Control: An in-depth Review

A shadowy governmental agency. A terrifying extradimensional invader. An enigmatic guiding star residing within you. A strange building that shifts and moves. And a mysterious janitor who is more than what he seems. These set the stage of one of the best games I have played in a long time. Control is a phenomenal game, with fast paced action, intricate puzzle solving, superb performances and brilliant set pieces, that come together to form a game experience you won’t soon forget. For a game like this, I want to dive deeper than normal, so full warning, there will be some spoilers, but I will try to avoid major plot spoilers as best I can. With that, let us descend into the depths of the Bureau of Control.

The game revolves around the player, a young woman by the name of Jesse Faden, who is looking for her brother, Dylan and the strange government agency that took him. When she is able to find the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, she finds the building empty, at first. The first living person she runs into is an Eastern European janitor named Ahti, who tells her that she is going to be his assistant, and wishes her good luck in the endeavor. Soon after, however, she discovers chaos has descended on the Bureau: the former Director, Zacariah Trench, is dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and an strange, resonance based threat known as the Hiss has infected the Bureau, possessing the staff and warping the Bureau’s headquarters, known as the Oldest House. To make matters stranger, when Jesse picks up the Trench’s weapon, she hears a mysterious voice telling her that she is now the new Director and it is her responsibility to stop the Hiss. Thus begins her dark and often mind bending journey into the unknown, to find her brother and save the Oldest House, the Bureau and humanity itself. But just as there are many secrets to the Bureau, Jesse has a fair amount of secrets herself. One of which is a mysterious presence inside of her she calls Polaris, which seems to be able to purify the Hiss infection and bring harmony and stability back to the Oldest House. 

As crazy as the narrative seems, the story does follow its logic and I was fascinated about the world and was always eager to learn more. While not all the mysteries are explained (though I wasn’t expecting them to be), you learn enough to get a good grasp of why you are here, what needs to be done and what is at stake. The characters, however, are what really pushes the plot, and I have to say each is extremely well done, not just in writing but in the performances. So many times in games the performances are just phoned in, barely any inflection, with stilted responses that don’t seem human. These characters feel real, with wants, desires, pet-peeves, and strong motivations, even if it is just to get through what might easily be called the worst work week in the Bureau history. What is also humorous is that, although it is a terrifying extradimensional threat, many of the characters treat it with a level of “well, this is going to screw up my weekend”, rather than abject terror. Seeing all the otherworldly things the Bureau deals with on a daily basis it makes sense. 

The world is further fleshed out with hundreds of case files, research documents, interdepartmental correspondences, and multimedia presentations, including interview tapes, science presentations (performed by the delightful Dr. Darling), and the ever disturbing “children’s program” “The Threshold Kids” (seriously what were the creators on when they made these?!). The most intriguing are the mysterious Hotline calls, which are calls from beyond our dimension, whether it be from the mysterious Board (seemingly coming from a strange black inverted pyramid) or from deceased individuals, like Director Trench. These strange calls come at various points during the story, each one peeling back the mystery little by little, while also posing other questions, maintaining an air of mysticism throughout the play time.

The game is also steeped in atmosphere. Many of the areas of the Bureau have dozens of floating Hiss infected people, that, while not hostile, endlessly drone on with random phrases, lending an unsettling tone to the world. The interior of the Oldest House also has a decidedly 60s office vibe to it, even though it is modern day. The reason ingame is that the Oldest House short-circuits any technology past a certain time period, as if it is too new and the building can’t handle it. Thus we see rotary phones, large tape recorders, pneumatic mail tubes, film reels and VHS players. The colors are also striking in their contrast, from bright lights, the stark white of the House and the dark of the Black Rock, to the eerie, neon Red of the Hiss and the strange blur effect they make. The game always has a sense of unease, even in the safety of Central Executive. The graphics are also impressive, especially when it comes to facial animation, as it captures subtle movements and expressions. There are times it looks a little off, and some details are missing, but on the whole the game is a sight to behold.

An interesting world is all well and good to see and hear, but the gameplay is what makes or breaks a game. Luckily, this game succeeds on this front in a big way. The main gameplay loop is engaging enemies in 3rd person shooting using the form shifting Service Weapon and utilizing the various abilities that you acquire throughout the game. The Service Weapon has several forms that can be crafted, each with attributes and strengths. The Grip is the default, a semi-auto pistol that works well in most engagements; The Shatter, a shotgun stand-in that is powerful up close; The Spin, a rapid fire weapon that is essentially a bullet hose; The Pierce, a piercing sniper-like form that is powerful but slow to ramp up; and The Charge, a three shot rocket weapon, with devastating AoE. Though intriguing, the effectiveness of each of the forms is inconsistent, with the Grip being the most powerful or versatile of the forms, and will be your go to. The Shatter and Spin seem to have overlap, with the Shatter seeming to be more consistently effective. The Charge also has the unfortunate feature that it frequently does hurt you as well as the enemies, making it difficult to use. When the forms do work, however, they are very satisfying, and often it takes knowing which forms work against which enemies, to exploit certain weaknesses. Each weapon form also has three mod slots, which can be fitted with mods found around the world, whether in boxes or dropped by enemies. They generally improve basic stats, like damage, reload speed, accuracy and sometimes have unique benefits to certain forms like adding pellets to Shatter, increasing damage when aiming for Pierce or increasing Charge’s explosive radius. The reload mechanic on the weapons is unique, as instead of ammo stores that you need to worry about, the guns regenerate ammo over time. However, all the forms share the same ammo, so when you are out in one form, you are out in all forms. 

