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.
The links between games and other forms of media have always been…cumbersome. Movie tie-ins are that first that come to mind and are often derided as being low-quality cash grabs. Similarly games that included full motion video (like the Crusader series) were met with criticism, often for their relatively low budget and quality of acting. However those perceptions haven’t stopped those kinds of games from being developed and indeed many games, like Defiance, sought to expand on the idea further. In similar vein Quantum Break, from Remedy Entertainment, attempts to integrate an episodic TV show with a player-controlled narrative. Whilst the mix-media approach has definitely come a long way there are numerous unfortunate decisions which marred the overall experience that Quantum Break was aiming to provide.
You are Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore) brother of renowned physicist William Joyce (Dominic Monaghan) and long time friend of Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen) a prominent businessman. You haven’t spoken to either of them in years however as you’ve been travelling the world, getting yourself into all sorts of trouble. Then out of the blue Paul contacts you and arranges for a first class flight back home. He needs your help but he won’t tell you what for. The events that unfold from that pivotal moment when you arrive back home will change the course of time as we know it, with you at the centre.
There’s no denying that Quantum Break is an extremely pretty game, making use of every inch of computing power you can throw at it. Unfortunately the film grain effect can’t be switched off meaning that no matter how high you crank the graphics there will always be a little fuzz everywhere. Additionally, due to the fact that it’s a Universal App (only available on the Windows store, which I’ll get into more later) there’s a few graphics options that will either not work or cause major issues. G-SYNC appears to cause it to use software rendering only as my graphics card reported a mere 7% usage when it was on. Disabling it however allowed Quantum Break to flex its muscles a little more although I did have to tone down a few settings in order to get it to run properly. This is even after the massive patch that was released so there’s still some work left for Remedy to do to make Quantum Break run a lot smoother.
From a core mechanic perspective Quantum Break is a 3rd person, cover-based shooter that integrates a whole host of abilities centred around time. You’ll be able to freeze enemies in place, blow them up and zip your way around the battlefield. You can carry a maximum of 3 guns, one of each type (pistol, regular and heavy). There’s also a few time based puzzles that will need solving although they only use a few of the half dozen abilities you’ll be imbued with. You’ll also have a decent amount of sway over how the story progresses which, interestingly, have a direct impact on events in the show. Most of these come in the form of major decisions made at critical points however there are collectibles around the world which will change the show in small and sometimes incredibly amusing ways. So at its roots Quantum Break might be exactly revolutionary but it does manage to do many things well that others have done badly in the past.
Seasoned shooter players will likely find little challenge in Quantum Break’s combat as the treasure trove of abilities, especially when they’re upgraded, make you almost invincible. After about halfway through the game the only way the game challenges you is by throwing more of the same kinds of enemies at you which doesn’t really ramp up the challenge significantly. The only real challenge is ensuring you have enough ammo for the gun you like as the amount you can carry for most guns is ludicrously low. If you’re so inclined you can mix things up a bit by using the various environmental traps however it’s usually easier to just take out enemies directly. Suffice to say that Quantum Break doesn’t really trend much new ground with its core mechanics but I get the feeling that was largely intentional.
If you’ve been reading much of the news around Quantum Break you’ve likely heard about how broken the release is and, unfortunately, my experience was no different. Buying the game in the Windows Store was a true pain as the download would seemingly stop and start randomly. As it turns out it was pre-allocating the disk space, something it couldn’t do at the same time it was downloading it (Steam has managed to solve this problem, however). The aforementioned G-SYNC issue was the cause of much frustration as was the various issues induced by the games varied performance, even with the frame rate cap on. Whilst other games have shown that being a Universal App doesn’t have to be a bad thing it certainly hasn’t helped Quantum Break. Whilst there has been a commitment to iron out most of these issues in future updates in July that does little to help the problems happening now. That and the fact that everyone will still want everything on Steam anyway.
The mixed media approach of Quantum Break is done quite well with big name actors gracing both the in-game and television series world. Whilst the story is little more than your usual sci-fi doomsday scenario guff having a little influence over what happens in the show is a nice touch. The little collectibles, like the audio book you can play over the radio (which then happens in the series), are a real nice touch too. I have to take points off for the ending screaming “HEY SEQUEL” so loudly that it hurt my ears however, as that’s the one unforgivable sin that any story teller can make. Overall I think Quantum Break shows that game/movie/tv series hybrids can work, they just need the same level of investment and polish on both sides to make the whole experience work well together.
Quantum Break evokes a time long gone past, when full motion videos in games were a novelty and production budgets were low. Instead here we have a game that’s staffed by big name actors and large production budgets. The game is nothing new, mixing together power ups and cover based shooting to give us an experience that we’ve likely all seen before. The TV show, and its integration with the events in the game, are done well enough that I feel that Quantum Break largely achieved the goals it set for itself. However the overall experience is marred by technical issues, some of which stem from the fact that it’s on Microsoft’s new Universal App platform. Overall it’s a good but not great experience, one that’s worth a look in if you’ve got a craving for the mixed-media experiences of years gone by.
