Control: The Kotaku Review

By Ethan Gach on at

Control is the latest game from the makers of Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break. It’s a twisted, haunting odyssey through an old post-WWII office building under siege by parasitic beings from another dimension. Control has all the standard elements of a regular third-person shooter, but its exhaustive world building and all-consuming eeriness make it much more.

You play as Jesse, a millenial loner with latent paranormal powers who’s trying to find her brother, Dylan. That search brings her to the Federal Bureau of Control, a secret government department that she believes kidnapped her brother as part of its mission to safeguard the country against other-worldly phenomena. But the FBC, housed in a New York City building called The Oldest House, is under attack by the Hiss, a malevolent, hive-like entity from another dimension that infects the minds of its hosts to bend them to its will.

The building is under lockdown as a result of the attack, which has killed the FBC’s director, Zachariah Trench. His service weapon, a gun that regenerates ammo, attaches itself to Jesse, making her the next director and leaving the player responsible for rallying the remainder of the Bureau and ending the lockdown. Along the way you gain powers like levitation and telekinesis, which allow you to explore new areas and fight in different ways.

Video games are full of repetitive actions. Sometimes they feel natural and effortless, like holding the run button in Super Mario Bros. – the sort of thing you don’t even realise you’re doing until you try to stop. Other actions can be labourious, like smashing the grab button in Dishonored as you rummage through a stranger’s belongings, not because you enjoy it, but out of fear that you might miss something if you don’t.

In Control, you can pick up and throw objects with your mind. On PS4 this entails looking at the object you want to move and holding down the right shoulder button. During my time with the game I did this hundreds of times: sometimes to clear a path forward, other times to kill enemies, and often because of the sheer pleasure I got out of ripping up a piece of the world and watching it float beside me, patiently waiting for my next command. It became neither monotonous or unconscious. At first the objects accelerate toward you, crashing into whatever might be in their way, before slowing down as they approach until they’re hanging idly in the air, only to speed back up again when eventually launched. This slightest bit of simulated resistance is visually and tactilely convincing.

I’ve thrown copy machines, bins, toilets, fire extinguishers, lamps, guard rails, oil drums, storage racks, office chairs, tables, potted plants, fans, and dozens of other pieces of debris. In addition to being able to grab hold of almost any object, nearly everything in The Oldest House can be destroyed. With a press of a button, wood splinters, rock crumbles, and stacks of paper detonate. The world eventually resets once you’ve wandered off long enough, which is part of the ancient power of The Oldest House. But the sumptuous sounds and visual detail of destruction never get old, whether hurling a filing cabinet at an enemy or at the wall to see what kind of mark it leaves. It makes the world feel alive.

There are also practical consequences during combat. You can crouch behind cover, but I often destroyed that cover in my hunt for raw material to pummel the Hiss with. Like her regenerating service weapon, Jesse’s powers continuously recharge, quite rapidly in fact, encouraging you to trade off back and forth between bullets and telekinetic attacks, all while scurrying between cover. The Hiss usually attack in waves of five or more. Most are grunts carrying basic firearms. while others have supernatural powers similar to Jesse’s. A few wield rocket launchers and grenades, which Jesse’s abilities allows her to throw back at them with a few well placed upgrades. It’s incredibly satisfying, if sometimes hard to time. While the individual Hiss don’t have strong identities, collectively their abilities compliment one another just enough to poise a real threat and force you to stay creative about how you demolish them.

BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE: “What if the Ghostbusters ran the FBI?”

TYPE OF GAME: Hyper-stylish occult third-person shooter

LIKED: Levitating over the battlefield, pummelling my enemies with broken office equipment, one of the most creative action sequences I’ve ever experienced.

DISLIKED: Parts of the upgrade system feel perfunctory, frequent frame-rate drops, uneven pacing in the beginning.

DEVELOPER: Remedy Entertainment

PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (played), Xbox One, PC

RELEASE DATE: August 27, 2019

PLAYED: 21 hours, including finishing the main story and many of the side-quests. Killed over 1,000 Hiss.

At one point in the end of the game I was floating through the air dodging hunks of metal and gunfire while unloading on the enemies below me. Summoning a fire extinguisher, I hurled it at the forklift one of the Hiss was hiding behind, only to have it blow up, triggering a chain reaction with a nearby oil drum. The particle effects were beautiful, though they promptly sent the game’s framerate plummeting. In these moments, or others where action was taking place in some of the game’s larger zones, the game would chug. Control never crashed, even when it looked like it really wanted to, but it’s clear the game was operating at the limits of what my PS4 can handle. These technical obstacles never stopped me from enjoying the game or led me to accidentally die during a fight, but they did make me wonder just how much more enjoyable the game’s bigger shootouts could be on hardware that could actually handle them.

The game’s main story progresses at a steady clip. It’s told through short cutscenes and conversations with other characters, which are seamlessly interspersed with live-action footage, a technique Remedy Entertainment pioneered in 2016’s Quantum Break but which is used more sparingly in Control to maximise its unsettling effect. The jargon-heavy story, which starts out promisingly enough, never seems to quite deliver on its threat of menacing revelations, ending up more like a workplace drama than a mind-bending psychological horror show. Despite a tragic past, the emotional trauma of losing her brother, and finding herself trapped in a building governed by a dozen competing logics and accosted by demonically possessed bureaucrats at every turn, Jesse resists ever becoming completely overwhelmed by the strange events around her. She rolls with it, her fear softened by occasionally cheesy humour and an ongoing internal monologue, and the fact that she has a magical magnum and occult super powers.

