Control is a wild ride full of intense action sequences, a mysterious setting, supernatural happenings, and a host of psychic abilities that will surely stimulate your senses. The game is developed by Remedy Entertainment, known for their work on Alan Wake and the recent Quantum Break. Control a power fantasy that seems to get better as the game goes on, but ultimately falls short of being an instant classic due to a confusing and extremely obtuse narrative, minor performance issues, and some odd design choices.
You play as Jesse Faden, the newest Director at the Federal Bureau of Control – a fictional government organization that specializes in researching supernatural occurrences. Upon arrival, you discover the building has been on lockdown due to a recent threat – known as The Hiss – which have begun taking over the entire area. The game takes place entirely in the Oldest House, the name of the Bureau’s New York headquarters. But, the Oldest House isn’t just another drab office building, it’s a character of its own, one that reacts to the environment around it, morphing and changing as the game goes on. This is one of the most unique settings I have experienced in a game since BioShock’s Rapture.
What makes the Oldest House so compelling is the overall sense of scale it provides. As you progress through the roughly 12-hour-long story, you’ll encounter a variety of different environments, often times wondering just how they fit inside this single skyscraper. Upon initially entering certain locations, they will be overrun with Hiss enemies, which you must meticulously dispose of. Once everything is clear, you can “cleanse” the room, which commences a series of events that are visually stunning to say the least. The walls around you begin to move and rotate in different geometric patterns, peeling back and creating a completely different atmosphere, one that doesn’t feel so claustrophobic in nature, and allows you to explore more freely in peace.
In between these epic battle sequences, you’ll find yourself running around the environments – generally a lot of glass-panelled offices, cubicles, meeting rooms, and the like – collecting files, audio recordings, and minor upgrades, which we will get to later. The game has an unnecessary amount of collectibles, so much so that they actually begin to detract from the overall experience. I’m all for games that immerse you in the story by littering the environments with small items here and there that add to the lore, but the amount of items that you can read in this game is excessive. The pacing feels off too. The game is constantly has you racing forward to clear this inevitable threat, but also wants you to stop and smell the roses. With the constant tension created by the environment, stopping even for a moment to read a meaningless memo feels like a misstep.
The overall narrative also feels like a missed opportunity. The beginning of the story starts out strong, with Jesse receiving a distress signal that takes her to the Oldest House. She discovers the previous Director has apparently committed suicide. Upon picking up his weapon, called the Service Weapon, she is transported to an alternate dimension, known in-game as an Astral Plane, where she must run through a gauntlet to learn a specific ability. These Astral Planes are revisited throughout the story, acting as mini “tutorials” that allow you to acclimate to any new ability you learn. These were some of the best sequences of the game, as they felt like small sandboxes that you could approach in different ways. But, as the story progresses, it begins layering on more and more complexities until it becomes a confusing a confusing amalgamation full of Objects of Power, Altered Items, Places of Power, Altered World Events, and other confusing jargon that is hardly comprehensible after awhile. What makes it worse is that the optional pieces of lore that you find around the world don’t clear up any confusion. Instead, they add to it, which makes me question why they were included in the first place, if none other than to give you a sense of purpose in between battles and while exploring. I found myself just playing through the game to experience the combat, with little regard for what was actually happening. It’s disappointing, as the story has the potential to be something really special and memorable, and ultimately holds it back from greatness.
Thankfully, the combat more than makes up for the story. Throughout the game you’ll only be using a single gun, the Service Weapon you acquired at the beginning of the story. But, just like the Oldest House, the Service Weapon can alter its form, allowing you to effectively toggle to different weapon types on-the-fly. These include the default Grip, a standard sidearm that fires like a pistol, Shatter, a shotgun-like form that fires a spread of pellets, Spin, a fully-automatic form that fires a high volley of bullets, Pierce, a ranged form that emits a single, powerful charged shot, and Charge, which fires a series of rocket-like shots that explode on contact. As you defeat enemies and explore the environment, you’ll collect material that you can use to upgrade your Service Weapon, as well as Jesse’s psychic abilities.
Speaking of psychic abilities, this is some of the most engaging combat I’ve ever experienced. With so many different abilities at your disposal, it’s hard not to enter combat with a grin on your face as you rip through enemies in a multitude of different ways. One of my favorite abilities is Launch, a telekinetic ability that allows Jesse to remotely grab any item around her and hurl it at an enemy with incredible force. Another ability that you’ll obtain later in the game is Levitate, which – as the name implies – allows you to levitate in the air while firing your weapon and using your entire arsenal of telekinetic abilities. When Levitate is upgraded, you’ll even be able to leap out of the air and smash down onto enemies, creating a massive impact upon landing. I loved every moment of combat in Control, and wish there was more of it. Instead, it felt like combat sequences were very short-lived, lasting only for a minute or so at a time before you were relegated to exploring again.
Unfortunately, the exploration can be frustrating as well. The Oldest House is a labyrinthian maze of hallways, offices, and many similar-looking sections in between the landmark locations. The in-game map is perplexing and often leads to more frustration than it does actually help guide you. Waypoints are non-existent, requiring you to explore with no clear direction much of the time. I understand that many modern games hold your hand too much, but this feels like an intentionally poor design decision as the layout is not something that can be memorized easily. You’ll find yourself pulling up the map frequently (which unfortunately requires opening a menu as there is no mini map on your HUD) leading to more frequent pauses. This is a game that benefits heavily from constant movement as demonstrated by its engrossing combat, and having to stop and pause to find out if you’re even going in the correct direction further dampens the experience. Additionally, the checkpoint system is extremely unforgiving. After falling in combat, which will absolutely happen to you at many points throughout the game, you are often dropped minutes away from where you were, requiring you to potentially fight through mobs of enemies again before you reach your original destination. Another questionable design decision that detracts from the overall game.
As you explore, though, you’re accompanied by an incredibly immersive soundtrack that includes a variety of different scores, creating an ambience that meshes perfectly with the environment. There’s also a choir of voices that will intermittently start muttering phrases rapidly in the background, something that adds to the overall spookiness of the game. It’s unknown if this constant chatter is actually happening, or taking place inside Jesse’s head, but it’s worth wearing headphones for, as it’s sure to raise the hairs on your neck. The voices are very reminiscent of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game where a young girl is dealing with anxiety and other mental illnesses that manifest into a series of disturbing voices inside the main character’s head that can be heard by the player throughout the game.
Visually, Control is nothing short of stunning. The game is on the cutting edge of graphics and new technology, pushing the limits of my newly built PC with its high fidelity and ray tracing capabilities. Even with the dull interior of an old office building, Remedy have succeeded in making it intriguing, playing with lighting effects and colors in really compelling ways. I especially liked some of the later stages of the game which included an entire quarry, and the Ashtray Maze, which included one of the coolest sequences I’ve ever experienced in any medium, rivalling even that of Inception.
Overall, Control is a game I’ll never forget, even if the story is not particularly memorable. There is a ton of content available in the game, including many side quests that feature special locations, collectibles, and bosses. Remedy have plans to add DLC to the game at a future date as well, which will hopefully bring some clarity to the more confusing parts of the story. Aside from a few performance issues I experienced during gameplay, specifically during heavily populated combat sequences, the game ran extremely well on my PC. The environment is extremely unique and has an incredible sense of scale, and the accompanying soundtrack fits perfectly – both in combat and out of it. Control is one of the best-looking games I’ve experienced, featuring fantastic acting and motion capture, and jaw-dropping set pieces and sequences. If only the story could’ve held a candle to the combat, Control could’ve been more than just a fling.