Take one part X-Files, one part Twin Peaks and one part Stranger Things. Mix them all together with some Mass Effect, some Dark Souls, even a little Metroid, and what do you get?
Well, you don’t get Control, that’s for sure. Control is just a big disappointment.
Control is the first Remedy game I’ve played since Max Payne 2. I missed out on their subsequent offerings of Alan Wake and Quantum Break, but what I noticed about both of those games — especially Quantum Break — was that they were extremely high-concept games that spent an awful lot of time on arranging the set dressing and getting real live actors to come in and read their lines while doing facial mocap that was rendered in game in truly unsettling detail, but which turned out to be absolutely bog-standard third-person shooters whenever you got out of a cutscene. Not coincidentally, Control is an extremely high-concept game that spends an awful lot of time on arranging the set dressing and getting real live actors to come in and read their lines while doing facial mocap that is rendered in game in truly unsettling detail, but which has otherwise turned out to be an absolutely bog-standard third-person shooter in almost every respect.
For most people that’s probably not a dealbreaker. The third-person gameplay of Control is by no means bad; Remedy have been cranking these games out for a while now and they’ve gotten quite good at the nuts and bolts of it, even if they’re one of those studios who come across as really, really wanting to make a TV show and they’re not going to let little things like “being in the videogame industry” stop them from realising their dream. For me, though, the cookie-cutter nature of Control’s gameplay was at such serious odds with its premise that I just couldn’t get over how unambitious it ultimately is as a videogame.
The short version of that premise is that all of the urban legends and supernatural phenomena that end up making their way into SCP creepypasta on Reddit are real, and that there’s a secret US agency called the Federal Bureau of Control which is responsible for containing and monitoring them. You are Jesse Faden, a curiously capable young woman who was caught up in what Control calls an Altered World Event (i.e. spooky shit going down) when she was a child, and who has been walking around with an ethereal hitchhiker in her head ever since. Said hitchhiker talks to her constantly and eventually directs her to the front door of the Bureau’s New York HQ so that she can get some answers about her brother, who disappeared during the aforementioned AWE. Unfortunately paranormal trouble appears to follow Jesse around, as she walks into the Bureau only to find it under siege from an extradimensional entity known as the Hiss which has possessed the majority of the Bureau’s staff and which is getting up to some generally unsavoury stuff deep in the depths of the Bureau HQ.
Control does at least provide a somewhat novel introduction to yet another iteration on the tired old Chosen One trope. Jesse is special, and not just because of the hitchhiker in her head; shortly after she enters the building she finds the body of the old Bureau Director, and next to the body is a gun. As soon as she picks the gun up she’s whisked away to the astral plane to be tested by a set of mysterious entities known as the Board. In gameplay terms this is an excuse for the game to present you with a short tutorial segment, but in story terms Jesse is shown in a trance holding the gun pressed against her own head, with the implication being that the Board is in control while her consciousness is on the astral plane and will execute her if she fails her test, which is a very nice and quick way of communicating that the things the Bureau deal with do not fuck around; they are deadly, and if Jesse didn’t happen to be the player character she’d have been killed as soon as she picked up the gun.
Fortunately the tutorial is so easy it’s impossible to fail, and so this doesn’t happen. Passing the test makes her the new Director — which doesn’t for a moment stop everyone else in the Bureau constantly telling her what to do, mind — and gives her the ability to use the gun, which is actually an otherworldly artifact of unfathomable eldritch power that just so happens to resemble a gun. The initial configuration of the gun is a semiautomatic pistol, but it can later be upgraded to be a shotgun, or a sniper rifle, or a grenade launcher; this is awfully convenient since despite the Hiss being an immaterial invasion of corrupted information it chooses to fight you solely via the bodies of possessed Bureau agents, who just so happen to behave exactly like conventional cover shooter baddies. You’ve got guy with gun, guy with machine gun, guy with sniper rifle, guy with rocket launcher… there’s the odd levitating enemy who attacks you with telekinesis, but your gameplay encounters with the actually weird shit locked up in the vaults of the Bureau of Control are restricted solely to optional boss fights.
