Contains story spoilers.
Control is a game that holds a lot of promise. It’s intriguing, exciting, at times rage inducing and fronted by a strong female lead who is unflinching in her quest for the truth. I loved it. But not in the way I was expecting…
Taking place solely within the grey civic walls of the Federal Bureau of Control in the heart of New York, the premise conversely is anything but lacking in colour. As you enter the building (known internally as the Oldest House) the mystery of this place is palpable from the off. What would normally be a building full of movement and life is a cavern of stillness with documents strewn about alongside objects that are often a little stranger than your average office equipment. The documents themselves are heavily redacted and reading through them gives little away, adding instead to the overall mystique of the place as you explore.
All these empty areas and hallways might almost be calm if it weren’t for the bodies of the absent office workers suspended high above the floor and the sinister chanting that emanates from areas around the bureau. As you explore you realise that the employees haven’t abandoned ship; they are trapped. Held aloft by a dangerous presence named simply as “the hiss”, their contorted bodies are both helpless victim and dangerous puppet, controlled by the whim of the entity that possesses them.
A flash of red in an otherwise largely grayscale world signifies their imminent arrival, and their reanimated bodies appear in large numbers to attack at varying levels of threat depending on what level of possession they have been subjected to (and how tooled up they were in their jobs before all this happened). The Oldest House it transpires deals in research of paranormal phenomena and it’s only ever been a matter of time before something got out into the building. With the heart of New York City just outside the front doors, the job now is making sure it doesn’t escape the walls too.
You navigate this environment as character Jesse Faden, a woman also hiding much about herself. She is the new director of the Bureau taking over from her predecessor Director Trench who unleashed the hiss when no longer able to resist their influence. His demise in the end was self-inflicted but his guiding and unsettling presence remains as Jessie tries to learn the secrets of the bureau and further her own hidden agenda.
Jessie grew up with her brother Dylan in a town called Ordinary. The town experienced an Altered World Event (AWE) caused in part by Jesse and her brother whilst playing with some old projector slides that turned out to be objects of power (OOP) and a catalyst for the AWE. The incident imbued them with gifts that the bureau sought to utilise in their Prime Candidate Programme – a programme ultimately leading to potential directorship. Jessie escaped but Dylan was taken and she has been searching for him unsuccessfully ever since. The Federal Bureau of Control is not an easy organisation to find.
For Jessie, the gift from the event is an entity that now resides peacefully within her that she calls Polaris. Polaris was integral in saving Jesse and Dylan when they delved too deep into the OOP and is still connected with Jesse on the fringes of her consciousness. When the hiss take over the Bureau, it is Polaris that guides Jessie to the Oldest House and indirectly to where her brother is being held so that she can finally be reunited with him.
Unbeknownst to her the bureau has been keeping an eye on her and when Dylan is compromised by the hiss, Jesse is listed as the prime candidate to take over the directorship when Trench falls. Polaris gets her inside but the bureau has been expecting her and whilst being the Director is not her prime objective, if that’s what it takes to find Dylan, she is willing to pick up the mantel as a means to an end. In doing so, she is sucked into the world of the Oldest House and trying to keep the Hiss at bay.
The story for Control hits the ground running and I found myself sucked into the world and intrigued by what was going on beneath all that redacted information. The problem I then had was that the story for the rest of the game takes a back seat and at the end when the missions are complete, nothing has changed. Dylan remains possessed; the bureau remains under attack from the hiss; the information is still redacted; and Jesse is still entrenched in trying to stop the whole thing from spreading. There was no sense of evolution or change and as a gamer who gets most of their satisfaction from the journey, I struggled with this concept. The story is discovering Jesse’s backstory, and it’s the deepening of our understanding of what happened in small reveals that is the main driving force of the narrative.
Consequently, Control was a game that forced me to appreciate gaming from an utterly different point of view and contemplate the balance between gameplay, difficulty and story.
If there’s one thing Control knows how to do well it’s gameplay. I’ve never started a game and been as immediately enamoured with the controls as I was when I played this. The moves and abilities you have as Jesse are out of this world good. The controls for them are simple enough once you’ve learned them but it’s the deployment of the moves against difficult and numerous enemies simultaneously that makes you feel like an absolute legend. When it goes right, it goes really right and it looks and feels fantastic.
