Control Game Review

Spiel Times Reviews - Spoiler-Free

Introduction

If Remedy Entertainment’s 2010 potboiler Alan Wake is Stephen King, their new game, Control, is Stanley Kubrick. King hated Kubrick’s legendary film adaptation of The Shining, which stripped back much of the novel’s emotional core to a cold, sinister slice of pure anxiety. And fans of Alan Wake’s knowing pastiche of pulp mystery and horror paperbacks may be initially put off by Control’s sleek, abstract and emotionally distant tone. But if players give it time, and accept it on its own terms, they’ll find a masterpiece of third person action, physics-based chaos, and bravura visual design lurking under this thick slab of untreated concrete. This isn’t just Remedy’s best game since Max Payne 2. It’s the best game the studio has ever made.

Control has an atmosphere so thick, you could cut it with a knife.

Gameplay

World Design

One major point of difference with all of Remedy’s previous titles is Control’s nonlinear structure. Early in the game, players are let loose in the game’s setting, a building known as The Oldest House, to explore, discover side quests and uncover hidden upgrades at their own pace. I was surprised and delighted by how open Control is. Remedy is referring to the game as a Metroidvania, and the world design has much in common with modern approaches to that genre like Hollow Knight, while it feels a bit like Sekiro in the way it fuses that approach onto a more vertical 3D space. Even Alan Wake’s forests created the illusion of sprawl while actually being carefully designed to funnel players down a linear path.

Not so with Control, with its branching corridors, intersecting walkways, and hidden shortcuts connecting previously separate areas. The Oldest House is a phenomenal piece of world design, and players could complete Control’s lengthy main story path while still feeling like they’ve barely scratched the surface of the bevy of optional side quests, challenges, and hidden locations.

The Oldest House is a phenomenal piece of world design.

One of the best decisions made by Remedy when creating Control was to avoid the map marker and compass syndrome plaguing so many open-ended games today. Control will never mark your exact destination on its map, and doesn’t feature a mini-map. Instead, it highlights the general area of the map Jesse needs to explore, drops some clues, and lets players loose to discover their own path instead.

Combat

There’s a risk and reward balance to combat in Control that makes it feel more strategic than most shooters. Using powers comes with a degree of risk. An ability that allows Jesse to brainwash enemies into fighting alongside her can turn the tides when outnumbered, but it also exposes players to enemy fire for a crucial few seconds. It’s important not to rely only on the Service Weapon, as it needs time to recharge ammo when depleted. Control also encourages players to experiment and hone Jesse’s full battery of powers by drip-feeding constant optional challenges known as “Board Countermeasures.” Rewards feel valuable and balanced, so there’s a motivation to constantly monitor, turn in, and accept new challenges.

Rewards feel valuable and balanced, so there’s a motivation to constantly monitor, turn in, and accept new challenges.

I was initially disappointed by the lack of unique bosses in Control’s early sections, but this all changes as the story progresses. Some later fights, especially the challenging optional bosses, rank among the most exciting I’ve ever experienced. Lovecraftian horrors, waves of aggressive enemies, and Hiss-infected bureau employees produce stellar variety in combat, both in boss fights and regular enemy encounters. Enemy A.I. feels good too, and will scramble to keep Jesse on her toes.

Most important of all, Jesse feels phenomenal to control. Her freedom of movement, responsiveness, and fluidity are stellar. There’s nothing that’s ever come this close to simulating the feeling and raw power of actually being a superhero as Control does when Jesse’s sizable skill tree is upgraded with the points players will accumulate in main and side missions. And yes, there are RPG elements aplenty here. Not only is there an ability skill tree, but modifications and upgrades for Service Weapon forms are a huge part of making the most of Control’s incredibly dynamic combat.

Nearly every environment in Control is destructible, and it’s great fun trying to push this system to its limits: concrete pillars can be stripped down to their wiring but not entirely torn apart, stairs can be stripped of their guards and railings, but not their foundation. Ripping chunks out of a wall and launching them at enemies is almost as satisfying as picking up their corpses and flinging them at their brethren.

