Reviews

Control Review – Game Of The Year?

Official Control artwork depicting lead character Jess Faden

The history of Remedy starts waaaaay back in the days of slow motion diving. Yes, I’m talking about the Max Payne games which I first experienced at the tender age of far too young to be playing them. But thanks to my dad play them I did, and while I didn’t understand a word of what was going on I did understand the special magic that Remedy had created. Since then the company hasn’t lost its flair for creating unique things: just look at Alan Wake and Quantum Break. They’ve struggled to release a big hit, though. Alan Wake did okay but never well enough to get a sequel, and Quantum Break just sort of vanished into the ether. But Control could be different. This could be the big one.

It’s definitely a Remedy game, their distinct visual style being apparent in every nook and cranny. Control brings the company’s flair for interesting worlds and ideas and marries it to great combat and a solid gameplay structure. I hinted in the title of this review at Control possibly being Game of the Year material. It wasn’t click bait. Let’s talk about why it could be.

The Oldest House

Lead character Jesse Faden is no stranger to the paranormal. As a kid she was right in the middle of a huge paranormal event that was contained by a secretive branch of the government called the Bureau of Control. The organization took something from Jesse and so she’s spent years trying to find them, and as the game kicks of she’s finally discovered that Control was seemingly hiding in plain sight in London. Under the guise of applying for a job as an assistant janitor she enters the building, but things in the bureau are not going well; some strange race that come to be known as the Hiss have invaded, and paranormal items of great power are busting loose. If that wasn’t enough Jesse earns herself an immediate promotion when she picks up the Service Weapon, a transforming gun that can only be wielded by the Director. Yup, suddenly Jesse is the boss of an agency that deals in the weird and wonderful. Presumably it pays better than the janitor job.

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Developer: Remedy
Publisher: 505 Games

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher

If Control already sounds a bit crazy then prepare your brain because things only get stranger. You see, the building itself isn’t normal. Known as the Oldest House it’s capable of hiding itself from the world and is considerably bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. Within its walls are held all sorts of mysteries, such as a light switch that transports you to a motel when pulled three times. There are fridges that will go on killing sprees if someone doesn’t watch it 24/7, weird rubber ducks, traffic lights that transport you backwards if you don’t stop on red and more collected from around the world. This vast building has an underground mine that somehow has a vast expanse of stars above it. It has research departments, a prison and an insane maze where the walls move. It’s a place that contrasts the grey, classic mundane office building with the strange and dangerous.

Basically weird objects of power can turn up in the world and it’s the Bureaus job to deal with them, research them and hopefully not get eaten/killed/turned inside out by them. There’s a lot of lore behind the game, most of which you can learn via the files, recordings and other collectibles scattered around The Oldest House. Usually it’s hard to find the motivation to grab collectibles in games, but in Control I found myself hoovering them all up because the world Remedy has made is incredibly interesting. Learning the strange stories behind the building, prior events and the objects was compelling and fun, and the game leans into its dark humour. Let me clear, everything is always acted out seriously, but it’s obvious that Remedy know rubber ducks, pink flamingoes and floating anchors are bizarre and funny.

The Oldest House informs the game’s light metroidvania style with small areas and resources being locked away until you come back later with a higher clearance level or some new powers. You get a chance to become familiar with the building and its quirks.

But back to the story. Remedy neatly side-steps the potential problems of introducing a regular person into this paranormal world by having Jesse feel oddly at home in the madness. While she is aware that the paranormal exists past she has no real knowledge of the bureau and what they do and thus we players get filled in as she does, but Remedy also wrote the story so that Jesse almost feels like this is where she is meant to be. This lets them have all sorts of crazy stuff happen without having to have Jesse do what most people would, which is to say start blubbering while they hide in cupboard for the next few months.

Jesse is a superb main character and actress Courtney Hope delivers a genuinely fantastical performance throughout the game. Unusually we don’t just get to hear what she says, but we also get to listen in to hear thoughts as well. Discovering why she’s at the bureau, what happened in her past and what she’s looking for now is utterly compelling. Likewise, I loved watching her learning about the bureau, accepting her newfound place within it and growing into the role of the Director.

Jess Faden showing off her levitation ability in Control

Where I feel Control struggled was in giving time to certain characters, especially one in particular who has an important role in the story but no real personality. He needed for screen time, and specifically more time with Jesse.

