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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Release Date: Aug. 27, 2019


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PS4 Review - 'Control'

by Redmond Carolipio on Sept. 5, 2019 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Control is a third-person action-adventure game combining Remedy's trademark gunplay with supernatural abilities.

Buy Control

There's an old "Saturday Night Live" skit called "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," in which the late Phil Hartman plays the self-explanatory title character. Adorned in the trappings of a modern suit but still sporting cro-Magnon hair while occasionally using a brick-sized cell phone — yes, it's that old — he presents his case to a jury in perfect, erudite English, but an unsurprisingly imperfect view of the new reality around him.

The beginning of his opening remarks include what's become one of the character's more memorable, GIF-able statements: "Your world frightens and confuses me."

It would take a trippy video game experience to bend my mind to the point of mentally referencing a more than 20-year-old comedy skit, but that's where Remedy's Control always seemed to lead me every time I played it. It summons the quirky energies of pieces like "Men in Black" or "Ghostbusters" and then adds creepy, sudden and loud notes, perhaps like "Legion" or "X-Files." It applies constant pressure to your powers of perception by occasionally overloading your senses with visual storytelling, and then your brain with lore and information. I can't remember the last time I had this much enjoyment while constantly asking, "What the f*** is going on right now?"

It's a brilliant return to oddball form for Remedy, which put down roots in the neighborhood of rich-and-strange, third-person action with titles like Alan Wake, Max Payne and Quantum Break. Control, however, separates itself from its Remedy contemporaries by throwing the player into its realm of the absurd almost immediately, and with little warning.

In a bit of a storytelling gamble, Control's narrative is treated more like an open pool instead of a brick-by-brick path that's laid out for you to follow. I'm reminded of the book "Neuromancer" from William Gibson, which plunged the unprepared reader into an already-built world, complete with its own concepts, ideas and terminology and left you to catch up in order to assemble the total picture of the story as it formed around you. In Control, the reader (and your narrative vessel) is protagonist Jesse Faden, who introduces herself with a vague monologue that doesn't make sense, as you're treated with cinematics that signal her arrival at the equally vague-sounding Federal Bureau of Control on a mission to find some answers to a few lifelong questions. If it sounds like I'm trying to avoid spoilers, I am. Everyone should share in the entertaining confusion.

Jesse Faden joins Max Payne and Alan Wake in the Remedy tradition of main characters who can't help talking (or audibly thinking) to themselves either as a way of introspection and development, or a way to move the story. Most of the time, it's both. Remedy asks its heroes to do an inordinate amount of psychological heavy lifting, and Jesse doesn't disappoint. But the way, Jesse is made to approach her story in a way that's starkly different than some of her predecessors.

While Max Payne and Alan Wake spun their tales in past-tense, structured ways that unfold like a murder mystery or detective novel, Jesse is constantly in active, back-and-forth conversation with herself — or is she? She ruminates, she asks questions, she even interrupts herself the same way anyone would if they were talking to another person walking next to them. She might come across as even a little crazy, until you realize further along in the game that she might be the best kind of crazy to navigate the labyrinthine world of the Oldest House, which is the Federal Bureau of Control's headquarters.

One thing I found both maddening and endearing is how the game makes it deliberately hard to sum up what the Federal Bureau of Control actually does, at least in a short mission statement. Here's my attempt: They look into and attempt to understand weird things, especially objects that somehow do weird things or were affected by weird things. As the game progresses and you explore the Oldest House, you'll see some of the departments within this ever-shifting, sprawling and dimensionally flexible building include places like "luck and probability" or "dimensional research."

Despite being in what's supposed to be the same building, all of these departments have their own visual identity and theme. Some of them don't even really obey the laws of physics and reality. There's a place called the astral plane, which appears to be a boundless alternate dimension filled with shapes and platforms. At several points, you'll find yourself transported to an abandoned motel. The janitor, who is very hard to understand, might be one of the most powerful and omnipresent people in the entire bureau. One of the side-quests included a battle against a floating ship anchor in a bottomless room that occasionally turned into a mosaic-like sphere before shooting out an unblockable torrent of small clocks.

None of this makes sense to Jesse, but she eventually learns to roll with it.

Encounters like this become par for the course as Jesse wades through the bureau after assuming the role of Director by way of picking up the strange gun lying next to the corpse of the original person in charge. King Arthur pulled Excalibur from a stone; Jesse picks up the Service Weapon. It's an upgradable gun with unlimited ammo that can change into different forms, depending on what kind of firepower you want Jesse to unleash. It can shift from its natural, semi-automatic pistol form to shotgun, missile launcher and long-distance precision firing. With it, she has to combat what appears to be some kind of invading astral force called the Hiss that's possessing people, infecting items, and causing warped chaos across an already warped place.

