If there’s one thing I’ll take away from my time with Control, it’s the way it entirely subverts expectations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect going in to it. Was it going to be scary? Was it going to make sense? The trailers – featuring creepy looking guys, super-natural powers and an enemy with a dorky name like “the HISS” – didn’t give a lot away. After a few hours of play, I started to think that that was intentional. Control set out its stall as a weird, super-powered jaunt through a strange government building and if you’re heading into this game wanting that, you’ll get that. But just beneath the surface is a marriage of design and narrative, of mechanic and plot that’s simply sublime. It’s these combinations that take your expectations and then blow them out of the water, doing all of the bread and butter stuff you’d expect a third-person action adventure game to do –combat and traversal – incredibly well then building upon them.
Take lead character Jesse Faden, the newly appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Control. Whenever you think of a “director of a shady federal bureau”, it conjures images of the smoking man from X-Files or the stony faced authority figures from any number of TV shows. It’s almost always a man but always in a suit. They’re cold, calculated, entitled in their being and wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning a floor. None of this is true of Jesse. Clad in jeans and a jacket, one of her first internal monologues (more on those in a second) is to state that it wasn’t that long ago that she was a caretaker, mopping floors. She’s smart but willing to listen to the experts. Compared to the way Directors are usually portrayed in media, she’s positively ‘normal’ and anything but stereotypical – but as a female character in a video game, she’s totally unique. She’s never a ‘damsel in distress’ and she never fails forward. Despite coming across totally unexplainable phenomenon, she takes it all in her stride. She doesn’t need the bizarreness of this world explained to her. She’s accepting of the fact that it is what it is and is more interested in how to deal with it. She’s strong but not forceful, helps others for often selfish means but has clear motives. To put it bluntly, she’s the most 3 dimensional and ‘human’ character I’ve played as in quite some time.
Much of Jesse’s depth is achieved through her interactions with NPC’s, primarily her conversations with Polaris and The Board. Both are super-natural beings, the former an unseen force that has existed within her since a childhood incident in her hometown of Ordinary and the latter, the extra-dimensional being that appears to operate the Oldest House. The existence of these beings and the conversations with them, as one sided as they often appear, remove the typical “adventure hero monologuing to themselves” trope to give a purpose to necessary exposition. Her dealings with The Board also serve as tutorials that blend with progression of the narrative.
One of the largest ways in which Control subverts expectation is in the way it uses everyday objects to build a surrealist feel in the way they’re posed in the environment, the narrative and in the lore. The Oldest House itself, initially like any other office building, is an unexplained space that shifts and changes with your actions. Despite being her first day on the job, there’s portraits of Jesse adorning some walls. Test chambers set up for bizarre and unexplained experiments, high security barriers set up to contain and monitor a supernaturally powered water cooler, architecture that’s part brutalist and part contemporary – almost the entirety of The Oldest House is designed in a way to show you a setting but set your mind a buzz with the possibilities of why they exist. There’s corners of this game world which purely exist to convince you this is a real place – toilets, offices, security checkpoints – and they work. It’s structure means that the surreal rooms with open, starry skies above them or rooms that fold in on themselves to form new labyrinths for you to explore don’t feel at all out of place next to a photocopier and some filing cabinets.
The use of the ‘ordinary’ in extraordinary ways permeates the combat in Control too. Anything you can see, from potted plants to office chairs can be used as a weapon once Jesse is able. A tap and a button and they become deadly projectiles to fire across the room. Desks. Barrels. Chunks of concrete ripped from the walls. It’s easy to use and always impressive. Her powers, granted to her by altered objects, open new paths through The Oldest House giving Control a Metroidvania feel at times. Locations you visit early on in the game have a very different flavour when you return to them with the ability to fly.
The lore, expanded upon via collectable files and media drops, builds on all of this. Much of these are redacted, leaving the blacked out lines to your imagination. Recordings, often posed as research notes or orientation videos, insinuate much but tell you little. Audio tells and voices from those infected from the HISS indicate something is happening but you’re never quite sure what. Control is a game that gives the player just enough information to inspire questions but doesn’t feel compelled to answer them.
Control feels like the product of a team all working in tandem towards the same, strong creative vision. It’s visually superb, with an alluring art style which is matched by the teams ability to do it justice. It sets a new high bar with its audio design – the music, the sound effects and the ambience are world class. The story meanders, back tracks, foreshadows and occasionally barrels its way along a trail of breadcrumbs through The Oldest House while Jesse Faden is allowed to grow as a character who’s a capable badass without having to resort to flexing her muscles or talking smack.
Those performance issues? There’s still a few moments of chaos when the frame rate dips but it’s much improved since the game launched. In design, and the way that design has been purposefully implemented, Control deserves its plaudits. A singular boss battle, offering a significant difficulty spike in an otherwise exemplary paced game, and a map that’s confusing at times are tiny blemishes on an otherwise astonishing game.
Control is available now on Xbox One, PS4 (review version) and PC via the Epic Games Store.
Developer: Remedy Games
Publisher: 505 Games
In order to complete this review, we purchased a copy of the game. For our full review policy please go here.
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