Some people enjoy ambiguity in their stories while others like more clearly defined narratives where the answers are given rather than guessed. Control opts to be the first of those and I admit to that sometimes frustrating me: there are elements of the story that aren’t properly explained and plot threads that aren’t full developed or are left hanging, presumably for a sequel or expansion. Looking back at the story there are elements that don’t connect in my head, and I’m quite sure I was paying full attention. I’m eager for another play through to see if I can piece everything together.

But these flaws aside the story is nothing short of absorbing. I was hooked from start to finish, especially when it began delving into some crazy stuff later on. I wanted to find out what was going on. I wanted to figure out the mysteries. And while the questions that are left are frustrating in some ways they also make me eager to return to Control‘s world in the future. With two new pieces of content already announced will we see existing storylines wrapped up, or are we going to have to wait for a sequel?

Use The Force, Jesse

It doesn’t take long before Jesse begins to develop unusual powers of her own. The first is the ability to hurl chunks of the scenery using only her mind, and boy does it feel good to do. There’s a satisfying sound that accompanies snatching chunks of masonry or even missiles out of the air, and smashing stuff into enemies looks superb. Control is a big fan of rewarding your hits with sparks, bits of flying concrete and other random pieces of scenery being propelled through the air. It makes combat feel more dynamic and exciting.

Later on she’ll even be able to levitate, her uncertain wobbling in the air becoming more stable as her confidence grows. Hovering above a battle while throwing desks at the Hiss is just awesome, and the way it controls is smooth and responsive.

But there are other powers, too, that can actually be missed if you don’t bother doing certain quests. The game makes it fairly obvious that these are worth chasing, but I still applaud the developers for letting eager players bypass them entirely. Skip ’em, though, and you won’t get to seize control of enemies or create a shield of debris to fend off attacks. Whenever you get a power you’re transported to the Astral Plane in order to test it out, which the story explains is the realm of the mysterious and secretive Board who contact the director through a paranormal phone line. I told you this game was weird.

Jesse Faden confronts the mysterious Hiss in Control

Completing main missions and secondary missions gives you points that you can sink into upgrading your abilities, like unlocking an awesome ground smash or being able to take control of multiple enemies at once. It’s a standard levelling system, but even the stat increases feel like they’re making an actual difference. Putting a couple of points into telekinesis, for example, will not only let you smash through enemies in a single hit but also let you hurl huge containers or even some of the larger Hiss bad guys.

The other way to power up Jesse is via mods, both to the Service Weapon and to Jesse herself. Each version of the Service Weapon can be upgraded using materials up to three times, and each upgrade lets you slot in another mod that you can also craft or just pick up around the world. None of these mods drastically alter your weapons or Jesse herself which is a bit of a shame, but the stat bonuses they offer up allow you to tailor Jesse to your playstyle and they make a true, notable difference in combat. Personally, I was a fan of a mod that decreased the amount of ammo I used up when levitating, because hovering like Superman while raining down bullets like the Punisher never gets old.

Combat in Control

The Hiss sure do like trying to murder you, so combat plays a healthy role in Control. The Service Weapon is the core of the combat as it’s capable of shifting form, becoming different types of weapon. It starts as a standard pistol, but can be a shotgun or machinegun, a sniper rifle or just a hurler of explosives. It’s real magic trick, though, is that it never runs out of ammo, rather it just has to recharge itself.

But while the ammo is recharging you can’t just sit and have a cocktail. Nor can you cower behind a wall as the enemy Hiss are aggressive and a lot of the terrain is destructible, so movement in Control is vital to keep…uh, control of the situation. Thankfully Jesse is packing those powers we covered earlier, so while the Service Weapon is recharging you can still go on the offensive or defend yourself against incoming attacks.

These powers are also limited, though, in this case by the amount of energy you have. It’s a smart design, constantly pushing you to play with both your guns and your paranormal powers rather than relying on just one or the other.

Fights in Control are fast and frantic. I loved that it constantly pushes you out of cover and back into the fight, such as how dead enemies drop health so to get some back you need to push rather than hunker down. Without tight controls it wouldn’t work, but thankfully the game feels great to play. I was levitating from place to place, dashing behind cover, targeting enemies and generally being awesome without ever feeling like the controls were too loose or weren’t keeping up. You naturally end up using the whole environment rather than cowering behind a wall and never moving.

In the end I only have two complaints about the combat: the first is that some attacks are a pain in the arse to actually see coming, so there were times when I died and wasn’t even sure what had happened. The second is that the Hiss aren’t the most diverse or interesting enemies in the world. Sure, there are Hiss guys that float around in chairs and others with miniguns, but because the Hiss take over human bodies they stuck to basic enemy archetypes, like typical grunts with guns.

