Control Review: A Mind-Bending, New Weird Trip

From the makers of Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, Control is a mind-bending trip drenched in the hallmarks of a Remedy game. It’s weird, really weird, but if you’re familiar with Remedy’s resume then that’s the least surprising thing you’ll ever read. You can see Remedy’s fingerprints and DNA over every inch of Control, which is perhaps deeper in left field than any of the developer’s previous titles. Control is a good game, with an interesting and preternatural story that sometimes is muddled in its commitment to the strange and unexplainable. Again, this is a Remedy game.

Control’s story feeds on your curiosity and it’s ambiguity is its greatest tool in doing this, so I’m not going to dive deep into its narrative and begin the unraveling process for you. Besides, Control’s mysteries are greater than its answers.

In the game you play as Jesse Faden, who the game hardly introduces you to, but who you will learn more about over a 15-hour journey. The game begins with Jesse walking through the doors of The Federal Bureau of Control, a secretive branch of the U.S government that deals with the paranatural. Upon walking through the doors, it’s immediately clear there’s an otherworldly presence. It’s eerie, not in the suspenseful kinda way where you dreadfully round every corner and open every door awaiting a flaming ghost with a chainsaw, but in the "sneaking into Area 51" kind of way. So, why is Jesse wandering into a secretive and strange government agency? For answers and closure about her brother and past. However, Jesse quickly stumbles into something much bizarre and bigger than this initial quest. Something has happened at the Bureau, and Jesse is the only one capable of deciphering the situation.

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(Photo: 505 Games)

Control’s story is full of vague exposition that sometimes bends your mind in just the right way, but other times feels like unearned vagueness. There’s a fine difference between being ambiguous and being simply confusing, and Control mostly walks this tightrope adeptly, but there were times my curiosity led me wandering down a narrative labyrinth. And this is my issue with the New Weird and slipstream literary genres in general: there’s too much reliance placed on the recipient's inquisitiveness. At certain points during Control my curiosity was weighed down by other parts of the game and its shortcomings, and so there were times the narrative hook began to dislodge itself.

Patching up some of these larger narrative holes is quality writing, great world and setting realization, and lore excellently sprinkled in. While I think there’s a little bit too much nonessential supernatural gibberish here and there, what I appreciated most about Control’s writing and lore pieces is that it never overindulged in heady science fiction that nobody cares about or understands, which a lot of science fiction tends to do. As you explore, you’ll come across different lore additives that come in the form of case files and standard collectible-like items. However, despite being presented in a very cookie cutter, very video game-esque way, these additive story and worldbuilding bits were really realized well. I read almost all of them I came across, from start to finish, which I rarely do.

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(Photo: 505 Games)

Speaking of exploration, Control trades the linearity of past Remedy games for a more lookin’, pokin’, prodin’ Metroidvania-like world that has some side-content to knock out, some backtracking to do, and places to see that you previously couldn’t. Control doesn’t really do anything new within the Metroidvania genre, but like a good Metroidvania game, it uses an eerie atmosphere, bolstered by unpredictability, to keep things feeling new and uncertain. In more than one way, Control reminded me of Prey in this sense, though far less immersive.

Of course, over the game you’re getting new weapons and unlocking powers and modifying all of this to your personal taste. The first weapon you get in the game is a sentient gun that sometimes feels like it’s using you rather than you using it. And yes, this sets the tone. Every weapon and power you unlock adds to the otherworldly vibe or just simply makes you feel like a badass always a moment away from telekinetically smashing an enemy’s head with a computer, because why not, nobody needs that computer other than you and your badass meter running on low.

The great thing about Control is -- unlike many games -- it doesn’t overdo any of this or introduce RPG mechanics just because research data says gamers like RPG mechanics. It’s all easy to wrap your head around, and never takes you away from the action and story for too long. That said, without 5,000 skill trees muddying everything up, Control’s combat can stick out for being a bit run-of-the-mill. Unleashing a powerful fist to an enemy’s dome piece feels great, but the shooting is nothing to write home about.

