider away from the player and hand it to an invisible algorithm that’s designed to make the game more “fun” by gradually making fights more ponderous and then even more “fun” by punishing you for no good reason. The other main thing wrong is that there are about four times as many fights as there should be. These two flaws exacerbate each other and manage to piss me off in a profound way, but I don’t think they’ll be a dealbreaker for most people. I’m even willing to bet the auto-adjusting difficulty is invisible to most players.
I still recommend the game, but I really wish I could get a version with fewer combat encounters.
 For me, anyway. The practice is so common I figure it must be what most people want???
 For context, I’ve beaten Quake on Nightmare mode with permadeath, so I can indeed play on that level.
 Or perhaps N foes.
 No, I’m not playing from an SSD. Yes, I’m aware that would speed things up. But my SSD isn’t NEARLY big enough to hold my library, and splitting your library across multiple drives is a huge pain in the ass.
 I endured three solid minutes of loading screens for this knowledge. You’re welcome.
 In the research area there’s a spawn point right beside a handy ledge for some terminal skydiving.
 Shotgun wasn’t much use at that distance.
 Either that, or the game is balanced differently for consoles. But if that was the case then I think someone would have noticed by now.
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