Control’s first DLC, The Foundation, offered a lot of exploration but surprisingly little world-building. Protagonist Jesse Faden had settled into her role as Director of the Federal Bureau of Control, and learned more about the game’s ever-shifting brutalist setting, the Oldest House. Limited by the mostly identical hallways of the House’s undercroft, The Foundation never matched the wonder of finally seeing the sky in the initial campaign or meeting some of the characters for the first time.
Fortunately, the newest venture into the Oldest House, AWE, is a much more substantial expansion, bringing horror and quirky humor to a story that feels a bit constrained by its length and unanswered questions. AWE has some of the same problems with scope as The Foundation, but offers stronger world-building and a miniature return to the game’s expertly balanced tones. Humor and horror effectively collide as Jesse follows a message from supernaturally harried writer Alan Wake, who, in true Remedy fashion, has reached out of his own game through the power of fiction and the Cauldron Lake. Or has he?
This DLC is absolutely at its best if you’re already familiar with Alan Wake and its spinoff, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. You’ll get a loose introduction to Alan himself, Thomas Zane, and Dr. Hartman in AWE, but it’s hard to imagine some of Wake’s interludes meaning anything to someone who has only played Control. Unfortunately, the exploration of his story is actually the shortest of the expansion’s three sections. As expected from a game as cryptic as Control, dialogue stops just short of truly explaining anything. The finale is especially frustrating in this regard, landing both as a hokey sequel tease and an oddly cold moment for Jesse herself.
However, this is one of those cases where it’s really about the journey, not the destination. The writing, level design, and art all remind me what I loved about Control the first time around: the weird bureaucracy, the effective horror, and the dry humor. In AWE, Jesse primarily interacts with the containment supervisor Langston, whose rambling dialogue makes for a funny twist on the video game trope of a friendly voice in the hero’s ear.
Players will encounter three main areas in the expansion, each a different incident examined by the shuttered Investigations Sector. All three emphasize what was suggested in the base game: the Federal Bureau of Control was a squabbling organization with regular instances of prisoner abuses during the previous director’s tenure. The first two sections offer some satisfyingly difficult fights and puzzles, interspersed with the expansion’s best and worst addition: the monster Dr. Hartman has become. Both new Altered World investigation areas were fun and intriguing, especially the one that explains why the FBC has a lunar lander in one of its cavernous storage rooms.
Hartman’s doubly-corrupted form is a masterful example of when to show the monster. Most of the time he’s in shadow, clear enough that you can see the body horror that results from Hiss possession and swathed in the kind of darkness that became infamous in Alan Wake. When the expansion finally reveals Hartman’s monstrous shape, the sight is unnerving, to say the least. The first few fights against Hartman gave me that distinct “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” feeling, and often he was. His teleportation ability makes dodging his attacks particularly difficult, and it’s very satisfying when you manage to evade one of his swipes at the last second. In some sequences you can’t fight or repel him at all, leading to SOMA-style haunted house adrenaline.
Hartman avoids light, but AWE never quite reaches the novelty of Remedy’s use of light in the Alan Wake series. I found myself wishing for a gun mod that would give me something like Alan’s gun and flashlight combo. Instead, you use Jesse’s psychic Launch ability to shine conveniently placed lanterns on seething, snarling pools of darkness. Since the psychic grab was effectively developed as a tense, powerful attack, Launching with more delicacy can be fiddly.
Release Date: August 27, 2020
Platform: XBO (reviewed), PC, PS4
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Jesse does have a new weapon form at her disposal: Surge is a sticky grenade launcher with delayed detonation. I used it to wail on the boss more often than for carefully timed crowd control. Speaking of crowd control, players who want more combat challenges can use two arcade machines to jump into a horde mode or survival challenge in previously visited locations.
The Oldest House itself has always been its own character in Control. While most of AWE’s locations look like the office spaces the game is known for, there are some new House features that add to the wonder and weirdness. That said, plot-relevant developments between Jesse and the other powerful entities in the House are one area in which The Foundation was far more substantial than AWE. By now, Jesse has fully embraced her role as director, but that turns out to mean she doesn’t seem to feel anything about these fights — not about defeating Hartman, not about her old favorite poet, Thomas Zane, or about potentially being a side character in a story about Alan.
Some problems from the base game still persist: some attacks are badly telegraphed, and maps and menus chug slowly along. Remedy has added some welcome quality of life changes, including more control points, which mean less backtracking, and a variety of difficulty sliders. You can adjust incoming damage and the power of your attacks on a 100-point scale, or simply make Jesse invincible. Running at 50% will make some of Control’s infamously difficult bosses and side missions less frustrating while still maintaining the challenge.
Unfortunately, the very last Hartman fight dispelled a lot of my good will toward earlier encounters. The last fight is extremely difficult, with Hartman regaining full health every time the lights go out. This is the worst part of the expansion: not a particular test of survivability, accuracy, or the light mechanic, it’s just a war of attrition, a process of unloading grenades into a monster who, revealed, isn’t quite as scary as he was in the shadows. It’s the worst of the few occasions where the game seems to be putting walls in front of Jesse for the sake of walls. Since paranatural abilities don’t regenerate in the dark, it was frustrating to plot out Jesse’s next few moves just to remember she couldn’t use any powers.
Like a lot of Control, AWE teases more than it reveals. However, the new areas are quirky and imposing enough to make it an effective reminder of what is so great about Control’s atmosphere in the first place. How much you enjoy it might depend in part on how willing you are to enjoy the mystery, not the answers.