Ever since I started keeping a list of games I’d like to review (some 6 years now) it’s become clear to me just how many I don’t get around to playing. Still I try to make time for the ones that everyone seems to enjoy or have seen wide critical acclaim. Which is why I went back to play Control as it has managed to snag many Game of the Year awards and nominations from many of the top game reviews websites. My opinion differs significantly to those as whilst I think Control is a very competent and novel game it’s far from game of the year material. Perhaps the most grievous sin it commits is to follow in the footsteps of the many Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft open world titles that came before it, introducing the concept of grind into a single player game. Combine that with a game that’s still needing some polish 5+ months after its release and I really have to wonder why so many think Control is a better game than the numerous other contenders for the 2019 release year.
You are Jesse Faden and have arrived at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a place called the Oldest House. However upon your arrival you find it practically deserted the only person around being an old man called Ahti who appears to be to be bureau’s janitor. He then points you towards the director’s office for your interview, commenting that he could really use a new assistant to help him out. Upon arriving in the directors office you find his body, apparently dead from suicide. As you grab his weapon from the table you’re transported to another realm where it becomes clear that there’s much more to the bureau, and the world at large, than you first thought.
Control uses Remedy’s proprietary engine called Northlight which was first used with Quantum Break back in 2016. Back then I commented on how good the game looked but it seems like Control hasn’t really improved much on the visuals that the engine is able to offer. I think a large part of this is the fact that the vast majority of Control takes place in smaller spaces, making the lack of detail in some areas a lot more apparent than they otherwise would be in a more open setting. There also isn’t a great amount of variance in the environments either which makes the blandness stand out even more. This isn’t to say Control is a terrible looking game, more that it’s a half step or so behind what I’d consider to be the norm for a AAA title. No doubt part of it is also my now 5 year old rig which seemed to struggle in some places, even at 1080p, but given I had similar troubles 3 years ago with Quantum Break I have my suspicions that the engine could use a few more optimisations.
Control is a third person shooter/RPG hybrid with a healthy dash of open world elements thrown in for whatever reason. Whilst there’s a main campaign mission to follow there’s dozens of side quests, tasks and other errands for you to run that’ll reward you with varying amounts of resources, crafting materials and, if you’re really lucky a skill point or two. You don’t technically find new weapons instead you craft new forms of the “Service Weapon”, most of which fall into the typical archetypes we’re familiar with (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, etc.). Progression comes in 3 different ways: skill points, weapon mods and personal mods. The former is granted on completion of some, not all missions, and feels like it’s mostly tied to the main missions and a few of the longer side missions. Mods can drop from basically anywhere and are randomly generated, meaning it’s quite possible to pick up a mod with a god like roll that won’t get replaced for some time. This is where the game starts to tend towards endless grind territory as you attempt to seek out the best mods to tweak your preferred build. There’s even endgame level activities if you’re so interested although honestly I can’t really see why you’d bother.
Combat is typically medium paced as pretty much every encounter will have a couple waves of enemies and whilst your ammo and powers are unlimited they’ll need recharging pretty often, slowing down how many bad guys you can dispatch in any one go. After the first couple hours you will have seen basically every enemy archetype there is though and so after then it just becomes a matter of numbers and how many waves get thrown at you for any particular combat encounter. For the most part if you take your time there’s not much in the game that can kill you, especially considering that most encounters you can simply just walk away from and leash the enemies, giving you time for round 2. This makes for an overall combat experience that’s OK but somewhat boring after a while as you’re literally just doing the same fights over and over again.
It probably doesn’t help that the progression in the game is kinda meh for the most part. All of the upgrades you get, apart from the 3 or so new abilities and new weapon forms granted to you over the course of the game, are percentage based stat increases and so don’t feel particularly impactful to how you play the game. To be sure there’s a couple skill upgrades which make can change things a little, but even then not by much. Really the only one I got any kind of use out of was the levitating enemies when their health was low perk and even that was only useful because the enemy bodies were usually bigger than the other bits of crap I could hurl around.
