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26th August 2019
Exclusive: Hands-On With Control [PS4 Review]

Control is... hard to define.

It’s a little bit of everything.

It’s delightfully quirky, and while it delves into psychological horror, it’s not what you would call a traditional “horror” game. At times a smirking man suddenly flashes on screen as suspenseful music plays (beautifully composed by Martin Stig Andersen & Petri Alanko), and we get a glimpse of something menacing on the horizon; a deeper threat, more dangerous than we’ve previously encountered. We’re led to the FBC and through its ever-shifting corridors solely based on instinct and facing a supernatural threat as an army of one. As such you feel both like a badass superhero and vulnerable in the face of endless waves of horrific enemies. It many ways, this is a horror game.

But there’s also light in the game, there are moments that will make you chuckle; A.W.E reports and documents that will break the ice and for a moment make you forget about the threat you face. It mirrors the studio's previous work; Alan Wake’s drunk cinematic or Max Payne’s sudden awareness that he’s the protagonist in a video game. In such a tense game, these elements could break the atmosphere, but they don’t, instead, they enhance it.


In the first few minutes, we also get our first look at Dr Casper Darling on a recording, played by Matthew Porretta. His presence is a light in a bleak world. His blunt and sometimes morally grey attitude is delightfully in contrast to Porretta’s upbeat and enthusiastic acting. It’s sort of like being told that the world is going to end by Bill Nye. Everything about those scenes feels wholesome and weirdly safe, and you’re pulled along with whatever crazy stuff Darling says because he’s just a joy to watch. It's moments like these which bring the game together and complement the darker, more serious overall tone.

Control is also difficult to define because while feeling like a Remedy title, it hard to compare it to the developer’s previous work. There are qualities that I would associate with the studio; the look, certain phrases, a certain approach, certain characters, but it’s unlike Alan Wake or Quantum Break, perhaps closer to Max Payne. Similar to film noir, the genre that highly inspired Max Payne, you can see where Control's story is going to go and can predict certain twists ahead of time, especially if you've been following the game's marketing, but it doesn’t make it any less engaging to play and in a way you’re hoping for that outcome because you want to play through that specific story.

So what is the story? You play as Jesse Faden, a woman who is looking for answers after an event in her childhood left her scarred. She knows that FBC has taken her brother Dylan, and she’s been trying to find him ever since. The answers are not going to come easy though, when Jesse walks in from the sidewalk, the FBC headquarters are in lockdown after becoming overtaken by a powerful otherworldly entity called The Hiss. Soon after entering, and following the sudden suicide of the former Director, Jesse is tasked with taking over his role, and with it, the duty to defend the bureau.  Along her travels, she meets key FBC employees who ground her, witty characters who clicks with the bizarreness around them, where dealing with The Hiss is a standard Tuesday. I don’t want to tell too much about the story as it’s best experienced firsthand than teased or spoiled, but if you live for mysteries, this is for you! 
The narrative is revealed slowly but rewardingly, it doesn’t offer up answers straight away; you have to work for them. While the main quest explores Jesse, Dylan, and the FBC, the side mission looks at the work that the bureau does and the artifacts it has in its stores. While the optional content is smaller snippets of the overall picture, there’s no variation in quality between the main event and side missions. In fact, a lot of them offers up weird and wonderful situations and encounters that you would not expect to see in the main campaign!

There’s a wide variety of side missions within Control. In very early tasks given by Ahti the janitor, you will find yourself removing mould infestations or destroying “Mr Clog” a supernatural entity blocking the pipes. But others are more puzzle-based and requires using your environments to discover the correct combination to retrieve an artefact. In a lot of these situations, there is usually a combat element involved, leading to the discovery of even bigger and weirder creatures with their own unique weaknesses and challenges. But the side missions don’t exist purely to extend gameplay or to be a feature in the game but as their own self-contained stories about the FBC. As a fan of story-driven games, I love these little side diversions, which expand on the lore. I hope this is something that the studio continues going forward.


Naturally, we couldn’t review Control without discussing the combat; it was one of the most focused-on aspects of the game’s promotional campaigns, and they really nailed it on the head when they described it as “Metroidvania”. It feels exactly that!

Admittedly at first combat may seem slightly overwhelming, armed with just your basic service weapon with no upgrades or powers, enemies can seem to just be too strong. In trailers and gameplay released during the game’s development, we saw an elegant and powerful Jesse using her vast array of powers to take down her enemies, but it doesn’t start off that way, especially for the first few hours. At first, Jesse is quite simply a determined woman who strolled in off the street looking for answers. After a couple of missions to initially build up her skill set, the combat quickly becomes a lot more rewarding and more playful; it becomes less about strict tactics to get results and more about throwing bodies at your enemies like a bizarre Oprah giveaway or chucking missiles back at your enemy. It can be really fun!

