Article by: Anthony Florez
Nothing is more frustrating than starting a review or an impression of a thing with, ‘this is difficult to describe,‘ because that’s what I’ve volunteered to do… it’s why you’re wasting your precious time reading, it’s the whole reason we’re here. But I feel far, far, less guilty doing that in this instance because, simply put, Control is willfully obscure from minute one. It has zero problem messing with your head, in fact, that’s apparently its intention with its unsettling atmosphere, it’s fourth wall breaking (maybe?) narration, and unique, compelling visuals. All this is done with the kind of bold art direction and design that reminded me of the first time I played Resident Evil, practically a lifetime ago. There is a similar sense of confidence, a similarly unflinching willingness to get weird and just expect the audience to come along and, oh boy, have I jumped on board. While I don’t think that Control is perfect or revolutionary per se, I do believe that it succeeds in what it sets out to do. Minor issues aside, it’s exactly as creepy, creative, engaging, and most importantly, as fun as it is trying to be and it’s a welcome break from the perpetual onslaught of always-online multiplayer only, team based, FPS/Battle Royale, etc. etc. etc.
Although it’s not always going to be perfect, in my experience the third person perspective always feels better in a shooter than first person, in particular when it comes to gunplay and negotiating an environment where cover is a factor. Games like the Uncharted series do this pretty well, although the reliance on snapping into prescribed cover positions or moving along walls cause some camera and collision issues, as well as some frustrating, unwanted exposure to enemy fire. The Last of Us as well, as much as that game is brilliant and immersive and full of rich characters and details, the combat will, more often than not, cross that delicate line between challenging and frustrating. Control avoids this by being a third person shooter where cover is important but less important than staying mobile.
This tripped me up at first, particularly when combat becomes more pitched, I instinctively tried to find a defensible position to just post up and headshot but this got me surrounded and destroyed a couple times because of another interesting and terrific design decision. There is no auto-health regen, at least not in the early game, there appears to be some options to unlock abilities that do this, but the absence of this feature, this thing that is friendly to casual users also has the effect of dragging down the pace of gameplay, while the user finds a quiet corner to sit and stare at a wall. Subtracting this I immediately had to switch to a different tack, one that I had fortunately gotten used to because of another great game I recently picked up: Doom. The 2016 version of that game knew two things that have been lost to the styles and trends of modern gaming and it’s that using health kits or regenerating health and reloading your gun slows down gameplay, because if the user is watching a reload animation or single-handedly applying bullet absorbing gauze they aren’t shooting the faces off things.
When you remove one or either of those mechanics all of a sudden combat stops being about taking turns behind cover or a whack-a-mole style wait for which enemy is going to pop up, and turns into this whirlwind ballet of navigating the room with one eye, negotiating enemy movement with the other and rushing in to collect health points while anticipating the next wave. It forces you out of cover and into danger in a kind of risk/reward design. Control does not remove reloading, however, it adds the ability to telekinetically lift up objects or rip out pieces of foundation that you can then hurl into orange gunmen with so much force and violence that I might feel sorry for them if I had any idea what the hell they are. This allows the player to switch back and forth between cooldowns, adding variety to the gameplay loop and keeping the action fresh even when navigating previously discovered areas.
Speaking of areas, with regard to the architecture of the game, I can only offer glowing admiration for what succeeds at being artistically engaging as well as just intelligent game design. As an example of not good game design, I’ve always been a big fan of the Halo franchise but less and less now that 343 is at the reins. What used to be a series about great combat and a sandbox approach to enemy encounters has become this big, silvery, shiny, aluminum atrocity; Halo 4 & 5 spent so much time on their sky-boxes and the Forerunner palace/fortress things, on all this concept art brought to life that looks like a combination of M.C. Escher and a 90s trapper keeper, that I can’t help but wonder how much time was lost in the design process, time that could have been spent making a fun game with a compelling story.
Rather, Control is a lot of straight lines and primary colors. It’s all squares and minimalism without being boring at all and manages to feel both mundane and threatening at the same time. Then there are the bizarre, orange faced military types that apparate and attack the user as well as the truly strange, lovely decision to signal a kill by having their bodies explode into bath bombs. Not sure who decided on that detail or what kind of pharmaceutical inspired it but… I dig it. All that aside, what is surprising, because of that subdued design, is the game’s performance which is a how I’m going to dovetail into the negatives.
For some reason, in some instances during combat or certain sightlines, the FPS can drop noticeably, something I’ve seen on PS4. It’s not a deal breaker, it doesn’t ruin the experience, it’s just one of those things that comes with being in QA for over a decade, it’s hard to unsee. This may just be an optimization thing, something that gets fixed or tuned in a title update, it’s no big deal but for what it’s worth it happens. If I had to nitpick further, the level design is… confusing. Now, I am not an idiot, everything about the game is, I’m sure that the floor plan is intentionally meant to be disorienting but with the uniformity of the office spaces and relentless gray walls it took longer than I’m willing to admit to find my way back to the initial hub. In some places there are signs that indicate where certain areas are, with arrows and everything that lead to other places that don’t have them and I found myself retracing my steps over and over trying to figure out which hallway was the correct one.
This is fine. It’s actually just part of the experience but if I had to make a comparison to another psychologically intense third person thriller, it would be Alan Wake which had arguably more confusing pathways, usually through pitch black woods with just a flashlight to navigate, and I almost never got lost in that game. There was always a visual cue of some kind that kept me on the path, but again, totally fine. If the purpose was to make me feel the increasing anxiety I felt when I was 5 years old, lost and wandering around the mall because where did my parents go, you know. Mission Accomplished.
I never got to frustration, is my point. And that’s also true of the combat. Challenging, sure, but never infuriating. This is where Control also shines for me. I kept getting my ass kicked when I experienced a new type of enemy or deployment of mobs, and this is correct, this is good enemy encounter design. Being slow-witted, I kept using the same approach until my brain clicked back on and I realized that I needed to make an adjustment, that I needed to find a new strategy, that I have to be super conservative here in this place but over there I need to go full on psychic John Wick. That’s fun design. That’s what made Halo great, that switch between run-and-gun here, zombie apocalypse run-for-your-life there (I miss the Flood). And this is still making impressions on me as I go, the gun in the game is just now starting to be upgradeable and all new ways of playing are opening up at a satisfying pace.
Speaking of that gun, and to sum up my impressions of Control, the thing is just so… cool. I’ll put a link to the gameplay trailer below but just the gameplay doesn’t really do justice to, again, how confidently strange this game is. The story is not something I’m able to really sum up but if I had to… it’s as if someone who loves Silent Hill and Philip K. Dick stole a rejected script from David Lynch and decided to make it into the fictional video game from Grandma’s Boy. Okay, I don’t think I can legally make another pop culture reference after that but I believe I’ve made my point. Control is a game that I feel like was made exactly for whatever demographic I fall into, as a fan of games that feel cinematic and loved, that don’t feel like they were designed by committee or to fill a marketing niche designated by metrics and accounting, that feel like someone had to make it and that they took a chance doing so. And I am so glad they did.