This is my big problem with Control: it goes in heavy on telling you how unusual its world is, filling its environments with reams and reams of notes and audio recordings about all of the powerful artifacts and unusual phenomena that the Bureau has encountered over the years, and using some very impressive storytelling technology1 to create conversations between characters who have been mocapped in such detail that they’re almost photorealistic, and then when it comes to the actual gameplay it displays an almost insulting paucity of ambition to actually realise any of these cool ideas or promising story threads. A good point of comparison here is Prey, whose premise was quite similar in that you were trapped on a space station full of otherworldly monsters, but which actually backed up that premise by making most of your enemies behave in deeply unconventional ways. Importantly, at no point in Prey did anything shoot at me with a gun; fireballs yes, telekinetic attacks yes, but never guns2. By contrast the only thing separating Control from a standard cover shooter is some unusual level geometry and the fact that Remedy have at least been smart enough not to include a “take cover” button.
Well, that and the Launch ability.
The Launch ability is arguably the one single thing that saves Control’s combat from total mediocrity. I’ve just lambasted the laziness of the gunplay and the enemy design, but it’s not quite as acute an issue as it might have been if not for the presence of Launch, which salves that particular irritation in two ways:
- By being so utterly overpowered that you only ever use your gun when you’re waiting for your Launch energy to recharge.
- By being incredibly fun to use. It took me around fifteen hours to fully finish Control, and I hadn’t yet tired of using Launch by the end of it.
Launch as a concept is nothing new. It’s a telekinetic power that’s basically the gravity gun from Half-Life 2 — hold down the right mouse button to grab a physics object from the nearby environment, lock on to a target enemy by mousing over them, and then release to launch the physics object at them like a cannonball. What makes Launch so good is that it starts with a fair whack of force behind it that’ll bowl enemies over and take off half their health bar, but it can be upgraded to the point where it can one-shot most enemies; where it can plow through everything in a straight line, scattering multiple enemies like ninepins; and where you can pick up literally anything and use it as a Launch projectile, including incoming grenades and rockets and the corpses of enemies that you just killed with Launch. Many of the available physics objects will explode in an immensely satisfying fashion when they make contact with their target and Control’s environments are actually surprisingly destructible, with walls crumbling and debris getting scattered absolutely everywhere.
Because Launch one-shots most enemies, it suddenly means the lazy enemy design doesn’t matter so much; indeed, it would almost have been a waste of time to put any thought into it when they all end up being clubbed to death in seconds by a selection of heavy scenery anyway. Launch is a rare exception in Control’s limited repertoire of gameplay mechanics: it’s not a new concept, but Remedy knew it’d end up being the signature thing the game was remembered for in spite of this and took the time to really polish it and make it fun. By contrast most of Control’s premise is a new concept, but it makes almost no effort to translate any of that promise into innovative gameplay abilities. The excuse for your picking up Launch as a power is explained away by your “cleansing” an Object of Power and acquiring its ability for yourself, and you get to do this a couple more times to pick up other supernatural abilities, but they’re equally as unimaginative: you get a dodge ability, and you can also hold F when targeting a weakened enemy to turn them to your side — but good luck doing this when Launch is so devastatingly powerful that it doesn’t leave any weakened enemies behind. It’s only the Levitate ability that really stands out; this lets you hover around in mid-air a little like Iron Man, and while it’s a slow way to get around the way it’s presented to you visually is halfway between awesome superpower and half-remembered dream flight. Levitate is just weird enough to be a bit unsettling, to truly feel like you’re harnessing the unknown, and I wish there had been more powers like it instead of most of them being mere excuses for implementing mechanics that you can find in just about any other sci-fi shooter on the market.
