Control (2019) REVIEW

An unknowingly pre-screened and very qualified candidate for director of a federal bureau of paranormal investigation simultaneously discovers the mystery of her past and a true calling in life along the way as acting director and a gifted enforcer in Remedy Entertainment‘s latest third person action adventure game Control. Jesse Faden is truly a character as she soothes the invading misanthropic cross-dimensional corruption of her would-be employer and there isn’t a moment wasted as her inner dialogue expresses glee at the chance to use her powers with purpose. The power fantasy is entirely rethought in the hands of the Espoo, Finland based developers who’re best known for their work on early entries in the Max Payne series as well as Microsoft exclusives Alan Wake and the relative mediocrity of Quantum Break. As many others have stated Control feels like a more independently realized version of what Remedy had attempted with their previous game, and not only because they’ve used a modified version of the same game engine. The ‘art’ of the piece yet persists as its own entity by cutting the fat and focusing on a balance of mysterious science fiction storytelling, metroidvania-esque ability gated exploration, and inventive third person shooting mechanics that soon evolve into a Star Wars: The Force Unleashed style set of skills. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say this is the finest and most ‘complete’ adventure the studio has produced but to be sure Control is not without its awkward flaws on the way to greatness. That new power fantasy? ‘Meaning’ above all else, and a newly purposeful place in the world.

The destructive effect your powers have on the (breakable) environment intensify as you complete the skill tree.

The cold open is nothing new within the entirely inept wheelhouse of video game storytelling but so rarely is actual foreshadowing done with enough subtlety that the player doesn’t feel like they’re the lowest common denominator. Control opens with Jesse speaking to what is soon revealed to be a powerful dimensional entity released by an ‘object of power’ that caused a paranormal event in her hometown… *wait for it* Ordinary. Yep, she’s from Ordinary town. Anyhow Polaris is clearly her guidance on a mission to find her brother who was taken by the shadowy Federal Bureau of Control and the entity, who never has a voice– only a stylized visual indication, was her ticket in. The foreshadowing is thicker than mud for the first fifteen minutes of the game and at the very least you’ll get the sense that Jesse has gotten into a situation where trust shouldn’t make sense at least until the possessed red-lit corpses and fractal stone monstrosities amidst the expansive Bureau begin to force the choice between stiffly hyper-intellectual bureaucrats and frothing, shrieking inter-dimensional evil.

‘Cleansing’ or disabling Objects of Power becomes a sort of monster hunt as you complete each creative challenge the objects present.

Minimal brutalist architecture and highly functional high-end office space with somewhat archaic mail delivery systems make for a grey corporate world studded with grand Scandinavian architectural pieces and plenty of well-groomed landscaping. The deeper you dig into the corners of this impossibly sized ultraplex of shifting walls and hidden corruption you’ll wander into areas that appear as if they were entirely different worlds. The most striking of these environments is probably The Pit which features a host of side missions pertaining to the elimination of a toxic fungus that possesses anyone who ‘eats’ it. Likewise the craggy strip-mined expanse of Black Rock Quarry allows for a dark and shiny pit of obsidian excavation for those who’d begin to feel claustrophobic within the dry grey and yellow necessity of early Maintenance and Executive sectors. You’ll likely spend at least 20-25 hours playing Control before finishing it and even when the main story is complete there are several areas to revisit, many new side-quests open up, and soon more unexplored areas provide deeper story arcs beyond the outcome of the game. I’m the guy who played the Witcher III: Wild Hunt main story for sixty hours but never touched the DLC so, of course I didn’t finish the extra contextual content but there is always a reward for any exploratory pursuit in Jesse’s adventure and that is the major strength of this game as a whole, it is so much fun to unearth information, collect beneficial items, and further various side stories along the way. [Click HERE to watch me navigate the early hours of the game on YouTube]

The ‘Mold’ side-quest arc ‘ends’ with probably the coolest thing you’ll fight and the most challenging encounter.

Much of the customization options Control offers surrounds the many forms the service weapon you grab after the former Director shoots himself in the head with it; The service weapon can essentially morph into several firearm archetypes, two of which can be equipped at once and switched between with the press of a button. Grip is more or less the pistol and non-automatic rifle of the game, the only form you will likely need. Every other form has a downside that rendered their specialization fairly useless in a game where enemies charge at you constantly as if it were a Serious Sam game. Shatter is a short range shotgun with very slow recovery time, Spin is a mid-range assault rifle more or less, Pierce breaks through cover to hit enemies who hide…. Well, they rarely do. Charge is the most confounding choice as it is a rocket launcher that you can charge for more damage but, I found I would do just as much damage not charging it and you cannot hold it for the sake of timing. I’d ultimately end up going for Charge as a backup for the Grip due to its long distance armor-melting qualities but the caveat is that it can damage you and I’d die 1-2 times when I’d first gotten the weapon form when using it at close range. Who cares about the weapons, though, right? The reason to play this game is the clever set of telekinetic powers Jesse believes arose from her time with the Object of Power in Ordinary as a kid. First you’ll be tearing chunks of the floor up to toss at enemies for one-hit kills, then a useful air-dash will render most combat fairly easy, and by the end of the game the ability to fly/glide for long distances will finally make you a superhero. Every addition to your telekinetic oeuvre as an agent is not only exciting in terms of mobility but each ability becomes a necessity as gameplay challenges slowly ramp up. Point A to Point B is always an entirely reasonable climb.

Grip is exceptional. Charge was very conditional. The rest were largely useless once your powers take center stage.

