Control is a very unique game because it may be the first game I’ve reviewed here that I’m not sure on what my recommendation is. Usually I go into a review leaning either positive or negative on a game. Control…I’m conflicted on.
Control is Remedy’s latest, and they’re a favorite studio of mine – they produced Alan Wake and the first two Max Payne games. Ten minutes into the game I was all in on the world, the aesthetic, the lore of Control. Remedy knocked that out of the park and I was ready to put this game at the top of my GOTY contenders.
Then the rest of the game happened.
I love Control. But I also hate Control. I’ve never felt so strongly for and against a game – normally either I love it despite its flaws, or it’s terrible despite a few bright spots. Control is somehow both. So I’m going to hash out everything I love and hate about this game in this review and let’s see where I end up.
The main character of Control is Jesse Faden, a woman searching for her brother. They were both a part of a supernatural incident many years ago, and while Jesse escaped her brother Dylan did not. For many years Jesse searched for the mysterious agency that took her brother and covered up the events of her past. The game begins with her finally finding them and setting foot in the Federal Bureau of Control’s HQ.
The game is dripping with atmosphere from minute one. The stark, brutalist architecture of empty offices and hallways creates arresting visual design. Memos scattered everywhere alternate between hilarious (an executive demanding to know where the executive bathroom disappeared to) and disturbing (a recording of a woman talking to the furnace, implying during the conversation the furnace is alive and feeds on people). The game jumps headfirst into its concept and just goes for it. And that part of the game I couldn’t be happier with.
Control’s Federal Bureau of Control (or FBC) takes a lot of its cues from the internet’s SCP website (Secure-Contain-Protect). SCP is a crowdsourced website where many people create different “items” that have supernatural abilities and write up case files for how the SCP takes care of each item. The item’s stories, like Control, range from humorous to mildly creepy to outright nightmare fuel. It’s one of my favorite websites to just sit and randomly browse (if you’re looking to get started, try reading this case file on a warped IKEA) just because of how creative some of the files are.
And Control adapts that creative weirdness into its game while using their own terms. Objects of Power are items that can be bound to individuals and grant them supernatural powers: an old disk with Soviet nuclear launch codes grants Jesse the power of telekinesis. Altered Items are items that cause weird things to happen but don’t grant any powers: for example there’s a sticky note that continuously multiplies, or a stoplight that teleports you away if you try to move while its light is red. And then there are Altered World Events: events that the FBC has covered up in the outside world due to the Altered Items creating phenomena observing by everyday people.
All this grabbed me and I was hooked on the lore pretty early on. I’m normally a person who looks for collectibles in each room before moving on, but I was doubly so while playing Control. I would scour every inch of each room looking for new texts, audio files, or film clips that expanded upon the FBC’s world. I was rarely disappointed as Remedy threw everything but the kitchen sink into world-building through its side content. I was leaning forward, eager to read every line of new information even if they were insane ramblings from a crazy(?) person.
My favorite creepy side memo. What was redacted??!?!
One of Remedy’s signature moves is to include live-action video sequences in their games and they had them in spades in Control. Dr. Darling, one of the game’s most captivating yet mysterious characters, is the star of most of them. They usually revolve around explaining what different departments of the FBC do or how to handle experiments and proper procedures. But as the game progresses, Dr. Darling’s videos get a little stranger and a little creepier until they start feeding into the main plot of the game. It’s just the right bit of unnerving to see the happy-faced scientist performing for the camera while the in-game characters are telling you just what Dr. Darling has been up to – and where is he, anyway?
I’m still not done with the world of Control – I’ve beaten the main game but have quite a few side quests to wrap up, and I intend to do so because I want to continue soaking up the world that Remedy has created within this game. Maybe there are still some creepy papers I haven’t found yet. Or another video about the Threshold Kids – a macabre puppet show that looks like it’s supposed to be for children, but led to one of the most unsettling moments I had in the entire game. I legit had to put down the controller for a minute to compose myself – if I was kid or teenager, I probably would have had at least one disturbing nightmare about those stupid Threshold Kid puppets.
