Control is an incredibly hard game to pin down. The Twin Peaks-esque storyline makes every step engrossing as you uncover the mysteries of New York City’s Federal Bureau of Control. Additionally, Courtney Hope’s brilliant portrayal of Jesse Faden, a young woman who comes to the FBC in search of her lost brother, really solidifies her as one of the best actresses working in games today. And when the combat isn’t being marred by performance issues, flinging enemies and, well practically everything you can find around in a controlled, yet chaotic dance to the death is complete joy. But the performance issues, at least on Xbox One X, make some of the pivotal fights in Control incredibly difficult to complete, souring the whole endeavor.
Control is the latest game from Finnish studio Remedy. It’s a return to their roots, as it’s the type of psychedelic thriller/mystery we’ve all come to expect from the studio that brought us Alan Wake. And I’ll admit - for most of Control I found myself scratching me head wondering what the actual heck was going on around me. It provides very little exposition leading into its first moments. But once you start working through the disparate threads, it all satisfyingly starts to make sense.
You’re Jesse and you (and a spirit entity which inhabits you as well) enter the Bureau bent on completing your own personal mission. Along the way you discover that The Oldest House - another name for the Bureau (you get used to everything having multiple names) - has been infiltrated by an entity that is taking over everyone in the building. You and the survivors of the FBC have to figure out a way to combat what is now being referred to as The Hiss, all while Jesse is still trying to accomplish her own goals.
Each character you meet feels unique and well thought out. Ahti the Janitor makes quite the first impression, as well as Marshall, the head of operations at the Bureau. The world building inside of Control is top notch, which is what I expected given Remedy’s knack for storytelling. Although I wish much of it wasn’t told in the various research and correspondence folders you find throughout the world. The supporting cast really make the FBC a place worth saving as well. The eclectic Janitor Ahti who lovingly refers to you as his assistant throughout brightened up my screen every time I heard his voice. Best janitor in a video game, bar none.
The game takes place in the shadowy government building of the Federal Bureau of Control. Unlike other Remedy games, this isn’t linear but rather in more akin to a Metroidvania. You’ll retrace steps going back and forth between multiple different sectors of the Bureau, unlocking new areas as the story progresses. The in-game map is useless, but thankfully there is plentiful signage to help you find your way.
Visually, Control looks a bit blurry overall. Control looks a lot like Quantum Break before it, a game which used a temporal reconstruction to render on console. I’ve reached out to PR to find out if Control uses the same technique, which could also explain why the textures tend to look a little muddy.
However, through the blurriness, Remedy’s art direction shines right through. The use of color specifically makes a huge impression - the cold, muted concrete of the government building clashes with the vibrant blood red of the Hiss and the cold, calming blue of Jesse’s entity, Polaris. Heading into a new section of the Bureau it’s relatively easy to know whether or not it’s enemy or friendly - the blistering red light from new Hiss enemies spawning makes it very apparent.
Combat in Control feels like a mixed bag sometimes. On one hand, Jesse’s telekinetic powers steal the show, making her feel all-powerful in the path of the Hiss. However, the technical issues on Xbox One make any meaningful combat feel sluggish at times - even going so far as to completely make sections unplayable if the performance tanks too low. Targeting 30 frames per second, Control feels unable to hold that clip on the Xbox One X when effects from all the gun fire, explosions, telekinesis and more start popping off. As a result, I found myself repeating the same combat sequences over and over again not because I wasn’t aware of how to beat a particular enemy - rather the framerate took such a nose dive I was unable to react in time to an enemy attack.
It’s a shame that it happens too, as there is something incredibly satisfying about floating in the air with debris lazily hanging around you in as a shield, only to come slamming down onto a group of Hiss Guards with violent ferocity.
The enemies you face are varied enough to keep combat from becoming too stale as well. You’ve got your normal, easy to fight guards, but the Hiss has also taken shape as more powerful beings, such as an enemy who uses the same telekinetic powers Jesse can. Combat in Control is also all about movement. You can’t sit still for too long or you’re simply going to be wrecked. There is no cover system in the traditional sense. Sure, you can duck behind walls, but you won’t stick to them like you might in say Quantum Break or Gears of War. This can be somewhat frustrating at first, but it does teach you to stay constantly on the move, plotting your steps carefully.
Along the way you’ll encounter Objects of Power, ordinary objects such as a fridge or rubber ducky, imbued with powers beyond reckoning. These objects are what give Jesse her powers to take on the Hiss. The quirkiness of the items perfectly matches the strange world Remedy has built over the course of the 13 hour or so it took me to get through the storyline.
Jesse’s shapeshifting gun - the Service Weapon - also adds to the craziness. Instead of having to hunt down new weapons, the Service Weapon simply changes its form as you unlock each one. You collect items throughout the world from chests and enemy drops to craft these items. It would have been nice if Control explained a little more exactly how to get the craftable as well as where to use them (I had to learn via a loading screen tool tip), but once you learn it’s pretty easy. You craft at control points, sections set up by the FBC to control areas of the ever shifting government building. Jesse can cleanse these points of any Hiss influence, and they act as pseudo checkpoints and fast travel locations to traverse The Oldest House.
As you complete the various tasks the members of the FBC give you, you’ll also gain ability points to power up the skills you’ve gained. These can be anything from a simple health boost to adding a shield burst, creating a powerful attack when using Jesse’s telekinetic shield. These skills definitely feel like a legitimate power up, especially when you’ve unlocked those side abilities. Being able to take the last vestiges of life from a Hiss and turn them against their brethren feels incredibly powerful - or the rush I got from simply grabbing a low health enemy from mid-air and flinging them into another one never gets old.
Control is hard to quantify. Its great story felt disorienting at first, but the more I think about it the more I come to appreciate the depth of talent the team at Remedy possess. Almost each thread in Control wraps up satisfyingly, and there are points where I was genuinely in awe with what I was seeing. Combat as well can be a blast, if a little repetitive towards the end. However, the frustrating performance issues caused me to really start to dislike Control towards the end. Every fight became a struggle against the framerate more so than the Hiss, something which definitely made me have to set it down and walk away for a few hours.
However, in the end, even with all of the issues aside, Control might be Remedy’s best game yet. And as someone who replays Quantum Break at least twice a year, that’s saying something. While I hope the console issues get ironed out, it’s definitely a game that cannot be missed.
- Excellent World Building
- Combat is incredibly fun
- Characters are well thought out and portrayed, especially Jesse
- Story can be a bit tough to follow at first
- Performance issues take the joy right out of combat
- Art design is nice, but visually a little blurry
Full disclosure: Control was provided on Xbox One X by 505 Games for the purposes of this review.