I’d love to tell you more about Control, the eagerly-awaited Edge magazine coverbait from Remedy Entertainment, the mad Finns who brought us Max Payne, Alan Wake and Quantum Break. I’d love to. And I feel… I guess sort of qualified to do so, since I have played Control for a few hours. But I’m not going to. To heavily paraphrase a trademark opening line in the (delightful) Girlfriend Reviews videos…
This is not a review of Control. This is a review of what it’s like to wish Remedy would fix Control.
I’m a big Remedy fan. I adored the first two Max Payne games (Max Payne 3 was handled by Rockstar). I practically snorted Alan Wake, and wrote an article about it that’s longer than the Bible (even though Mat C had already written fewer but better words) and includes a fucking movie I made, on account of creating this content used to be easy for me before I broke.
I nearly missed Quantum Break because I meant it when I said I’d never again buy another console from Microsoft (I don’t remember if I said it in that article, but the sentiment is there). It finally hit PC a couple years later, though, so my Steam Link and I were all over it. Yes, tying a video game to a live action network television show was was more jarring than innovative, and I’m truly grateful I got to play the game with all the TV narrative bundled up into rather than waiting week to week to see what happens. But Quantum Break is no worse than any other Remedy game—which is to say it’s really good.
This is the game Remedy always dreamed of making.
This is the game borne of seeds that first germinated in Alan Wake, abandoned in the interest of actually shipping the product. This is the game that combines Remedy’s famous action design chops and equally famous cinematic storytelling with a (comparatively) seamless Metroidvania open world setting. This is the game that offers a big plate of gunfire with a side-salad of horror set upon a tablecloth of mystery and washed down with surreal wine. This is the game Remedy was meant to make.
This game needs work.
Not the actual game, no. Control is classic Remedy. I sure wish I could enjoy it as it deserves! Exquisite pacing, thumpy action. Sam Lake’s inevitably outstanding if still vaguely misogynistic script. Adrenalized combat, existential dread, and recursive explorations in the bowels of a dystopian poured-concrete labyrinth that’s equal parts perdition and bureaucratic nightmare.
It’s an aesthetic facepunch, too. Maybe you’ve heard about Control’s setting: a semi-sentient House-of-Leaves-ish megastructure that elects to hide itself from prying eyes. Thousands of New Yorkers pass by its doors every day and their eyes slide right off; the building has coated itself in visual lube. “You can’t see the Oldest House unless you’re looking for it,” an early character chirps proudly, as though the fact that her ultrasecret U.S. government agency makes its home in a breathing, thinking pocket dimension that very clearly despises human existence is something good, something that ought to be on the brochures… not that the Federal Bureau of Control has official handouts.
Since the earliest screens appeared more than a year ago, Control’s visual scrotum-twist has always been its obsessive commitment to taking what’s maybe the most recognizable style in modern architecture to terrifying new extremes. Whatever else the Oldest House is, it subscribes to Architecture Weekly, and it’s a fan of the Brutalist movement.
I don’t know much about architecture and never realized it was a stylistic movement, despite the obvious similarities in Brutalist structures. I just always thought of them as angular and concrete-y, but otherwise unrelated.
“A house,” said Le Courbusier, “is a machine for living in.”
Dude sounds like a metric ton of rainbow-puppy joie de vivre, amirite? Nothing sums up Brutalism like that line. At least, nothing did, until Control.
Despite the mean-sounding name and the built-in coldness of Brutalist structures, many (including me) find them highly appealing, at least to look at. One of Remedy’s guiding principles with Control was the use of Brutalist style to set the tone of the game. And Remedy, which has always been an adopter of new technology and always used it to great effect, has tuned its Northlight engine to deliver some of the most stunning visuals yet seen, particularly—for PC players using nVidia’s new RTX graphics cards—showcasing the proprietary raytracing technology that nVidia uses to justify those cards’ absurd price point.
Here’s a PR screenshot of Control:
And here’s what Control looks like for me most of the time:
Which is to say, like a horrid, overfiltered soup from the mid-nineties, as if runaway positive LOD bias had filthy sex with the horrendous stippling characteristic of unfiltered raytrace results and their demon-child offspring rubbed its greasy ass on the screen and ran away, cackling about how funny it was that my $2,000 gaming rig and 1440p GSYNC IPS monitors had been smeared with ass-juice.
We’ve all played games with really bad texture pop or long texture load delays and laughed at them. Oh, how we laughed! At Mass Effect and Rage, which looked like smooth pudding for the first ten seconds after you loaded them, before the hi-res textured got streamed in. That’s not what’s happening here. Yes, Control has some texture pop; like many games with highly advanced graphics it takes a second for even the beastliest systems to get the pixels all bundled up with their maths and their shadings and stuff and rolled out onto the monitor.
What is happening is much more difficult to pin down. For some reason, Control is just not presenting as it’s supposed to—at least, not all the time. Sometimes it looks pretty great.
That’s a screenshot from my game, taken maybe three minutes prior to the cotton-ball boulders screenshot above.
Here’s another screenshot from my game, taken a few minutes later in the same area. Observe the cylinder floating there next to protagonist Jesse Faden’s spunky red ponytail:
The fact that the cylinder is floating is irrelevant. Jesse is telekinetic.