So you’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t talked about one thing in particular – the gameplay. And that’s because that’s where the majority of my anger with the game comes into play. If the gameplay had been satisfying 100% of the time, this game would have shot to the top of my all-time favorites list. As-is, though, it kind of levitated halfway before wobbling and falling into a pit I couldn’t avoid.
Yes, that happened a lot to me in this game.
When the combat clicks, it’s an amazing feeling. Throwing debris to knock over one enemy, levitating into the air and dodging enemy bullets before shooting back at them, then launching yourself into a devastating ground pound and chaining that into a powerful melee attack before mind-controlling another enemy to fight on your side and leaping back into the air. Control has a way of making you feel very powerful with all the supernatural abilities at your disposal.
That is, when you’re fighting the basic enemies.
When Control decides to switch things up and add tougher enemies into the mix, the combat breaks down. I would estimate a good 80% of my deaths in this game were to enemies that could take away half your health in one blow – either through explosives, minigun bursts, or large chunks of concrete flung at Jesse’s head. (The other 20% was mostly the aforementioned accidental pitfalls.) And because that’s how I kept dying, it felt like the encounters were designed very poorly.
I would enter a new room, and because I didn’t find and target the guy with rockets immediately, I would lose half my health. And before I have a chance to orient myself, I would get hit with a second rocket and either die or have so little health that my entire screen turned red. Add in Control’s impressive destruction physics and my POV would be utterly obscured and some random enemy would finish me off with a quick gunshot. That was how a majority of my deaths went. And that wasn’t fun – especially with the game’s bad checkpoint system that I talked about earlier this week.
In addition, for some unknown reason Jesse’s main weapon – an Object of Power called The Service Weapon – can only access two of its five gun transformations at a time. So if I get into a situation where the shotgun transformation is the best but don’t have it equipped, I have to stop the action to navigate the pause menu. It makes no sense in the context of the game and breaks the flow. Why not give me a weapon wheel to choose between all of the gun forms? I so badly wanted to immerse myself in the world, but between constant menu checks and loading screens from cheap deaths the game felt too…game-ified, for lack of a better word.
I know Remedy’s bread and butter is third-person shooters, but Control’s world begged for something better in the gameplay than shooter w/ powers. The Service Weapon’s description even says that it can shift forms and probably was legendary weapons like Excalibur and Mjolnir. In my head, I imagine a Control game where you can shift between gun, sword, hammer, axe, etc. Where Jesse can throw an axe like Kratos did in God of War and then call it back, morph it into a gun on the fly to snipe a far away enemy, then morph it into a sword to parry a charging goon. Only make some of the enemies shooty-bangs, make others puzzles you have to use the right weapon form against, or weird alternate-reality swordsmen. The creepy supernatural world is your oyster and the best you can come up with for enemies is generic soldiers who shoot at you, sometimes with grenades? Ugh. Combine enemy and weapon variety with being able to throw objects telekinetically and levitate off the ground? Now that would be some fun combat.
But I digress.
One sequence in the game pretty much saved the whole thing for me. A late-game area called the Ashtray Maze contained one of the most mind-blowingly awesome setpieces I’ve ever played through in a video game. In a flawed game, this one particular part was top to bottom perfect. I go into it a lot of detail about it on the podcast episode that just came out today, so I won’t spoil it here, but it was worth the price of admission alone.
That being said, I can’t help but think about another game I played a while ago – Darksiders II. That was another game I was desperate to love but walked away from feeling less than happy with. It also had a top tier sequence – The Guardian Battle – but that happened much closer to the beginning of the game, as opposed to Control’s fantastic Ashtray Maze being near the end and helping the game end close to a high note.
Still, over time I think about the Guardian Battle from Darksiders II but not much else. I look at Control and think this could end up the same scenario. Will I fondly remember the Ashtray Maze for years to come but get fuzzy and irritated with the rest? Who knows.
Right now, though, I’m in a positive place with Control. Even though a lot of the game’s actual game portion was not my cup of tea, everything else was. And sometimes atmosphere is enough to bring me back for more. I could be done with this game. I beat it. But like I said earlier, I have full intention of stepping back in and finishing up all the sidequests. So for now, I’ll say I like Control and give it a hearty recommendation.
PLAY this game for its world and lore, you won’t be disappointed.