Reviewed on Xbox One. Also available on PS4 & PC.
On the surface, Control looks as generic as they come. A run of the mill action-adventure game with a telekinetic twist. It’s nothing that genre hasn’t played with before and certainly won’t be the last, but Control manages to defy all expectations to a massive degree. Once you’ve peeled back the surface and tasted its true contents, it’s evident that this may be one of the best games of the year.
Putting you in the shoes of Jesse Faden, you are thrust into a bland-looking building known as the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), a place of seeming insignificance but host to much darker secrets. Following a childhood event that caused massive repercussions in Jesse’s life, you are led here to uncover the truth of what happened in your past and the many mysteries that the FBC holds. Developer Remedy Entertainment is no stranger to subverting our expectations and creating disorienting stories that leave story beats to our own imagination. Alan Wake is a prime example that still sparks discussions to this day. To say anything more of the story would be a disservice to the many twists and turns this consistently surprising tale takes you on, but it’s a narrative that would feel right at home within the confines of The X-Files or Twin Peaks.
Much like Remedy’s past titles, a large chunk of information is provided through notes, recordings and other collectibles which furtherer the world-building. The story can be easily digested even by missing these, but some notes can provide pivotal backstory and context to situations which would otherwise be missed. However, the sheer amount of documents available can be borderline overwhelming and by missing some can make certain late-game choices somewhat confusing. But it’s refreshing to see a game built with so much confidence, that it allows the player to take away as much as they put in.
Exploring the Bureau (or The Oldest House as it’s often referred to) infuses a metroidvania level design, sprinkled with a touch of Dark Souls use of finding pathways that loop back on themselves to provide shortcuts. The interconnected world creates a sense of identity, through a somewhat dull art style which actually compliments itself to provide a stark contrast between the insanity that unfolds against the seemingly ordinary, office block setting. Unfortunately, simple navigation can be confusing as the map fails to provide basic information such as floor levels, locked or unlocked doors and waypoints, instead providing a general area of where the objective may be. Dotted around the building are signposts which use arrows to provide helpful cues of which direction to take and while this provides a satisfying way of deciphering directions to the objective, it would have benefitted to include a more accessible map to create a better general flow of pacing.
Unlike games such as Quantum Break and Alan Wake, the world here is an open-world affair. Easily transporting from the various Bureau facilities is made easy as Jesse discovers various fast travel points, which also host the power to upgrade her abilities, her guns and forge further upgraded and mods which she can equip to become stronger and enable you to craft the heroine that fits your style. As with a large selection of open-world games, Control bolsters a variety of side missions which showcase the games best attributes and allow for some of its greatest moments, including a fantastic mission involving a fridge and a rubber duck (I won’t say anymore). However, much like the collectibles, it can be easy to miss a selection of these as some are only accessed by collecting a certain document or backtracking to previous areas to speak to someone that you would have no interest in returning to. When you do take part in these missions though, you are treated to some of the games best moments. The main storyline ensures to make use of every method of insanity the game can envision, with a late game section inside a maze being not only a highlight of the game, but perhaps one of the best gaming moments of this generation.
If the story wasn’t enthralling enough, Jesse is host to a plethora of exhilarating powers which are quickly made accessible to you. Having only one gun, it’s a feat to see how many ways it can be catered to your style. Using materials around the world, you are able to upgrade and create new variants of your weapon (known as The Service Weapon) and free to use whichever suits your play style. Whether that be at long range with the weapon’s sniper form, or at close range in the shotgun mode. Accompanying this is the use of telekinetic abilities which, when merged with the gun, you can create an eye-watering flow of chaos through all of your combat choices. With the use of telekinesis and levitation, you are given the means to scour the battlefield and create your own playground. Adding on the ability to form your own shield (and later throw that shield back into enemies) or take control of enemies to assist you in firefights ensures there’s an endless supply of ways to gain the advantage in fights and emerge victorious. The combat creates a versatile way of playing and allows you to mold the gameplay to your liking.
From a technical standpoint, Control is a bit of a mixed bag from my experience on the Xbox One version. Visually, the game boasts an impressive graphical engine that boasts some of the most incredible destruction physics to be put in a game. Watching as you pick up anything in the world and throw it to cause havoc results in a childish glee as brickwork and an assortment of environmental objects will break apart in a beautiful fashion. Lighting in the game comes as a natural occurrence and adds to the overall atmosphere of the mysterious Bureau and the art style has a greyscale, office building feel, but perfectly compliments against the often colorful chaos on screen, making it easy to differentiate between the interactive environment, enemies and other hazards. However, facial animations lack the same amount of polish, with characters often looking stiff, dazed and constantly confused. Lip syncing also doesn’t hold up, with some characters having a puppet-like appearance. Perhaps the biggest complaint is the frame rate, which as of time of reviewing still fails to maintain a steady 30 frames per second through the entirety of my playthrough. Opening the menu, loading the map or interacting with a collectible can often result in the game slowing down to an unimaginable degree. Late game firefights, which throw everything at you, can also cause you to feel as though you’re fighting with the game as you try to manoeuvre through added bullet time, courtesy of the framerate dropping down to a measly couple per second. Luckily, the instances where the frames dropped during general gameplay were few and far between, but enough to be noticeable.
It’s hard to market the insanity and unusual direction, but Control is one of the wackiest stories I’ve experienced this generation. The sheer amount of oddities and set pieces that ramp up as you venture further into the Bureau marinate perfectly with the games slick, yet (intentionally) bland art style. Combat is a beautiful balancing act of telekinetic powers and gunplay as you dance between the pairing and upgrading Jesse to make the experience your own.