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Control - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Nifty visual effects, especially for psychic phenomena
  • Fast-paced, improvisational action
  • Good variety of psychic abilities
  • Each weapon and ability feels useful
  • Certain combinations of enemies get very challenging
  • Ending stuff that I don't want to spoil
  • Relatively short campaign with lots of optional side content
  • Optional challenges of Board Countermeasures
  • Adjustable difficulty and assist features

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Combat can become tedious and repetitive
  • Some aggravating missions and bosses
  • Unreliable sprint control
  • Unjustified Dark Souls-inspired respawn system
  • Borderline useless map
  • Excessive document-reading
  • Frequent use of red ambient lighting

Overall Impression : B-
Impressive production value for a mid-price game

Control - cover

Developer:
Remedy Entertainment

Publisher:
505 Games

Platforms:
PC (via Steam, Epic Store, or GoG),
PlayStation 4 < and PlayStation 5 (via retailer or PSN),
XBox One and XBox Series X|S (via retailer or XBox Live).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD ($40 for Ultimate Edition)

Original release date:
27 August 2019

Genre:
supernatural action shooter

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
20+ hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood, Strong Language, Violence

Official site:
controlgame.com

I kept hearing good things about Remedy's Control, but I never got around to playing it. For some reason, I was thinking it was an XBox exclusive. Maybe it was a timed exclusive? Anyway, it showed up as one of the free PSPlus games of the month a couple months ago, and I downloaded it to play over the summer. I kind of regret not having purchased it, since it's a pretty good game with a lot of neat and innovative ideas, and Remedy is a smaller studio that could definitely use the money and deserves the support, especially considering that Control was released as a mid-budget, mid-price, $30 release ($40 for the new Ultimate Edition). I'll probably buy it as a gift for a friend at some point, so that I can support the studio for making a quality product.

In any case, consider this a recommendation: if you haven't bought and played Control yet, please do so. It's definitely worth checking out, especially if you like a game that will give you a substantial challenge. It's available on the next-gen consoles, but if you're like me and haven't been able to secure a PS5 yet, then it's also available on the previous-gen as well. It won't have the fancy ray-tracing and other advanced graphical effects, but it played well and ran mostly smoothly on my PS4 Pro. The only technical issue I had was long load times and a temporary freeze whenever I unpaused the game. No big deal. The game is tough, but it wasn't so overwhelmingly difficult that I was stuck constantly staring at the long load screens.

Spectacle action worthy of The Matrix

Control is certainly a spectacle to behold. Every fight feels like it has the bombast of the climactic lobby shootout in The Matrix. Nobody is running up walls or doing slow-motion kicks, but the player (and enemies) can levitate, bullets are whizzing past, furniture is getting thrown around, loose paper and stationary is flying everywhere, and chunks of the walls are being ripped or blown off. At the conclusion of each fight, the environment is completely trashed, and it looks fantastic. Even on the PS4, the level of detail is impressive.

The aftermath of every battle reminds me of the lobby shootout from The Matrix.

There's also a surprising amount of expressiveness in the combat mechanics. I can go in and just shoot all the enemies as if this were some basic cover-based shooter. Or I can use telekinesis to barrage the enemies with the clutter in the environment. I could even run in with the shield up, attack with the "melee" psychic push, then dodge around, managing my energy like the stamina bar of Dark Souls. Even within one of those broad play-styles, there's a handful of support abilities that can be used to varying effects. I can haphazardly throw any old object at enemies with telekinesis, or I can specifically search out objects that might explode and do larger amounts of damage to be more efficient. I can mind-hack an enemy and turn him against the other enemies to act as a damage sponge and spread around my DPS. There's a surprising amount of options here, especially considering that first impressions make Control look like just another run-and-gun shooter.

By midway through the game, the challenge had started amping up to the point that I wasn't able to rely on simply shooting every enemy with the pistol anymore. Doing so was still possible, but it was difficult. I started using all of my psychic abilities in many encounters, and I was rotating through all of my available service weapons based on the situation. Even the abilities and weapons that I initially thought were garbage (such as the shield and the pierce weapon) started getting regular use against certain enemies or in certain situations. I even learned to spend time scanning the environment for particularly destructive telekinesis objects.

Abilities and weapons that I had initially dismissed as "garbage" were getting regular use later in the game.

This was a far cry from my recent experience with Resident Evil Village, in which I was able to breeze through a vast majority of the game by just shooting everything in the face with the pistol or shotgun, and never had to utilize the more diverse tools and environmental opportunities at my disposal, because using them was more trouble than they were worth. No, here in Control, I am using everything! In fact, I even had a viewer pop up on my Twitch stream and comment that he had never bothered using the shield, but watching me use it against the Distorted made him realize that he could have been using it in his playthrough to save himself a lot of frustration and respawns.

