A screen shot from the video game Alan Wake.
Screen shots by author, courtesy of Remedy
Games

'Control: AWE' Brings Back the Nastiest Villain in 'Alan Wake'

This connected Remedy universe has some real potential, but right now, it all feels like a tease for what's to come.
August 31, 2020, 3:44pm

Control and Alan Wake share developer Remedy's goofy sense of humor, but they're different kinds of horror stories and ultimately have very different tones. Control is ultimately like the more light-hearted episodes of the X-Files, as interested in humor as in horror. Alan Wake had funny interludes and asides, but its primary focus was on building a sense of solitary dread and suspense. It's fitting, then, that the AWE expansion for Control leaves Alan Wake behind a locked door, narrating the events of this new chapter, but still isolated from the Federal Bureau of Control and its likable leader, Jesse Faden. In the end, they still inhabit separate stories, even if they share a fictional universe. It's to AWE's credit that it successfully tells a part of Alan Wake's story as a chapter in Jesse's without betraying either character or the tenor of their story.

AWE takes Faden to the Investigations Sector, a once-powerful and semi-independent part of the FBC theoretically specializing in routine field investigations of paranormal events. But it was devastated by a monster attack prior to the events of Control and when Jesse gets there, it's yet another haunted ruin for her to restore. But the monster that destroyed it is still lurking there, and it's deeply connected to Alan Wake. In fact, as Jesse gets "hotline" messages about what she's facing, they're narrations from a story that Wake himself appears to be writing, still pulling strings after 10 years in the void where he was banished at the end of the eponymous game.

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AWE does not worry overmuch about reintroducing players to Alan Wake, perhaps wisely judging that the audience for this expansion is the kind of person who knows, 10 years after the game came out, why there are two Alan Wakes and what their bizarre, hallucinatory conversation means for the story. It's jam-packed with references and appendices about the events of Alan Wake that will satisfy those of us who can practically draw a map of Bright Falls from memory at this point.

For those who come to AWE mostly via Control, Alan Wake's return is probably slightly less interesting than the new spaces you get to explore in the Investigations Section, including the relics of two bizarre "altered world events" that are introduced in the expansion. In addition to parts of the expansion dealing directly with Wake and Bright Falls, there is a chance to explore a haunted train and a re-creation of an Apollo lunar landing site where NASA discovered that the moon might in fact be haunted.

Tying all this together is a series of memorable encounters with a monstrous Doctor Hartman, one of the most memorable villains in Alan Wake. A corrupt, arrogant psychologist who experimented on his patients and attempted to steal or manipulate their creative powers for his own benefit, Hartman's fate was unclear by the end of Alan Wake. But now it turns out he was turned into a monster before falling into the clutches of the FBC's Investigations Division. Now, Jesse has to chase him through the Investigations Sector, and best him in a series of setpiece encounters in "The Darkness" that permeated Alan Wake. It saps Jesse of her powers, while letting Hartman use magical attacks and teleportation against her. But, just like in Alan Wake, light is his weakness. To beat him, Jesse has to play cat-and-mouse across several battlefields divided between small islands of brightly lit safe-zones and vast lakes of darkness. It's not exactly like the combat in Alan Wake, where you had to weaken enemies with light before you could gun them down, but the way Darkness drains Jesse and the way light offers sanctuary is a nice homage to the original.

This concept gets less interesting as it's repeated, because once you get a feel for how these sections play-out (get the giant electric battery, plug into generator, repeat) the logic of these encounters becomes trivially obvious. The challenge instead comes from the high-level enemies who are sent your way, who soak up enormous amount of damage and are often accompanied by waves of area-denial enemies like the "suicide bomber" enemy types or the various flavors of grenadier / psychic rocket launcher enemies. AWE feels in many ways like it picks up where Foundation and the original campaign ended, and God help you if your skills are rusty. The new Team Fortress 2 "stickybomb launcher" equivalent is a fun addition to your arsenal but never felt like a really useful tool for the types of encounters AWE keeps throwing your way.

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But it's the charisma of its cast that makes Control work and AWE is no exception as it foregrounds Langston, the quirky and compassionate warden-steward for the Bureau's menageries of altered items. He gets some hilarious moments to shine in AWE that also end up hinting at yet more terrific mysteries in the Control universe (based on a long, surreal monologue worth listening to in its entirety, I have concerns about his cat Alfred).

AWE left me wanting a lot more of this, perhaps too much so. Everything it gives you ends up being pretty good—the haunted train is memorable, the space stuff is charming, Wake's story ends up even scarier and more ambiguous—but if you take out some of the most grueling combat sequences, it feels like it's over in the blink of an eye. It's an expansion that concludes most of its storylines just as they are getting really interesting. It feels almost like an anthology about the world of Control. A good anthology, and one that certainly points in a lot of exciting directions for the universe. But it would have been nice to reach a few more destinations as well.