While Jesse helps keep Control moored, The Oldest House is its true star. It’s a sprawling labyrinth of mid-century modern office interiors and long polished granite hallways. You start at the executive level, a series of open office areas filled with row after row of empty desk. As you travel through the House, it expands and deepens. You descend into the maintenance facilities, an underground network of pipes, control rooms, and atomic age machinery. Though you have the top-level blueprints for the entire building at your disposal, each subsequent level becomes harder to navigate and increasingly filled with enemies.

The Oldest House is linked together by a series of control points, little ritual spots on the ground that look similar to pentagrams. When Jesse encounters one, she can purge it of the Hiss’ corrupting influence and use it to heal, upgrade abilities and equipment, and fast travel to any previously unlocked control point. Outside of this network, there are some areas that can only be accessed on foot through elevators and back hallways, and still others that don’t show up on the map at all, linked via hanging light switches situated throughout the building that transport Jesse to a distant hotel and then back again to a new area. On paper, you progress through Control like any metroidvania-style game, in which acquiring new abilities and reaching new story beats allow you to backtrack and rediscover new parts of old areas. But the points that connect The Oldest House non-linearly to other planes of existence and back again make it feel like something more than just a effusively stylish, hyper-competent iteration of the formula. At one point during the game Jesse remarks that while she should be terrified of The Oldest House, she actually finds its sinister sense of mystery inviting. The secret passages, rooms that metamorphose like a kaleidoscope, and invisible rifts to other planes of existence are affirming manifestations that acknowledge the weirdness the rest of the FBC’s pencil pushers would prefer to measure and codify. As you unlock more powers, The Oldest House becomes open to your poking and prodding, and its little details – an office covered top to bottom in post-it notes, manic writing on a chalkboard – are as interesting as anything else in the game and well worth combing through its world for.

Modifications for Jesse and her weapons are also hidden throughout the building, or drop from enemies. This equipment offers stat bonuses to Jesse’s health, the recharge time for her powers, or the accuracy or damage of her weapons. You can also create your own mods from the crafting materials with names like Entropic Echo and Ritual Impulse procured during exploration and combat. But they’re all random, so you never quite know what you’re going to get. Additional resources can be spent to upgrade the level of the mods you can create. Contrary to how taut the rest of the game feels, the mod system, which provide boosts to things like health, power recharge speed, and shot accuracy, is mostly superfluous until you’re facing some of the game’s harder side missions, where grinding to get an additional five per cent boost to gun damage might actually make a difference.

Compared to everything else in The Oldest House, the mods, and the chests holding them, feel like filler.

More alluring are the pieces of lore that are generously scattered throughout The Oldest House. Classified files, snippets of research, recorded interviews, and other fragments of intel elaborate on the building’s history, the competing interests of its top leaders, and inklings of who the Hiss are and what they want. Some of the game’s best writing, in keeping with Remedy’s track record, is tucked away in this secondary literature, making rummaging through every foreboding room a rewarding treasure hunt. These collectibles tell the story of a bureaucracy warped by its obsessions, which the game so beautifully conveys through the House’s ever-changing brutalist architecture.

Hidden in the depths of the Oldest House are beings you can’t destroy called Thresholds. They’re harrowing and deadly to come across, but on the surface a Threshold is just a cloud of rocks vibrating in intense patterns, as if screaming from having been severed from the rest of the rock during the construction of the building. I wanted to explore every dark corner and seemingly mundane board room of The Oldest House in hopes of discovering the secret behind the pulsing rock creature, or at least come across other equally weird anomalies.

Throughout the entirety of Control I had the sneaking suspicion that maybe these strange rock creatures were victims rather than monsters, marooned by the excesses and abuses of the FBC, just as Jesse believes her brother was. Dr. Darling, the Bureau’s top scientist, is depicted in a series of video reports littered about the building as a brilliant man too blinded by how good he is at his job to stop and wonder if it was the right one to be doing. As the game goes on, Jesse falls under a similar spell. It turns out she’s very good at killing the Hiss and helping the rest of the staff accomplish their tasks. Whether perpetuating this rudderless careerism is ultimately a good thing or not is a question the game does a commendable job of not answering.

Control utilises Jesse’s journey from FBC new hire to employee of the month to showcase a workplace torn asunder by forces from a world beyond and bleeding out horrors. “A house is a machine for living in,” brutalist architect Le Corbusier wrote in his 1923 book Towards A New Architecture. The life that Control’s house makes possible is secretive, full of small compartments and hidden layers where the weirdness some people would prefer to bring under the harsh control of reason and protocol can blossom. Even if Jesse is ostensibly an occult cop working for the man, Remedy has made The Oldest House a machine without a master, leaving what it produces – shadowy histories, dazzling flights, no shortage of abysses that stare back – to whoever’s willing to venture inside.