Control Review: Just a Little Too in Control

A great shooter is bogged down by repetition and bugs.

You can’t disentangle Control from its obvious influences. SCP Foundation, in particular, informs its environment — a sterile, concrete office building under siege by unknowable forces. The vaguely but aptly named Federal Bureau of Control houses and combats these horrible things. That is until one of them inevitably gets loose and sets the stage for third-person shooting to happen. A few thousand bullets — and a few dozen redacted memos later — and you have a pretty solid, spooky adventure. Although a few glaring issues hold Control back more than necessary.

Restraint does pay off with regards to our protagonist, however. Jesse Faden keeps herself to herself. This manifests in-game with inner monologues during sparse conversations throughout the game. And so we get unique insight into how she feels about stumbling into this nightmare.

The horror in question? The Bureau is overrun with “the Hiss”: a living frequency that warps and dominates any creature it touches. The agents of Control are now (mostly) an endless army of soulless soldiers; some of them are even outright monsters. It’s up to Jesse, after being bound to a morphing super gun called the Service Weapon, to clear the Hiss and stop an outright invasion of Earth. Although she has an ulterior motive only known to her and listening players.

Monologuing lets Jesse comment on her absurd situation, without feeling disaffected or melodramatic. We see her quickly adapt to this new reality, full of death, but also hear her worries about what that says about her. Unlocking telekinesis is cool and all, but what if that kind of power goes to her head?

Oh, right. Jesse can also move things with her mind! Eventually. You unlock new abilities like that in a vaguely Metroidvania manner. Learn how to air dash here; get a higher level of keycard there. Then go back to areas you already visited and snag more stuff. You know the drill. It’s simple.

Well… It should be simple. Control has a seriously bad map. It’s overly filigreed with useless detail and not enough data. Once it showed me just standing in empty space, completely off the grid. Sometimes it fails to load entirely for several minutes, and I just had to keep turning it on and off until it worked, like a busted router. And it will never probably indicate what floor you’re standing on. God, getting around the Research Division was such a pain.

Control Review Game

Instead of playing by the map, Control wants you to navigate by in-game signs. The diegetic directions are novel at first, but that wears off quickly when you just want to reach the next upgrade. Not that the unlocks are that exciting. They’re mostly mods with 2-3 percent more damage, or crafting materials to make… mods for 2-3 percent faster firing rate. Or something. It all really bleeds together. That’s doubly true when the exact same loot you find while exploring drops from enemies like candy.

That mundanity is Control’s greatest weakness. Every hostile creature is some flavor of zombie: gun zombie, flying zombie, invisible zombie. All the superpowers are telekinesis: throwing stuff, flying over stuff, picking stuff up to make a shield. In practice, it’s very fun! There’s a nice rhythm between shooting things and blasting them away with psychically propelled office equipment. The Service Weapon needs to recharge, rather than reload, so you’re constantly forced to flit between it and your powers.

But stylistically? Tonally? Control seriously suffers for its obvious comparison to internet creepypasta. The stories of SCP Foundation (and other online tales) are wildly uneven. But they don’t lack for raw, inventive energy. Control, on the other hand, needs to make a video game out if its ghoulish hordes. And the kind of game Remedy makes is third-person shooters, where you kill bad guys for a dozen hours. The enemies need to be repetitive and mortal. I just wish they weren’t this repetitive.

The game does eventually drop some fun set pieces. The last level in particular is downright incredible — full of all the energy I wish the entire game had. And all throughout the game, Remedy makes fantastic use of its own stylistic trademarks: live-action video and music. FMV training tapes about the building (The Oldest House, it’s called; Remedy is also damn good at naming things) gel nicely with the stacks of redacted, SCP-style text logs you uncover.

Some side quests do manage to stand out above the crowd, too. One involving a refrigerator that must be stared at at all times is particularly great (if even more derivative than the rest of Control).

It’s just a shame that the game can’t always keep up. I beat the game on an Xbox One X — the most powerful console in the world, I’m told — and Control still chugged heinously. It makes sense. The game’s environments burst into incredible displays of dust and debris. The faces and animations are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Same-y concrete hallways and undead enemies aside, Control looks gorgeous in action. I understand it lagging when everything is firing on all cylinders. It’s still just disappointing.

Then there’s the endless texture pop-in, and the aforementioned map bug. Although the most irritating glitch by far involves the camera. It constantly gets stuck directly behind Jesse’s head and blocks the action. You can fix it by pressing down on the D-pad. That switches your perspective to over either shoulder.

Control Review Game

But Control is a fast-paced game. There’s no cover system or regenerating health, so you constantly need to stick and move. Felled foes drop health and you need to control their numbers to stay alive. A screen full of auburn bun in the middle of the action completely throws off that delicate rhythm. And Control’s checkpoints, seemingly inspired by Dark Souls’ bonfires, can be unforgiving. You only ever respawn at the last “control point” you touched. Don’t expect these right next to bosses. Get ready to run and fight your back to the big bads. Every. Single. Time.

Some of these issues will likely be wiped out in future updates, but it’s still a glaring lack of polish after I installed the “day one” patch. It’s even worse because I genuinely like the late-game interplay of firepower and superpowers. The game is at its best when you just can’t stop moving, shooting, flinging, and dodging. Otherwise the Hiss will consume you, too. The dollops of weirdness in between aren’t always as interesting as they could be, but occasionally offer some creepy, creative downtime between battles.

When Control gives me enough to do — when it shakes up the enemies enough to make using every tool matter — it’s extremely exciting. Too often, though, it’s weighed down with busywork and unexciting upgrades. Restrained storytelling makes the drama more meaningful, but I wish Control went a little more wild everywhere else.