Control (2019)

I can appreciate when a studio tries to do something different. There are tons of well-made games out that are completely risk-averse, they just combine proven ideas and concepts in a slightly different way. As a studio, Remedy has always impressed me with how they were willing to develop games around wacky concepts. While Alan Wake had grating combat, the setting and atmosphere were unmatched. Control is Remedy’s latest creation, and it fully dives into the untapped genre of New Weird. Sadly, Control was as disappointing as it was exciting.

It is undeniable that Control is fully committed to creating an unforgettable world. You play as Jesse Faden, a woman looking for her brother who went missing when they were children. Her search led her to the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), a mysterious government organization whose mission is to study paranormal occurrences. The game opens when Jesse stumbles into the brutalist concrete structure where the FBC is headquartered.

What makes Control so intriguing is its setting. The juxtaposition of the boring office building with its contents of horrifying and extradimensional objects is incredibly engaging to explore. Reading the logs of the workers here as they treat the paranormal as if it was just another day at the office is my favorite aspect of the game. Control is very obviously inspired by existing ideas like the SCP Foundation and House of Leaves. It does a great job at bringing these ideas to life. I loved seeing everyday objects like rubber ducks, refrigerators, and standing fans locked away in containment. Reading how they are extraordinarily dangerous and should be treated with extreme caution and learning how the building that the FBC resides in is a living labyrinth is just such a phenomenal experience.

Exploring the oldest house itself is a highlight of the game. Finding little secrets, reading documents, and taking in the environment is great. The game has no mini-map or quest markers, which is appreciate. Naturally reading signs and using landmarks to navigate is far more engaging than staring at a marker. I will say that the map itself is pretty hard to parse, it doesn’t show elevation or overlapping levels very well. While I love being able to navigate without relying on maps, I do wish it wasn’t completely worthless.

The core of the gameplay in Control is its combat. It plays as a third-person-shooter, and in all honestly it can be described as serviceable. You have a gun that can change into five different forms. Additionally, you unlock powers like telekinesis, mind-control, shielding, and levitation. I appreciate that the combat is fast-moving. Moving around makes it difficult for enemies to hit you or pin you down. Additionally, enemies drop health when killed so you have to keep moving to reacquire some valuable health. It all works fine, but it feels like it is missing something.

The best part of the combat is that it simply feels good. Picking up and launching pieces of the environment sounds and looks phenomenal. The destructible environment is top-tier. Everything can be ripped from its hinges, thrown, and explode. Wreaking havoc around the FBC and watching enemies get obliterated by fire extinguishers, fax machines, or chunks of concrete is addicting. It is a feast for the eyes and ears.

A big issue with the combat is that the telekinesis ability, called launch, is just way too powerful. I love that the dominant strategy utilizes launch as it is the best aspect of the combat. But it’s too dominant. Most enemies can be killed in a single usage of launch. And there is never a shortage of stuff to launch. The only weakness is that it uses energy, which needs some time to recover when you run out. What ends up happening is that in every single encounter in the game, with no exceptions, is that you spam launch until you run out of energy. Then you use your gun of choice until your energy recovers so you can spam launch again. The guns are pitifully weak when compared to launch. If some of the other powers or the guns were stronger, some alternative strategies could have been viable and fun to try.

Another issue with the combat is that the enemies are boring. For some reason, in a game centered around the paranormal and extradimensional, most of the enemies are boring humanoids. Many of them function as regular humans with guns. Others have some supernatural powers. They rarely pose a threat, and it’s just baffling that in a game with such brilliant concepts that they leaned on humanoids. Again, the combat is fine. It’s serviceable. But most of the time it boils down to “spam launch at the red guys”.

Mirroring the disappointing combat, the main story also fails to capitalize on the excellent concept that Control has. Jesse has some compelling motivation to delve into the FBC. And after experiencing paranormal events in her childhood, she feels at home at the FBC. But the actual story involves a lot of running around to find something, realizing its not there, and then going on a wild goose chase. Control has such a cool concept, but it feels underutilized in the main story. The side stories go farther into the weirdness that Control should exemplify.

After reading the dossiers and documents that uncover the lore of Control, I expected more of the narrative of Control. I expected layers upon layers of conspiracy. I wanted to be shocked. But the main story was normal, not paranormal. The ending in particular was extremely unfulfilling and doesn’t even try to answer the few interesting questions the game asks. In a game with such a fascinating setting and weird concepts, I was extremely disappointed that the driving forces behind the plot were an evil red presence and a good blue presence.

While I can appreciate the fact that Control tried to do something different with its concept, it falls into the pitfalls of many modern games. Bloating the game with random mechanics is never a benefit. There’s no reason for Control to have crafting system. Finding a secret to only be rewarded with a meaningless “House Memory” crafting material is deflating. There’s also upgrades to weapons and abilities to be found, but sorting through a menu to find the “more damage” augmentation is tedious. Not to mention there is a pointless carrying limit, meaning that you frequently have to sift through your inventory to dump the bad upgrades.

Another bit of bloat is the random quests. The side quests in general are great. They delve deep into the lore and world of Control. But for some reason there are random radiant quests. These randomly pop up and have you chase down groups of randomly spawned enemies. There are also expeditions and board containment quests that also are randomly generated to acquire more upgrades and crafting material. These just feel like bloat that water down the experience.

One of the single most disappointing aspects of Control for me was how poorly it utilized its naturally horrifying concept. It is missing the element of cosmic horror, fearing the unknown and unknowable. Jesse is just so powerful that it’s hard to be scared of anything that could be lurking around the corner. None of the enemies, aside from some optional side quest bosses, invoke that feeling of terror. Moreover, Jesse’s reactions to the world itself makes it hard to ever be truly afraid. After cleansing a cursed television that mind-controlled people and watching their heads explode, Jesse’s reaction could be summed up to “Huh too bad”. The was a unique opportunity here to lean into the natural anxiety and fear that the unknown instills. Unfortunately, Control does not even scratch the surface of these ideas.

I love that Control leaned into being different and weird. It’s not afraid to hide lore in tucked-away documents. It stays away from many modern conventions like quest markers and mini-maps, and the game is better for it. But while Control has a unique concept and setting, it just doesn’t bring these ideas into the gameplay or story. Nothing is egregiously bad, but it feels like a waste of such a creative setting. It is for these reasons I give Control a 6.5/10. Control could have defined the genre of New Weird, but instead it’s a serviceable 3rd-person-shooter in a unique universe.

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