It’s been a while since I clicked with a game as immediately as I clicked with Control. Right from the start, it pulled me into its mysterious environment, complemented with gorgeous visuals that turn the recognizable facets of a modern office building into a strange world that I felt compelled to explore. Control only builds on this strong foundation with early twists and a phenomenal main mechanic that turns the game into a strong entry in, surprisingly, the superhero genre.
I rarely play games through to completion, but Control was an exception. I started on Friday evening and finished Sunday morning, taking breaks only for work and sleep. It follows from my short-lived obsession that I wholeheartedly recommend Control; barring Ultrakill, it’s the best game I’ve played all year. However, several annoying systems and mechanics bring down the experience in ways I’ll describe below.
But first off…
Looks Great, Feels Great
The Oldest House first appears to be an empty office building, which is itself eerie. But as you venture into its depths, things go from vaguely spooky to downright insane. Bodies float near the ceilings of brightly lit rooms. Volumetric red lights suffuse through warped open spaces. Monolithic doors open, revealing narrow stone walkways bordered by oppressive darkness. Central Research, a massive, multi-story atrium with two tall trees at its center was a personal standout. All of these environments look terrific, making great use of large light sources, reflections, haunting imagery, and dwarfing brutalist architecture that’s as off-putting as it is gorgeous. Through its combination of recognizable and supernatural elements, Control brilliantly captures a hostile nether-world, and so much of my enjoyment stemmed from exploring it.
Throwing the Game
While Control’s opening relies on its mystery and presentation to keep you hooked, you eventually unlock Launch, a telekinetic ability that lets you pick up almost any environmental object and hurl it at your enemies. Though it would have made sense for Remedy to have treated Launch as a knockdown ability, allowing you to take enemies out of commission while using your Service Weapon for DPS, they must have realized how much fun Launch was and pulled out all the stops for it. Not only does it never get old throwing hunks of concrete at everything that moves, it’s also your most powerful weapon.
As you unlock new abilities, combat becomes more strategic. Evade lets you dodge incoming attacks, Shield lets you block a small amount of damage, Seize lets you possess weakened enemies, and Levitate, well, lets you levitate. You also unlock different weapon forms (with Shatter being the best of the bunch), which, though handled poorly for reasons I’ll describe later, give further depth to combat encounters. You learn to approach fights strategically, swapping between the Service Weapon and abilities to allow each to recharge, keeping your distance from enemies, and developing tactics for dealing with each enemy type.
To be fair, Control’s combat is a touch unreliable. The Service Weapon isn’t always as accurate as it should be, and sometimes you’ll launch objects into walls despite the game indicating that you’ve locked on to an enemy. What prevented these minor annoyances from grating on me were Control’s destructible environments, which elevate every combat action, even missed shots and Launches, to a satisfying component of Control’s joyful power fantasy.
The sheer range of destruction is remarkable. I spent the first few minutes after unlocking the Service Weapon shooting tables and chairs, marvelling at how they’d come apart exactly where I’d hit them. When you knock over a projector, it continues projecting a lopsided image on the wall it faces. Shoot a fire extinguisher, and it explodes in a cloud of white foam. In quiet sections, these little details were immersive. But in combat, most of your attacks spill over to the surrounding environment, scattering small objects and debris, turning pristine office areas into warzones. All of these details and more serve as visceral, intoxicating indications of Jesse’s power, and I’m glad that Remedy didn’t hold back.
You Fight a Fridge
Control takes a quality over quantity approach to side missions. There aren’t many of them, but they almost all feel carefully crafted. Many contain some of the game’s best moments, typically in the form of boss fights.
Remedy probably relegated boss fights to side missions because of their difficulty. They’re a much greater challenge than the main story, which typically pits you against groups of fodder enemies who pose a threat only in numbers. In comparison, Control’s bosses are ruthless, attacking fast and taking off massive chunks of health with each successful hit. They require increased environmental awareness, more careful energy and ammo management, and a fair bit of trial and error. These fights are easily the most intense parts of the game.
The story starts strong. You play as Jesse Faden, who enters the Federal Bureau of Control, hoping to find answers concerning her younger brother’s disappearance. Suddenly, she’s appointed Director of the Bureau and tasked with containing an invasion of “The Hiss”, a self-propagating force that’s turned your would-be employees into zombies. The FBC feels like a videogame adaptation of the SCP foundation, and the things you find lurking within the depths of the Oldest House are appropriately strange.
However, the story ultimately fails to make an impression. I gave it an honest effort, reading collectible memos and attempting to piece things together, but found the voice acting middling to poor, the reveals mostly unsatisfying, the facial animations uncanny, and an emotional emptiness pervading the entire experience. Jesse’s voice actor puts in a bland performance, and her internal monologue is often grating.
That said, at no point did the story put me off enough to make me give up on it, even though I got kind of fed-up with Bureau Alerts interrupting me midway through story missions. There are some exceptional moments in the main story and the buildup to reveals is generally pretty good, even if the reveals themselves are uninspired. It just feels littered with wasted opportunities. The environment and atmosphere of certain scenes frequently made me think about how much more compelling those scenes would be if they had a stronger underlying narrative.