If I was able to stack a ludicrous amount of mods then I could see myself having a lot of fun with some really stupid builds but unfortunately you’re limited to 3 weapon mods (per weapon type) and 3 personal mods. Whilst that makes for a large amount of build variety I don’t feel many of them are particularly viable as you’re going to want a health upgrade and, by consequence, the upgrade that makes the little health thingies that the enemies drop more effective. Either that or waste your valuable skill points on the same things which would limit you to the vanilla base skills. Really I feel like Control could’ve been a lot more fun if they just let you go hog wild with these things and become a complete wrecking ball like many other RPGs do.
Control also suffers from a few issues which at this late juncture I would’ve expected to have been ironed out by now. Switching from the menu to the game triggers a good 3 seconds of single digit frame rates which is a real pain in the ass when you have switch in and out of it all the time to read the various files strewn about the place just so you understand at least the basics of the plot. Since a good chunk of the game is physics based you’ve got the usual emergent behaviour issues that goes along with it, something that becomes readily apparent when you say, walk through a room with stuff strewn everywhere and Jesse seemingly forgets how to walk around or over things. In the grand scheme of things these are minor issues but given this is a AAA title, from a big name house and it’s been out for a while now I figured it should be basically issue free.
The story is interesting enough, being a kind of X-files meets the Twilight Zone kind of deal. The game does go out of its way to be especially obtuse with the various plot elements it introduces you to directly, forcing you to sniff around all the various files to find context and detail that you’ll so desperately need to have any clue about what’s going on. The main character’s inner dialogue also started to grate on me after a while as I didn’t feel like it added much and almost felt like a remnant of a choice system that was implemented and then scrapped halfway through the game’s development. If anything it’s reflective of the game as a whole: well built but just lacking that hook to really get me to buy in to the whole thing.
Control is a well constructed game that’ll tick a lot of boxes for many people but seems to lack that certain something to bind everything together to make the concept really sing. Indeed all of the individual elements are good to begin with but fail to evolve or improve over time. So the experience you get at the start feels largely the same as the one you have at the end which, for 10 hours invested, does make you question why you’d bother in the first place. I’m sure there’s some out there with dozens more hours invested in the game’s various end game and open world activities but, for me, I just couldn’t get invested enough to want to keep playing. Just goes to show that what makes something game of the year material will be different for everyone and, for me, it seems that I simply can’t find what others see in Control.
Control is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time.
Death Stranding’s genesis is perhaps one of the most well known controversies in recent memory. Hideo Kojima, ousted from his position at Konami, reformed his company Kojima Productions with the assistance of Sony. Their first order of business was to begin working on a new franchise and, some 3 years ago now, he unveiled the first trailer of Death Stranding. For someone who’d never really gotten into the Metal Gear series of games I knew little of Kojima’s work directly, but I knew of the large following his games had developed thanks to their heavy story focus and inventive mechanics. However the trailer alone was enough to sell me on the idea of the game, giving us precious little details about what the title would actually be but teasing a few concepts that had me intrigued. Suffice to say I don’t think anyone back then expected the game we have today but, after spending the last 3 weeks playing my way through it, I can say that it’s likely 2019’s best game in almost all respects. Truly this is a product of an industry veteran who knows how develop unique, inventive concepts but also have the drive to see them through to reality.
The game’s namesake is an event that occurred some time ago, ravaging the world and blurring the line that separates the world of the dead from the living. Now Beached Things (invisible creatures originating from the “Beach”, a land said to be the link to the world of the dead) roam the earth seeking to drag anyone they come across to the underworld. You are Sam Porter, a member of the Bridges corporation, who’s ultimate goal is to reunite the now shattered United States into a new order called the United Cities of America. It’s your job to deliver goods from one place to another, navigating the ravaged world and avoiding all the horrors that now lie within it. However it’s clear that there’s some history between you and the new leader of the free world and you soon find yourself reluctantly agreeing to work with Bridges to unite all of the fractured cities together.
Death Stranding comes to us via the Decima Engine which has brought us other such gorgeous titles like Horizon Zero Dawn. As you’d expect from a late-in-the-generation game Death Stranding makes full use of the PlayStation 4 hardware, delivering amazing visuals in all respects. The environments are not immutable either, with dynamic weather systems, interactions from other players in the shared world and even your own actions. All of this is wrapped up in amazing game direction with many aspects of the game expertly crafted to have maximum impact on you as a player. Finally the game’s soundtrack and foley work is second to none, rounding out the experience completely. This high level of craftsmanship makes for an extremely immersive experience, beyond that of any title in recent memory. I guess I should’ve expected no less from someone who’s been a leader in this industry for over 2 decades.