The meat of Control's action deftly carries out the task of snapping the player back to reality by giving them dynamic combat and deep exploration. Beyond all of the surreal tale-weaving is a deceptively open, Metroidvania-style excursion that builds the story along with Jesse's developing battle strength as a character.

As Jesse uncovers seemingly random mysteries that involve things like possessed TVs or flying former bureau employees, she also discovers and assimilates special powers that can seamlessly flow into the combat style. Some of them are naturally discovered within the context of the main story missions, while others require a little more initiative in your exploration. I found that discovering all of them makes Jesse more fun in battle and makes overall life in the Oldest House a lot more bearable.

Among Jesse's abilities is the ability to telekinetically produce a debris shield, along the ability to dash and levitate for limited periods of time. Her most essential combat ability, I found, was called "launch," which is the ability to lift objects (with her mind or some other force) and hurl them with velocity toward the enemy. Once you get the hang of it, every skirmish with Hiss forces becomes a dynamic visual treat, with Jesse coming across as a superhero, sending objects hurtling through the air while firing away with her shapeshifting gun.

What stops some of these action sequences from being truly breathtaking is the game's tendency to skip, lag and/or actually slow down during larger-scale, wide-open fights against a multitude of enemies. It's an issue that I'd rarely seen in years, and it's probably the biggest wart on the whole Control experience. It's as if the game's impeccable, incredible visual clarity is almost too much for my PS4 when things start to really move … and that sounds ludicrous in the face of other massive, aesthetically impressive games like RDR. When it happens, it feels like the most literal interpretation of a game tripping over itself. It's a testament to Control's other qualities that players would be willing to grind through these semi-regular occurrences.

Some of those qualities can be tied back to what I'd call Remedy's sense of charm. I liked Control's world and how it didn't take itself too seriously. I remember the sometimes off-beat conversations people would have in the background in Max Payne, and it was refreshing to hear those again in the paranormal-ish setting of Control. I like how the best way to grasp the Bureau world around Jesse was by actually collecting and viewing the various documents, videos (especially from Dr. Darling, the head researcher at the bureau) and listening to the weird "hotline" messages that explained terms and concepts like "objects of power," which the bureau shorted in documents to "OOPs" or how "altered world events" are known as "AWEs." Read those acronyms again if you didn't get them the first time. Also, those hotline messages come from either dead or missing or astrally woke people, and the game just sort of leaves it at that. Through it all, I enjoyed how Jesse would seem to verbalize the same thoughts I was having, which was mainly some version of, "WTF."

You can certainly mash through the main story missions like any other open-world game, but it's the various side-quests and the bits of lore you encounter during them that do a superior job of letting the spirit of the game take over. Some of them are much deeper than others and are just as freaky as they sound: In a mission entitled "Fridge Duty," Jesse encounters a bureau worker tasked with staring at a refrigerator 24/7 as a way to keep it from doing … something. Not to give too much away, but Jesse eventually finds out what it is and must use all of her powers to face the consequences. Another side mission involved an alternative mirror dimension, where every spoken word was backward, and the lone occupant was a mirror image of Jesse. A lot of these missions can be accessed in the endgame, by which time Jesse should be adequately powered enough to handle some of the stuff she'll find. Some of these missions (like the aforementioned flying anchor) can be discovered when you don't have the right ability quite yet to complete it.

One thing that bugged me about Control's main story is that, through all the blissful confusion and attempts to piece it together, there was never really a moment when I felt, "Oh, THERE'S where we're going." I got the sense that as exquisite as Control's narrative world is, it's still being completed. It wouldn't surprise me if the intention is to keep players still slightly lost — few bows are tied in this game, even in the end — but some might believe there needs to be some kind of payoff after having their brain put in this game's juicer.

Another thing that might irritate some people is the map, but I appreciate that the game doesn't spoon-feed directions to you with floating arrows, animated dots or a GPS. You need to burn brain cells to read signs, remember paths you take and even need to understand which elevators take you where. But I'll admit, this was a hard lesson to learn in the early hours of the first playthrough, where I was trying to access a sector I haven't been to before and forgot that a character mentioned the "sector elevator" once in conversation and told me where it was — and the map doesn't really point it out. That's 20 minutes of running around I won't get back, but on the flip side, I did discover some new rooms.

I can't remember the last time I was willfully ready to risk getting a headache to play a game because I enjoyed the world and challenges so much. I've played through the main story twice, and I am still picking away at the side missions and running around the Oldest House to see if there's anything else worth finding. Staccato mass-combat issues and other burps aside, I'd recommend Control to anyone. Its world may be frightening and confusing, but it's also truly a sight to behold.

Score: 8.1/10

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