Control is a game that I initially wasn’t very interested in. I had only seen some clips of gameplay and some heavily contrasted screenshots and it looked like a generic third-person shooter. It was the high regard paid to it by friends plus the convenient timing of its appearance as a free monthly game on PS+ that made me try it. I ended up finishing the main story, actually enjoying the narrative and am now a fully converted fan now considering trying out the semi/heavily-related Alan Wake series.
Control is a game that follows a simple structure: you play as Jesse Faden, a young woman with the goal of finding her brother inside a mysterious, secretive government building – the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC). The player is thrust into the middle of her story without much exposition and the narrative is revealed to you chunks at a time as you progress through the game’s main story missions. While you can just mainline the story missions, there are, of course, side quests to sink your teeth into to acquire resources and character development for the game’s cast.
The story picks up quickly with Jesse taking an odd gun from the corpse of the previous director of the FBC. From there, she is thrust into the role of director herself – a role she did not apply for. The game’s beginning (and middle, and end) is confusing but luckily the game is very aware of this – it provides you with ample opportunity to chat with the various NPCs and pick up documents that help explain the complicated nature of the world of Control.
The antagonist of Control is ostensibly an otherworldly force known as the Hiss, which infects humans and turns them into bad guys. A more interesting idea that seems to be dropped quite soon into the game is the moral nature of the FBC itself – whether they are flat out antagonistic, just a bit incompetent, a force for good or a mixture of the three. It soon becomes obvious that with a dead director, missing head researcher and the whole building under siege from an unknowable threat this question isn’t important. I don’t really know if this a satisfying answer though.
Something particularly nice is that Jesse, as the protagonist, asks the questions that the player no doubt also has and while a fully written character in her own right serves as a very effective player-surrogate. Right about the time when you’ll be wondering what the difference between an ‘Object of Power’ and an ‘Altered Item’ is, you’ll get the option to inquire about it. When you’re exploring a lab that deals with experiments on the Astral Plane, you’ll hear a recording of a researcher chatting about the Astral Plane. It’s all very convenient, if a little contrived at times.
Jesse undergoes a very obvious course of development over the game as she learns more about the FBC and comes to settle into her role as the new director. It’s a gradual and satisfying arc that makes sense for what we learn about Jesse; she’s a person so questioning of and accepting of the mysterious and wacky, and a person who just mounts up responsibilities upon her shoulders – whether they be finding her brother, stopping a murderous fridge or talking to plants to make the janitor happy. The new job suits her personality and she proves herself highly capable.
Something that is going to colour a player’s first conceptions of the game is their familiarity with one of the main sub-genres of sci-fi that Control heavily relies upon – the Mystical Artefact Collection Agency. You may be familiar with TV shows like Warehouse 13 and The Librarians, or the huge collaborative narrative project SCP: Secure Contain Protect. The issue with this particular sub-genre is that by and large, the quality of the works is… low. The TV shows are enjoyable but schlocky, and SCP is surrounded by elitism and populated with authors fuelled by edge and ego – with a few great examples scattered throughout.
Control manages to be what I would consider a gold-standard example of how this type of story can be done well. I think this is because it takes a familiar narrative (“My brother has been kidnapped by suits, and I’m going to rescue him”) and transports it into an unfamiliar universe full of mysterious forces and odd, unknowable quantities. It avoids the trap of leaning too heavily on the wacky ‘magical’ items and is instead a character piece simply set within this genre, and is unique in being driven by the relationships that Jesse has and forms.
And indeed, much of the lore is doled out to the player through SCP-style documents with chunks of redacted text denoted with black highlighter which I feel is a lazy, if effective way of creating suspense, suspicion and curiosity – but it’s not so egregious as to make me annoyed as I often find with many SCP entries. (As an aside, I have to note here that the actual scientific methods utilised by the FBC are offensively hilarious. As something of an ex-scientist I couldn’t help but cringe at the really bad employment of the scientific method that was written into this game.)
A further difference between Control and other media with the same themes and ideas is that Jesse is a bit more than a normal. In most of these stories the mystical objects are the sole locus of power that the narrative revolves around – Control however deals with the idea of humans who are ‘paranaturally gifted’ like Jesse, able to accrue special powers and abilities that ultimately all make her better in combat and at accessing hard-to-reach areas. It would be easy to view Control as a superhero origin story, with Jesse being something of a Wanda Maximoff but in a suit.
By the end of the game Jesse is telekinetically braining Hiss-infected agents with cranes, shielding herself with chunks of rocks ripped from the ground, floating ten feet in the air and even controlling enemies with mind powers. Tell me she doesn’t sound like she’s ripped right from a comic book.
I find this odd genre mashup works really well. Being able to go toe-to-toe with the otherworldly threat is a refreshing shake-up to the tried and tested formula. Not only that, but the other survivors populating the FBC are competent enough at their jobs to not get completely obliterated by the Hiss forces and they serve as a neat benchmark for how powerful Jesse actually is. It’s a nice blending of storytelling and gameplay.
I played the Ultimate Edition on the PS5 so I have to say graphically I was very impressed. It’s not as fundamentally gorgeous as made-for-PS5 titles like Demon’s Souls but it’s still fantastic to look at. There is a little bit of uncanny valley when it comes to the character models but it’s not too heinous. Also, I did have a few problems with lighting in some areas. Important battles are cursed by this oppressive red hue that makes everything very difficult to see which I found completely obnoxious, and some areas are just so badly lit that even raising the gamma is a pointless effort in futility.