Mechanically Death Stranding is a mix of various different standard game tropes with a core game loop that’s really unlike anything else out there. At a basic level you’re a delivery guy, tasked with taking cargo from point A to point B whereupon you’ll be rated by various metrics like how damaged the cargo is, how long it took you to get there and whether or not you helped out others along the way. In all honesty I wouldn’t blame you if your eyes were rolling back into your head at this point but past a certain point, once a few of the more interesting mechanics have been unlocked, the game loop really starts coming together. That’s when the challenge starts to ramp up as well and some other core mechanics, like the third person shooter part, come into play. You’re also part of a shared world with other players, enabling you to utilise structures and items that have either been placed or even lost by other players. I could go on for some time about the various different mechanics that the game throws at you as it never really feels like you’ve unlocked everything, even when you’re right at the game’s conclusion. Suffice to say Death Stranding is an experience that evolves significantly over its play time, giving you a good reason to keep plugging onwards.
One piece advice I read about early on was to get to Chapter 3 as quickly as you possibly can and that advice is sound. The early game is a slow, plodding experience as you don’t have access to some of the core tools which make the game a lot less frustrating to play. Additionally areas after the initial one have far more structures thanks to many players in the community contributing resources to things like roads or strategically placing all manner of buildings to make your life easier. Indeed if you’re playing this game after reading this review there’s a good chance your world will likely have highways that stretch to most of the game’s most important points, charging stations at various points to ensure you never run out of juice for your vehicles and signposts everywhere that do many things from warning you of upcoming danger to even giving your vehicles a boost. Honestly I felt a little spoiled in the mid-game because of this but I see that this is actually a part of the overall experience and it encourages you to pay it forward.
It was for that reason I spent quite a bit of time farming materials to complete 2 sections of road and built numerous structures along routes I took when I noticed that say, the charge on my vehicle was running low or there was 2 zip lines that, for some reason, didn’t have an interconnecting middle section, rendering both of them useless. Of course part of this is motivated by likes, which are basically just an in-game metric of how much you’ve contributed to other’s experience of the game, as there’s nothing quite like see a roll of names go by indicating that you’ve actually done something that’s impacted another player’s game. I’ve had inclinations to go back now that I’ve finished the game and help out with getting the roads fully completed but, after some 35 hours in game, I figured it was time to let the experience breathe for a little bit.
Stealth is a not-so-small part of Death Stranding’s experience although it comes in two flavours: avoiding BTs and sneaking up on the human enemies (MULEs and Terrorists). Initially the BT avoiding sections are a bit of a pain in the ass as it’s not made entirely clear how they actually track you. For the most part it doesn’t seem to matter how much noise you make (although I didn’t test firing a gun next to them…hmmmm) and it seems to be mostly related to how close you are and whether or not you’re holding your breath. I found the most successful way to navigate your way through a BT field was to get close enough so that the Odradek is spinning and still blue and then walk in such a way that you’re gradually putting distance between you and them. Then, if you accidentally get a bit too close, hold your breath and leg it past them and then take a breath once you’re back in spinny blue territory. That likely makes zero sense if you haven’t actually played Death Stranding but if you’re going to play it keep that in the back of your mind.
Stealthing around human enemies works in mostly the same way although, if I’m honest, you really don’t need to bother. Sure it’s kinda fun to hog tie up an entire encampment but it takes so long to do it’s just not worth it. Instead you’re probably best served by sneaking up on the first few and then whipping out your weapon of choice and going to town. Indeed I can’t even think of a part of the game that required you to go full stealth as even some of the final encounters, which were ostensibly built around that, can be cheesed somewhat by leveraging other mechanics. If I’m honest though I quite like that as it means you’re always able to use the playstyle that suits you the best.