The fact that the cylinder looks like that when it should look like this is vexing:
The fact that those are both screenshots I took, maybe eight seconds apart, is also vexing.
Watching it in motion, you can see that the quality swaps back and forth on its own, and how that would be most vexing of all.
The game is running on high/ultra at 2560×1440; nVidia’s DLSS is on, as are all the raytracing effects. At those settings it should look like God himself jabbed you in the eye with a stick. And my PC can handle it: it’s an i7-7700K with an RTX 2060. That video card is hardly the most potent of the RTX line, but it manages to keep me above 50fps most of the time.
Another thing that’s weird: look at the “Bad Cylinder” shot again. Most of the game looks fine. The texture mess isn’t an across-the-board thing, it happens only to specific elements, and unpredictably. One minute, Jesse’s spunky red ponytail looks as it should but other objects look fucked up. A minute later, other things look fine but Jesse’s spunky red ponytail looks like it’s made of plasticene. A minute after that, text in the game world is illegible even when you’re standing next to it, and a minute beyond it resolves into laser-crispness even at great distances.
I’ve experimented the bejeezus out of things. Sometimes, going into the display settings and making a change—any change—is sufficient to goose the game into remembering it wasn’t made in 1996. At which point it will look normal for a few seconds or minutes before inevitably dropping back to the old behavior. No particular setting makes any difference, and I’ve tried dozens of combinations. Obviously, at low resolution and/or detail, it looks less “good” overall, but the fundamental problem still remains. Moreover, when all the textures drop back to that fuzzy morass, there’s no abrupt spike in performance. Theoretically, a badly implemented LOD bias could be getting carried away and turning down texture quality to improve performance, but the performance remains the same even when the visual fidelity is rock-bottom.
There’s another issue, one I’m less certain isn’t just a (bad) stylistic decision on Remedy’s part. Let’s zoom in to see it better:
In a still shot, it looks like strange, blotchy shadows all over Jesse’s face and neck and jacket. In-game, those shadows are constantly in motion, like a mottled cartoon washing over everything. This is what I meant by “the horrendous stippling characteristic of unfiltered raytrace results.”
Without getting into too much detail, raytracing is a technique that allows for incredible visual effects by mapping the behavior of simulated light rays cast out from a perspective point. Under ideal circumstances, a raytracing algorithm would cast one ray for each pixel in your display; that would be a little over 3.5 million rays for my monitor. The problem with raytracing is that it’s computationally intensive, especially when it has to be done in real time. Reducing the number of rays reduces that burden somewhat, but if you’re not casting a ray for every pixel, there will be gaps in the information—places where no ray was cast. The engine has to guess what would appear in those voids based on the behavior of nearby rays. If it did this badly, the result would… well, it would look like the shot above.
Turning raytracing off doesn’t make the mottled effect go away, though it does make Control look markedly worse.
So like I said, maybe it’s a bad aesthetic decision. Control greatly over-uses film grain effects, and it’s conceivable that the blotchy visuals are intentional. Most of the time it doesn’t look quite as exaggerated as it does up there. But it looks bad, and it seems to get worse over time. Film grain you can turn off, though again it seems to degrade the picture more rather than eliminating any of the visual noise. Another thing Control does is slather itself with a thick coating of motion blur, and that you can’t turn off.
I hate motion blur. It’s always overdone, and the naturally jerky play that comes with a mouse make it particularly troublesome. It’s the first effect I always turn off. Not that I could here. Remedy promises a late-September patch that will supposedly allow it, [Update—motion blur can be disabled as of patch 1.03.00] along with adding more graphics options, but frankly I’m unconvinced that the problem I’m experiencing is a matter of “options.” [1.03.00 does not improve the overall performance or quality] I’ve done plenty with the existing options to no avail. And it’s particularly weird because Control just doesn’t look like it’s supposed to… yet it doesn’t not look that way in any way I’d have been able to easily parse. It just looks… wrong.
All this boils down to is that it took me about half an hour of playing Control to put my finger on exactly what seemed off about it. At first I thought it was my imagination; then I thought maybe Remedy had done it on purpose—Control is a very surreal game. It wasn’t until I literally watched boulder textures phasing in and out that I could say with absolute certainty something was wrong at all.
Control has been out for a week and a half, and while a patch is surely forthcoming, I have no idea how widespread my problem is. All I can say for sure is that it’s had a tremendous impact on my ability to enjoy what is otherwise a very clearly fantastic piece of work from a studio that has never done anything but fantastic work.
[Update—some elements of the behavior appear tied to a realtime shortage of video memory. The RTX 2060 has 6GB of onboard GDDR5, which does fill up when the game is on high/ultra settings. I was suspicious about nVidia’s claims that Turing’s superior memory bandwidth would overcome the physical shortage of memory on the 2060, and clearly I was right to be so. That said I’m not sure whether to place more blame on nVidia’s corner-cutting (but still $400) reference design or Remedy’s Northlight engine, which clearly needs serious optimization.]
Hopefully someday soon I can talk about Control the game, not Control the exercise in visual frustration. Until then, it’s very difficult to think about anything other than the frustration whenever I try to play it at all.
Email the author of this post at Steerpike@Tap-Repeatedly.com.