A slow-burn sci fi with ideas to spare
I’m not sure how well I understand what’s happening in Control, the new game by Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake, Quantum Break) but I know that I like it. Explaining how the game is played, and rounding up some of the basic concepts it presents, would not be too difficult, but I’d have a hard time telling you what it’s actually about without needing to draw a few diagrams. For the first few hours, the obtuse plot and the intensity of Control’s weirdness felt like the game’s greatest weakness, but eventually I started to think of it as one of the game’s greatest strengths.
The game opens with protagonist Jesse Faden arriving at the ‘Oldest House’, from which the Federal Bureau of Control is operated. She’s been sent there by a psychic message sent to her by a being we’ll slowly get to know better over the course of the game, and she’s also looking for her brother, Dylan, who she believes was taken by the bureau 17 years earlier. On her arrival she discovers a building that is constantly warping and changing, where the bodies of former employees hang suspended in mid-air by supernatural forces. Within minutes Jesse finds herself armed with a shapeshifting gun and declared the bureau’s new director, and during her adventure within the building – which is immense and ever- changing – she finds herself granted a series of powers from the astral plane. This is a heavily condensed and cleaned-up version of events – even these basic details take a while to tease out.
Logistically, playing the game mostly involves battling a variety of increasingly powerful and strange supernatural enemies. You fight using both your gun, which you can unlock different forms for, and with a variety of unlockable powers. Your ‘push’ power will be your most used – you can use psychic powers to pick up objects from around the map, or even rip up part of the ground, and throw it at your enemies. This is extremely satisfying, as you can smash enemies from afar with boxes, tables, planks, and much more, doing serious damage. The enemies get increasingly weird and creepy as you go, too. Most of them look like they were once human, giving Control a feeling of horror alongside all of its weird sci-fi concepts.
At first, it’s hard to click with Control because getting a sense of why you’re doing everything you’re doing is extremely difficult. Even later in the game, I had a very hard time knowing who characters were, or why I was heading in a certain direction, or wrapping my head around everything happening. But Control is meant to be enigmatic and difficult to understand, and the more I played the more I came to appreciate the game’s sense of mood and tone. It’s funny sometimes, and very dark at others. Fighting the game’s mysterious enemy forces and figuring out its puzzles can be challenging, but by far the greatest and most rewarding challenge is figuring out Control’s story.
Control’s combat is extremely enjoyable once you’ve unlocked a few abilities and upgrades and faced off against some of the game’s weirder, more creative baddies. By the game’s midpoint I felt incredibly powerful, switching between different gun forms and ripping up chunks of the environment with my psychic powers to shield myself and attack enemies who could fly, explode, and teleport. I was using mind control to bring some of my enemies over to my side, I was dodging attacks with phenomenal speed, and I was generally having a blast.
I played Control on a launch model Xbox One, and it’s worth noting that the game has been built with beefy PCs, and perhaps even the next generation of consoles, in mind. It still looks gorgeous, with plenty of trippy effects and a great sense of style, plus some amazing object physics – but on a superpowered PC you get a game that looks like it’s straight out of the future. There are major performance issues on Xbox One and PS4 too – the frame rate can drop right off – but I found that this was mostly a problem when coming out of a pause screen, and it never made the game harder or unfair.
There is so much to this game that it’s impossible to get into everything here. Even if you can’t understand everything going on, it’s very clear that the developers and writers intricately mapped everything out, and that helps the game to feel cohesive and smart. It’s easy to be put off by how confusing it is at first, but if you stick with Control it will reward any effort you put into understanding it several times over.
Control is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC
James O’Connor is a critic and journalist.