The chaotic action and escalating challenge of Control comes largely from the inability to hide behind cover. Unlike so many modern shooters, Jesse cannot snap to cover and be safe from enemy attack while she passively recovers her health. She can crouch and stealth walk, and this can be used to temporarily take cover or hide. But that cover won't last long. In order to attack, Jesse has to stand up, and even if she stays put, the enemies will eventually flank her or spawn in behind her to force her out of cover. Or they'll just blow up the cover because most of the environment is destructible.

There is a crouch command, but it won't protect you for long, and you can't attack while crouching either.

The action of the game is, therefore, constantly kinetic and fluid, and highly improvisational. I'm almost never standing still. I'm always aggressively charging and/or circle strafing the enemies, and if I stop moving for an instant, I feel exposed and vulnerable. That doesn't mean that simply moving around keeps me safe. Enemies can still hit me while I'm moving, and some of their attacks will even home in on me as I move, which can be immensely frustrating when I'm low on health and am desperately running around looking for a health pick-up. I have to use my various abilities to constantly keep the pressure on the enemies, while also protecting myself from the bullets, telekinetic debris, rockets, concussive waves, and so forth that is being constantly thrown at me.

Optimal play?

Feeling constantly surrounded, exposed, and vulnerable encourages risky, aggressive play. It reminds me a bit of the play-style of the remake of Doom or of Bloodborne, except that Control misses one key element of both those games' designs. Yes, Control encourages risky play, similar to Doom and Bloodborne, but I don't feel that it rewards that risky play in the same way.

In Doom, the player gets health and armor boosts by charging monsters and killing them with the brutal melee chainsaw attacks, after having softened them up a bit with your guns. In Bloodborne, the gun is used more for parrying and stunning the enemies rather than shooting them at a distance, and the ability to regain recently-lost health by charging and attacking an enemy within a narrow window of time rewards keeping in the enemy's face, rather than backing away and cowering behind a shield or cover.

Ambient red lighting in many arenas can make it difficult to see enemy spawn-ins, movements, and attack tells.

In Control, you get health, experience, and other buffs by defeating enemies, regardless of whether you defeat them at close range or by sniping them from a distant balcony. On the upside, it means there is no optimal way to play. Keeping your distance and picking off enemies one at a time is a technically viable strategy, even if it's counter-intuitively more dangerous. On the other hand, it can be easy to fall back into the habit of cowering behind cover (especially when low on health), only to get killed by a cheap attack from a blindspot.

All this chaos can sometimes work against Control's favor. I sometimes found it very difficult to tell exactly what was going on. I would die from attacks off-screen that I felt I didn't have time to react to. Or there would just be so many explosions or other visual effects that I couldn't see what was happening. Or sometimes the whole arena would be cast in an ambient red light, which would make it hard to discern detail and read enemy spawn-ins, movements, and attack tells.

Difficulty can be adjusted through various assist features.

Midway through the game, I also hit an immensely frustrating difficulty spike that almost made me quit the game entirely. Salvador, The Anchor, and The Mold all came one after another, and they were all miserable fights for one reason or the other. I actually had to enable the assist mode and turn on invincibility and one-hit kills just so that I could get through Salvador after something like 20 consecutive defeats, just so that I could continue on with the game before I got so frustrated that I quit it for good.

When I tried looking up tips for these enemies online, most responses said to fully level-up telekinesis. It's kind of unfortunately telling that the advice seemed to homogenous. After coming to like Control for its variety of useful abilities, reading this online consensus that telekinesis seems to be the hands-down best ability in the game was disheartening. There is a re-spec ability in Control, but it's very expensive and requires at least an hour or two of grinding to be able to afford. So I decided to just tank the bosses, hope I get lucky, and use the assist features as a last resort crutch. Hey, I have a full-time job, family, and other social and personal obligations (including this blog and YouTube channel). I simply do not have the time to bang my head against a boss wall for hours or days on end like I used to. The only fight that I did end up needing the assist features for was Salvador. I was able to tank past the others after a handful of attempts.

Both Salvador and The Anchor wouldn't be so bad if Remedy didn't insist on throwing wave after wave of trash mob at the player. I just couldn't stay out of the crossfire, and would die without knowing what had killed me. In the case of The Mold, I just couldn't read any of its attacks quick enough to react. By the time I would see it slamming its tentacle down on me, it was already too late to dodge or shield. Then a bunch of exploding things would fall from the ceiling, and the floor would become toxic and drain my health, and it started shooting out homing, bullet-hell projectiles. I'm sorry, it was just too much. I did all of those boss fights in a single play session, and I hated almost every second of that play session. But I grit my teeth and ground through it in the hopes that when I came back the next day, the following missions would be better.

