Control is the culmination of developer Remedy’s past work on third-person shooters over two decades. There’s a bit of Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break to be found in its latest venture. But while the studio’s previous games were all linear, this new supernatural thriller is set in the Metroidvania-inspired maze-like interior of a skyscraper named The Oldest House. The building serves as the New York headquarters for Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), a secret U.S. government agency that investigates and contains paranormal activity.
You assume the role of Jesse Faden, who has been appointed as the Bureau’s Director. It’s her first day at her new job, and she finds herself tasked with the duty of helping the Bureau in its on-going struggle against a supernatural threat known as the Hiss. Unknown to the Bureau, Jesse’s primary reason for signing up for this job is so that she can search for her missing brother, who was mysteriously taken away by the Bureau during their childhood after a supernatural event occurred in their hometown of Ordinary. During these unusual circumstances, she develops psychic abilities with the aid of a paranormal entity.
The story makes little sense for the first few hours, and you’re usually left with more questions than answers. This does work in the game’s favor, however, as the sense of mystique is part of what encourages you to explore areas that are on the way to your primary objective, which mainly deals with cleansing objects of power of Hiss influence. Several of the details surrounding the plot are fleshed out via collectibles (case files, audio logs, etc.) that are scattered across the multistory building. It’s worth backtracking to earlier areas upon gaining security clearance to sections that were previously locked out just to get your hands on these missing fragments of the plot. Occasionally, you’ll also run into a friendly FBC agent or two, and exhausting dialogue options with them gives you further insight into the backstory.
It’s one thing to take influence from Metroidvania level design but another thing to pull it off convincingly, and Control falls in the category of games that do so. While the building departments aren’t densely interconnected with one another – you’ll need to use the main elevator to travel between them – each department usually comprises of multiple floors and has shortcuts that you can open and alternate passages that lead you back to certain areas. Luckily, the floor map is available to you at all times, so it’s not often that you’ll end up losing your way to the next mission objective. Cleansing key areas of Hiss influence allows you to activate control points. They’re well-scattered across the building floors and essentially serve as portals for fast travel. At no point does it feel like you’re being forced into redundant backtracking. You’ll also come across containers that drop personal/weapon mods of varying rarity. Given the limited capacity of your inventory, you’ll often be dismantling the unwanted ones in exchange for upgrade parts. Depending on your play style, applying the right kind of mods can make a noteworthy difference in combat.
Level design isn’t the game’s only major strength, however. Jesse’s physics-based psychic abilities add a whole layer of complexity to the combat encounters and pave way for experimentation. While it’s not the first Remedy game to feature a protagonist with special abilities, never before have they felt as empowering and impactful as Jesse’s psychic powers. You won’t have access to these abilities from the get-go, however. Some of them will have to be found, while others are obtained while progressing through the main story. Upon discovering an ability, you’re placed onto an astral plane, which serves as a tutorial for your newly acquired psychic power. It’s entirely possible to have finished the game without discovering some of Jesse’s abilities.
The first psychic power you unlock is the ability to evade by dashing in the direction of your movement at a rapid speed. It’s particularly useful when surrounded by enemies or when trying to get near an enemy for a quick melee strike. Then comes the ability to launch environmental objects, such as furniture, props, rubble, and hurl them at enemies. Much like God of War’s ax recall mechanic, it’s an immensely satisfying ability that you never grow tired of using. Eventually, you’ll gain the ability to shield yourself from enemy ballistics using concrete rubble gathered from your surroundings and the ability to compel a couple of Hiss possessed agents to fight on your side for a short period. The biggest game-changer is the ability to levitate for a certain duration. On its own, it’s utility is fairly limited, but when combined with one of the other three psychic abilities, it becomes the most vital tool in your arsenal, especially when the odds are stacked against you. Using the psychic abilities drains your energy meter, which replenishes after a short while. On the other hand, your health doesn’t regenerate, and you’ll need to collect shards dropped by defeated enemies to recover health.
The shooting begins to play second fiddle as you further unlock and upgrade your powers and effectively get closer to becoming a psychic overlord. It’s easy to forget that Control is a pretty competent shooter. You get ahold of a service weapon at the beginning of the game, and this is the only weapon you’ll be carrying in your arsenal. However, the service weapon can transform into different forms, ranging from a pistol to a charge shot canon. It doesn’t use traditional ammo and instead has an energy meter of its own with a specific cool-down period that’s shared across all forms of the weapon. It’s a unique approach to weapon management and it certainly takes a little getting used to, as shooters generally allow you to switch to a different weapon when your existing weapon is out of ammo in the heat of battle and there’s no time to reload. The aforementioned control points also serve as locations from where you can upgrade your abilities, purchase personal and weapon mods, as well as enhance the capabilities of your service weapon.
What truly stands out in Control is its moment to moment gameplay. You’re encouraged to stay on the move and you’ll find yourself experimenting with your abilities and creating memorable set-piece-like spectacles of your own during combat, effectively tearing your way through Hiss possessed agents and nearby environments using multiple combinations of Jesse’s psychic abilities. Slowing down and raking in an incoming rocket, and then launching it back towards an enemy while levitating and alternating between shooting at and dashing your way towards other enemies before crashing down on them with a ground pound – moments such as this have a tremendous feel-good vibe to them.
In terms of audiovisual feedback, the game does a great job of making your service weapon feel powerful. Enemies appropriately react to your gunfire. There are no bullet sponges, and even armored foes stagger when taking considerable damage. The launch ability also exhibits great impact as you hurl objects at enemies, and particles scatter across the area
The art direction is on-point and appears to have taken inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s work. It’s a very eerie, and trippy-looking game. That said, there isn’t a lot of aesthetic variety, as most areas of The Oldest House tend to look the same. It does make sense from the perspective of the narrative, but it would’ve been nice to have seen more variety.
The one glaring disappointment with Control is its lack of replay value. There are no difficulty settings and no new game plus. You can, however, continue to do side missions after finishing the main story. There’s also a half-hearted mission select, which doesn’t let you retain the abilities you unlocked past that point during your original playthrough. It takes around 8 to 10 hours to finish the main story, and almost twice as much if you also do the side content, which in itself is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some mundane fetch quests, but at the same time, there are also worthwhile altered item missions to complete.