“Control” is a weird game that I wish was a lot weirder. It has an interesting setting, a neat sci-fi setup, and some funny moments. Jesse Faden’s journey from a forlorn woman, who for the past seventeen years has been searching for her missing brother Dylan, to the self-assured Director of an organization charged with investigating and covering up extradimensional activity, is easy to get lost in from beginning to end. And while, over time, “Control’s” combat sequences grow a bit numbing, its level design and its use of multimedia kept me engaged.
As the newly minted Director of the Federal Bureau of Control, Jesse’s main order of business is to traverse the shape-shifting building that houses the Bureau and reclaim its “control points.” More than two dozen such areas exist throughout the structure which is also known as The Oldest House — a place that intersects with different dimensions. In the game’s mythology, control points are vital to the building’s operation because they stabilize a space that would otherwise be constantly changing. In actual gameplay terms they act as checkpoints and fast travel hubs that connect the Bureau’s various departments.
These control points have been corrupted by an alien entity that Jesse calls the Hiss because it makes her think of “the sound of poison gas leaking in.” The Hiss has infected most of the building’s security guards, emptying their minds and transforming them into hostile enemies. Jesse can use the Director’s service pistol to dispatch enemies in a given area and “cleanse” or activate control points, but it’s more fun, and more effective, to lean on some of the other special powers she picks up through her interaction with Objects of Power.
“OoPs,” as they are also referred to by those in the know, are ordinary-looking items (e.g. a television, a merry-go-round-horse, etc.) infused with alien properties that were recovered by the Bureau from the outside world. Though these items pose a danger to almost all who come into their vicinity, Jesse is able to harness their special abilities. Thus, from a floppy disk that once contained Soviet nuclear codes, she gains one of her most useful abilities: the power to telekinetically lift objects and hurl them. Early on, Jesse can only hurl smaller objects, such as whiteboards or small pieces of masonry, but once her skill is fully upgraded she can toss things like forklifts. It’s a fun mechanic that one can use to swiftly get rid of the shielded enemies encountered later in the game. Random fights a few hours in don’t feel particularly different than those many hours later, except that similar types of enemies deal more damage. I would have preferred a more varied and dynamic cast of adversaries.
Similar to Remedy's previous game “Quantum Break,” “Control” features live-action scenes. Generally, these are better implemented than in the developer’s 2016 title which tried to bridge the gap between TV and games via live-action episodes that didn’t do it any favors. In “Control” you’ll come across a number of informational videos made by the Bureau’s head scientist Caspar Darling (played by Matthew Porretta). The self-conscious cheesiness of these videos mitigates the jarring sight of seeing a motion captured version of Courtney Hope, the charismatic actress who plays Jesse, next to the flesh and blood images of another actor. One could argue that this disharmonious mingling of animation and live action amplifies the crude amateur quality of Darling’s videos, but I felt no such patience with regard to the game’s use of dramatic live-action shots that show Jesse and others in distress. These blandly composed shots, which are thankfully short length, struck me as visually extraneous.
But “Control” is stuffed with fine touches. Discovering how the spaces of the Oldest House bend and warp into each other is entertaining. And there are a number of clever narrative moments. (I bet the poor guy trapped in a room for too many hours staring at a refrigerator will be remembered.) Speaking of which, players would be remiss not to read the game’s written collectibles, which are amusing and flesh out the story.
Given the strength of “Control’s” narrative elements compared to its by-the-numbers combat, I couldn’t help but think that this is a game that has been hobbled by its concessions to the mainstream market. As such, I wonder if Jesse had been allowed to holster her weapon more, “Control” might have been great instead of good.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.