The third person shooter parts are probably the weakest part of the Death Stranding experience as the aiming feels a little wonky. Granted this may be because it’s been some time since I’ve played a shooter on the console and there’s usually long breaks between shooter encounters, limiting the amount of practice you can get in. Still, there’s a variety of weapons at your disposal and if you put enough effort in the right places you can get some upgraded versions that are much, much better than their lower tier counterparts. I have no doubts that a few sections were made a lot easier for me since I had the Level 3 Non-Lethal Assault rifle almost immediately after getting the Level 2 version, meaning I could carry a single one and still have enough stopping power to get me through nearly all of the game’s encounters. I still kept a bola gun most of the time as that, if used correctly, is effectively a one shot kill for human enemies and with a 14 round magazine I could sometimes take out an entire MULE camp with it.
The core game mechanic of delivering cargo starts off being extremely tedious as you have to walk everywhere and you don’t have any kit to help you move faster or carry more cargo. As you unlock more things like vehicles, powered skeletons and higher tier boots though things start to get a lot easier, at least for the run of the mill deliveries. Of course with more tools the game is able to present you with greater challenges and you’ll quickly start coming across delivery missions that require some planning in order to get them done. For most of the mid game you’ll likely be well served by the standard reverse trike as that can go pretty much anywhere Sam can, even through dense fields of BTs if you manage to play your cards right. Once you’re in the mountains though vehicle use starts to become quite tricky, only really getting you about 20% of the way before it becomes more trouble than it’s worth. If I’m honest the mountain section of the game was probably my least favourite time as it was both challenging and bereft of solid story progress, making it a bit of a chore. Hopefully there’s more zip lines available when you’re playing through this section!
Progression comes at a pretty steady pace although, if I’m honest, it does give the game a kind of perpetual tutorial feel as you can never be quite sure you’re seeing everything the game has to offer. The various ratings shown after each delivery will increase the various stats you have although, if I’m honest, I saw much bigger differences from the various upgrades than I ever saw from the various rank ups I got. Thankfully the game doesn’t punish you for not doing lots of side missions either and, if you’re a player like me, you can basically go through the whole game without doing a single side mission if you want. You’ll likely end up doing a few though just because there’s no reason not to and contributing to the shared world does feel rewarding.
There are a few small issues in Death Standing, some of which can go either way depending on your situation and others that would just be quality of life improvements. The physics engine is a little…generous with its interpretation of how things should work and this can mean you can get yourself into places that really shouldn’t be accessible. At the same time should you do something that the physics engine doesn’t quite understand your likely to find yourself (and your cargo) thrown unceremoniously in a random direction. Now I didn’t get this too often, but there were times when I’d say, try to exit a car only for the game to instantly think I was falling down a steep slope which then ended up with me smashing into the side of the car. Some of the other issues I was going to mention (like not being able to see the Odradek sometimes) are going to be fixed in an upcoming patch, so it’s very likely that your experience will be much smoother from that perspective. Other than that the game runs perfectly well.
What really got me hooked though was the story and the consistent pace at which it was delivered. Completing every main mission was usually accompanied by a cutscene that delivered additional detail which helped immensely with keeping me engaged through the game’s long play time. All of the characters are well thought out, given ample time for their backstories to develop and, perhaps most importantly, are expertly delivered by their respective actors. It speaks volumes when not one, but two of the actors were nominated for Best Performance at The Game Awards for their roles in Death Stranding and one of them (Mads Mikkelsen) took home the award. There’s a few issues with the story that I won’t go into detail about, lest I ruin what it for some, but suffice to say the fact that I’m still thinking about it and processing it some time after finishing it means it’s had quite the impact on me.
Death Stranding is a masterpiece, showing what can happen when high concept thinking meets the dedication to deliver. All aspects of the game are expertly crafted: from the visuals which come from a highly revved up Decima engine, to the game’s audio experience and, perhaps most importantly, the actors that bring the game’s characters to life. To be sure it’s not a game for everyone as the core game loop and the first 8 hours or so are likely to turn quite a few people off it. However sticking through that initial part opens up a world that’s ever changing, growing in response to the collective effort that all players invest in it. I’m glad to have played my part in helping build out that world and for the experience that Death Stranding has given me. It is truly a game for those who seek a deeply immersive experience, one that resonate with you for years to come.
Death Stranding is available on PlayStation 4 right now (coming to PC in late 2020) for $89.95. Total play time was 35 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.