Review: “Control: AWE” and “Control: Foundation”

Spoilers abound for “AWE” and “Foundation,” the two available expansion packs for Remedy Entertainment’s 2019 game “Control.” (Here’s my review of the original.)

Summary: Essentially extended side missions, both are a mix of familiar battles and new locations. You might, though, miss the immersive narrative of the original.

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A confession before we begin.

I should have been the perfect audience for these, despite their considerable narrative drawbacks. I love rummaging through the Oldest House. I love Jesse’s sarcasm and weird sense of humor. I love the little bits of arcane backstory. There’s a lot of all three of those things in both “AWE” and “Foundation,” despite the absence of most of the original NPCs.

But there are two issues that seriously detract from my enjoyment.

First: darkness. Both of these expansion packs utilize darkness as part of their maps and puzzles. “AWE” in particular requires you to carry a lantern for a large percentage of the gameplay. It’s possible to adjust the brightness up—somewhat—and I had to do this at least once to find my way through one section. But as someone who’s worn corrective lenses since I was 8 years old, feeling like I couldn’t make out what was going on felt less like gameplay and more like needing a new prescription. It made me anxious, and not in a good way.

The second problem is exclusive to “Foundation,” and possibly to me. Much of “Foundation” takes place in the astral plane, which is unmapped. I am extremely bad at visually orienting myself. Confusing the player may indeed be part of the point of the astral plane constructs in “Foundation,” but again, it’s not a great source of entertainment for me. Which is a shame, since the astral map is huge, dynamic, and gorgeous. Eventually I may become familiar enough with it to stop feeling antsy every time I have to enter.

I’m sorry, but: where the hell am I?

Because of course I’ll play it again. It’s “Control.”

“AWE” takes place in the Investigations Sector, a now-abandoned part of the Oldest House containing a few AWE reconstruction areas and a fellow called Hartman from Bright Falls, Washington, taken in by the FBC after an AWE, and infected by the Hiss. Hartman is essentially running roughshod over the entire area, and it’s your job to find him and get rid of him. Along the way you run across writhing clumps of darkness, wilting plants, a traumatized train, an alien (for real!), and lots and lots of Hiss.

You also run across the memories of a guy called Alan Wake, who was the star of his own Remedy video game back in 2010 (and is played by the same actor who plays Darling). Having never played that game, I can’t say if his inclusion here is genuine fan service or just a little easter egg. I don’t feel he adds much to the gameplay, although he does draw us back to the Oceanview, which I still adore.

There’s a lot of smashing that takes place in “AWE,” and yeah, it’s definitely fun to bash through walls and windows. Outside of Hartman, the Hiss are more plentiful and more sturdy, and far more of them fly. If you’ve completed “Foundation” first, you’ll get teleporting guys with pickaxes as well. If you liked the battle in the main game, you’ll enjoy the battle here; it’s challenging, if not original.

There are more puzzles in “AWE” as well. Many of them revolve around the power cubes. In the main game, I found one mission where I had to hunt for cubes; otherwise they were generally at hand when you needed them. Here you often have only one or two, and have to figure out how to sequence and reuse them to complete your objective. Finding them—and freeing them—requires some imagination. And more of that smashing.

And then there’s Hartman, the boss monster. You’ll meet him three times before you can actually kill him, and he can kill you with tremendous ease. You’ve got to be quick to stay away from him, and if he catches you, you’re pretty much dead. It gets frustrating. If you’re not the type to modify difficulty settings…well, this may be the time you decide to tweak them a bit, just so you don’t have to restart a few dozen times just to get through Fra Mauro.

Fuck you, Hartman, and I’m not even kidding

In addition to Hartman, you have a few side missions, including some cleanup for Ahti (who doesn’t appear physically, and is very much missed), and a prisoner with an odd request (short, but weird and funny). And Langston drops in on you—virtually, at least—and is just as breezily odd as he was in the Panopticon.

You don’t “see” any of your old friends, though. (I wonder if it’s a budget thing—if they have to pay actors for new footage?) And they’re missed. What I’d have done for a cut scene or two of Ahti, who’d have been right at home in Investigations. And Jesse’s emotional engagement is limited, more or less, to her “anything for the Bureau” attitude. That said, one of the side missions (dealing with an altered train car) gives us a little of her reflexive empathy. It’s brief, but very welcome.

All that said: had “AWE” been a small side mission off the main game instead of an expansion, I don’t think I’d have noticed its limitations at all. It fits, more or less, and modulo the impossible Hartman, it offers some satisfying gameplay. (Jesse’s right, though: the Bureau needs a dedicated plant person.)

In “Foundation,” you head down to the bottom of the Oldest House (the literal foundation), only to find the astral plane is bleeding into reality and threatening to destroy the entire building. Marshall is down there, too; she speaks to you over the Hotline, suggesting she’s dead. You run into the Board as well, who directs you to repair something called the Nail—which it turns out Marshall, in an attempt to seal the astral plane breach, has deliberately destroyed.

My favorite architectures in “Foundation” are the ordinary offices that are randomly opening into the astral plane. The cave systems, full of boulders, red dust, and deep chasms, are complex and beautifully realized, but they lack the whimsy of the Oldest House’s twisted, quirky, bureaucratic weirdness. As much as I dislike the lack of maps in the astral plane areas, I can see things there, which is a big advantage. I’d have liked a lot more Collapsed Departments, and a lot fewer Deep Chasms.

Despite my cartographic objections to “Foundation,” I have to say it’s the puzzles required to repair the Nail that are the most annoying. The first two aren’t too bad, but the others require speed, dexterity, and good luck—three things I have a lot of trouble with in general, PS4-wise. The result is two game-dependent puzzles that are nothing more than frustrating for me. They don’t take all that long—by design; they’re timed—but they bounce me right out of the story.

There’s an Easter egg in “Foundation” involving Lucky Cats. I won’t say more (you can look it up), but as cute as it is, it’s one of those puzzles that makes me wonder if the developers leaked it, or if someone at some point actually solved it organically. If the latter—someone did a lot of work for that. Thank you. I have no patience, and went on YouTube.

Neither of these expansion packs really has an end; you complete the main objective, and you kind of hang around. There are some side missions of varying interest and complexity, and the odd Easter egg. You can also, in “AWE,” replay the boss battles from the main game (including the Ashtray Maze), with whatever weapons setups you want. For some, that alone might be worth the price.

But both “AWE” and “Foundation” suffer from a narrative thinness. It’s impossible to play through these levels without missing Jesse chatting with Polaris, and her brooding monologue. It’s impossible not to feel the absence of Dylan’s story arc, of the sister who’s spent her life seeking a boy she doesn’t really know anymore but still wants to protect. The expansions have a few diverting side stories, but overall they lack heart and depth.

You know what they are? They’re the scenes added in a Director’s Cut that make you say “Yeah, interesting, but I see why they cut that.” Entertaining enough, but not at all essential.

Conclusion: Both “AWE” and “Foundation” have moments that are great fun, and add texture to the main story of “Control,” but the majority of each of them feels at best like an extension of what we’ve already done, and at worst (dare I say it) a bit tedious.

The Good:

Some new twists on the Hiss
Beautiful, expansive maps and the usual astonishing attention to detail
Some genuinely exciting missions and battles

The Bad:

We’ve kind of done all this already
Some parts of it are too long, too difficult, or too dull
Too much darkness, and some unmapped areas are bewildering

Liz’s Completely Subjective and Undefined Rating: 5.5-7.5/10, depending on the mission. Worth the time for those of us who can’t get enough of the FBC, but for everyone else, you won’t miss anything essential by skipping them.

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