Review: Control (2019)

A sensory joyride housed in an intriguing story and excellent game design that stands out as one of 2019's best

When you consider the history of Control developer Remedy Entertainment and its string of innovative, highly regarded titles, it’s easy to think of Control as the Sideshow Mel of the video game world – it has some big shoes to fill. Not does Control fill those shoes, it bursts through the seams, standing (albeit in need of new shoes) as a beautiful, fun and innovative new IP that looks like a strong contender for game of the year.

Control follows the story of Jesse Faden’s arrival at the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) in search for answers about the whereabouts of her brother who was taken by the FBC years earlier following an incident in their hometown. Things quickly take a turn for the inexplicable when Jesse find that the Bureau’s headquarters (The Oldest House) has been overrun by menacing otherworldly creatures known as The Hiss that have possessed all but a few FBC employees turning them into violent, demonic monsters that hunt Jesse at every turn. After picking up the gun belonging to the former Director of the FBC, Jesse is ‘chosen’ as the new Director and is tasked with aiding the few remaining staff in fighting off The Hiss and trying to bring the Federal Bureau of Control back under, well… control.

Jesse’s story is expertly unraveled as she explores The Oldest House seeking information on her brother’s whereabouts and what events led to The Hiss’ arrival. The execution is just what long-time fans of developer Remedy Entertainment might expect, using cinematic presentation and story-telling elements prominent in psychological thrillers to grip its audience and keep them guessing and obsessing as more information is revealed.

The history of the Bureau, its staff and its cases are also fleshed out in collectible research and case files that can be found throughout the game, making the FBC feel like more than just a quirky location for the story’s events, but a full-fledged organisation with a deep and interesting history that needs to be explored.

One of the most intriguing facets of Control is its TARDIS-like setting – The Oldest House is a gargantuan building in the centre of New York that acts as a self-contained world that, due to the dimensional destruction derby taking place inside its walls, offers a huge space to explore with areas that range from the mundane offices you would expect to twisting, haunting hallways straight out of an M.C. Escher fever dream to an isolated hotel to name just a few.

Yet, despite the size of the map, The Oldest House can still fuel the feeling of entrapment consistent with great horror; the tight hallways, numerous office areas and isolation from the outside world can feel constricting, amplifying the threat of the enemies lurking around every corner and underlining the urgency to fight your way to freedom. The Oldest House works perfectly as a setting, offering the freedom and exploration important to an action-adventure video game whilst concurrently complimenting the horror/thriller story and presentation.

Even among the strengths already mentioned, Control’s biggest asset is its combat. The fluid gun-play provided by Jesse’s transforming Service Weapon forms the basis of early combat, but is soon joined by Jesse’s natural to handle ‘Launch’ ability – the power to telekenetically lift and hurl a wealth of objects strewn around the map as a pleasingly impactful way to dispose of enemies, affording players the opportunity for destruction and spectacle as The Hiss disappear in a satisfying crimson eruption, electronics rain sparks and foam from fire extinguishers explode in a ballet of beautiful carnage.

As the game progresses, it becomes apparent that Control’s combat is about more than mindless destruction – the combat system is well-crafted with the need for ingenuity and craftiness to prevail. Although the player is loaned the feeling of incredible power through Jesse’s abilities, Jesse is far from invincible and a moment of lapsed concentration or lingering inertia could spell doom. Jesse’s later upgrades include the power to form a shield from lingering debris and to brainwash weakened Hiss, forcing them to assist her in combat, providing the player with useful new tools against increasingly strong foes that, if used strategically, can make all the difference.

Aside from the approximately 15 hour main story, there’s plenty to explore and discover in The Oldest House. The Metroidvania layout of the game means that throughout the story, you’re likely to pass plenty of areas that are inaccessible due to either security clearance being too low, or Jesse missing certain abilities. Choosing to go back and explore these previously inaccessible areas can lead to collectibles, new areas and side-missions or secret bosses. Additionally aside from being appointed Director of the FBC, Jesse was also granted the post of Assistant Janitor (don’t ask…), which leads to another line of optional missions that include janitorial duties such as hurling barrels of nuclear waste into a furnace and talking to plants.

Control will keep you on your toes at all times with randomised enemy encounters when re-visiting areas, combat challenges available from save points and alerts to time-sensitive battle scenarios issued at any moment. Factor in the side missions arising from conversations with NPCs met throughout the story and there’s a wide selection of content to keep completionists occupied.

In terms of appearance, Control has a lot to brag about. Jesse Faden, along with some other major characters, look great and the detailed and dynamic lighting really…ahem…shines, but the attention with which the imaginative, shifting world that exists inside the FBC Headquarters is detailed and wonderfully brought to life is truly admirable. Whether it’s the menacing sections illuminated in red where bodies of employees taken by The Hiss dangle in the air and bizarre whispered messages echo all around or sections where the building expands and the artistic use of lighting combine to give a sense of grandeur, the skill of the game’s designers is constantly on show.

There are a handful of technical hiccoughs present throughout in the PS4 version such as frame rate drops when the action gets particularly frantic and the occasional piece of detail such as text on a wall taking an extra second to load, but nothing detrimental to progress or even really inconveniencing, just the kind of noticeable foibles often present on release of many modern day games.

For the most part, the soundtrack is very much given a supporting role, complimenting and enhancing the action on screen, but never distracting from it, meaning that the score satisfies its purpose very well, but no part stands out as exceptional… That is, until one particular section in the game’s later stages where a piece of licensed music is used to incredible effect to create an adrenaline-pumping set piece (you’ll know it when you get there) that just feels unforgettable.

On its face, Control is absolute madness due to its chaotic combat, surreal storyline and concept and some quirky dialogue, but when you look a little deeper, it becomes obvious that the frenzied facade is built on a foundation of intelligent design choices and magnificent artistry. Control may be insane, but it is – to quote Jesse Faden herself – “Just the right kind of insane”.

Fun and explosive combat, excellently crafted world, original premise and intriguing story, very strong visual and audio design.
Some frame-rate drop and small technical hiccoughs.
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