About three-quarters of the way through Remedy’s latest action-adventure, I was surprised that I wasn’t more bored. Control tries its hardest to make what should be a fun, supernatural romp through a building into an impenetrable mess of story and game design. It should fail, and in many ways it does — over and over again. Given the pedigree of a company which brought us Alan Wake and Max Payne, the loading times are ridiculous, the frame rate issues are frustrating and the number of bugs and crashes I experienced were eyebrow-raising. Despite all of these problems though, I continued ploughing on. Not because I felt I had to for the sake of the review, but because I genuinely enjoyed the gameplay.
Much of that is to do with a twist on a generic formula so obvious that you wonder why it’s taken until 2019 to implement. Alongside the third-person shooting which Remedy has pretty much nailed, your protagonist — Jesse Faden — has paranormal abilities which allow her to throw environmental objects at enemies. Holding down a shoulder button will rip an extinguisher off the wall, or pluck a chunk of masonry from the ground and let you hurl it at whoever is shooting at you. The entire area becomes your playground, giving you the freedom to merrily dash around it while you alternate between unloading your gun and chucking desks — and later, the enemy’s own ballistics — at people. It is a fun mechanic, realised brilliantly in chaotic environments where debris sprays everywhere, and it failed to get old even by the time the credits rolled.
Trying to decipher the reasons behind your power is less fun, however. Control is set up narratively to feel like an extended version of The X-Files, mashed together with made-for-TV miniseries like The Lost Room. There’s a creepy government organisation — the Federal Bureau of Control — which investigates and experiments with the paranormal. There’s a silhouetted director who smokes cigarettes and spouts sinister warnings. There’s a motel that you keep returning to which offers up simple puzzles around opening specific rooms. There’s an alien entity known as the Hiss who have somehow infiltrated the entire sprawling building. Jesse is the only person able to stop them because she picked up the gun of the FBC’s previous director and now, like a ballistic Mjölnir, it’s bonded to her and made her the organisation’s leader.
All of this is accepted without question by all of the characters involved, and it feels jarring. When you learn early on that Jesse came to the FBC to look for her brother who was taken by the organisation, more questions are asked than answered. How did she find the building in the first place? Why is the gun so special? Why have the Hiss been unable to take out the surviving group of FBC agents? While some of these are answered in a flurry of audio tapes and mock instructional videos towards the end of the game, much of the story’s exposition is only located in documents scattered throughout the building. There is a lot of reading, almost all of it dry and clinical, and not helped by many of the words being redacted for aesthetic effect.
The Oldest House, the building in which you’ll spend the entirety of Control, is a sprawling maze of corridors and areas cordoned off by access restrictions. Switching from Remedy’s usual linear layout to a Metroidvania style unfortunately highlights their inexperience in this area. The map is a mess with no clear delineation between floors on each level, nor obvious means of working out how one area links to another. Discarding the waypoint markers typical of open world games is a bold move, but doing that is only advisable if the visual navigation holds up. I spent more hours than I can count trying to follow ambiguous signage up and downstairs — particularly in the Research sector. While it’s possible to fast travel between checkpoints once discovered, they are spread out so thinly that it is often quicker to kill yourself in order to respawn at one than find your way back on foot. This misstep infringes on other aspects of the game too: Control offers up time-limited side quests for you to test your skills against, but since they involve backtracking to places you’ve already been, more often than not I ditched them for the main story.
Navigation aside though, Control’s difficulty is weighted well. The service weapon you start with can be upgraded to different forms as you progress, morphing in your hand to variants on a shotgun, sniper rifle, automatic pistol and rocket launcher. All of them feel meaty and distinctive. Each form can also be upgraded by purchasing add-ons which improve the stats specific to that form (such as rate of fire for the Spin automatic form) or in general (such as a boost to damage after killing an enemy). Objects of Power collected during the course of the story grant Jesse paranatural abilities, including throwing up a shield of rubble or levitating. The strength of these can also be improved alongside her standard health and energy bars within a skill tree, which gives you significant freedom in shaping your play style. If you like getting in the face of the enemy, investing in Melee to blast them with your power would be wise. For the more tactical player, bulking up the Launch capability will let you do huge amounts of damage when you hurl environmental objects from a distance — and as it increases, you can even pick up damaged Hiss and throw them at their counterparts for some truly satisfying encounters.
The combat presents as a fluid mix of skills and ballistics then, letting you rotate your arsenal in the most pleasing and natural way that I’ve experienced since Marvel’s Spider-Man. It’s just a shame that most of the enemies have very little to distinguish themselves visually. There are grunt Hiss and flying Hiss, huge trooper Hiss and disappearing/reappearing Hiss, but they all have similar faceless appearances, just more drones to clear from a room in order to progress. Equally disappointing are boss fights, which end up being little more than extended encounters based on one or more of these enemy types. Still, I had plenty of fun mopping up standard enemies — at least until the final hour, where the game went full Remedy and threw in a host of bat-shit crazy plot twists and encounters. The less said about the maze near the end the better, not least due to the bugs I hit trying to get through it.
Ah, bugs. Even on a PS4 Pro, the frame rate was appalling. The simple act of opening and closing menus ground the game to a stuttering halt, while I blue-screened on at least five separate occasions. Pop-in and texture resolution were erratic and the map overlay seemed to forget its boundaries at times. This is hardly the kind of QA you’d expect from a veteran studio like Remedy but even now, three weeks after release, I’m still hitting glitches.
Control is a game that just about succeeds despite trying to hamstring itself at every turn. It struggles with its voice (is it trying to be sci-fi? Action? Horror?) and it isn’t scary at all. It’s not even unsettling. In fact, given how it appeared to be pitched, it has zero jump scares and the most terrifying thing I experienced was the loading times after dying. The nonsensical plot ends up squandering its potential — come on, there’s an FBC department of Luck and the best it can offer are desks filled with horseshoes? — and it takes itself far too seriously. But if you can look past the clunky story delivery and questionable quality control, the core gameplay is fun. Really fun. It’s just a pity it wasn’t attached to something quite as exciting.
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