Levitate presents Control with a bit of a conundrum. Launch sustains its combat for a major portion of the game’s length, but I felt like it didn’t really start to flow properly until I picked up Levitate and became properly super-mobile. Unfortunately I didn’t get Levitate until two-thirds of the way into the game, and for good reason: Control has some light Metroid-esque exploration elements built into it, where you go back and revisit previously explored areas of the map with new powers to see if any new routes and secret areas unlock, and since Levitate is essentially a flight power they can’t give it to you until the back half of the game as it would trivialise too much of that exploration. The premise certainly accommodates it; the Bureau’s HQ is located inside a fractally infinite building that supposed to be able to contain just about anything, and which should have given Remedy’s level designers plenty of scope for designing memorable areas and interesting navigation. Alas, Control sadly runs into another problem here, in that its environments end up being a mix of two parts Generic Office Environment, two parts Secret Government Facility, and only one part Wacky Geometric Fun. I understand why, to a degree: office environments are easy and provide lots of cover to hide behind, and wacky geometry is hard (especially when you have to animate it too) and doesn’t necessarily create a fun environment to fight in. Again, though, it ends up being yet another way in which Control, despite its premise, is mostly just providing something you can already find elsewhere, and which has probably been executed better there too.
And while we’re talking about things that are better executed in other games, let’s take a moment to talk about Control’s story, which is the thing Remedy obviously spent a lot of time on and which is the thing that should really stand out in comparison to the rest of the game. Given the prevailing trend in this review up until this point, however, it may not shock you to learn that Control’s main story is as generic as they come. The Hiss is never concretely defined, and your major interactions with it come via shooting the Standard Cover Shooter Baddies it keeps throwing in your direction. The business with the unseen hitchhiker in Jesse’s head is built up as being a major revelation, except when it’s actually revealed it turns out have absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the story; the game might as well have told me there was a small hamster inside Jesse’s head whispering instructions to her and it would have had about as much relevance to what’s going on. The plot thread with her missing brother is similarly underwhelming. Even the backstory ends up falling flat on its face; you get post-mortem calls on a magic phone from your deceased predecessor as Director of the Bureau, and he’s gradually dripfeeding you background info telling you that things aren’t what they seem and that there was a reason he took his own life prior to your busting down his office door at the start of the game. However, when I was eventually explicitly shown what actually happened via a cutscene I still wasn’t sure exactly what was going on or why he did it.
This is very much a self-inflicted wound on Control’s part. It likes being vague and ill-defined, and this does suffuse it with a dreamlike, ethereal atmosphere that’s quite appropriate for its Lynch-inspired subject matter. The thing is, I think this only works if you have occasional moments of lucidity to give context to the otherwise nonsensical moments in the script — but I spent the entire game waiting for things to snap into focus, and they never did. If anything the game became even more nonsensical towards the end, to the point where I accidentally did the final story mission because I simply didn’t realise that it was the final story mission, things were so unclear. The disjointed nature of Control’s world and plot had seemed at first to be playing up to its various inspirations, but once I’d finished the game it was painfully apparent that it was just a particularly bad example of Video Game Plot Syndrome where it doesn’t build to a climax or put a full stop in a thematically appropriate place. It just… stops, because Remedy really need to release the game now so they just jam a fifteen minute ending mission in there — which, by the way, is just a series of three shooting galleries filled with the same enemies you’ve been fighting all game, which is a fantastic way to spot a game that ran out of development time — and then call it a day.
That’s not to say that Control doesn’t have some segments that remain effective even after the main storyline of the Hiss turns out to be more of a Fart. The very first character you meet in the game is a weird janitor who is very out of place in a building that’s currently being ripped apart by horrors from the beyond, and everything involving him lands exactly where it is supposed to. The few parts of the game where Remedy do actually take the time to experiment with the level geometry are fantastic, and the most memorable section of the game is a basic shooting gallery that’s elevated far, far beyond that mundane concept by what they do with the surrounding environment. Outside of that, much of the heavy lifting in Control is done by the optional sidequests, which ignore the Hiss completely and instead have you hunting down various escaped artifacts and making them safe. Each artifact is quite quick to deal with (some of them can be retrieved instantly after they are found, and the rest won’t take more than 5-10 minutes) but they’re all refreshingly different. Some have you solving puzzles, some have you platforming, some have you fighting bosses that are genuinely supernatural, and a couple of the beefier sidequests combine all three with some unique environments that aren’t found anywhere else in the game. None of them are related to one another, but that’s fine; working my way through the list of artifacts was kind of like watching a series of monster-of-the-week episodes of the X-Files, and was much more the sort of thing that I was wanting and expecting Control to be.