The abilities come over time and often coincide with the introduction of a new hiss enemy where this newest weapon in your arsenal will likely come in very handy. Once you have the full array, there is then lots of scope to upgrade and choose your preferred gameplay style within them mixing tactics with your own strengths as a player. The feeling I got when I unlocked levitate was genuine joy as I realised that the environments were now scalable vertically as well as horizontally and entire new areas of the bureau were suddenly accessible. Evading and attacking whilst levitating (whilst not always the best way to approach a fight!) was so much fun and basically makes you feel like a superhero. I don’t think any game has ever had that effect for me before.
You are given ample – even too much! – time to enjoy these abilities and there are some truly incredible moments in the game. One of these is the ashtray maze which can’t go unmentioned. Something that on the surface sounds like just a dull grey puzzle to solve is the exact opposite. All of a sudden, rock music fills your ears and the walls, floor and ceiling turn and shift around you, now vibrantly coloured and patterned. Enemies hide around every corner as you seek to find the way through and it is utterly glorious madness.
A big choice made by the designers is to not give any options for difficulties for this game. (EDIT – subsequently an update for the game was delivered that offered a variety of accessibility options to ease the difficulty.) At a minimum, the majority of games will give you easy, normal and hard so you can choose your preferred level of challenge. The design of Control actively requires you to become a better player by throwing everything at you and using repetition to hone your skills. You don’t get to choose easy because it’s not supposed to be easy! The obvious downside of that is that the rate of combat is unforgiving and falls into the trap of feeling monotonous very quickly if it’s not your cup of tea.
Navigating the bureau isn’t straightforward and moving forward and back between sections is commonplace. Enemies respawn quickly so you find yourself clearing out the same areas repeatedly just to get from A to B. You will die a lot in this game and the load screens are surprisingly slow and the save points not particularly friendly which only adds to any building frustration. It’s easy to find yourself in a long loop of destruction when trying to complete missions and that doesn’t always feel fun.
That feeling of relentlessness was something I hadn’t been expecting and in the final chapter when you meet every enemy you’ve faced so far multiple times in quick respawn succession – I didn’t think I’d actually make it to the end. Control solidified for me that I’m not a gamer that enjoys that kind of grind. I want to push forward and the repetition gave me a feeling of pointlessness when it came to the combat. The point I was missing of course (when I was busy rage quitting having died one too many times) is that the combat in the game is kind of the point.
If you are a gamer that gets their feeling of achievement from the eventual success of having finally beaten a section of the game by perfecting and honing the strategy of attack and defence, then the highs and lows Control offers are incredible. The environments are well thought out and play to the main mantra of the game which is “keep moving”. They offer debris to throw around and areas of cover to move through that can and will be broken down and destroyed by the enemies that hunt you if you stay fractionally too long in one place. There are a variety of enemies to fight, some of which will be easily defeated because they fit right in to how you like to play and some which will be so difficult that you’ll want to tear your hair out. But when you’ve done it and pushed through to finally win against that boss – you will feel epic.
In the end, how much challenge you’re willing to accept is going to be different for each player. The slumps and rages for me weren’t worth it although I understand how heightened the sense of achievement will be for the gamers that thrive off that kind of struggle, hard work and eventual victory. My level of desired challenge is lower and the longer I have to struggle through a game, the less like fun it feels. I’d love a version of the game where I can explore the bureau with combat that is more forgiving so that I can push through without the grind and enjoy the world more.
When a game doesn’t offer the option to make the experience bespoke by changing the difficulty it can run the risk of making the game inaccessible. For example, there are areas of Control that I actively avoided because I knew I’d find the side missions there irritating and not worth the annoyance having tried so many times before. It was simpler to focus on the main story. The tragedy of that is that there will be so much content left undiscovered by not feeling up for the challenge of walking off the beaten path – something that I usually love to do. And ironically had I pursued those side missions and explored more of those challenging areas – I’d likely have found my path to the end was actually made easier either by unlocking more upgrades or simply by virtue of having built up more game time.
This game is hard. And yet I know that playing Control has made me a better gamer by not allowing me the option to play “normal” or even “easy” if things were getting too tough. By forcing the player to persevere, you have to improve and fundamentally my frustrations with Control are down to my preferences and not due to a failing of the game. For a game like Control which is based around overcoming complicated combat scenarios and which is designed to be difficult, to offer the option to reduce the difficulty would lessen the game. The idea isn’t to smash your way through to the end of the story. The idea is to explore, reveal and overcome the secrets of the bureau one by one. And if you’re willing to give it the time it deserves, you will be rewarded.
Perhaps Control is not a game that I will revisit any time soon but I love what it stands for so unashamedly. If you want it, work for it. Practise. Stay calm. Adapt. You CAN do it.
And when you do, your next challenge will be waiting.