Hiss Charged and their kamikaze attacks were the most consistent source of frustration and cheap deaths.

Luckily, they were. I had a few repeat deaths in some future encounters, but nothing else in the game was quite as frustrating as that one play session in which I took on Salvador, The Mold, and The Anchor.

The only consistently frustrating enemy type (for me) was the Hiss Charged. I also absolutely loathe the Hiss Charged. This is the flying enemy that kamikaze charges the player and then explodes (either instantly killing me, or bringing me down to critical health). This enemy type might account for as many as three-fourths of all my deaths, and come close to almost single-handedly ruining the game for me. If I could create just one setting to alter Controls's difficulty, it wouldn't be more health for Jesse, or less health for enemies, or faster energy recharge; it would be to remove the Hiss Charged from the game. They are especially problematic because they seem to be constantly spawning behind me. I can hear them coming, but I don't know where they are in 3-D space. Without knowing where they are coming from, it's unclear which direction to dodge or jump or run, and the shield doesn't cover my backside, so I can't even use that to protect me from this obnoxious enemy.

More of Sekiro than Dark Souls?

One of the things that doesn't quite work for me (as a matter of personal preference) is the Dark Souls-inspired respawn system. The payer has to activate "control points", which act like the bonfires of Dark Souls by serving as checkpoints and allowing the player to level up and fast travel. If I die, I go back to the last control point that I activated and lose some of my upgrade currency.

Control takes inspiration from Dark Souls and Sekiro,
but misses some of the nuances of those games' design that helps to elevate them.

One of my little pet peeves with games that ape off of Dark Souls is when they copy the mechanics, but don't bother to provide the narrative justification for those mechanics. Despite the psychic and supernatural nature of Control, Remedy didn't bother including any narrative justification for how or why Jesse would be resurrecting at control points, or why that resurrection would cost upgrade currency. In fact, Control even goes one step further by not even bothering to mimic the ludic cost of dying. Jesse respawning does not respawn enemies. So after sitting through a lengthy loading screen to respawn at a control point, I simply have to run back to where I died with absolutely no resistance. So what's the point? Why not just respawn me where I died?

Losing 10% of your currency each time you die also leads to a problem similar to Sekiro: it discourages trying again. Part of the genius of Dark Souls Demon's Souls design is that giving the player the opportunity to reclaim their lost experience after death encourages the player to try again. Despite the game's seemingly unforgiving difficulty, giving you this opportunity feels like the game saying, "hey, you got this. You can do it." It's a very subtly uplifting piece of design that makes the otherwise hopeless challenges and dreary setting seem more surmountable.

There are grindy side missions.

Thankfully, Control isn't as punitive as Sekiro. Losing only 10% of my cash (instead of the 40 or 50% that Sekiro leeches from my pocket) gives me a lot more margin of error. Two or three deaths in Sekiro will reduce my cash reserves to almost nothing, but it will take five or six repeat deaths in Control before I even fall below half of what I started with. It's a good thing too, because Control is much more linear than Sekiro. Sekiro's design could be interpreted as trying to encourage the player to experiment and explore other areas of the game. Control's more linear structure takes away the opportunity to explore a different route. Yes, there are side missions and grindy challenges that you can do, but the former are few and far between (until they are all dumped on you around the third-to-last story mission); and the latter are exactly what I said they are: grinding. The challenges only take you back to places you've already been to fight enemies you've already fought.

I largely ignored the Bureau Alerts because of their grindy-backtracking nature. But I really liked how the "Board Countermeasures" were integrated. These are optional challenges or mini-goals that are can be taken up by the player and completed during any type of play, whether you're grinding or progressing the story. They range from broad "Kill X number of some enemy type" to more specific challenges like "Kill specific enemy types in a specific area of the map" or "Kill a specific enemy type with a specific ability or weapon, or a specific combination of abilities or weapons". These shake up the gameplay a bit, encourage the player to experiment with alternate ways of playing that might be outside of your comfort zone.

Board Countermeasures add optional challenge modes while progressing other missions.

Best of all, they don't feel grindy because I don't have to stop what I'm doing to complete them. While other games might stop dead in their tracks and force the player to go out of your way to try dedicated missions based around these sorts of challenge runs, Control allows the player to chose to activate these optional challenge criteria in the background. I can thus work towards the Board Countermeasures goals while still progressing the main story or a side mission by simply adjusting my loadout, strategies, or play style to try to fulfill whatever Board Countermeasures I currently have active. I can have up to 3 of them active at a time, which means that even if one has a specific requirement that I can't meet now (like going to a different area of the map), I can still progress the other one or two goals and circle back to the last when it's more relevant. And if I pick my countermeasures carefully, I can even progress all three in parallel, and earn rewards much faster, all without breaking the stride of the story!

