At the intersection of fringe science and the immaterial expanse beyond human perception lies the study of the paranormal. It's effectively a study of the unknown, and it's also the primary theme behind Control, a game centered around a clairvoyant protagonist stuck in a complex that doesn't adhere to the laws of any known reality. Paranormal occurrences are a common theme among horror and thriller films, and they happen to form the perfect setting for the new game from Remedy Entertainment, the developers behind Alan Wake and Quantum Break.
Control exists in a space somewhere between the thriller and paranormal horror genres. It's an action-based affair steeped in a sort of otherworldly mystery, taking place in a bizarre complex that can rearrange itself and call upon extradimensional forces known collectively as The Hiss. Players assume control of Jesse Faden, who stumbles into the building at the behest of an unknown entity. Jesse follows a path motivated by personal interest, but members of the Federal Bureau of Control, tenants of the possessed FBC complex, immediately accept her as their new boss, despite Jesse feeling like a total stranger. Confused but determined, she must navigate the labyrinthine structure and find the answers she seeks.
On the gameplay side, Control is a total genre mash-up. It's overtly a third-person action adventure, but it draws from so many other genres that it's hard to nail down the the game's specific direction. Combat isn't cover-based, though Jesse can and should hide behind cover as needed. Instead, players are meant to go in guns blazing, making use of a reality-bending Service Weapon that can mutate into several different forms, plus a selection of physics-based abilities. Throughout the course of the story, Jesse will eventually gain the power to levitate or dash through the air, among other capabilities, but the basic telekinetic Launch ability sees the most use in battle as well as the game's numerous puzzle-solving areas.
Wounding or destroying enemies will drop health as well as collectible items and weapon mods. The environments are fairly vast for a game set more-or-less exclusively indoors, and they sometimes require light platforming to reach hidden or out-of-reach areas. In that regard, Control is almost like a Metroidvania game, in that it wants players to go back to previous areas after earning higher security credentials. New abilities also open new pathways, and to keep things interesting, the forces of The Hiss can and will respawn as Jesse backtracks through the FBC complex. Fortunately, fallen enemies also drop Source, the in-game currency used to build mods and new Service Weapon forms, and other mods and items dropped by enemies scale with Jesse's level.
It's not exactly cozy in here
One of the biggest stars in Control is the FBC headquarters itself. Right from the start of the game, the building and environments within give a sense of wonder and danger. In places controlled by The Hiss, walls are able to change their geometry, doors and passageways become obstructed, and ethereal projections of the former FBC director appear as apparitions that guide Jesse but simultaneously put the player ill-at-ease. The source of these events can be traced to various Objects of Power, collected through a litany of past FBC enterprises, which manifest as ordinary objects with the extraordinary ability to distort reality.
That's a focus of the game's design: The shifting, ephemeral nature of the building keeps the atmosphere tense, especially as more powerful paranormal entities jump into the fray. To make matters more interesting, Jesse sometimes travels to the Oceanview Hotel, a location seemingly found on another plane of existence, and must often traverse the Astral Plane under the guidance of The Board in order to discover new abilities. All of the locations are tied back to the FBC complex, and though there aren't really any typical open-air environments to be found, the game never really feels like a linear experience.
It helps that there are numerous side quests and activities to undertake. Sometimes Jesse will stumble upon a quest in a random location; other times, one of the game's numerous (and remarkably flat-feeling) non-player characters will point her in the direction of tasks that need to be completed. Board Countermeasures can be undertaken by visiting nearby control points, offering items or mods in exchange for combat-focused challenges. There are even Bureau Alerts, which are timed challenges that usually see Jesse clearing out Hiss Nodes or taking down particularly powerful baddies. These fail if the clock runs out or if Jesse dies, but new Bureau Alerts still continue to appear at regular intervals.
Back to reality
Control can be really annoying at times. Pop-in and stuttering are noticeable and frequent, and sometimes occur out of the blue. Inventory management with mods becomes a chore as Jesse becomes more powerful, and the returns from scrapping mods pale in comparison to the source gained from regular old combat. Movement can be jittery, sometimes the map just doesn't show up, and even the animations can be wonky: For example, the first time I met Arish, he appeared to be panicking nervously in the middle of the room, floating and moving like he was playing an invisible piano. As soon as I spoke with him, he turned around to the nearby control panel and disappeared from sight, leaving the cutscene to play out between Jesse and a disembodied voice.
Strange as it is to admit, I could forgive almost all of those issues if not for problems with navigation. Pulling up the map screen causes immediate slowdown, and a lot of the time, the map image itself does not appear. The FBC building is a labyrinth, and the game pushes players to explore, since new abilities and security credentials will open new paths in previously visited areas. The problem is that getting to those areas is a chore; the map doesn't delineate paths or even floors of the building, forcing players to search the old-fashioned way. I burned almost an hour looking for the Black Rock Quarry only to discover I'd walked past the path I needed to take several times, failing to notice a dimly-lit corridor despite a direct line-of-sight from the nearby control point.
With all that said, through all of its numerous issues, Control is a blast. It's a melting pot of some of the best that modern gaming has to offer, with cherry-picked gameplay elements that combine into something that feels immediately familiar, but plays out rather unlike anything else on the market. It's a head trip, asking players to think outside the box before revealing there was no box in the first place. To put it another way, it's a marvel of design marred by its technical ambition.
Control is an experience not to be missed. Remedy Entertainment has gone above and beyond to realize the game's paranormal-themed world, and the result is something so entrancing and bizarre that there's really little else to compare it to. It's proof positive that the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts, but in drawing on the best that gaming had to offer, several technical issues managed to sneak in from beyond the void. Whether these glitches or bugs seem silly or nefarious will be up to individual players, but even the biggest bouts of slowdown don't take away from the game's stellar action and environments. It's fast-paced, fun, and pretty damn freaky — all the right elements of a perfect sci-fi thriller.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 download code provided by the publisher. Control released for retail and digital stores on August 27, 2019. The game has been rated M for Mature by the ESRB.
- Enjoyable premise, story, and atmosphere
- Bizarre and entrancing environments
- Solid third-person combat
- Plenty of side quests and activities
- Frequent technical issues
- Dialog and characters sometimes feel flat
- Frustrating map and navigation
Kevin Tucker posted a new article, Control review: Hiss Hiss, bang bang
Hmm yea, I want to play it at some point, but I'd like to wait for the technical issues to be resolved
Yeah I want to play this on PC, not going to go for the PS4 version as this review mentioned numerous issues and Digital Foundry gave it basically a failing grade on the PS4. My 980ti in my PC is probably not enough for this beast either.