Let’s not beat around the bush. Control is excellent. The atmosphere is magnificent, a hauntingly corporate cesspool of weirdness. The gameplay is phenomenal. Jesse’s psychic abilities feel wonderful to use and the gunplay is smooth and reactive. The level design is incredibly deliberate, managing to feel both overwhelmingly large and simple enough to navigate. Even the few grievances I have with the game are easily overlooked, minimal blips on the radar of an otherwise stellar game. I played the PC version of the game, and as such, I have not experienced the same problems that PS4/Xbox users have reported with frame rate and stuttering.
Control opens with the arrival of Jesse Faden to the Federal Bureau of Control in search of her lost brother, as well as a job as a janitor’s assistant. Five minutes later and whoops, picking up that gun made you the director of the whole damn Bureau and, as director, the building’s lockdown is on you to solve. A lockdown caused by the invasion of the Hiss, the name for both the monsters and the sound that creates them. A lockdown that Jesse somehow managed to avoid.
That’s not to say Jesse didn’t have help, however. Jesse shares her mind with an extra-dimensional being known as Polaris. Polaris serves as both a guide of sorts as well as a conduit for Jesse’s immense powers. Powers that Jesse can use to harness and contain Objects of Power, everyday items that have been imbued with indefinable energy. These OoPs allow Jesse a myriad of abilities, from mind control to telekinesis to flight.
But it’s not the story that sells Control. Arguably, the story is amongst the weaker parts of the game. No, its everything around the story that works wonderfully.
The atmosphere of Control feels perfect. The level design, narrative, aesthetic, and sound design all work impeccably together to create a feeling of creepiness. The game is not out to scare you, however, as it never delves fully into the realm of horror. It’s more a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right, that none of this should be possible.
I said the story wasn’t great, then cited it as wonderful in helping the world-building and it is both these things. The story of Control does its job. I can’t say I was ever fully engrossed in the plot, but it worked well to set the mood and move me along from location to location. NPCs give vague exposition about the building, furthering your sense of unease. But when Jesse needs something, the NPC needs an errand run first. All the tense build-up is released at this moment, as the game undermines itself by being a video game. Thankfully, the game rights itself pretty quickly afterward through sheer immersion in the world.
Moving from floor to floor in the Bureaus’ HQ is an amazing experience. There’s a certain nervousness the first time you arrive on a new floor, waiting for the elevator doors to open, waiting to see what lurks beyond. And Control never disappoints. Even the most banal office spaces have a lingering unease to them, hiding secrets and horrors that you may never find.
But some of the secrets are open to you if you care to look. The Bureau is littered with extra bits of story and lore in the form of discoverable documents and video. And there are a lot of these extra bits. I tried to read and watch as many as I could, but towards the end I was running out of patience with them. They’re fascinating and fun, offering glimpses into unused OoPs and the daily life of the Bureau but there are just too many to find, let alone ingest.
Of course, being a game from Remedy, we must have live-action cutscenes. Finding tapes and certain story beats trigger a cut to live actors giving it their all, and they deliver. The combination of some fantastic performances and the strangeness of seeing live people within the game both create some great storytelling and heighten the strangeness of it all.
Most locations in the Bureau also serve as your combat ground, and they run the gamut from cramped and frantic to huge and overwhelming. Thankfully, Jesse’s powers make combat satisfying no matter the scale. If you’re trapped in a hallway, hurl rocks at the Hiss with her mind powers. Find yourself in a huge open space? Fly above them and rain down bullets. Either option proves to be immensely satisfying as you watch chunks of enemy health fall away as explosive canisters wipe away the rest.
Enemy variety, however, is a little lackluster. There are some cool sidequest enemies, but I found most of the Hiss to be nearly identical to one another. Some shoot grenades, some shoot bullets, some are a little bit bigger. And from a distance, they all look pretty much the same. Bosses aren’t exempt from this either. The few that are in the game tend to just be the same enemies, but with more health.
Control does offer a hearty chunk of sidequests, though, so you’ll at least find some enemy variety. Most are either fetch or kill quests, but they bring decent little mini-narratives that do a lot for world-building. A few are simply “go kill X because we need them dead,” but most have a story behind them, fleshing out characters or Objects of Power. Most, that is, except the Bureau Alerts, which serve only as timed events that give you some quick resources. These can be annoying, as they’ll pop up randomly, usually at inopportune times, and don’t really offer much. Thankfully, they can also be safely skipped if you don’t want to drop what you’re doing and run to another part of the building.
If you do find yourself doing the Bureau Alerts, or any other quest, you’ll start to gain resources. And this is where Control gets a little superfluous. There is a currency to gather, crafting materials, and mods to collect. All three can be gained by killing enemies and opening chests, but materials (and money, after crafting) are the only things I ever ran low on.
The crafting is another element of Control that I can only describe as fine. It’s not bad, but its just kind of tacked on. You can craft upgrades for your guns, allowing you to deal more damage and attach more mods. Pretty standard stuff and that honestly what makes it so disappointing. Control has a lot of really unique things going for it, so this fine crafting system just feels out of place. It’s just something you must do occasionally.
The same goes for mods. You can find personal and weapon mods throughout the game, but none of them feel all that special. They’re undeniably necessary within the game, as without them the game gets much harder, but I don’t think I’d miss them if they disappeared. They don’t do much, just upgrade an ability or stat by a certain, almost imperceptible, percentage. They also take up space. Which means that every few encounters or so, you need to stop and clean out outdated mods if you want to pick up new and potentially better ones.
The game’s final facet comes in the form of light RPG mechanics. There’s a pretty basic tree associated with each power, and once again, it’s mostly about percentages. Some trees do unlock additional abilities for the power, but most of it is just about slight improvements. Unlike the mods, however, these upgrades never get in your way, only gently reminding you to spend your points when at a control point, the game’s fast travel hubs.
I can’t end this review on a low note, though, because there’s still the sound and oh, the sound. The near-constant whispering is maddening, in the best possible way. You can’t help but get lost in it as your mind struggles to pick out a cohesive sentence instead of just snippets. It permeates the combat, reminding you that your enemies are living, existing within the world of Control. In the rare moments of peace, you’re left with near silence and it’s almost worse. The whispers are everywhere, and when they suddenly vanish, you’re left with only yourself and a feeling of loneliness. There are a few Old Gods of Asgard tracks in Control as well, and as much as they kick ass, I highly recommend knowing as little about them as possible before playing.
When Control isn’t fiddling around with side mechanics, the game is incredible. Getting lost in the halls of the Bureau is one of the most atmospheric experiences I’ve had in a video game, and the combat is fast and fun. And when Control does get lost in its side mechanics, it’s never bad. The worst thing I can say about Control is that some elements of it are fine. Not bad, just fine.