I knew I was going to enjoy Control right at the beginning. Our protagonist, Jesse Faden, enters the harsh, brutalist headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control late on one drab New York night. She steps through the doors and into a dull foyer, an abandoned desk ahead of her and a great seal adorning the wall beyond. She climbs the stairs and wanders past darkened offices, stumbling into the janitor. He directs her to the elevator beyond, and the waiting office of the Director. But, as Jesse turns the corner, she finds herself back in the foyer. She cannot go back; turning around and retracing steps leads only to a wall that was not there seconds earlier. She cannot leave through the doors; they are sealed shut. There is only onward, deeper into the mysterious world of Control, and the shifting labyrinthine maze of The Oldest House.
Control (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Aug 2019 | Developed: Remedy Entertainment | Published: 505 Games
Control is about as close to an SCP game as we’re ever going to get. It genuinely might as well be a licensed SCP product, were that a thing rather than the SCP Foundation being a purely open-source work. For those not familiar with it, the SCP Foundation is an internet-based work of fiction, an ever-expanding collection of short stories written by any denizen of the internet willing to write and submit a piece. It’s a fantastic example of both the New Weird in fiction, and also of how the internet can be used to explore new forms of writing and the ways in which it is disseminated. In this case, the SCP Foundation is built around the premise that the world is constantly under threat from encroaching dimensions and beings of unfathomable power, and in which everyday objects become imbued with unnerving and dangerous abilities. The Foundation seeks to collect, secure, and control as much of this threat as possible. Most entries on the site are written in the form of bureaucratic logs detailing the necessary procedures put in place to contain these phenomena, with heavy use of redacted text to create a suspenseful sense of mystery.
Control fully leans into this identity. The first time you find one of the collectible documents covering the containment procedures for an Altered Item, complete with lines of blacked out text you know exactly what kind of influences this game has. As you explore the game world you come across seemingly mundane, everyday objects, sealed away in steel and perspex cages. The imagery is absurd, almost comical, such as seeing a rubber duck surrounded by surveillance equipment. But then the mask slips, the duck phases and gives off a distorted aura, and all of a sudden you’re snapped into the world of Control, re-immersed in the heady and tense atmosphere.
That atmosphere is what Control does best. I’m not one for spooky games, and Control definitely does have an element of horror set into it, but perhaps a better way to describe it would be deeply unnerving. I felt distinctly uncomfortable exploring the boundaries of the Oldest House but despite that, underneath it I was being pulled along by the inexorable power of curiosity. It’s that same feeling as when you watch something like The X-Files; you simply need to know what’s happening, and why, regardless of the threat being posed. It might be a testament to my lack of experience with these types of games, but Control maintained that sense of foreboding in me through to the end of the story.
It’s good it did though because once you strip the atmosphere away the narrative we’re left with is rather standard. Jesse’s quest into the Oldest House is motivated by her search for her brother, Dylan, who was taken by the Bureau after an otherworldly event in their childhood. While this event left Dylan kidnapped, it left Jesse with a voice in her head known only as Polaris, some sort of fractal being which seems to guide her. Shortly after arriving, Jesse comes across the body of Zachariah Trench, the now-former director of the Bureau. She picks up his gun and comes into mystical contact with the Board, who inform her she is now the director and must save the Oldest House.
So begins Jesse’s quest. The House is under assault by the Hiss, a resonance-based lifeform which infects its hosts’ minds mnemonically, with a repeating phrase bending them to its will. Only a scant few survivors remain within the Bureau, and Jesse has to rescue them. That’s easier said than done though due to the nature of the Oldest House, which distorts space, shifting its corridors and rooms according to some unknown power. While the story is not the most exotic fare, the same cannot be said of the trappings it takes place in, and the unique, world-bending weirdness of the gameworld more than makes up for it in my eyes.
