Published On: Mon, Aug 26th, 2019

Control review: an excellent supernatural thriller with hints of Metroid

It only took a few hours before I got used to the floating bodies. In Control, the latest game from Alan Wake and Quantum Break studio Remedy Entertainment, those bodies are absolutely everywhere. You walk into a room, and there they are, lifeless forms clad in drab office attire or bright orange hard hats and safety vests. They’re disturbing at first, but the more you explore the game’s paranormal world, the less unsettling they become. They’re just a fixture of the landscape, like stairs or cubicles or coffee makers. But while I became accustomed to seeing them, I never quite got comfortable with hearing them: a steady drone of nonsense words that gets louder as more bodies cling to the air. After hours of playing that, chanting still made me uneasy.

That’s far from the only strange and unsettling occurrence in the game. Control is an experience built on those moments. It’s what would happen if you mixed the X-Files with a Jeff VanderMeer novel and then structured the whole thing as an open-world video game like Breath of the Wild.

For the most part, this blend works well. Control’s disturbing and atmospheric setting is incredible. It’s full of mysteries that only get weirder and more interesting the further you delve in. This also makes for some thrilling action; you’ll fight all kinds of strange creatures while utilizing an array of supernatural skills. It’s very satisfying floating through the air while using psychic powers to toss fire extinguishers at bad guys. There are times when the action becomes too much, though, and in these moments, Control devolves into a mostly generic third-person shooter where you’re hiding behind cover. It can make an otherwise excellent experience drag. But it’s worth pushing through to see the uniquely uncomfortable world Remedy has created.


Control

In Control, you play as Jesse Faden who, at the outset of the game, shows up at the Federal Bureau of Control — a government entity that studies and documents the paranormal — for a job interview as the assistant janitor. But almost immediately, she becomes director of the entire bureau; the previous boss died, and only a select few can wield the fantastical “service weapon” that serves as the director’s version of Excalibur. Around this time, a hostile paranormal force known as the Hiss has started to take over the Oldest House, the creepy name for the FBC’s New York City headquarters. Employees have been transformed into zombie-like monsters, and areas of the building have become overrun with unexplainable phenomena. Even for an organization that explores the unknown, the whole thing is pretty weird.

The entirety of the game takes place within the Oldest House, a massive brutalist structure that seamlessly transitions between the banal and the bizarre. There are rows of cubicles, sprawling conference rooms, and observation areas for studying seemingly normal objects that possess supernatural powers. The closer you look, though, the weirder things get. You’ll notice cheerfully mundane posters that warn how excessive hours caused by temporal shifts won’t result in overtime and old VHS training videos that explain what a “threshold” is. The signs pointing you in the direction of specific departments look almost forgettably normal — until you see fields of research like parapsychology and astral exhibition. Eventually, you’ll discover a vast subterranean quarry filled with floating rocks and a light switch that can transport you to a seemingly random motel. Even before you factor in the newfound appearance of the Hiss, the Oldest House is a very odd place.

But it also feels surprisingly real, thanks to all of those small details. If there was a wing of the American government dedicated to the study and containment of paranormal activity, I imagine it’d look a lot like this. There’s a tremendous amount of world-building that has gone into the creation of Control. It’s one of just a few games where I set aside time to read all of the (heavily redacted) files I collected along the way and listen to the many audio logs. It’s worth it to read memos from field agents about expense reports being lost due to temporal shifts.


Control

Control is also a very open experience. Its design is something of a mashup of Metroid and Breath of the Wild; you have a lot of freedom to explore, but some areas are closed off until you unlock the right ability or hit the next major story beat. It can be frustrating coming up against doors that are locked because you’re not at the right security level yet, but it at least makes some sense within the game’s fiction. That said, this isn’t the kind of experience that pushes you in any one particular direction. There are no big glowing arrows showing you where to go and the mini-map is pretty hard to use. I found myself getting lost a lot, particularly early on, as I stumbled through the confusingly maze-like structure of the Oldest House. But it also felt appropriate. At the beginning, Jesse is a newcomer to this world, one who knows very little about the Hiss, or “objects of power,” or the constantly shifting layout of the building. You learn alongside her, and it’s very rewarding.

While the spaces that you explore vary quite a bit — one minute you’re surrounded by glowing, alien-like vegetation, the next you’re climbing up a mountain of discarded clocks — what you’re doing remains fairly consistent, and mostly, that means a lot of combat. Control plays like a fairly standard cover-based third-person shooter. The service weapon can be upgraded with different abilities, but all of them will feel familiar if you’ve played an action game in the last decade.

What makes Control somewhat different is the powers you’ll slowly unlock. By the end of the game, Jesse is something of a superhero. She can fly, pick up objects with her mind, and control weakened enemies. You’ll have to chain these skills with weapon attacks to defeat waves of enemies. The sheer range of powers means that you can constantly explore new play styles and improvise on the fly. There’s a simple RPG-style structure so you can customize Jess’ powers to better suit how you want to play, and some of the abilities are hidden in side missions, so you’ll need to head off the main path to get everything. It helps that the various powers are just a lot of fun to play with. No matter how many times I did it, it always felt amazing grabbing a rocket out of midair and throwing it back at a glowing red Hiss.

The problem is that the game relies too much on combat. Often, enemies would respawn seemingly at random, and I’d be forced to replay simple but tedious combat scenarios multiple times. This discouraged exploration. You can get around the battles somewhat with Control’s fast-travel feature, though, of course, that isn’t really exploring at all. Worse still are some of the boss-like battles, which seem downright unfair, throwing wave after wave of bad guys at you. It’s a frustrating way to slow your progress, and there were times — particularly one egregiously long battle toward the end of the game — where I almost gave up on Control because I didn’t want to replay the same fight for the dozenth time.

Even some of the weirder side missions, like one where you chase a flying TV set, ultimately end in a big battle. Outside of combat, there are some excellent environmental puzzles, where you navigate architecturally impossible mazes and analyze strange symbols to operate complex machines. Unfortunately, these moments are relatively rare. It’s disappointing that some of the best parts of the game are overshadowed by the copious shootouts.

Ultimately, I’m glad I pushed through those frustrating moments. While it can be tedious at times, Control is worth experiencing for the atmosphere alone. It’s the kind of place that feels both alien and mundane, and it becomes richer and more compelling the further you delve into it. By the end, the things that first disturbed me become almost banal. Floating, chanting bodies are just the beginning.

Control will launch on August 27th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.


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