Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Control is a supernatural action game from the developers at Remedy Games, the studio behind titles like Quantum Break and Alan Wake. Control builds upon the third-person shooting and physics-bending abilities Remedy has experimented with before, and the result is easily the best game the studio has released since 2001's Max Payne.
Control is releasing on PS4 and Xbox One, but the best way to play the game is probably on PC (where it's an Epic Game Store exclusive for the first year). That's because a gaming PC with one of NVIDIA's modern RTX graphics cards will let players enjoy some incredible real-time ray tracing features. Control features the best implementation of these RTX features so far.
In Control you guide protagonist Jesse Faden through the shifting, haunted halls of the Federal Bureau of Control, a shadowy agency under assault from an extradimensional force or army known as "the Hiss." Jesse fights back through a combination of psychic abilities and a shapeshifting sidearm known as "the Service Weapon" that immediately joins the ranks of gaming's coolest weapons ever. The Service Weapon can eventually switch modes on the fly to become anything from a pistol to a submachine gun, and upgrading your preferred modes with the best possible add-ons for your play style is an important part of beating the enemies you'll face.
Jesse's powers gradually expand over the course of the game, with a variety of in-game resource pickups translating into unlockable and upgradable abilities and stats. There's more openness to Control than I was expecting from early previews of the game, and though it is a strongly narrative-focused experience with a clear central mission path to follow, you're given plentiful (and optional) side objectives that offer some of the game's most interesting content - along with useful upgrades that it's possible to skip entirely if you focus only on the core, critical path.
There are even randomly occurring, timed missions you'll receive throughout the game from Control's "Board" which will task you with getting to a certain area and killing specific enemy types or protecting human staff before time runs out. You usually have about 20 in-game minutes to take on these optional objectives if you choose to, which can throw an interesting wrinkle into your plans. Plentiful fast-travel checkpoints usually make it easy to get to where you need to go, but these optional objectives represent some of the fiercest battles in the game - and if you die for any reason, that objective is permanently lost (along with whatever reward it might have offered).
Story and setting
Control has a lot of unsettling elements in it, and while it doesn't feel quite right to call it a horror game it might the highest profile example yet in gaming for the "new weird" genre. New weird is a horror and sci-fi adjacent genre that's hard to succinctly define, but which often uses a foundation of realism to emphasize the fantastical, frightening, and unexpected elements of stories. That's exactly what we see in Control: a government facility that dryly documents, studies, and attempts to control things that are supernatural and otherworldly.
If that premise sounds familiar to you, that might be because it's a little bit like Warehouse 13 or the X-Files. But what it's exactly like is internet meme factory and collaborative fiction project SCP Foundation. From heavily redacted documents to specialized containment cells to graphic violence playing out in a sterile government office environment, Control and SCP are playing with many of the same fictional tropes - and in fact some of the "Objects of Power" or "Altered Objects" that you'll encounter or read about in Control seem to be direct references to famous SCP entires. The similarities are far too plentiful to be a coincidence, and in fact Remedy specifically acknowledged the influence at E3 2018 when the game was first demoed.
Control has a lot of fun with its references and influences, and fans of the Southern Reach trilogy of books (and the film, Annihilation, based on the first entry) or online urban legends like Candle Cove will see familiar echoes over the course of the game. We've seen plenty of cosmic Lovecraftian horror in games over the years, and Remedy themselves drew inspiration from Stephen King for Alan Wake - now fans of the new weird genre and related works have their biggest and best game yet with Control.
Aside from a few disturbing scenes, the most horrific element at play in Control might be the possessed, floating, chanting bystanders that inhabit so many of the game's rooms. One of the first things the Hiss does is to start turning people into vessels for its mantra, and you'll very quickly get used to seeing people dressed in office clothes hovering in space, chanting about doorways and other ominous things. The chanting can grow resonant and loud in some rooms, to the point that those sensitive to audio effects of this nature may have to turn down the volume. Thankfully you can "banish" the hovering bystanders by shooting at them - but it'll be enough to have you on edge and shuddering early and often in Control.
