Game review: Control for Steam

“Oh, boy, another review from Zoe,” you say. “How much did she hate the game this time?”

Well, in a plot twist you may not have seen coming, I LOVED Control. I was dazzled by the graphics, the story, the characters, the gameplay; everything. Is it a perfect game? No, but those don’t really exist. Is it a great game? Yes, absolutely, and barring a few complaints, I’m putting this beautiful beast firmly in the “need to play again” category.

Let’s start with the plot. Your character is Jesse Faden, a young woman guided to the offices of the Federal Bureau of Control, a Men in Black government organization full of the finest conspiracy theories, to search for her brother. The FBC took him years ago, and Jesse is ready to search for him inside their home base. But she’s shown up just in time to catch the middle of an invasion from extra-dimensional aliens who have possessed most of the staff and are using the FBC headquarters as a staging ground to invade the rest of the planet.

Jesse is aided by a silent partner, a mental hitchhiker who she frequently talks to while running through the halls of the FBC HQ. At first, I thought she was talking to me in some kind of fourth wall experiment, but the real answer of who the partner is is slowly revealed, and it’s a great bit of storytelling.

There’s plenty of interesting side characters, some of whom Jesse interacts with, and one she only sees in informational videos peppered throughout the building. There’s a Finnish janitor whose face is so familiar I’d swear I know him from somewhere, and a security guard whose every answer to Jesse’s questions had me saying out loud, “Oh I like this guy.” Even the building itself is sort of a unique character, a living entity that reacts both to the presence of the invaders, and to Jesse’s efforts to clean the place up. Again, kudos must be given to the people who wrote this plot and fleshed out all these great characters. Game writing can often be too simplistic in its need to convey a simple “me good, them bad” plot, so it’s refreshing to play something where half the time, I’m left guessing who’s the real bad guy in all of these proceedings.

But let’s set aside all that gushing to talk about the graphics. My word, the graphics, even on my lowly PC, where amazing. Everything is such a marvel to gawk at. The levels are full of nice little details, and tight cramped hallways frequently open into surprisingly open spaces that left me gaping in wonder. The enemies are scary, but also equally well-crafted, and Jesse and the other members of the FBC are a joy to watch in-game or in cut scenes. When the bad guy finally shows up, oh, what a delicious scene chewing bastard he is.

The soundtrack is mostly this crazy gibberish that you can sort of make out, but never quite fully comprehend. It’s the chant of the invaders, a song of madness that lends an overall creepy vibe to the entire game. Every once in a while, there’s real music, but that serves as a brief respite before returning to the crazy incantation. It works to really sell that nothing is right in this place.

I haven’t even got to talk about playing the game yet, but it’s just as great as the rest of the full package. The controls are smooth and easy to remember. Jesse starts out with just a gun and a basic jump, but as she unlocks new abilities, more buttons are added to the “flow” of combat. It’s drip fed in at a rate that allows for learning a new way to play before bringing in some new concept. So by the end of the game, Jess can jump over a ledge, levitate over her enemies, dash to dodge their attacks, and rain down a variety of gun and telekinetic attacks before floating gently down to a ten point landing. It all feels good, like the best kind of power fantasy where you’re given a bunch of superpowers and told, “go crazy with it.”

Or, it did until my left stick started acting up. This is not the fault of the game…well, it partly is. See, I play most of my PC games with a wired PS4 controller, and Control wouldn’t recognize it even though Steam did. I couldn’t get it to work at all, so I had to dig out an older XBox-style controller, and the stick on that had been acting odd already. It would frequently make characters walk slow even if the stick was pushed all the way up. Sometimes, pressing the stick down to sprint didn’t work at all. So this kind of behavior was already “normal” given the controller in question. But then after a few hours, letting the stick return to the center would cause Jesse to turn around and walk toward the camera, or to walk backwards if she was aiming at enemies with her gun. A lot of later levels feature bottomless pits, so you can see how plunging to Jesse’s death over and over could be a problem.

That’s before you take loading times into account. The cost of all those pretty details and uncanny valley NPCs is that loading from death or a fast travel frequently took around one to two minutes. So now picture dying repeatedly in one section, and having to sit and wait a seeming eternity to get back into the action. It’s not ideal.

Now in some cases, those deaths were on me. Rather than do the side quests that were being offered to me, I just kept pushing through the main plot. I heard a lot of reviewers say that playing all the side quests left them so overpowered that they felt the later half was wimpy. So my logic was “If I don’t do all that other stuff, it should make the ending harder.” Well I was right on that part of the plan. I put enough points into my energy for more ammo and a bit into health and damage boosts for my telekinetic launch attacks. But my health was a bit thin, so my version of Jesse was a glass cannon. Yes, she could dish out a lot of damage, but all it took was a stray grenade or melee attack to send her back to a loading screen and a checkpoint. (Oh, I should mention, there’s no save scumming in this bad boy. Death can often mean a long run back to where you were headed.)

Then I got to the final level, and the controller problems were combined with a terrible level design to put me in a couple hours of gamer hell. The last level is all in red, and in addition to bottomless pits, there’s also areas filled with poisonous gas. I couldn’t tell where the safe zones were versus the pockets of gas, so I died over and over to that nasty trick. When I did finally find the right tiny platform to land on, the controller would act up and Jesse would pivot to walk off the ledge and back into the poison.

Once that nightmare was done, the final, final area is the same all red motif and joyful bottomless pits, but with an added horde of enemies I could barely see. I either got pounded to death by stuff I couldn’t see coming, or in trying to fight, I discovered Jesse had been walking backwards without me noticing. Cue another plunging death, another two minute load time, and a whole lot of cussing on my part.

But once I beat the game and set that busted ass controller down to watch the credits, I immediately thought that I’d like to try another go once I bought a new controller. For one thing, there are other gun configurations I hadn’t given the proper attention to, other possible builds that could have added even more options to my fight through the FBC HQ. (I didn’t even unlock the dive bombing ground pound, and that attack sounds awesome. There’s also an ability to create a shield of debris pulled from the surroundings. Again, I didn’t bother unlocking it cause it seemed like it might make the game too easy. Crazy, I know.) For another, I haven’t touched any of the DLC, and I’d like to see what’s in there once I have better control of Control. (Sorry, not sorry.)

But if I’m already looking forward to playing again in spite of my frustrations, then that right there is a great game. In fact, I’m ready to give Control a very rare 5 stars. There’s so much to praise and so little to nitpick that my gripes still can’t knock off a single point. This is a game that deserves all the praise and awards heaped upon it, and I would highly recommend it to fans of action games with super creepy sci-fi themes. It’s damned good stuff, y’all.