CONTROL Game Review: Welcome To The Federal Bureau Of Holy Shit
Unexpectedly, the first impression I got from Remedy’s Control, a huge and technically impressive AAA action game, was one of low-budget cinema. Some of the cleverest low-budget movies use a single location, configuring or redressing it in multiple ways in order to create the illusion of greater scale. Control is much the same, conceptually speaking: the game takes place entirely within a single government facility, thus comparatively saving on the number of textures and props that need to be created, yet it twists those assets into a thousand configurations. Plus, of course, Control's production value is through the roof.
Control takes place in the Federal Bureau of Control: a government agency situated in a dimensional nexus known as The Oldest House. The FBC complex - a vast, interlocking, shapeshifting thing packed with impossible spaces - forms the setting for the entirety of the game, much like the original Half-Life. If its layout - dozens of departments, interconnected with unlockable shortcuts and fast-travel/upgrade points - seems reminiscent of Dark Souls, that’s likely not accidental either. Regardless of its inspirations, the FBC is a joy to explore, full of awe-inspiring brutalist architecture and head-scratching paranormal mysteries.
The Half-Life comparison continues in the game’s story, borrowing elements from the Lynch and Lovecraft pantheons for good measure. A blend of cosmic weirdness, eldritch madness, creepypasta, and oppressive bureaucracy, Control’s plot mostly centres around the uncovering of backstory, as audience-surrogate character Jesse figures out her role in the FBC's ill-advised dimensional experiments. Jesse suddenly finds herself cast, as do we, in the role of bureau director, despite possessing only foggy ideas of what it even is. As she unravels the mystery of the bureau and its activities, she also unravels mysteries about herself and those closest to her. Or does she? There are hints she knows more than she's letting on; her internal monologue just isn't explaining it to the player. It’s an engaging story, if a little difficult to grasp even after the main story finishes, and it’s told with all the richness and flair one expects from Remedy.
Much like Remedy’s other games - Max Payne, Alan Wake, Quantum Break - Control is a fairly standard action game at its core, elevated by the addition of reality-bending, game-defining superpowers. As Jesse delves deeper into the FBC and its astral world, a never-seen "Board" begrudgingly grants her abilities like telekinesis, levitation, and more. These abilities come in handy fighting the game's extradimensionally-possessed enemies, as the game’s single, shape-shifting service weapon is never really enough when they phase-shift into existence in alarming numbers and with occasionally irritating frequency. Unfortunately, no amount of fighting can silence the eerie voices that seem to emanate from the very air itself.
Control’s supernatural sci-fi explorations into metaphysics, alternate realities, and ESP are both bewildering and enthralling, and result in some of the game’s finest moments. Environments twist and reform; characters and household items become possessed; an entire dimension of wormholes is found contained within a cheap motel; new outlooks on reality itself emerge by the end. One spectacular sequence, a triumph of level design, music, and art direction, got my heart pumping with glee I hadn’t felt playing a game since the third act of Inside. It’s the one time I’ve heard an in-game character say “that was awesome” after an action sequence and replied “fucking right it was.”
Though Control’s main story follows a linear path through a non-linear environment, that environment affords opportunities for a fairly generous chunk of sidequests and radiant missions. Unlocking as you encounter them in the main story, the side missions present some of the game’s more interesting subplots - often culminating in its most frustrating boss battles. These optional fights are punishing and unforgiving, made worse by distant checkpointing, but the sidequests will deepen your understanding of this world and its characters, even unlocking entirely new areas to explore. All those sidequests can be completed after the end of the game, too - by which point returning to previously-visited locations will yield access to hidden areas and secrets. All this will help improve your character's skills and equipment, too, though you'll have to wrestle with a clumsy mod-management system to do it.
Remedy has always pushed the boundaries of video game graphics, and Control is yet another progression of that. Though it mostly eschews the live-action elements that dominated Quantum Break, its character animation and rendering is top-notch, with detailed and nuanced digital performances helping to sell an alienatingly abstract story. The game’s physics deserve special mention: nearly every object in the game can interact with any other, whether manipulated directly by Jessie or not. So complex are the physics simulations that they measurably tax current-generation gaming hardware; vanilla PS4 and Xbox One players will fall into frame-rate crevasses in busy scenes, which unhappily tend to make difficulty spikes spikier as you attempt to fight the hardware as well as enemies. Eventually, you’ll figure out how to cheese your way through those encounters - or you’ll skip them and come back later.
If I’ve got a major creative complaint with Control, it’s with its ending. The game brings its mysteries into focus at a deliberate pace (a slow playthrough is advised to absorb every bit of storytelling), but its ideas don’t fully come together in the end as it feels like they should. Specifically, many elements in the game seemingly build towards a metatextual twist that never arrives, making the story feel unfinished. It might even be unfinished, given Remedy's plans for DLC and whispers of a sequel. The universe certainly allows for near-infinite future expansion; while I’m excited to explore that, I rolled credits on the existing game feeling like it pulled its final punches.
Control borrows many ideas from many sources, but it synthesises them into something utterly captivating. Over the course of my playthrough, I was reminded of Half-Life, Twin Peaks, Doctor Strange, Channel Zero, The Twilight Zone, BioShock, and Remedy’s own back catalogue, among other things. They don’t quite make a cohesive whole, but the persistent mystery feels intentional, and it's hard not to get sucked into it. Muscle through Control's shortcomings, and you'll find an inventive, starkly beautiful, and frequently thrilling AAA action game. The lows aren't too low - and the highs are just that high.