With all the real-time ray tracing bells and whistles turned on, Control becomes one of the most visually impressive games ever released - but the game looks fantastic, even running at lower graphical settings. There is wonderful use of color, lighting, and in-game architecture throughout the game, as well as intricate attention to detail and cinematic framing. That screenshot right above this paragraph? That's showing a central point for the old-fashioned pneumatic tubes that deliver messages throughout the Bureau of Control. But it's also very clearly intended to visually echo a sprawling cathedral organ, because Control is the kind of game that pays attention to things like that.
The humans in Control also deserve praise for achieving a natural sort of realism and visual diversity that so many games don't manage to match. Each major character you meet in Control feels like their own distinct person, real and human in different ways, and that's helped by voice acting that's strong across the board, and note perfect in many respects. From Jesse's running internal monologue to the heavily accented and mysterious murmurings of Ahti the custodian, the line readings in Control blow past the standard of "good acting for a video game" to reach that promised land of "just good acting, period."
Because of all that, I was disappointed by the lack of chatter and reaction from the game's more generic NPCs. Aside from some idle banter, the side characters of Control's world are sadly silent, and don't even bother to give you a nod when you stand in front of them. It feels like a missed opportunity, considering how strong both the voice acting and world building are in all other aspects.
There are a few other rough patches in Control's presentation as well. Loading times are rare, and only occur when you die or need to fast travel, but could often take a minute or two running on my VR-capable gaming rig, off of an SSD. During the game's occasionally challenging boss fights, these load times after every death can add a little bit of frustration.
This loading slowdown might be a side effect of how detailed Control's environments are, because pristine office hallways can quickly be reduced to scarred and broken rubble once you start throwing around waves of psychic force and tearing chunks of plaster off the walls. Things are impressively destructible in Control, which leads to a little bit of environmental ragdolly strangeness from time to time - and this could make this game challenging on gamers with lower-end systems, due to all the physics rendering that's going on. I wouldn't be surprised at all to hear some players complaining about FPS slowdowns in big fights in some of the game's more open, particle-rich areas.
Control slowly unfolds as you play it, as more areas open up to explore and return to, more optional missions unlock, and Jesse's arsenal of abilities expands. At the same time you learn much more about the game's characters and the Control facility itself, gradually learning about what feels like a dozen dire, existential threats that could potentially tear the place apart if things go wrong. Documents, videos, and audiologs you find scattered around often function is tiny little weird fiction stories all on their own, and the game cleverly uses live actors in FMV videos to lend even more personality to the world.
Action is the gameplay in Control, but there are puzzles and mysteries too, and the game does a good job of letting players figure things out for themselves. You'll see a notice that says "the rule of three applies" in an area, and that will be your only clue that you need to perform certain actions three times in order to get a specific response from your environment. At one point some 15 hours in I followed what felt like an optional side quest and discovered a hidden elevator shaft covered in mold. Descending down it I found a giant new area I hadn't even known was there, with a totally different look and feel than the rest of the game, full of horrifying monsters that hadn't shown up in any of my other explorations.
Control does a great job of keeping you guessing, and this extends to its enemies as well. Though you do end up fighting a lot of enemies that fire guns at you, which seems to be something supernatural action games just can't even seem to get away from entirely, you're also given little warning about when new types of foes will show up, or what abilities those enemies might posses. By the later stages of the game you'll have fought through enemies that fly, explode, heal their allies, or can turn themselves invisible - and you'll need to continually experiment with the Service Weapon's different modes and upgrades to find what works best against your latest challenge.
More than any other game I've played in recent memory, Control made me feel like anything might be around the next corner, from a brand new monster to a room turned upside down to a doorway completely clogged with identical grandfather clocks. And though you can have a great experience focusing on the core story missions and could potentially beat the game in under 15 hours this way, Control is a game that just gets better when you take the time to explore its secrets.