The FBC though, is full of interesting locations that all suit the overall vibe of a government building full of offices and research labs. From cafeterias to a water pump room to mail rooms to parapsychology labs the game-world is well-contained to the FBC and the environment designers clearly went to great effort to make every location feel realistic. Every environment is full of objects to use during battle, whether you are hiding behind them, throwing them at enemies or just taking out your frustration on the destructible walls, windows or even floors.
One of the cooler aspects of the game is found in the videos that play sporadically throughout the game on the various CRT monitors and projectors. They are mostly all instructive or informative videos featuring Dr. Darling, the currently missing head of research. What’s unique about them is that Darling appears in full live-action, being played by Matthew Porretta. It’s a bit jarring at first but becomes a barely noticeable yet appreciated artistic choice. The blending of live-action into the game is also used in a few other areas, sparingly – and it’s as jarring as it’s meant to be there.
The more ‘out-there’ areas such as the Astral Plane and the Ashtray Maze are certainly stand-outs in terms of graphical choices, contrasting very heavily with the more conservative build that most of the areas exhibit. The Ashtray Maze in particular is home to one of the most striking, most fun and most memorable sequences of the game. I have linked a video of my playthrough of the Maze below.
As you’ll have heard in the video, Control isn’t afraid of using real-life bands for the soundtrack. Specifically the Finnish band Poets of the Fall have two songs in the game, one of them during the Ashtray Maze sequence and another acting as an Altered Item in its own right. In-game though they are credited as the Old Gods of Asgard which is a nice little nod to the other hints at a mythological significance in this game’s world. There’s also a neat little Easter Egg at the end of the game featuring a principle character singing Dyna-mite by MUD. It’s weird, and great.
Other than that though the soundtrack is largely good, but not as memorable or as stand-out as other games. The game uses music well to denote combat and create an aura of suspense during cutscenes, but there aren’t any tracks that I find myself hankering for to add to a playlist.
The combat is truly a highlight of Control. As with so many other action/adventure games you will unlock new abilities in combat as you progress through the game but every ability stays useful. At its core, Control is a third-person shooter and you have rather a unique gun that stays with you throughout. The ‘Service Weapon’ that Jesse picks up is both her weapon and the way that she is chosen to be the next director of the FBC. While initially just a standard videogame pistol, Jesse can unlock new forms for the Service Weapon including a semi-automatic pistol, a shotgun and some other done-before projectile weapons. Fortunately, you don’t need to collect ammo or anything – each form that the weapon can take has a recharging bar of energy meaning you never find yourself without a weapon.
What to do when your ammo is recharging however? Chuck stuff. The first ‘power’ Jesse claims in the narrative is the ‘Launch’ ability, which is one of the most satisfying powers I’ve used in many games. Jesses picks up an object from the environment – be it a box, fire extinguisher, chair or a chunk of concrete from a wall – and can launch it directly at a foe. This is useful for breaking up enemies who have shields and for feeling like a badass. Jesse also picks up other psychic abilities that are useful defensively, and tops it all off with a levitation skill that feels perfectly floaty – but nothing compares to how useful the Launch power consistently feels.
So, Control is a game, and games need ~progression systems~ these days. Control does this well in some places, and less well in others. Specifically, Jesse has a skill tree with skill points earned from completing story missions and side quests. It’s quite easy to make significant boosts to Jesse’s abilities and build her up according to your combat style, so that’s a decent implementation.
On the flip side, the game showers you in mostly-useless weapon and personal mods that have an arbitrarily low inventory limit, as well as featuring a crafting system that uses nonsensical materials. At no point does unlocking new Service Weapon forms or upgrading them feel like a priority – I would have preferred just pouring currency into them instead of encouraging boring farming in a narrative game like this.
Control is something of a metroidvania. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a metroidvania (a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania) is a game that encourages exploration and backtracking by giving you the ability to access new areas in places you’ve been before. In this game this usually takes the form of keycards that let you get into new parts of old areas. You get six key cards over the story and every area has little places you will have to come back to, whether it’s to get some extra resources or acquire some new lore.
Additionally, puzzles are something that Control does pretty well. They are often pretty simple, and the hard ones never feel unfair. One annoying aspect though is some of the puzzles have characters barking out not-hints about the puzzle at hand – particularly annoying when you know what you have to do but you’re getting bleated at just for interacting with a terminal. One puzzle really impressed me though – the roulette table puzzle in the Department of Probability. It’s an unmarked quest with basically no hints except what you can find in the room itself, it’s a very well-designed little part of the game.
Finally, I do have to mention how good the side quests are. Not only are they important for making Jesse stronger, but they are generally actually quite fun to complete. One quest had me traipsing all over the areas I’d already completed to fight a variety of mini bosses, one had me unclogging a drain that was being haunted by a mysterious, sentient sludge, and one had me fighting a gigantic creature on the Astral Plane with an enormous, threatening eye. You miss out on a lot if you ignore the side quests in this game, and they are an effective way to develop the characters whose roles in Jesse’s main quest narrative are quite small.
To conclude, Control really surprised me. What I initially thought would be a basic genre piece turned out to be a really compelling experience that managed to not only grip me narratively, but blow me away with satisfying combat, The presence of a powerful Assist Mode, interesting lore and really fantastic voice/motion acting makes Control one of the better games I’ve played this year. Top five, definitely.
Verdict: Fantastic game. Get it, try it. Dr. Darling is hot.