Control Review: Weirder Than Usual

Control Header Image

Control combines the tight shooting and storytelling of Remedy's past titles with more open mission structure and Metroidvania-inspired level design.

To legions of fans, developer Remedy will always be best known for creating the Max Payne series. Others cherish them for their work on Alan Wake, while still others appreciate the risks they took with the ambitious and unique Quantum Break. The latest project from Sam Lake's team, Control, combines the best elements of Remedy's greatest titles with a significantly more open game design. The resultant game features a provocative story, visceral combat, and some of the best environmental storytelling this side of BioShock.

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Remedy's titles have always thrived on their distinct settings and storylines, and Control is no different. The entire game is set in The Oldest House, a "place of power" in New York City. Jesse Faden wanders into the building, the headquarters of a secret government agency, the Federal Bureau of Control, and uncovers a hidden world of supernatural entities, unexplained events, and possessed objects. With the title of Director unexpectedly foisted upon her, Jesse is tasked with repelling an onslaught of Hiss, a dark force which turns humans into possessed monsters. Armed with the Director's Service Weapon, an "object of power" with the power to switch between many different forms, Jesse sets out to take back the fallen Bureau HQ and find her place as Director, all while pursuing a secret, more personal agenda.

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Unlike previous Remedy games, which were purely linear affairs, Control takes on a more Castlevania/Metroid-inspired approach with its third-person gameplay. The entire game is set within the hallowed halls of The Oldest House, and Jesse can freely return to previously explored areas. At the start, there's not much utility to backtracking, but as Jesse gains new abilities (and keycard access), more and more of the House's secrets can be discovered. For much of its early duration, Control is firmly linear, save for a few side paths here and there. It's not until around halfway through the adventure that Jesse gains enough skills to truly uncover the secrets of The Oldest House. Once the Levitation skill is unlocked, all bets are off, and the player can essentially fly to secret areas and fall from incredible heights without taking damage.

Control Gameplay

Navigation is only one way Jesse can interact with the world. Her other method of communication should feel extremely familiar to fans of Remedy's previous games. Like Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Jack Joyce before her, Jesse Faden is a crack shot with a gun, and she (and the player) get a lot of mileage from that particular skill. Shooting in Control feels like a natural evolution from Alan Wake and Max Payne 2. Eschewing the cover system and forced fine aiming mechanics of Quantum Break, Control focuses on old-school run-and-gun shootouts. Fortunately, Control lives up to its title in many ways, including the tight handling of its many combat encounters.

The Director's pistol itself is modular and can switch between different modes, from a standard semi-auto handgun, shotgun, and SMG, to more exotic forms like a long-range sniper to an explosive grenade launcher. These forms can be further customized with Weapon Mods that can alter damage output, recharge speed, accuracy, and numerous other factors. It's not distracting in its depth, but it's nice to have the ability to determine exactly what happens when every Jesse pulls the trigger of her Service Weapon.

Control Screenshot Village

Enemies have a lot of health and can cut the player down in seconds, but Jesse has powers and abilities Max Payne could only dream about. Using the Launch ability, Jesse can harness her inner Jedi, picking up and throwing objects from the environment. With enough upgrades, the skill can be used to pick up weakened enemies and even heavy objects like forklifts. She can also create a shield from debris in the environment, and even brainwash weakened foes to fight on her side. All of these skills cost Energy, which quickly recharges. Since ammunition for her gun is drained and recharges in a similar way (like the original Mass Effect), combat quickly falls into a tense rhythm of draining one pool while the other recharges, shifting back and forth from gunplay to abilities until everything is dead and the environment has been reduced to rubble.

The environmental destruction on display in Control is jaw-dropping. Nearly every bullet has an effect on the world, from breaking physics objects apart, to creating a bright explosion of particle effects, to blasting an enemy off their feet. Much of the visual package is similarly striking, from the cold halls of The Oldest House to the incredible facial animations on characters... Usually. Sometimes, certain faces (including, unfortunately, that of the game's lead actor, Courtney Hope) fall squarely into the uncanny valley. Even when the game's impressive motion capture technology fully articulates every minute detail and animation on someone's face, the result can sometimes be unintentionally creepy. Then again, sometimes the effect is arguably photorealistic, especially when combined with the impressive lighting adding depth and strong acting performances from the entire cast.

Emily Pope in Control

On PlayStation 4 Pro, the much-hyped Ray Tracing from the PC version is completely absent, though the game is nonetheless gorgeous in motion. The 30 FPS cap is sweetened by cinematic motion blur effects, but the framerate can chug during some particularly hectic battles. Oddly, Control also has a problem coming out of the pause menu, with minor freezes and noticeable framerate dips in the first seconds after unpausing the game. These issues are exacerbated on the base PS4 model, with more dropped frames and long stutters when exiting conversations that aren't present on the more powerful console. We also experienced one hard crash during a cutscene late in the game, though only a few minutes of progress were lost.

Some games tell a straightforward story, while others rely on lore and environmental storytelling. Control does both, and does them better than nearly any other team in video games. Just as Jesse goes down the rabbit hole of The Oldest House, so too does the player find themselves transported to another world, where the unbelievable becomes normal, the insane makes sense, and the impossible is not just possible, but mundane and bureaucratic. While Jesse's story has a lot of momentum and energy, it's actually more straightforward than one might expect, lacking the many twists and turns of previous games from the developer.

Control Shield Power

The real meat and potatoes of the narrative, which buffers and bolsters Jesse's tale, is the stellar environmental world-building. Every room in Control has a purpose, even ones which Jesse doesn't have to enter in over the course of the story's critical path. Lore documents and seamlessly integrated live-action segments litter the landscape like precious breadcrumbs adding up to an artisanal loaf of insight, mystery, and context. Control is set in an immersive, believable setting, filled with stories for players to discover. Some of these stories are adjacent to the main quest, some build upon the themes and characters, and others are just delightfully bizarre. All told, the story in Control is greater than the sum of its parts, which already add up to quite a bit, even if the ending of the main storyline is a bit too abrupt and more interested in setting the stage for further DLC expansions than in resolving itself with a neat and tidy bow.

Control is both a departure for Remedy Games and a familiar warm blanket for fans of their previous work. It beautifully combines the developer's trademark pillars – deep storytelling and high-adrenaline gun combat – within a whole new shell of exploration-based gameplay and a whole universe of deeply fascinating lore. There are many stories to be told within the realm of the Federal Bureau of Control; Jesse Faden's adventure in The Oldest House is just one of them.

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Control releases August 27, 2019 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Screen Rant was provided a PlayStation 4 digital code for this review.

Our Rating:

4.5 out of 5 (Must-Play)
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