Control controls beautifully though some of the twitchy and overly motion-blurred messiness of Quantum Break is retained. High quality modern graphics therein are more suited for the most uber ray tracing capable graphics cards but the PlayStation 4 Pro had relatively few issues. Zero crashes shows at least some professionalism but a definite and repeatable chugging framerate would persist whenever more than 6-7 enemies were in arena. Partially destructible environments and plenty of physics dependent effects are surely taxing for the already aging system and load times were noticeably long but, these amounted to at least a third of those found in The Witcher III or Kingdom Come: Deliverance. So, the game controls well and performs consistently but what about the shooting/combat? Well, the aiming is forgiving but this is definitely not a cover shooter and you’re encouraged to run, dash, fly, and hide when things get hairy or you’ll die very quickly, even in post-game content. I did eventually become frustrated that missiles were still taking half of my health even when combat challenges would regularly shoot 4-5 my way at once. Yes, you’re supposed to grab them and throw them back (or use the shield ability) but this is only possible one missile/grenade at a time and there is no cumulative grasp of them a la Magneto or whomever. Platforming is a minor part of the experience and the addition of flying means revisiting all areas of the game will reveal some new secret area or challenge accessible through that new ability. It all works quite well but the actual shooting and rudimentary cover options definitely make Control feel like an PlayStation 3/XBOX 360 era game at times. The flow of movement and combat eventually comes but Remedy‘s choice to gate certain key abilities much too late in the game means the last five hours are way more fun than the first fifteen.

Killing enemies drops small light-reflecting nuggets that restore health and allow for nigh constant use of certain powers thanks to energy boosting customization available for Jesse as well as three upgrade slots for each weapon form. Otherwise enemies and chests drop currency and upgrade materials for weapon forms. Upgrades are particularly useful because you can stack their effects, leading to some great options in mid-game, such as three ‘headshot damage’ upgrades taking out most enemies in 1-2 hits due to a 145% increase. The protagonist has three slots available for personal customization but these amount to small upgrades to health, damage, and boosts to certain styles of play (raising Energy meter by 30%, for example, allows for more use of telekinetic skills). The skill tree has the most noticeable effect upon the protagonist as you’ll be able to survive longer, throw more objects, control more minds, deflect missiles, attack with a giant resonant shield, and fly around the fuckin’ Bureau when all is said and done. The intensifying quality of your skills and the matching interest of the side-quests in Control made for a gameplay experience I did not want to end until the cryptic finale of the story came about five hours too soon. Yes, the road to the ‘not so’-finish line is the best part of any game but I felt like once I’d entered Darling‘s Research Sector the ending came quick and weird as all hell.

If only…

Of course the yang to Polaris’ (Hedron, actually) yin is ‘The Hiss’, an evil entity named for the noise its chattering zombified victims make as they levitate braindead in the air. The end of the game reveals that Polaris is Hedron, represented in a great cement cube in the center of a giant containment area within the Research Sector. Hedron cries out for help and the most extensive set of enemy waves persists as you scale the treacherous height of the area to save ‘her’. The Hiss wins this battle momentarily destabilizing Hedron (well, the game suggests it is ‘dead’) as the cinematic suggests the entity’s cessation was momentary as the Hiss enters Jesse’s mind. She is taken by the Hiss and the credits roll. Fuck! Yeah and while I was Googling ‘control game bad ending’ the credits began to glitch and the game pulled me back into the story. You’re then tasked with taking back control, literally, and this makes for an almost Bioshock-esque bout of “Oh ok, oh wait, huh?” despite the ending being spelled out when all is said and done. Your brother warned you this would happen, sort of, and the side-effect of you stopping the Hiss (by stopping him) means he is eternally comatose. There are many questions left unanswered but Jesse’s narration soothes this on three separate occasions as the game explains itself “Well, I’ll probably never know and I don’t need to.” Ok, and if you’re keen enough to keep playing after the credits roll there are assuredly more answers out there. Such as who the mysterious omnipotent ‘Board’ who control the Bureau are, and whether or not total eradication of the Hiss is possible to end the lockdown. As much as I ended up liking the story of Control, no doubt it amounted to an uncomfortable amount of nonsense as it officially concluded. By video game story standards this is a triumph but if it were a book, rest assured the author would be badgered for an unintended sequel simply because too many loose ends were left behind. Ultimately the start of Control gave me the benefit of the doubt that I wasn’t stupid and then the ending answered one question, gave the middle finger and said “Meh, keep playing if you want… whatever.” I put the game down at that point but I’d have been happy scouring every room and every area again because it feels great to play Control once you’re fully kitted out and have finished the skill tree. It could easily become a 30-40 hour game if you’re invested enough in the areas and the extraneous lore/side-quests the experience has to offer. 

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Should you go buy Control right now, full price and just hammer it out? You should buy it for sure but I wouldn’t rush through it. Much of the fun comes with learning the flow and technique of combat and then backtracking when a new ability (or keycard) opens up new doors within the enigmatic Bureau. Mainstream video game press have gone out of their way to portray this game as a sort of underdog, a “B game” for a slow summer sale but those are the same dipshits who thought that Spider-Man (2018) game was incredible despite being a bland old fashioned re-skinning of Infamous: Second Sun. The quality level and clear pedigree of Remedy Entertainment is all over Control and they’ve done a fine A-tier job with it. Stunning art direction, quality voice and face capture along with a great soundtrack (despite me turning off the copyrighted music so I could stream, I loved this option) all add up to an excellent game with some reasonable replay value. It comes highly recommended on my part.
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Title: Control
Genre: Sci-Fi 3D Third Person Action-Adventure
Released: August 27, 2019 | Remedy Entertainment/505 Games
Platform(s) Reviewed: Playstation 4 Pro [Digital | No DLC Included]
Score: 4.0/5.0 [Exciting sense of discovery, weak story resolution. | High recommendation.]

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