Any review of a cultural work will inherently be subjective. You can, and to some extent should, strive for a modicum of objectivity when arguing for your opinion, and you should try to step outside your initial impression of the work and recognize strengths and weaknesses you may have overlooked. Still, your opinion is what it is, and at least on a non-professional blog such as mine, I have no illusions that what I present is anything other than my own opinion.
I say this because I will now go very much against what I perceive as the “consensus”, as it were. Control has won plenty of awards and has been widely lauded as a technical marvel and an artistic achievement, an unforgettable adventure, and a game we’ll be talking about for generations. And yes, while it is both technically impressive and artistically delightful, it is also feels unfinished and soulless, and – to put it bluntly – I just don’t feel it.
Everything’s under control
With games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break on its portfolio, I guess you could say that developer Remedy Entertainment is no stranger to mystery and intrigue. Control fits right in with this theme, taking place in the Federal Bureau of Control, a U.S. agency responsible for researching and dealing with the paranormal. The story follows Jesse Faden, a woman with certain special abilities thrown headfirst into the task of ridding the Bureau of a hostile and corrupting paranormal entity threatening to take over the world.
The home of the Federal Bureau of Control is the Oldest House, a paranormal entity itself in the middle of New York, a world within a world much bigger on the inside than the outside. The game takes place entirely within its mostly brutalistic yet often shifting and occasionally physically impossible interior, gradually opening new areas as you acquire new abilities or the story unravels, like a kind of 3D Metroidvania.
More than that I don’t really want to say, because the less you know, the more surprises there will be.
The tools of the trade
The game pits you against hostiles in a surprising variety of environments given its setting. You have a weapon you can switch between two of several standard weapon types, including pistol, shotgun, and rocket launcher. You also have several powers you can use in combat, which I won’t spoil other than saying that they include a telekinesis-like ability that lets you pick up environmental objects (and even rip loose blocks of concrete from walls) and throw them at enemies.
The game encourages you to mix your weapon and your powers by having both quickly use up their energy and recharge during a couple of seconds. Throwing stuff quickly became my favorite way of dispatching enemies, and the game’s physics engine and the way rooms are littered with debris after you’re done makes it great fun. Sadly, I found the weapon in most of its forms to be a fairly boring affair. The “weapon feel” just wasn’t there.
If you die, you respawn at the last checkpoint you interacted with. For the most part this works well, but certain tough fights were situated too far from the nearest checkpoint, forcing you to backtrack quite a bit (even through other combat scenarios) before trying (and dying) again. This wasn’t challenging, just frustrating.
There is a crafting and upgrade system for your weapons, equipment and abilities, but it is fairly lackluster. Weapon upgrades are unlocked for seemingly no apparent reason and without fanfare; you just see they’re there the next time you enter the upgrade menu. They require several kinds of resources of varying rarity, none of which make any sense or have any explanation in the universe, and all of which you randomly get by exploring and opening identical chests hidden around the world. Indeed, the whole crafting system itself is completely menu-driven and unexplained from a story perspective, other than a “now you can upgrade stuff” message early on. Ability upgrades aren’t much better, mostly amounting to plain numeric increases in health, energy, or power duration or damage output.
All in all, the core combat gameplay loop wasn’t something I found particularly captivating at length. It worked well in the beginning, but as the “ripping concrete from walls and throwing it at enemies” aspect lost its novelty, combat started feeling repetitive.
Hope you like logs
A lot of the exposition comes in the form of written notes and audio and video logs. I personally found the sheer amount to be a bit off-putting, but that wasn’t the only issue.
The written notes are all partially redacted, with black bars covering some words and phrases, assumedly to preserve some mystery. But for the most part, the redactions were either clearly not relevant to the ambiguity of the message, or they covered up what was evidently a name or a number/measurement. I therefore can’t escape the impression that the redactions are more laziness than mystery, saving the writers the work of coming up with names, sizes, weights etc.
The video logs are of the FMV variety. Most are hosted by the bureau’s lead scientist, mostly created as instructional content for the Bureau’s employees and occasionally digging into vlog territory, but these videos try too hard to be imperfect with bad cuts and “film reel effects”, and overacting makes it hard to take the lead actor seriously as a scientist (even a slightly obsessed one). The rest of the videos are from a deeply disturbing puppet show the Bureau somehow created for children, which I can only assume would traumatize a whole generation if aired publicly.
There are also quite a few conversations with other people in Control. But while the voice acting is respectable and the models look good, there is something slightly off about the facial mocap that pushes things just a bit too far into the uncanny valley.
I would guess that whether you like the story as a whole comes down to personal preference. I found it plain boring, with little that drove any emotional investment, and therefore no emotional payoff at any point. As things started wrapping up, I really just wanted the game to end. This was not in any way helped by a final “boss fight” of the “cannon fodder gauntlet with conveniently super-powered weapons and abilities” variety.
Can you trace it?
One of the main points of hype for Control has undoubtedly been its use of ray tracing. If you have one of the Nvidia RTX GPUs required to enable it (and it better be one of the 2080’s due to the performance impact), brutalist office architecture has never looked this good. One of my clearest memories from the game was early on, when I thought I saw a sign through an office window, but realized that the text was mirrored and that I was looking at the clearly legible reflection of a sign behind me.
The novelty quickly wears off, though. After playing Control for a few hours, I got used to it, and I don’t mean that my brain now expects all games to have ray tracing. I mean that, as with most games, the visuals start to play second fiddle to the gameplay and story as my brain adjusts and turns its impact down a notch or two.1
One can therefore wonder if the performance impact is worth it. If you compare before/after using screenshots or videos designed to show the difference, you can certainly see it, but make no mistake: it comes at a premium.
Ray tracing or not, Control’s art direction is certainly well executed. The game’s use of space, from right-angled corridors to twisting, shifting, and physically impossible areas, as well as the use of colors and certain visual effects to evoke the paranatural, makes the atmosphere interesting. However, I didn’t find it as novel as others seem to. The reigning champ of art direction for me is still 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game that single-mindedly focused on the protagonist’s psychosis and adapted every aspect of the game to support that experience.
I’d have a hard time saying that Control is a bad game. I just didn’t find it to be good. While it looks great both technically and creatively, the mystery is half-baked, the story lacks emotional impact, the combat gets repetitive, and secondary mechanics such as the upgrade system feel lackluster. The game seems unfocused; yes, even unfinished at times.
At a more basic level, and in summary, Control feels to me like a fairly soulless blob of quasi-mystery without a strong identity. I can’t quite figure out what the game wants to be, but whatever the answer is, my impression is that it just doesn’t succeed particularly well. I’ve tried to argue why in this review; your mileage may vary.
Control aims high, but ultimately fails to follow through and feels a bit lost.
I mean, if that wasn’t the case, we’d never get through the blocky 90’s, not to mention the pixelated 80’s.↩