Hands On With Control: E3 2019 Judge’s Week

Banality in the chaos.

Control is an action-adventure game that dares to ask the question: how fast would telekinesis render an office building totally useless? The game by Remedy (makers of Quantum Break and Alan Wake) is a little messy but also inspired. It’s simple with a lot of stuff swirling in the periphery — much like some of the studio’s previous games. The hour I spent with Control at E3 Judges Week was a lot of fun, to be sure, but is there something deeper lurking behind the shifting walls of The Oldest House?

I’m With the Bureau

The pre-E3 demo we played at a 505 Games’ E3 Judge’s Week event (poolside in Santa Monica ooh, ahh) started us in medias res as Jesse Faden, new Director of the Bureau of Control, an organization sent in to deal with the supernatural when other means just aren’t enough. In this case, something has gone terribly wrong in The Oldest House: a bigger-on-the-inside, fluorescent-humming office building that moonlights as a shifting, whispering gateway to multiple dimensions.

The demo began sometime early in Jesse’s new mission. Jesse, still adjusting to her new role, is no a stranger to the supernatural by this point. A childhood trauma left her with a “gift” that makes her especially in-tune with the goings on at The Oldest House. Finding objects of power doubles as means to unlock new abilities (on top of explaining some of the bizarre machinations of the world Remedy is building.

The Hiss, mysterious infiltrators in Control, have created a level of chaos even the Bureau wasn’t prepared to handle without bringing in the big guns. Jesse’s previous boss met an unclear end, adding an air of uncertainty to her first major mission. My first hour with Control didn’t really make things any clearer, either, but the story develops via cutscenes and branching dialogue conversations with NPCs. Jesse had two major conversations during this span. One was an exposition-heavy scene with an officer at The Oldest House who, aside from giving you a multi-step fetch quest to complete, also contextualized what’s up with The Hiss.

The second conversation was with a janitor just… doing his job in The Oldest House. This conversation told me (and Jesse) less about the plot of Control, but much, much more about the world-building and overall vibe the game is going for. The janitor knew a lot about what was going on, but never got to the point, instead weaving in and out of his own version of events while offering dire warnings to Jesse. It was a funny, pleasant exchange — peppered with moments that put me on edge. If Control devotes itself to this type of narrative development from start to finish, it could turn out to be the ambitious story Remedy has tried (and often failed) to tell in previous games.

Borrowing From The Best

Long story short: Jesse has to rid The Oldest House of The Hiss. Fortunately for the player, and The Bureau of Control, Jesse has powers. Cool powers! With the press of a button (R1 on the PlayStation 4 controller we used), Jesse summons a piece of the environment to launch in front of her. Jesse will grab what you aim at, but when there’s nothing obvious to grab, rebar will erupt out of any nearby wall. It’s unclear if this will always work, or if there are certain areas where you can grab parts of the walls.

In terms of other powers, some ability trees revealed a shield skill and traversal powers like hovering. I never unlocked any of these, because I just wanted to throw more stuff — farther and faster than before. Throwing stuff with Jesse’s powers is great! Remedy has always had a firm grasp of physics-based fun, and nowhere is this grasp clearer than in Control.

Jesse’s powers are the “gimmick” of Control much like the flashlight in Alan Wake, or the time goofiness in Quantum Break. Developing the gimmick — taking, well, control over how it develops — seems like a major gameplay element of Control. I unlocked the ability to grab enemy corpses, suggesting grab-able debris might be in short supply at some point. Ragdolling The Hiss at each other never got old in the hour I played, but I did wonder if there’d be more nuance to your skill building.

Control reminded me a lot of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Action and superpowers aside, it’s actually a Metroidvania at its core. The Oldest House is so much bigger than the in-game map immediately suggests, but you tackle one area at a time, unlocking others as you develop ways to deal with whatever hazard blocks your path. There’s even a point/counterpoint interplay to the battles that reminded me of Bruce’s fiercest rumbles (although Jesse’s combat is much more ballistic). Batman might not use guns, but the Bureau of Control has no such issue.

Speaking of ballistics, Jesse has The Service Weapon at her disposal. The Service Weapon is the only gun you get in Control. It’s the only gun you’ll need. It has different modes which shift its components around in literal polygons to become something… else. Your default pistol? A quick button press shifts its molecules into something resembling the plasma cutter from Dead Space, allowing for shotgun-like blasts. It’s a bit like the gun from Dredd meets the one from ExitenZ. Though the feel and modularity reminded me of the original Mass Effect. You collect very basic upgrades and modifiers for The Service Weapon, but I’m guessing these will get increasingly more interesting (and powerful) as the game goes on.

An Empty Room

If Control borrowed some of its core beats and feel from incredible, well-respected sources, it might have wanted to borrow its environmental puzzle design from similar places. The “use telekinesis to plug in batteries” puzzle I completed three times — in three different rooms — didn’t exactly make me excited to see how this design would evolve. I just wanted something different altogether.

Similarly, for a game that opens a thousand doors to a world of mind-bending powers, anything resembling a platforming sequence was unforgiving and clunky. An air dash I got during an Object of Power sequence was (and I’m so sorry for this one) shockingly difficult to control. Maybe nail traversal if you’re going to call your game Control? Even so, I’m holding onto hope. It’s not an unfixable issue for a game that still hasn’t gone gold yet.

Enemy design, however, also fell short for me. The Hiss manifested in just three ways during my time with Control. There’s the shooty military man, the floaty-shooty man, and the bum-rush-explode-y man. There was also a larger, more armored shooty man I fought as a mini-boss late in the demo. Again, this is a game that obviously draws from wildly inventive sources, often with incredibly creepy and unique monster designs of its own. Reducing foes to “other people with guns” feels like a letdown.

I’ll give Remedy points for the floating enemies, though. They control their guns with their minds as they are completely twisted and frozen in position as they hover above you. That’s pretty cool.

Although I’m a bit worried about longterm variety in Control‘s battles, there was some tactical trickery enemies played on me. In one battle, in particular, I was excelling at popping enemies from distance with a combination of gunplay and throwing stuff. Then the military Hiss began flushing me out of my position with powerful grenades that did, in fact, kill me very quickly! I started back at a nearby checkpoint (you unlock them by clearing enemies and un-corrupting the area) and tried again. That revealed little changes to the Hiss behavior as I tried different tactics, which was a welcome wrinkle.

Beautiful Upheaval

Overall, my problems with Control never undid the fun I had learning more about Jesse, her world, and especially the ways she can chuck stuff at other stuff. The problem with trying to discern whether an entire Metroidvania will get stale from only playing in one building is not knowing if the game will be savvy enough to combine its elements in a satisfying way the longer you play. If Remedy can introduce outside elements as thoroughly exciting as Jesse’s telekinesis, Control will rule. Even if the studio can’t manage that, Jesse shot-putting fools into the sun might do just fine.