One of Control’s strengths is their enemy variety, and this is where the horror aspect bleeds in. There’s an enemy type whose entire goal is to get close to you so they can explode; their twisted human forms float towards you as they let out a high pitch wail. While killing them is easy if you use your launch powers, they often come in a sudden and fast-moving wave and their attack can be deadly. There’s also an enemy type strapped to a hypnosis monitoring machine which gives them the disconcerting look of being bound to an electric chair. The most challenging enemy type is one whose supernatural powers enables them to create a shield of debris as well as launching objects with deadly accuracy. Amongst these, there are also your normal gun-wielding enemies, enemies armed with rocket launches, ones that can fly, ones that are bound by gravity, and others which are just plain bizarre.

While you’re armed with powers and a service weapon, when it comes to fighting these creatures the game can be almost punishingly tough at times. In fact, during press demos, a number of media outlets were informed that they “will die a lot”. It’s been compared to Metroid and Castlevania with a Dark Souls approach to ruthlessness, an aspect which appealed to the combat-focused gamers when it was initially teased.

The downside to dying a lot is the checkpoints, unlike Alan Wake and Quantum Break’s checkpoint saves, Control is more of a manual experience; you save your game by interacting with Control Points. At these stations, you can upgrade your weapon or personal mods, set goals, fast travel, change your outfit and, of course, save. The trouble is that sometimes the place where you died, more often than not, is right where your next Control Point is; you just need to clear the Hiss first and “cleanse” it. This does mean that frequently when you die, you are transported back to a spot often several minutes away and you must madly dash back to your boss battle before, most likely, dying again. Along your journey back, you will sometimes face a mini-wave of enemies. 

One of the toughest fights happened just as I was about to save the game; I had begun the cleansing ritual on the Control Point when an enemy crashes in and stops Jesse in her tracks. I died twelve times before settling on a tactic and getting some good shots in. Another situation found Jesse cleansing a series of items amongst waves of enemies, and if you died, you start from the beginning of the sequence. Sometimes it’s tactics but sometimes it’s luck, but all the time you have to be on the ball.
(As a side note, the combat difficulty and the inability to tweak it did make me think about peripherals such as the XBOX Adaptive Controller or other similar configurations, and their ease of use within the game. Remedy’s previous titles, Alan Wake and Quantum Break, are more suited to specialist controllers, and I know from experience that it works particularly well on the former. I genuinely don’t know how approachable Control may or may not be, particularly when it comes to the combat, it’s demanding.)

Admittedly during combat, and while it may be an unpopular opinion, I did rather miss being deservedly rewarded my cowardice approach to combat of regenerative health. With Control, health is dropped when you kill an enemy, which means that when you’re running low you need to bring up your “shield” and wander the battlefield desperately in search for glowing blue lights. I’m okay with combat, but it’s not one of my strengths, I will always play a game on easy for the story. I could beat Quantum Break’s final boss fight on hard when my brother struggled, but I admittedly frequently felt out of my depth with some of Control's major fights. This is an aspect which I’m looking forward to hearing more about from the community after tomorrow when the game launches, especially as there are fans who joined the community through Max Payne specifically for the combat, but there are others who have joined with Alan Wake and Quantum Break in recent years because of the studio's devotion to story.

In the end though, for those who live for the challenge of combat, this title is definitely for you and will definitely scratch that itch.
As the action can be tough, for a lot of gamers the optional missions will be less optional and more of a necessary tool to boost your stats. I’m not complaining, especially as the missions are fascinating dives into the unusual bureaucratic world of the FBC, but if you were planning on tackling them after the main story, as I was, you may want to reconsider. (In the coming weeks, I’ll definitely be writing a guide to some of the scripted combat scenes in case anyone from the community needs a helping hand.)

Control is a lot of things. As Jesse, you play the role of janitor’s assistant, of Director of the Bureau, of a military commander, of a solider, of a scientist, and of a sister. It’s a game with a little bit of everything and because of it, it is hard to define. It will make you laugh, it will make you rage, it will make you feel accomplished and determined. But it’s not a game to relax with, it demands that you’re present and you rise to the challenge. And it's filled with situations and thick atmosphere that will thrill and terrify you.

It’s something new, and that’s exciting!


Disclaimer: Thank you to Remedy Entertainment for providing us with a code to review Control.

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