Nearly every environment in Control is destructible, and it’s great fun trying to push this system to its limits.

The attention to detail on display here is staggering. Hit a filing cabinet and its drawers will fly open, scattering sheets of paper in the wind. Hit a wooden desk and its parts will split apart, flying in several directions. Or try shooting out one of its drawers and watch it split into wooden splinters on the ground, leaving an empty space with the desk’s insides and guide rails visible. Shoot a window pane and it will crack and break only in the area it was struck rather than just shattering.

Don’t skip the side content in this game: it contains Control’s most difficult and exciting encounters. But not all side quests are created equal: doing chores for Ahti the janitor is much less exciting than cleansing paranormal objects of their strange energy and those tasks can feel mundane at times. Luckily, they’re clearly marked and entirely optional.

Narrative

Setting

The Oldest House has to be one of the great settings in the history of video games. It has such a singular visual design, managing to reference and incorporate man-made design while also feeling totally alien, like a neural network trying to recreate brutalist architecture. It’s coherent without ever feeling samey: there’s no confusing the Maintenance Sector, with its pumping furnaces and webs of sheer metal piping, with the Executive Sector’s sleek retro office space. And nothing else in The Oldest House is like the Black Rock Quarry, where Jesse steps out from an elevator shaft into an otherworldly outdoor mine, with a beautiful night sky too bright and vivid to be Earth’s. This game has an atmosphere that’s second to none.

Remedy writer and game director Sam Lake has cited as an influence Mark Danielewski’s novel “House of Leaves,” about a strange house that’s larger on the inside than it appears from the outside. That novel’s influence is clear in Control. The surreal, abstract mystery with tinges of horror. The post-modern metacommentary. The obsessive focus on a single, shifting location that seems to hold many other places within it. It’s all here in The Oldest House.

It’s all here in The Oldest House.

Plot

Control emphasizes gameplay over cinematics, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a story, nor that the game’s narrative is poorly executed. Just the opposite. What Control lacks in Hollywood production values, it makes up for with top-notch writing. This is Remedy’s most well-written, daring game to date. Tension and drama build with each new story mission until it bubbles over in a spectacularly daring and rewarding finale.

A strange force draws our protagonist, Jesse Faden, to a massive skyscraper in New York City. Jesse is searching for her brother, Dylan, missing since they were both young. Arriving inside this strange government agency, she finds the Bureau director laying in a pool of his own blood, gun by his side. This gun is no ordinary firearm. It is an Object of Power. Objects of Power are paranormal (or paranatural, as the game calls them) objects that link Jesse’s world with other dimensions. And this Object of Power, the Service Weapon, is like Excalibur: it is a weapon that chooses its master. And the Service Weapon chooses Jesse, suddenly thrusting her into the role of the new Director of the Federal Bureau of Control.

She learns that the Bureau is a secret agency tasked with investigating and containing paranormal activity, and that its offices have been invaded by a sinister force Jesse dubs The Hiss.

She learns that the Bureau is a secret agency tasked with investigating and containing paranormal activity, and that its offices have been invaded by a sinister force Jesse dubs The Hiss, after the strange hissing incantations it causes its victims to begin chanting. I’m hesitant to go into more detail, because the twists and mysteries of Control are so thrilling and well-executed that I want to avoid spoiling as many of them as possible.

Control won’t be for everyone. Players looking for an emotionally investing story might be put off by the unsettling, distant tone, especially in its early sections. But as the game goes on, more emotional weight trickles through Control’s steely surface by way of wonderful characters like Emily Pope, the research assistant, and Ahti, the Finnish janitor with a strange sense of humor. Jesse seems like an unusual choice for a lead at first, but as the story unfolds, she reveals an excellent, emotionally deep protagonist, balancing vulnerability with the stoicism her situation demands. These characters are the story’s beating heart.