Luckily, that is where the abilities come into play, which are frequently used as a way to deal damage as you are reloading. As you traverse through the game you come across several Objects of Power, items that have gained abnormal abilities that can be used to enhance yourself. For example, a Soviet Floppy Disk that contained nuclear launch codes suddenly gains the ability to throw things near it. Once you find and purify it, you gain the ability to pick things up and hurl them at high speeds at your enemies. This is where the game gets special praise for its physics engine: anything on the ground that is not nailed down you can pick up and throw, and sometimes you can rip chunks of concrete from the walls or floor and use that to throw at enemies. The level of detail in this is mind blowing and the act of levitating things and hurling them at enemies never gets old! Other abilities include creating shields from rubble, ground slams, and seizing control of weakened enemies, making them fight for you for a short amount of time. My two favorites were Launch and Seize, to the point that I would frequently say, as I am seizing an enemy, “You’re mine now!” in a very sinister tone. All the abilities have points you can dump into them, increasing an aspect, and sometimes adding new benefits, like throwing back grenades or even lifting up 3 objects at once and launching them. These ability points can also be used to increase your health, energy and melee damage (though personally melee is pointless, as enemies hit really hard up close, so you don’t want to let them get that close, and I forgot 90% that I even had a melee attack). The abilities allow you to mix up your combat and approach each encounter differently depending on what enemies you face. Much like the weapons, you also have mods for your person, which can increase health, energy, decrease the energy cost of certain abilities, or speed up the Seize allowing you to capture enemies faster. With both the weapons and the personal mods, I defaulted to a few choices that seemed the best in most situations, as switching out mods was tedious, even when I saw something I might want to try out. Also the fact that there are only 3 slots for personal and each of the different forms seems to be somewhat restrictive. I personally would’ve preferred to find upgrades to each of the abilities, so that it is not so much of picking and choosing. All in all, I did find combat to be satisfying, with a few tweaks needed here and there.

The Hiss themselves presented interesting challenges. Most Hiss are using human hosts to engage with you, and so most enemies are humanoid in appearance, using guns and the like. Many also employ shields, which are most effectively destroyed with Launching things at them or using Pierce or Charge (or for those that fire rockets or grenade, Launching those right back at them). There are some that kamikaze their way toward you, some can levitate and Launch things at you as well, and some can make rubble Shield like you can. Knowing what each Hiss can do and how to engage them is important, and once you know what each is capable of, you can fight most without too much trouble (except for Snipers, hate those guys…). What can be tricky, however, is that each enemy has a number over their heads that shows (relatively) how dangerous they are. There are times when you engage with enemies only to find out that, though you were handling 2s fairly well, you have run into a pack of 6s, and they wipe the floor with you. It should be noted that you don’t gain exp from fights, only Source which is your main crafting currency, needed to craft and upgrade your weapon forms, craft and upgrade available mods and other things in the game, and if you die, you lose 10% of your current Source. Oftentimes if you run into a difficult spot, it is recommended to try and upgrade your arsenal, try out different mods or go to another part of the Oldest House and try again later. 

Thankfully, there is plenty to do in the Bureau. The game is reminiscent of Metroid in the sense of progression, as a lot of places are locked off at the beginning, but by gaining new abilities and clearance levels, the map opens up and allows you to fully explore to your heart’s content. Lots of side missions provide you with ample distraction, and strangely enough it is through these side missions that the most unique boss battles occur, rather than the main story. Most bosses in the Main Story are rather bland, just stronger versions of normal enemies. But in the side missions, you might run into a giant one eyed extra-dimensional being, a movie camera that leads you on a high speed rail chase, or an anchor constantly spewing deadly waves of clocks. Finding these missions were always interesting, as you are never quite sure of if it will be relatively simple or it is leading you straight into a boss battle, but I suppose that fits with the strange nature of the place. The puzzles are also intriguing, as it can have you flex your mental muscles in ways you never expected in order to solve them. One interesting, completely optional puzzle has to do with manipulating objects around an office to maximize your luck. There is another one which has to do with inputting a shape into a computer, but making it backwards as you have found yourself in a mirror dimension. The biggest annoyance to exploration, however, is the absolutely awful map, as it doesn’t show levels, or marks what doors need what security clearance (or where the doors are at all!). The map is presented as a classified document, with some area blacked out for an air of mystery. While thematically appropriate, it is so unhelpful, and frankly the game would’ve been far better with a more competently made map. There are also some areas that are locked off and are only opened with side missions. While interesting and preserves the mystery of the area, it is also frustrating, as someone who likes to explore, not being able to go to certain areas until I do a thing that I didn’t know I had to do.

As the game progresses, there are also some impressive set pieces that happen, most often with Object of Power or their lesser brethren, Altered Items. Corridors shifting, worlds mirrored, even being up to your neck in clocks! One of the most impressive is late in the game where you have to enter a maze, armed with a Walkman. I won’t say anymore than that, but it is an awesome event that shows off the creativity of the design team that will also get an awesome song in your head. There is also another song that is in an out of the way corner of an area, which is also amazing. The game continually pushes reality and how we perceive it to its limits, and the more you learn about all the goings on at the Bureau it raises some interesting questions for the future.

The base game is a great ride, and the DLCs add to that. Foundation takes place after the main game, as you descend into the lowest depths of the house to stop the Hiss, and learn some intriguing details about the mysterious Board. AWE (which aso means Altered World Event in the game) is an Alan Wake themed DLC, as Alan Wake is made by Remedy and was hinted at in various parts of the game proper. It also lays the groundwork for Alan Wake to show up in Control 2 (or something of that nature).

I highly recommend this game to anyone that is a fan of exploration, mystery and simply yeeting things at things. I thoroughly enjoyed my time, and more than once lost sleep with this game, and was eager to jump back in when I could. I recommend people get the Ultimate edition on Steam, as it is $40 for the game, and the two DLCs, which is a steal. So get out there, and Take Control!

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