Quantum Break is available on XboxOne and PC right now for $79 and $59.99 respectively (Only on Windows Store for PC). Game was played on the PC with approximately 9.5 hours of total play time and 93% game completion.
There’s a startling number of games that just fly under my radar every year. Whilst this usually comes down to falling back into my own personal crack habit of World of Warcraft there are also quite a few that, for one reason or another, never make it past a first cursory glance. Nowadays I usually put a strong emphasis on recommendations from friends in order to make sure I catch the gems that might have fallen through the cracks and it’s proving to be a good system. Alan Wake was one of these games that I hadn’t really given much thought to as the hype around it was fairly minimal. You could put this down to the developer (Remedy Entertainment) being quite a small shop with only 45 employees. Still their pedigree is undisputably solid as they are the originators of the Max Payne series, which was eventually sold on to Take Two. Could they develop a story as compelling as the one that brought them fame? Read on to find out!
You play Alan Wake, a best selling author who’s been unable to write a single page in over two years. The starting of the game is your typical thriller/horror scenario as everything seems to be going quite well. Alan and his wife Alice have decided to take a vacation to a quite country town called Bright Falls for a couple weeks. You get a glimpse of the celeberity writer life as you’re pestered by your agent, adored by fans and frustrated with your creative block. All of this makes for a perfect setting for everything to go utterly, horribly wrong as the story begins to unfold.
After a couple intense events you find yourself in a car crash, alone. After walking away in search of help you come across a manuscript page of a novel that is written by you but you can’t remember writing it. As you find more pages you realise that the story it’s telling is coming true and if you search enough you can find pages that predict the future. You then encounter one of “The Taken”, the primary enemy of the game. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen them though as you had a dream (the tutorial level of the game) where you encountered them before. The rest of the game is spent fighting your way through the darkness, following the story as it unfolds in front of you.
The game is very atmospheric, drawing you in and really giving you that feeling of being alone in a world that’s actively hunting you. This is one of the first games that manages to use darkness correctly as whilst the majority of it was played with the only light source being a small torch it didn’t feel like a cheap hack to hide the lack of detail (I’m looking at you, Doom 3). The torch also facilitates much of the combat as all enemies you encounter are surrounded by darkness that can only be burned off by light. Whilst its cool the first time around having to burn off every enemy’s impenetrable darkness shield before you can cap them does get a bit tiring towards the end, although the other light based weapons (flares and flash bangs) do make for some rather fun and varied tactics with taking out The Taken.
For the most part the combat and movement are pretty solid but there are some times when you’ll find yourself walking off a ledge or falling through a crack in the floor to your death. On the flip side there are also times when mashing the controller will get you out of situations that were physically impossible like say jumping off thin air if you press the jump button at the right time. The level of interactivity with the game’s world is also fairly low with most objects just being solid and immovable. It’s not that big of a deal really but coming off my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption where almost everything was interactive it felt a little cheap.
That brings me to one of my biggest criticisms about this game: the cut scenes. Now usually when I first start playing a new game it takes me a little while to get used to the kind of motion capture they’ve used but after a while it doesn’t bother me anymore. Alan Wake however had horrendous motion capture done for quite a lot of the cut scenes, especially with the lip syncing. There were many times where the characters would just hang their mouths wide open after saying something or just simply not move their lips while they were talking. Cutscenes are immersion breakers at the best of times but these ones served to dump me right out of the game completely. Hopefully Remedy notices this and it won’t be so bad in their next release.
The game is delivered in a TV style episodic form right down to the “Previously on Alan Wake” at the start of each new chapter. Whilst I like the style it almost felt like the game was telling you “It’s OK to go away and do something else now” but I only found myself doing that 3 times throughout the whole playthrough. The pacing of the game is quite good and the story grips you enough that putting it down is quite hard. Remedy also took the TV idea to its realistic extreme by including ads in the game for almost any product that would have them. I don’t usually mind them as long as their unobtrusive but there were definitely some moments where they were put in your way to make sure you saw them. I don’t really know how effective such ads are but they must work on some level.
Oh yeah I’d better go buy some Energizer batteries and a new Verizon phone (wait…).
So the game has some major flaws and is riddled with product placement, but is it still worth your time to play? I’d say so as whilst it’s a short by many people’s standards its still quite an intense journey through the dark world that your character has created. The ending was an unfortunate cry for a sequel or DLC (of which some has already been released) which was a bit annoying but almost expected in this day and age. For the cost of admission though the game delivers quite a fulfilling game that can have its flaws overlooked for the ambitous way it tries to capture aspects of games like Mass Effect and Gears of War with more non-traditional games like Heavy Rain. Since the DLC that was just released was free for those who bought the original game I’ll more than likely be sitting down to another helping of Alan Wake in the near future and I’m looking forward to it.
Alan Wake is available exclusively on the Xbox 360 right now for $88 (Collector’s Edition price!). Game was played on the Hard difficulty with an estimated 10 hours of gameplay total. I think I got about 50 of those coffee thermoses…mmm coffee….