Presentation

Graphics

On PC, at max settings with all ray-traced effects enabled, Control’s visual peaks are among the best looking in any game I’ve ever seen. But it’s not perfect. The experimental and immature nature of Nvidia’s ray tracing implementation becomes apparent in the distracting temporal noise introduced to some surfaces. The low sample rate of Nvidia’s fledgeling DXR implementation causes this effect, combined with their imperfect denoising solution. It’s not a dealbreaker, and the game’s visuals still massively benefit from ray tracing, but it’s clear this technology still needs to improve and develop before it can begin to replace traditional rasterization.

But the game looks great with RTX on or off, and many won’t want to countenance the huge performance hit caused by Control’s bevy of ray-traced effects, which include reflections, indirect diffuse lighting, contact shadows, as well as support for Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS). In a welcome move, Nvidia is, for the first time, making DLSS available for resolutions other than 4K, and even allowing users to choose from multiple native resolutions for DLSS to upscale. And you’ll need it if you don’t have a top of the line Turing GPU but still want to experience ray tracing at higher frame rates. On my setup, with an RTX 2070 paired with a Ryzen 1800x, a stable 60fps at 1440p with all settings and ray-traced effects maxed out required DLSS to be enabled. Still, this is the most impressive usage of ray tracing in a game to date.

An RTX showcase: Control is the most impressive ray-traced game to date.

Sound

Control’s industrial soundtrack fades into the background at times, but it does a great job of highlighting and intensifying gunfights with its gurgling ambient noise, clanging percussion, and distorted synths. Voice acting is excellent, especially Courtney Hope as Jesse, returning from her role at Beth in Quantum Break, and the zany, sinister star turn of Matthew Porretta, the voice of Alan Wake, who plays Bureau Head of Research Casper Darling.

Cutscenes and Dialogue

It’s true that Remedy has de-emphasized cinematic visuals in favor of environmental and gameplay details. Remedy’s in-house Northlight engine features the most impressive lighting system I’ve seen in a game to date. But they haven’t paid as much attention to details like facial animations during in-engine cutscenes.  They’re not bad by any means, but they’re a step down from Quantum Break’s remarkable facial capture. This isn’t an issue in the game’s pre-rendered sequences, which are as polished as they come. Luckily, in-engine dialogues aren’t that common, and you’ll spend most of your time blasting your way through the Oldest House’s eerie corridors, not chatting with its residents.

One of Quantum Break’s most divisive features was its extensive use of live-action cutscenes. Live-action sequences make a return in Control, but their execution is fundamentally different. Rather than functioning as story cutscenes, these segments are more like experimental short films that provide context and lore to Control’s strange world. While Quantum Break’s live-action episodes were enjoyable on the level of a pulpy basic cable drama, Control’s more sparing usage of real actors firmly centers these moments in the game’s world.

There are all sorts of multimedia elements used to great effect here, including reams of text documents, incidental audio logs, films and radio broadcasts. They range from a bizarre, hilarious puppet show to faux 16mm orientation films that pay tribute to modern TV classic Lost’s Dharma Initiative. Lost’s heavily serialized format inspired Alan Wake’s episodic structure, and Remedy went on to cast Lost star Dominic Monaghan in Quantum Break, so it’s not surprising to see the fingerprints of that iconic series all over Control, as well as the DNA of other Remedy favorites like Twin Peaks, although this time drawn more from that series’ fantastic 2017 revival.

There are all sorts of multimedia elements used to great effect here, including reams of text documents, incidental audio logs, films and radio broadcasts.

Verdict

Control is a fascinating conversation with the history of Weird fiction. It pays loving tribute to modern classics like Lost and Twin Peaks, but never feels like a tribute act. It plows its own daring, inventive furrow. The more I tried to pick holes in Control, to discover its flaws, to nitpick, the more I found the game addressing those issues as I progressed, as if the devs had predicted potential criticisms in advance. What the team at Remedy have done with Control feels light-years beyond most other developers. This isn’t just excellence, it’s mastery: this is what it feels like to be in control.

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