Alan Wake had a problem. He'd been teased as being a big part of the final DLC expansion of Control, dubbed AWE, and with that came expectations. Fans of Remedy Entertainment's 2010 psychological horror/thriller shooter had been waiting about a decade for the next phase of his tale. Wake worked furiously to make himself part of the AWE story, appearing in twisted cutscenes that captured his fractured mental state. But in the end, it wasn't enough. Though his writing had the power to alter the very nature of reality, not even Wake could make AWE more than an unsatisfying addition to both his story and that of the game he'd invaded.
Control's AWE expansion ultimately is an underwhelming addition and a thin follow-up to the Remedy cult hit it's invoking. Especially following The Foundation, a DLC drop that added a lot of variety to Control with new powers and a new location that felt very different from everything else in the game, AWE comes off as more of a slightly tweaked rehash of the vanilla Control. AWE tries to tap into some of Alan Wake's spooky suspense underpinnings, and while it sometimes succeeds, it can't quite maintain them for very long.
It's a bit of a whimper for a great game to go out on, as AWE feels more like a teaser for another game you'll have to buy at a later date, rather than a satisfying expansion of (or conclusion to) what we've seen in Control so far.
AWE represents Remedy elevating Easter eggs found in Control and its other games (namely Quantum Break) to shared-universe territory. Alan Wake is a character in Control's universe, and what's more, he's now directly impacting on protagonist Jesse Faden's story. A spectral Alan guides Jesse to the Investigations section of the Oldest House, the living office building where Control is set. The Investigations section was sealed two years earlier after a huge horrific monster rampaged through it and killed a whole bunch of people. Wake's messages send Jesse to investigate, and unsealing the section gives the monster the opportunity to escape--so it becomes Jesse's job to hunt it down and kill it before it can get into the rest of the Federal Bureau of Control and start munching on the survivors.
So most of AWE is about Jesse wandering through the Investigations section, hunting the creature. The twist is that the monster is Emil Hartman, a character from Alan Wake (the game, not the guy). The Darkness, the evil force in that game, has turned Hartman into a monster, and the interference of Control's Hiss has made him even worse. Merging the two games lets Remedy add Alan Wake mechanics to Control's combat to create a new wrinkle: Hartman is invincible in the dark but afraid of the light.
That creates some of AWE's best moments, where you pursue or are pursued by Hartman in heart-pounding, deadly interactions. Again and again, you'll face Hartman in situations where you either have to run from light source to light source to avoid a distorted, 15-foot-tall, teleporting killing machine, or you have to flip switches and maneuver power sources to blast that killing machine with light and drive it away. The entire DLC campaign is a series of encounters with a creature that's genuinely scary, and in its coolest parts, AWE taps into Alan Wake's horror and filters it through Control's superpowered lens.
It doesn't always work, though. All of these encounters with Hartman aren't really fights, since you can't hurt Hartman while he's in the dark. They're more like a series of fast-paced puzzle encounters, and some of them--like a chase where you have to blow down walls in order to reach the next pool of light before you're snagged in the creature's huge, gnarled arms--are more exciting than others.
The evil Darkness in AWE mirrors that of Alan Wake: In the 2010 game, standing in a pool of light would heal you of wounds you received out in the black. In AWE, standing in the dark saps you of your ability energy, quickly limiting the superpowers you can use, while getting under a light restores them. That means that when you're sprinting from light to light, you're slowly losing the ability to effectively sprint from light to light.
On paper, that sounds like it would create a lot of tension, but in practice it just adds a limitation to your combat capabilities that can compound frustration. Control already can be a slog at times thanks to its health system, which requires you to hurt and kill enemies to restore yourself. The game is built to give you powers like super-speedy dodging and telekinetic shields to help you save yourself when you get hurt too badly. But fighting enemies in the dark also robs you of your superpowers. It helps create situations in which you're not only struggling to keep your health up, but also scrambling to move to or stay in locations that strengthen your powers. In a few fights, like one where you slowly dismantle your light sources in order to power a much bigger one, this quickly puts you into situations where if you take too much damage you've pretty much got no chance to heal yourself, and need to start over.
The pendulum swings between fun, tense, scary fights and frustrating fights would be more forgivable if AWE felt like it delivered on the promise of its title, though. In Control, AWEs are Altered World Events, situations in which the supernatural bleeds into the real world. Exploring the area where the Bureau investigates those events feels like it should mean this DLC is overflowing with weird, inventive stuff--but it isn't. There are only a small handful of side-quests and Control's extra-cool altered items to encounter, and they're extremely underwhelming, mostly consisting of momentary busywork. One is a train car where you need to interact with items in a certain order to piece together the story of how it derailed, which reveals next to nothing. The other is an encounter with a sentient NASA space suit that you only interact with through a door and never actually see in person. As a follow-up to encounters with items like a sentient rubber ducky and a refrigerator that murders people in the main game, or a movie camera that puts you in a Hollywood-style chase scene in The Foundation DLC, these AWE ideas are pretty lackluster.
The more interesting part is all the story AWE teases, although most of it presents cool possibilities for things that don't actually appear in the game. Wake himself is around, and we get a little info on what's going on with him, which suggests there's more to find. There are other threads with Alan Wake characters, including his wife, Alice. And we learn about a very potentially cool aspect of the FBC's mandate: dealing with "paracriminals," people who try to use supernatural Altered Items and Objects of Power for crimes, or who try to actually create Altered World Events. A game about dealing with those people sounds like it'd be pretty compelling, and AWE gives the sense that that might be the direction Control goes, as a franchise, in the future.
But for now, you're mostly just solving puzzles in Investigations so you can turn on lights to chase Hartman. You continue to fight the Hiss, but even with the introduction of a new flying enemy, it's pretty much business as usual. There are some new power upgrades for Jesse's arsenal--specifically, the ability to telekinetically throw three objects at a time instead of one--and the new Surge grenade launcher gun, which fires sticky bombs you can remotely detonate, give you opportunities to create new combat strategies. They combine well with what's already on offer in Control, but none offer inventive new ways to address combat situations or exploration the way The Foundation's additions do.
AWE is the story of expectations not quite meeting reality. It's exciting to see Alan Wake become a full-fledged addition to the Control universe and to catch up on different aspects of Remedy's growing universe. But this feels much more like a taste of what might come in future games than a strong addition to what's been built in Control. AWE is a missed opportunity for Remedy to really embrace Control's deep weirdness, and it's a missed opportunity for it to really expand on the story of Alan Wake after so much waiting. It's the unfortunate side effect of the idea of a shared universe--in teasing the next installment in the growing story, AWE doesn't do much to serve the story it's already in.