Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Available on: PC (Epic Games Store), PS4, Xbox One
Played on PS4 (non-Pro)
Control is a weird game. Within the first hour, protagonist Jesse Faden has conversations with a spirograph in her head, encounters a Finnish janitor who speaks in idioms, and is tested by a pyramid when she picks up a gun. It doesn’t build up to these things, it just launches into them and expects you to follow along. And all of this is what makes Control such a compelling experience.
I always knew Control was set to be weird, and that’s what appealed. The trailers all showed a woman running around a federal building using telekinetic powers to battle possessed people. But what Control achieves is so much more than what those trailers show. This is about a bureau that secures and contains weird phenomena to protect the public. This is about when that becomes your day job. It’s about the banality of the bizarre.
But I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I get into the real appeal of Control, I should explain exactly how the game works. At its core, this is a third-person shooter with a single gun that turns into multiple guns. Reloading is done by waiting for the gun to recharge. It’s standard stuff, but with an otherworldly twist.
Your opponents are people possessed by The Hiss, a mysterious interdimensional resonance that burrows into your mind, takes hold and causes untold psychological damage. Essentially, it’s the supernatural equivalent of Shape of You by Ed Sheeran. Hiss Agents you encounter are the Bureau staff, corrupted by this Hiss, and you have to stop them.
Added into the mix are various powers, awarded to Jesse by bonding with Objects of Power, items that possess paranatural properties. An ancient floppy disk provides the ability to lob furniture around. A carousel horse provides the ability to perform a quick dash. And that’s just two of the basic abilities that you gain as the game progresses.
It’s in these powers that Control is at its most fun. There is nothing more satisfying than psychically lobbing a desk at a foe, unless of course that desk takes out another foe on its way to you in the first place. There’s a perverse joy in possessing enemies and making them do your bidding, or in running up to an enemy with a shield of floating concrete that you then throw in their face.
RHYTHM OF THE FIGHT
There’s a definite rhythm to combat in Control, alternating between gun and powers as their respective energy bars run low and stop to recharge. The scenery becomes your playground as you blast a few rounds at a foe, before breaking another’s shield with a stray projector. This rhythm can make you feel like a badass, flicking between your combat modes as you play around with combat.
But equally, this rhythm can sometimes get tedious. Enemy types rarely change, and even though there are several variants of possessed agents coming after you, many of them are just different flavours of things that shoot at you. In a game that shows so much imagination elsewhere, it’s disappointing that the core combat can get so samey.
Combat isn’t the main draw of the game, however. The real good stuff in Control comes from everything that contains that combat. The environment, through clever world-building and art design, is the focus here, and makes Control much more than just a third person shooter with powers.
FOLLOW THE SIGNS
Exploration is encouraged. There are no objective markers here, just clues to which sector you need to venture to. This forces you to read the environment and figure out your route around the place by yourself. You know, like we used to do back in the day. Not that this doesn’t sometimes cause problems, as some areas are confusing to navigate and feature poor signage. For the most part, though, this hands-off approach to navigation is refreshing and helps to let you get immersed into the world much more.
As it should, because the Federal Bureau of Control is a fascinating place to be. It’s full of horrors of all shapes and sizes, and yet everything is so bland. The Bureau is inside The Oldest House, a Brutalist concrete monolith in the centre of New York, and yet hidden in plain sight. The environments you move through are so bland and grey in their presentation, but the Eldritch nature of it all makes them feel oppressive.
Cleansing a corrupted area seeing the rooms shift and morph into new shapes, and documents scattered around imply that these shifts are routine for those who work here. One memo, for example, reads like a standard office complaint, only the complaint here is about an entire toilet block disappearing.
THE BANALITY OF THE BIZARRE
This mundanity is seen elsewhere in the documentation around the building. Stern warnings not to bring in prohibited items, including “iconic representations of an archetypal concept”. Dry case files describing a refrigerator that does…something when you stop looking at it. A puppet show aimed at kids but features a character named Mr Bones who I fear may have already claimed ownership of my skeleton.
It’s reminiscent of the SCP Foundation website, with all the disturbing and/or darkly humorous case files that entails. The game imitates the SCP Foundation’s clinical approach to describing objects beyond our mere mortal comprehension. The presentation is also reminiscent of the mundane yet existentially wrong aesthetic of David Lynch’s work. It all adds up to a game that effortlessly creeps out, confuses and elicits laughter in equal measure.
As such, sometimes the side missions can feel more interesting than the main story. There’s a focus on exploring the facility and encouraging you to read the documents and watch the videos. These side missions really do feel like someone made a real SCP Foundation game at last. No spoilers here, but it might make you look at a lawn flamingo in a new way.
WHERE IT LOSES CONTROL
The main story is a little drab in comparison to all this world-building. Jesse comes to the FBC to find her brother, taken by the Bureau as a child, and finds herself as the new Director. In her new role, she pieces the place back together from the Hiss damage as she seeks answers about her childhood. Not a lot surprising happens with it, although the presentation is as superb as the rest of the game, with excellent voice acting and dialogue throughout.
Where the presentation falls down is on the technical side. I played on a base PS4 and the technical issues were obvious. Persistent freezing after coming out of the pause menu. Slowdown in some high intensity fights. Live action video locking up on playback. On two occasions, the PS4 just gave up and the game crashed to the menu. For such a high-profile release to have these issues on release isn’t great, and a patch has yet to be released to fix this. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment too much, but it was hard to ignore.
There are other minor flaws here and there. The map is functionally useless most of the time. Fast-travel points seem to be placed at random compared to some missions and key locations. The upgrade and progression systems are a little tacked-on and can feel a little limited. But much of this does little to detract from everything that makes Control excellent.
Control isn’t a perfect game. And yet, what it does right, it does brilliantly. I played through the game over the course of a week, and yet as I write this a few days later, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Bureau. The weirdness and the creepiness are exactly the level of weird and creepy I love. Plus it’s just good fun to run around and throw fire extinguishers at resonance zombies.
Control is one of the best games of the year so far and brings back a creative and odd style of mid-range title that the game industry seems to have otherwise lost. It’s creative, it’s unique and it sticks to its guns no matter how weird it might get in the process. Control is a masterpiece and needs to be experienced by everyone who loves their media to be a little bizarre.