Unfortunately these sidequests make up less than a quarter of Control’s actual content. The rest of the game is either the Hiss storyline, or other, less interesting sidequests that are the dictionary definition of Filler Content. It’s not even like the game makes up for it by being particularly polished, either; in terms of systems it has incredibly weak damage feedback that sometimes leads to you losing half of your healthbar without noticing, and a weapon mod system that’s really dull to engage with (Remedy think 9% decreases in shotgun spread are interesting) and which ends up creating a ton of busywork because your mod inventory capacity is tiny in comparison to the number of mods that are dropped by enemies and you have to periodically go in and manually dismantle the trash items one at a time. You craft new weapon types by picking up crafting components out of chests and off of dead enemies, but they’ve all got ridiculous names like “House Memory” and “Ritual Impulse” and so if I need one more House Memory to construct the SMG weapon type I have absolutely no idea where to get it, because there’s nothing that tells me what I should be killing or where I should be killing it to get another one. Many of the boss encounters are frustrating because of instant death mechanics and extremely finicky autotargeting for Launch, which loves to lock on to anything except the boss’s weak spot.
These rough edges pale in comparison to the actual bugs and performance issues, though. I have a fairly beefy machine these days, and so I thought I’d run Control in DirectX 12 mode to try and take advantage of the latest and greatest visual effects on my RTX 2070. This turned out to be a mistake, as I kept experiencing framerate drops every 30-40 seconds where everything would freeze for a second or two, and anyway it turned out the “enhanced” graphics in DirectX 12 just meant that everything looked like it had a thin layer of Vaseline smeared over it. After trying it for a couple of sessions I stepped down to DirectX 11 and this both looked sharper and had better performance with no dropped frames. However, it was incredibly unstable; I had three crashes to desktop while I was playing it, and an additional soft lock where I died and the game went to a black screen instead of respawning me at the nearest bonfire3. The particularly aggravating thing about this was that I couldn’t even get the task manager open to kill the process as Control was still active and wouldn’t let me minimise it and I ended up having to hard reset my system, which I’ve not had to do for a PC game in years. Control does look very pretty even without the ray tracing, which is why I’d really rather they’d focused on making it not crash every couple of hours instead of getting it bundled with the latest set of RTX Supers to boost their sales numbers.
The best thing I can say about Control is that it’s not a total dud. Its general world and atmosphere is at least on target, and there’s a fair chunk of the game that does somewhat live up to the promise of its supernatural concept. The thing is, it feels like this is achieved in spite of the main story, which takes up the majority of the game’s running time, is aggressively mediocre at best, and which feels like it’s been the victim of the usual game development screwup of being frankensteined together out of whatever semi-finished bits the development team had lying around as the release deadline approached. Control talks a very good talk, but one of the things I keep banging on about is that it isn’t enough to simply tell the player about all the cool shit that’s happening in your game world. You have to make them live it too, because videogames are an interactive medium and if you can’t translate your premise into effective gameplay mechanics then all of your efforts at world-building end up being just so much hot air. While Control doesn’t completely fail at this, I would not remotely characterise it as a success either. Maybe when it releases on Steam in a year they’ll have fixed the bugs and will put it on sale, and then it might be worth a look; otherwise, Control doesn’t even get a grudging recommendation from me.
- Which gets its own credit at the start of the game, which is rather revealing about where Remedy’s priorities lie these days. ↩
- Well, except for those technophile monsters that attack you with subverted drones. ↩
- I’m going to start taking the attitude that if your game is copying stuff from Dark Souls then I’m not going to bother remembering what you think I should be calling it, I’m just going to call it by the Dark Souls name. ↩