From the moment that Remedy, makers of Max Payne and Quantum Break, revealed Control at E3 2018 gamers of a certain age were struck by the same thought; “Hey! This looks like Psi-Ops!”
No, really. Hear me out.
Control sees the player… um… control Jesse Faden, the newest director of the Federal Bureau of Control, a secretive agency tasked with handling paranormal phenomena. Rather than taking on the administrative duties that a role as a director would imply, Jesse has to regain control (dammit!) of the bureau’s headquarters, The Oldest House, from an invading entity known as The Hiss.
While she has a funky morphing gun to help her clean house, the thing that got Psi-Ops players like me excited was the way she was flinging objects around the environment WITH THE POWER OF HER MIND!!
In the various gameplay and developer videos released by Remedy, the way Jesse plucks cabinets, vending machines and fire extinguishers out of the environment before hurling them at enemies, is incredibly reminiscent of Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, a PS2/original Xbox game from now-defunct Midway Games back in 2004. Psi-Ops used the Havok physics engine to upgrade a 3rd person action shooter with telepathic powers and is very fondly remembered by those who played it.
While waiting for Control’s release on 27th August, I decided to replay Psi-Ops to whet my appetite and see if my memories of it from 15 years ago (!) were accurate or if I was just looking at it through rose-tinted nostalgia glasses.
Here we go again
After a partially successful attempt to find a copy of the game on PC (see below), I dug deep into my own “oldest house” to dig out my original Xbox and get it working with my copy of Psi-Ops and soon found myself so engrossed I’d completed the first level before my Xbox died on me!
I found a game that holds up surprisingly well. Instantly the game felt familiar, although it took me a while to realise that I wasn’t getting any tutorial advice on using my psychic powers as I’d accidentally started a new game plus.
Stepping back into the shoes of psychic agent Nick Scryer, I had my mind wiped in order to infiltrate a psychic terrorist group known as “The Movement”. Looking like a perma-scowling Eminem circa Marshall Mathers EP, who decided to join the military instead of taking up rapping, Scryer controls from a standard 3rd person perspective, with the left stick controlling movement, right stick controlling the aiming reticule.
The real fun comes into play when you press the analog left trigger. Instead of aiming down sights, Nic telekinetically picks up any object (or person) he’s looking at with an unforgettable psychic hum. After dying a few times I remembered that the analog triggers were pressure sensitive, with the amount of pressure controlling how high the object was lifted.
This allows for far more complex motion than that of the graceless fling of the gravity gun in Half Life 2, which came out 5 months after Psi-Ops. Not only could Scryer manoeuvre objects easily through doors and around levels, but he could also stack them to provide cover or find hidden areas.
Try doing that with the Gravity Gun.
It’s always irked me that the Gravity Gun seemed to get far more praise for its physics back in the day than Psi-Ops. Scryer could also use those objects as cover against enemy fire, something Jesse doesn’t seem to need to rely on in Control, as she seems to have a distinct command for forming a shield around herself using nearby rubble.
With a flick of the analog stick and a quick release of the trigger, Scryer could toss crates and soldiers around levels at will. Despite my last saves being from 2005 there was still a tremendous joy to be had in picking up mostly harmless grunts and filling them full of lead before pitching them down corridors where they would rag doll into their comrades.
Fly, my pretties, fly!
While fun, Psi-Ops didn’t restrict players just to throwing things around like some telepathic toddler. As the game progresses Nic unlocks more of his abilities, from throwing fireballs (pyrokinesis) to siphoning psi energy and health from enemies (mind drain) and even taking control of some enemies to use as “Meat puppets”, to attack or achieve tasks in areas Scryer can’t reach, a power Jesse seem to have picked up as well.
Later levels introduced enemies you couldn’t use your powers on, so you had to start getting creative with whatever you could find lying around the place to take them out.
One of the most fun powers was one that players had to discover themselves; TK surfing. Realising you could stand on an object and then lift it with your telekinesis to fly over obstacles is one of those great “Eureka!” moments in gaming.
It’s one feeling that it looks like Control won’t offer as Jesse can straight up fly around levels, seemingly at will.