Is it all just hordes of zombies?

The dissonance between story and gameplay also extends beyond the mere lack of context for the respawn mechanic, as Control suffers from a similar ludonarrative dissonance problems as The Last of Us. For a game all about exploring supernatural phenomena, it is disappointing that all of the actual gameplay is just shooting zombies or throwing chunks of wall at them. There's the same callous disregard for human life, with no attempt to save the Hiss-possessed workers of the FBC, even though the late-game makes it clear that recovery is possible.

Flipping on a light switch 3 times is a recurring "puzzle".

There's a tiny bit of platforming once the levitate ability is unlocked, but it's trivial. Remedy's idea of a "puzzle" doesn't extend beyond flipping on a light switch three times, or using telekinesis to throw giant, glowing batteries into giant, glowing sockets in the walls. Even the Astral Maze ends up being a linear shooting gallery instead of an actual puzzle or brain teaser. It still looks astounding, and is one of the best set pieces in the game, but I couldn't help but think "oh, is this it?" while I was navigating it.

In fact, some of the best gameplay variety comes from the Alan Wake tie-in DLC, in which I have to defeat enemies and clear obstructions by levitating flood lights to point at said enemies and obstructions.

There was one set piece in which I had to approach a possessed traffic light, but could only move towards it when it's not red. If it changed to red, and I was still moving, it would teleport me back to the far end of the chamber. It was a simple little thing, but I would have much rather seen more stuff like that, and less shooting at hordes of zombies.

I would also be remiss if I do not mention my frustrations with the "sprint" control. For a game called "Control", it is especially frustrating that the controls are another of the game's biggest problems. "Sprint" is mapped to clicking the left stick (which is fine; lots of games do that), but it is incredibly finicky and difficult to use (at least on the PS4). Even though I have sprinting set to toggle in the gameplay settings, Jesse routinely refuses to sprint more than just a few steps. It seems that any change in the input of the left stick cancels the sprint command, which is problematic, since clicking the left stick often slightly moves the position of the stick, immediately canceling the sprint command that was triggered by clicking the stick. I can change directions by rotating the camera with the right stick while trying to hold the left stick steady. Sometimes it works, and I can sprint down several hallways, but most of the time, Jesse is constantly starting and stopping her sprint.

Why won't you keep running?!

This control annoyance came to a head for me in an early side quest in which Jesse acquires the Shield ability. To get the ability, I first had to complete a time-trial obstacle course (arbitrarily timed trials as part of core level design is already one of my biggest pet peeves in gaming). I repeatedly failed the time trial by between 1 and 5 seconds because I could not get Jesse to sprint through the home stretch. My time was ticking away, and she was just casually strolling along, despite me mashing on that left stick.

The sprint control also becomes problematic in combat, since Jesse wouldn't reliably sprint between cover, or away from enemies when I need her to. It lead to many cheap deaths.

I tried remapping the control (even on console, the game allows full controller remapping!), but I couldn't find anything that was more comfortable to use. I tried mapping it to the right stick, but that didn't work out very well. The best compromise that I could find was to map "sprint" to one of the un-used directional buttons. This required me to do some finger gymnastics every time I want to sprint, but at least it worked consistently. I also had to fight against the muscle memory that had trained me to click the left stick to begin with. The un-reliability of the "sprint" input is another thing that almost made me give up on Control.

An exciting and tough roller coaster

Despite some misgivings with how Control executes its Dark Souls-inspired difficulty, and with some of the game's controls, Remedy has crafted a flawed, yet very enjoyable game. It's certainly challenging, but also flexible enough to accommodate players of various skill levels and time constraints.

As someone who doesn't have a crap ton of time to spend on a single game, I appreciated that Control has a relatively short campaign. I could easily see a player powering through the story in a single weekend, though you would likely have to use the assist features to help get you through it. Most missions are also around an hour or two long, so recognizable progress can be made in digestible, bite-sized play sessions, for those adults who only have a few hours after work to sit and play a game. But there's plenty of optional side missions and grindy challenges to keep a player occupied for a few dozen hours beyond the story. Control should appease players who want a streamlined experience, and also those who won't even touch a game unless it is at least 40 hours long (ugh!).

Control also represents a great foundation of lore and possibilities for a potential franchise in the future. It already ties Alan Wake into its canon, and grants players a glimpse at what the Alan Wake sequel could have been. While Control itself is a pretty straight-forward action shooter, its supernatural setting and these characters could be the basis for much more creative games in the future. I could see this setting being used in further action titles, or they can be leveraged to create a potentially good cosmic horror game, psychological thriller, mystery, or high concept science fiction story. Or perhaps something else entirely. That is, if Remedy can figure out something for the player to do in the game other than some variation of shooting zombies.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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