The various bosses get a little more room to flex their paranormal muscles, thankfully. They aren’t the best boss fights in gaming by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some cool battles to get into and it’s worth pointing out that Control can be a really challenging game at times. I got my backside whooped a number of times, though a few of them were probably just because I got cocky and let myself levitate right out in the open like a chump.

The point is, I bloody love the combat in Control. It’s chaotic, it’s fast, it’s fun and it actually requires some skill. If you don’t pick your targets and have some semblance of spatial awareness other than just being aware that there’s space in a sort of general way then you’re going to fail.

Tying It All Together

The corridors, rooms, sectors and vast spaces of The Oldest house are all tied together, making Control essentially an open-world game. I say essentially because some areas are indeed locked away until you have higher clearance or the right ability, but for the most part you’re free to explore and discover at your own pace. This is how a lot of the side-missions are discovered, through exploration of the building rather than them all being handed to you.

Those missions are where Remedy get to have a little extra fun, letting players learn about all sorts of weird and wonderful objects. These side quests aren’t as involved as I might have liked, though, but perhaps that’s a good thing because it helps keep the pace focused. Lengthy side missions are great, but it does detract from the urgency of the story when the player ambles off for hours or on end.

Getting around to complete missions is easy provided you stop and cleanse Control Points. These let you fast travel around the Oldest House, and also act as the place where you can spend ability points and upgrade the Service Weapon.

While the combat does play a big part in Control, simply exploring the Oldest House is a massive part of the game. Remedy have clearly spent a lot of time and effort making it a place you want to investigate. So to keep things balanced there’s an encounter system in the background that keeps track of how long it has been seen your last fight and how severe it was. Smartly it doesn’t take into account time you spend reading collectibles or ambling, so it never feels like you’re being punished by wave after wave of enemies for taking your time.

Jesse Faden explores the Ashtray Maze in Control

Aside from the main story missions and a handful of side-mission there’s also Bureau alerts to take part in. These are timed missions that simply task you with going to a place and usually killing the Hiss that are there, and for doing that you get some crafting materials. These alerts feel tacked on, though, and are clearly a cheap way to pad the game’s runtime. That’s a shame because Control isn’t a small game. You’ll probably get around 15-20 hours of it, or more if you really take your time.

These alerts continue once the main storyline is over. You’re given free reign of the Oldest House to mop up side-missions or just continue exploring to see if there are any other secrets to discover. I admit, I’m curious to see what else might be hidden away in Control.

Technical Issues

For the most part Control was a polished experience with no major bugs or glitches, or at least none that I ran into. But it does have some performance problems on the Xbox One X with some occasional stuttering occurring during the really busy fights. That might be because of the penchant for particle effects and for having a lot of objects in the environment that can be sent flying through the air via powers, gunfire, explosions and just about anything else.

The other time stuttering was an issue was when entering and exiting menus or coming out of a fast travel point.

These drops in the framerate are a bit disappointing since Control only runs at 30 FPS as it is. Nor is there any HDR support which is a little surprising for a game in 2019.

But the good news is that the rest of the game looks great. Remedy have got a unique style that’s firmly grounded in reality and now exactly awash in bright colours, but then they twist that reality by bringing the paranormal into the equation. The result is striking. A seemingly mundane and dull corridor will twist away into the distance; a simple security checkpoints leads to two towering doors separated by a bridge that crosses a void.

The Final Verdict On Control Is…

One of the things that has fascinated and scared me the most about reviewing games is that as I’ve gotten more known and therefore gotten access to games earlier I’ve entered my own little bubble when writing the review. When you review a game that’s already out you know how your opinion is going to line up with everyone else’s, but when you’re reviewing something that’s under embargo and no available to the public it’s like writing in a void and that’s scary. What if you love something, but everyone else hates it? What if you hate it, and the world loves it? Are you somehow horribly wrong? I’ve had Control for almost two weeks before it launched. I’ve sat and wondered aloud how my views are going to line up with the world’s. Are you all going to like Control as much as I did?

Because my verdict is that Control is truly brilliant, a bona fide contender for the Game of the Year crown. It boasts great performances, a strong story, a detailed and intriguing world and superb gameplay. It has issues, and the narrative’s vagueness might irritate as many people as it impresses, but ultimately a review is all about a personal experience and I utterly adored and loved every damn minute of Control. Right now it is my game of the year. Whether it can stay there given the quality of the game’s to come in 2019 remains to be seen, but you need to play this one.

5 out of 5

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