Nada (TK) Surf
Even in my short time playing though Psi-Ops I found myself absorbed in the Metal Gear Solid influenced game design of 2004… until my Xbox died. After that, I could only play in 15-20 minute chunks once every few hours, so I had to cherry pick what I could re-examine.
Finishing off the first few levels, most of them were quite linear. However, if there was a split in a corridor or a ladder that lead both up and down, you could be guaranteed that there would be health packs or psi energy restoring psi rejuvenators at one end, making you feel smart for searching them out.
Sometimes you might have to backtrack to use a key code or other information on an area you couldn’t reach before. The game teased out enough rewards at regular intervals to keep you playing.
It’s not quite Metroidvania-style, but for the time it was impressive and I admit I got stumped a couple of times playing now.
The Metal Gear influences weren’t just found in the gruff protagonist and military aesthetic. Psi-Ops also boasted a memorable roster of villains for Scryer to defeat. From fighting telepathically controlled statues, to throwing bomb-laden, mind controlled soldiers back at their master, each boss required a delicate balance of figuring out attack patterns, finding the right time to attack and then deciding the best weapon to use (usually throwing some object laying around the environment at a weak spot for massive damage).
It’s tremendously rewarding when you manage to figure out what you need to do and then manage to pull it off.
I remember you…
Despite replaying all the bosses thanks to a handy boss fight mode I’d unlocked in 2005, the villain who always stuck with me the most was Edgar Barret. A huge man in a natty suit and purple tie Barret was only the second boss in the game.
While the fight starts with you telekinetically throwing objects at each other in a small room, the battle soon moves outside where Barret starts flinging shipping containers at you. this came as quite a shock after the tight confines of the previous levels. But once you figure out the space between the two of you, it’s not before you start catching Barret’s projectiles and throwing them back at him.
Solving these combat puzzles, facing bosses, TK surfing around the environment and finding secrets is why Psi-Ops is still remembered fondly. Another is that it ended on a cliff-hanger that was never followed up on! After defeating the final boss, a general who’s been trying to assemble a powerful Psi weapon by, once again, throwing something at him telekinetically (psychic balls this time), Scryer collects the McGuffin that the game was centred around and a collection of helicopters arrive, apparently to help.
Scryer takes one look and shouts “That’s no help! I remember everything now! Let’s get out of here” before attacking one of the choppers with his TK powers. The screen fades out to “To be continued”, although it never was.
For the remainder of the 2000s, Midway’s fortunes declined. This wasn’t helped when they were sued by writer William L. Crawford III who claimed the plot of the game was stolen from his script, also called “Psi-Ops”. The case was eventually dismissed but by 2009 Midway Games filed for bankruptcy with Warner Bros purchasing most of their assets (including Mortal Kombat and what became Netherealm Studios). While Mortal Kombat flourished at WB, there’s been no sign of Psi-Ops or Nick Scryer since.
Whether it’s intentional or not Remedy seems to be ticking a lot of boxes on the list of features that Psi-Ops fans would want in a sequel, spiritual or otherwise. A semi-open environment to explore with supposedly “wild bosses” to seek out seems like a natural development for the 15 years since Psi-Ops was released.
The advancements in PC and console power alone mean that there are probably scenes in Control that will have more in-game objects to manipulate telepathically than were included in all of Psi-Ops. The fact that those environments seem to bend and warp like something out of F.E.A.R, is only a bonus.
It may be missing that unmistakable hum when Scryer used his TK powers and TK surfing (as far as we know), but after 15 years we’ll take what we can get when Control comes out on August 27th.
Psi-Ops Sounds Awesome! How Do I Play It?
If you want to play Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, you’ll either need to jump through some hoops or find a PS2/Original Xbox copy of the game.
There is a PC version that can be found online. However, it only supports mouse and keyboard control scheme and needs some work to get working. This PC version is an old ad-supported version of the game that you can find by simply googling “psi ops download”.
While this may install, you will also need to seek out the “no intro fix” or to get it up and running correctly. As with any files you download from the internet make sure your anti-virus scans them before and after install to make sure that nothing untoward has been installed along with the game.