The weirdness feeds into what is a properly unsettling atmosphere. Maybe for hardcore horror and creepiness fans this will be milquetoast rubbish but for me Control felt genuinely uneasy to play at times. The maddening murmuring chant of the Hiss which gets louder and louder until it reaches a deafening peak as you walk beneath the forest of hanging corpses that populate the Oldest House twisted an awful knot in the pit of my stomach. In-world elements like the horrific dolls of the deranged Bureau-produced Threshold Kids TV show were almost comical in concept but filtered through a maddened lens; at times it almost seems normal compared to the uncanny valley effect that accompanies the FMV presentations scattered about which feature real actors. Control is fundamentally built around these moments, and they are truly excellent.
I’ve come this far and not even talked about what kind of game Control is. At the most basic level it’s a 3rd-person shooter with some platforming chucked in for good measure. As befits a building far bigger on the inside than the outside, exploring the Oldest House makes up a large bulk of your time. The game progresses linearly, with some light metroidvania elements as new parts of the building become available as you acquire new keycards (a surprisingly banal means in a game as wild as this).
Of course you can’t explore without getting into some scraps with the Hiss. The gunplay is undoubtedly where the game is at its weakest. Jesse’s gun, the Service Weapon, is in itself a strange and powerful weapon, capable of morphing into different forms. These are essentially your standard repertoire of guns – pistol, shotgun, sniper, submachine gun – but it’s done in a flavourful way. There’s no cover system, which seems harsh at first as enemies can rip through your health in seconds. However, once you realise the game wants you to be as mobile as possible – and that it gives you the tools to do so – suddenly Control’s combat explodes into life.
Jesse gets powers by binding herself to objects of power, such as the aforementioned Service Weapon. A very early power gives her a rapid dodge and once you get to grips with it combat begins to evolve into a frenetic dervish as you zip between enemies pinging at them with your gun. Shortly after however the game gives you telekinesis, and that’s when things really start getting fun. Control features one of the most satisfying implementations of telekinesis as Jesse lifts anything nearby to throw at foes, including even ripping concrete chunks out of the ground itself if there’s nothing else nearby.
Control also features the same ubiquitous paper-thin RPG mechanics as most modern AAA titles. Completing missions grants Jesse ability points to sink into upgrades which are presented in simple trees encompassing max health, energy with which to use powers, and branches for each core power. Enemies and treasure chests drop mods or components with which to craft mods. These can be equipped to the Service Weapon, with different mods augmenting specific forms of the gun, or they can be equipped to Jesse. These never do much more than small percentile increases of bog-standard parameters, such as max health, ammo reduction, or power cooldown. The entire system feels completed tacked on.
There are of course side missions as well. Major side missions are unlocked as you progress throughout the game and into the post-game as well. These often prompt more careful exploration of the Oldest House, and some occasionally touch on wider threats than just the Hiss, building the world of Control beyond just the game in just enough ways to make you interested in seeing what could come next to threaten the world. Some, however, are decidedly pointless, such as the Board Containment tasks. These often menial sub-missions are typically variants on “go here, kill x things”, and annoyingly give absolutely no experience points, so it begs the question of why should you even bother?
I suspect that the PS4 version isn’t the best release of Control. Performance issues were a constant, if relatively small, companion during my playthrough. Textures would routinely fail to load fully, with in-world text such as signs often appearing too pixelated to read for a while. Coming out the pause menu always resulted in framerate drop – you can’t touch the camera controls at all lest you want the game to have a second or two of framerate stutter, and sometimes in bigger fights, the framerate would also drop for a few moments. These seem to be repeated by plenty of other players out there, so it suggests this is a wider, fundamental issue than one would like. Hopefully the PC or other console releases fare better; if nothing else I would strongly suggest some research into those versions before purchasing Control.
Control is a very strong middle-shelf title. It’s similar to titles like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in that it wants to sit and be counted among the big AAA games but lacks the sheer inconceivable amounts of resources that huge developers have. If you peer beneath the veneer of the presentation you can see the cracks, telltale signs of a title stretching beyond its budget. However, it’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters, and Control should not be written off by any means. The stunning atmosphere and sheer commitment to the New Weird strangeness is pulled off with aplomb, and it elevates Control far beyond even some of its AAA competitors.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.