Meanwhile, enemy AI isn’t all that complex and combat level design doesn’t really encourage playstyle variety or exercising strategy. Control’s combat quickly distills down to managing your health -- this isn’t a power-fantasy in the sense you can eat bullets like delectable treats -- and your energy bar, which is depleted when you use your powers. At times, the game can get a little challenging (there’s no difficulty settings) in places if enemies overwhelm -- especially since the cover system isn’t sticky -- but even in dicey situations, it’s pretty easy to out maneuver enemy AI 100% of the time.

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(Photo: 505 Games)

If you played Quantum Break, Control will look very familiar visually, and that’s because both use the same engine. Control isn’t a visual feast, but it does excel at certain points. For example, there’s some incredible usage of thematic lighting and deep saturated colors, the latter of which I usually have little tolerance for. Aesthetically, from the littlest detail to the larger level design, it’s all consistent, connected, and more importantly well-realized and good at covering up some average texture work . And the fact that all of this is done within the science-fiction genre, is even more impressive. Though I will say I think the enemy design across the board falls pretty flat and feels like it didn’t really evolve past the conceptual stage that much.

You also see a bit of the budget in the game’s visuals. I don’t think any of the character design is noteworthy, but what did stick out was the range of facial design and animations. In this regard, sometimes Control can throw punches with the best, and other times it looks like resources ran a little thin.

Control looks best in motion though thanks to an incredible destructive system that makes even boring encounters feel like a big-production affair. In dicey moments, enemies are exploding, environments are ripping apart, and particles are flying everywhere giving encounters a real snap, crackle, and pop. In Control, things often look cooler than they feel to do, a testament more so to the aforementioned technology than a knock on its sometimes underwhelming combat. Unfortunately, sometimes all of this impressive tech seems to be too much for the game too handle, and so a thick motion blur often comes in and a slightly mars the whole spectacle.

There’s also some really poor animation work that feels leftover from one of Remedy’s earlier games. For example, the animation for jumping is woeful, which is a problem exemplified by numerous platforming sections. Meanwhile, the physics system and animations for bumping into certain objects or for when you get into a part of the level that you’d normally wouldn’t just completely falls apart. I quite enjoyed watching Jesse devolve into a character from a generation or two ago, but I don’t think that was Remedy’s intention.

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(Photo: 505 Games)

Coupling some technical issues is even more performance issues. At the moment, Control doesn’t run well on the PS4. In fact, it’s actually surprising how poorly it runs. In a day of day one patches and quick optimization remedies, I’m always hesitant to a dock a game too much for performance shortcomings, but I don’t think I’ve played a game on my PS4 with this many issues. Every other pause is met with delay. There’s also frequent cutscene hitching and freezing, and sometimes the cutscene even completely cuts away, and only the audio is left. Meanwhile, the frame rate constantly drops in moments of heavy combat, and sometimes elsewhere as well. For a game of this stature it’s absolutely mind boggling how the PS4 version shipped like this, but alas, it did. Control could be a very immersive game, but I’ll never know because bugs and performance issues were rearing their head from start to finish.

I also experienced a few audio bugs, which forced me to close application. But beyond this and some lackluster voice acting from the game’s protagonist, the audio design in Control ranges from competent to excellent. None of the weapons sound amazing, especially in relation to the surrounding areas, but the meticulous sound work elsewhere really helps manifest and sustain the game’s atmosphere, which is complimented excellently by otherworldly and moody music that never steals the show, but for sure helps it run smoothly.

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(Photo: 505 Games)

Is Control Remedy’s apex moment? No. Is it their best game yet? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t scream at you if you thought it was. Control’s story and world-building, its thematic cohesiveness is better than anything out of Remedy yet, which is saying a lot. Unfortunately, Control has some blemishes, most of which aren’t very distracting, but when you couple it with some considerable performance issues it adds up and saps a little bit of that specialness.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Control is now available on PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One. A PS4 retail code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.