Also, why the hell do they show you locations you’re about to visit in cutscenes? Wouldn’t it be cooler to discover these places in-game?
If you’ve ever read A Series of Unfortunate Events, a similar sort of thing happens in Control: it sets up a mystery so complicated that the writer eventually realizes that any answer would fail to bring everything together into a logically sound, satisfying whole, and spends the story’s last scenes fumbling about with semantics and distractions. Lemony Snicket solves this problem with a faux-profound meditation on the insurmountable depth of real-life mysteries (“it is impossible to solve any mystery, or find the root of any trouble”), while Control solves it by not even trying (“…”).
Control’s ending is awful. It hits you with the “Good job, but we’ve still got work to do,” and that’s it. You don’t really save your brother. You don’t really stop the Hiss invasion. You don’t really figure out what’s going on with Polaris, or if the Bureau was secretly testing you, or what Ahti’s deal is, or what happened to Dr. Darling, or if the Hiss invasion had something directly to do with you. I’m pretty sure that even if you 100% the game, you don’t “win.” The FBC remains in eternal lockdown, and nobody is saved. Great job, boss.
The Death Penalty
Throughout the game, you amass Source, Control’s currency, which you use to purchase weapon upgrades and randomly generated player and weapon mods (more about that below). The first time I died, I lost about three hundred Source, but I wasn’t too worried about it. Assuming that the penalty for dying was only three hundred Source, it’d be trivial once I amassed enough of it. The thing is, the penalty for dying isn’t three hundred Source – it’s 10% of however much Source you have. This motivates you to spend what you have and avoid difficult fights. The risk may be worth it, but it’s almost never a risk you have to take.
Arguably, the parts of the game most affected by this pain-in-the-ass system are the boss fights. Like I said before, the boss fights are exceptional for their intensity, but when you’re losing tens of thousands of Source fighting one enemy, you’re less motivated to figure out his attack patterns and improve your understanding of the game’s mechanics. Instead, it makes more sense for you to leave, do easier missions, and come back when you’re overpowered, trivializing what would otherwise be intense battles.
Control has its fair share of modern RPG tropes – floating numbers above enemy heads, a bunch of systems that it never really explains, and upgrades for everything, from health to abilities. Most of these didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment. But mods, which you can use to improve weapon or character stats, eventually became a major annoyance.
Mods come in two forms – weapon and personal – which are further classified according to type and rarity. Each weapon form has its own weapon mod slots, which you can increase (up to three) by upgrading your weapons. You increase the number of personal mod slots by spending ability points, which you receive by completing missions. You can find mods in chests, acquire them by defeating enemies, or craft them using collected items and Source. If this wasn’t already enough of a hassle, you have limited inventory space. You can hold up to 24 of both weapon and personal mods, and it’s not like mods are a rare commodity. You accumulate mods fast, regularly filling up your inventory and forcing you to open it up and break down unneeded mods into Source. You might think that the solution to this is to ignore mods entirely, but mods give you tangible benefits. Some of them suit certain combat situations better than others, some provide helpful boosts, and some are nice to have around just in case. As such, I spent way too much time in my inventory, figuring out which mods I needed, which ones I didn’t, and which ones I’d equip for the time being.
The mod problem could be easily solved by designating one area in the game as a mod purchase/crafting point. You don’t collect mods outside of that area, only the items you need to acquire them.
Why Can’t I Just Use the Damn Number Keys?
On paper, weapon forms are pretty cool. The Service Weapon, your transdimensional Hiss-killer of choice, can take various forms. Grip, the most reliable form, is semiautomatic, good for both long and close-encounters. Shatter, my personal favourite, is a shotgun, taking off large chunks of enemy health at close range. Pierce is for accuracy, Spin is for fast fire, and Charge lets off devastating explosive fire that damages you if you shoot at something too close to where you are.
However, for some reason entirely beyond me, you’re constrained to quick-switching between two weapon forms at a time. If you want to use a different weapon form, you have to pause the game and switch them in your Loadout tab. It’s not as if the game punishes you for swapping weapon forms on the go; if you want to, you can, it’s just tedious. Rather than fix this, Remedy made weapon forms pretty much identical in their usefulness. As long as you pair a long-range one with a short-range one, you’ll be fine.
If you could swap between all weapon forms on the fly, this would have lent itself to a combat puzzle as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. You could use Pierce to take down enemy shields and snipers, you could use Spin to push back approaching enemies, you could use Shatter to deal close-range damage, you could use Charge to disperse groups, and Grip could be your jack of all trades. Quick switching between all weapons probably wasn’t included due to limited inputs on consoles, but it’s a damn shame they didn’t try to figure something out.
In Case I Lost You, Control is a Great Game
I know I listed more bad points than good ones, but I’d like to wrap up by saying that I had a phenomenal time despite my issues. Sure, I think it could have been better, but that isn’t to say it isn’t already fantastic. It nails its atmosphere and visuals, and its combat is a uniquely chaotic affair that makes Max Payne 3’s office level feel static. If you’re a fan of weird fiction, superhero media, or have a fetish for breaking office supplies, then Control is for you.
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