Control: Weird, Paranormal, Story-Driven Fun

I finished the main campaign of Control tonight.

Like most modern games, it has an “end of narrative” point after which you can play on, doing sidequests, exploring the Federal Bureau of Control, and completing the two DLC chapters available for the game. I’ve only done to the end of the narrative, so what I’ll write here is solely about the base story and gameplay. I’ll also keep spoilers out.

Control focuses on the player character and lead protagonist, Jesse Faden. She’s on a mission to find her brother, and a voice in her head has guided her to New York City, to the Federal Bureau of Control. She enters and, well, the bureau is in the midst of chaos, as a mysterious influence called “the Hiss” is invading. The core of the game is exploring the bureau’s wonderfully realized Brutalist architecture while uncovering the truth of the Hiss and trying to fulfill Jesse’s mission to find her brother.

From the gameplay design, the game weaves in a mix of modern third-person shooter sensibilities (core gameplay involves shooting, dodging, using cover, ambushing enemies when possible, and spritely movement around the battleground) and paranormal weirdness tied in to the theme of the game. So you can shoot, dodge, pickup objects with your mind and launch them, levitate in the air, shield yourself, and seize control (ha!) of your enemies. Progression revolves around using various resources you find as your adventure through the game to build mods for yourself and your weapon, allowing new types of shots and expanding your parautilitarian abilities to do increased damage or to just be more useful more of the time.

Ammo is unlimited but each weapon type limits you to a set number of shots before a short recharge must take place, so the only resources you have to manage in combat are your health, energy for your abilities, and the recharge of your ammunition.

Control offered me a lot of what I like in a backlogged title – a single-player focused, narrative-driven game with a modest base completion time and reasons to come back later if desired. Further, it was a great first backlogged title for my new PC – it is one of a tiny list of games to use a full stack raytracing setup for graphics (global illumination, ambient occlusion, shadows, and reflections) and it also supports Nvidia’s DLSS – which I did not use, as even with all details and RTX settings maxed at 3440×1440, my RTX 3080 was sufficient to keep playable framerates. There were noticeable dips below smooth framerates at times, but it was rare enough and still remained fairly playable, so I kept at it with the maxed out settings and no DLSS.

In terms of content, pacing, and story, I really liked the game overall. The moment-to-moment gameplay is about amplifying the tension you feel as you explore the sprawling building the game takes place in, so there are long stretches where you can simply explore, and the very muted background music uses sharp strings to dig at your psyche, which then shifts into more overt tones as you enter combat, and denotes when all enemies are killed with a sudden ending tone, fading back to that muted soundtrack. With the exploration element, this is rather nice – you get to look around for all kinds of collectibles that help fill in the backstory of the game like case files, video tapes, correspondence sent between employees at the bureau, and other such things. Like many games with this sort of collectible storytelling, you can get ahead of the on-rails narrative by reading or watching this stuff as you go, as the available collectibles on a given mission will reflect on the story beats you’re just now engaging with, while also connecting them back to prior moments.

Story-wise, it offers a pretty interesting hook at the start to draw players in, but the core plot of the game really is about the mystery unfolding. Mystery-singular turns into mysteries-plural as the game winds on, and by the end you’re often juggling around 3-5 different major lore events at a given time, connecting things to each other like a corkboard with cards and yarn.

My only real concerns overall came with the pacing of the game. I had a pretty hard time getting into the game at first, because it has a very slow-paced first chapter that gives way to a sudden explanation of multiple gameplay mechanics, ramping up to the first boss, which is, no joke, one of the hardest bosses in the main story until near the end. In fact, of my 15.4 hours of playtime according to Steam, about 70ish minutes of that was dealing with the first boss over and over again! However, that boss is also simple to cheese – if you ignore the game’s advice and camp the front of the room crouched, you can avoid nearly every attack from the boss and just focus fire him. There are some adds that come in as your push on, but if you just watch your flanks, you can deal with them fairly easily.

The rest of the game’s pacing is pretty smooth, but I do have one other item of note that I didn’t like. In most modern games, the powers/upgrades/progression the developer wants you to meet prior to your final boss/bosses is done in the main story. Control’s two best powers are not in the main story, and as of this writing, I still do not have them. They are lodged in sidequests, which we’ll dive into more in a moment. By the end, the game presents you with combat scenarios that are made substantially easier by having these powers. As I did not have them, I struggled a bit with the last stretch of fights, before ultimately overcoming them. The core concern I have with this is that the game doesn’t really make clear that brand new parautilitarian abilities are hiding in sidequests, so you progress feeling really good but then a walkthrough or read up on the game after clearing it illustrates that you missed something key and could have had a better time, and that’s frustrating.

That serves a nice segue into the sidequests.

They are…um…not always well thought out, is probably the best way I can put it. They’re fine, and they do much of what you expect a sidequest in a modern game to do – extra bits of pure gameplay away from the narrative, but the game gets pretty ham-fisted with them in spots. Firstly, as you run around the main story, you can set off timed availability sidequests that ask you to book it to the other side of the building. This often happened to me after unlocking a fast travel point, so it isn’t earthshatteringly timewasting, but it does feel sort of aggravating. I avoided these on principle – not wanting to interrupt my engagement with the game’s story. Secondly, the game has a mix of sidequests via missions – bog-standard tasks you pick up and do, but also has opt-in sidequests through the “Board Countermeasures” option at fast travel points.

It is possible that I am a stupid person, but I could not discern how the board countermeasures actually are supposed to work. They’re confusingly presented alongside menu options for your different upgrades, and the name ties into a story hook in the game, so it feels fitting that they would be power-ups, right? Well…they are, only in the sense that you get an upgrade material for completing them. So once I learned that, I tried to activate one, turned it on, went to the sector it said to go to, and…nothing. No obvious quest trigger, no event happening, just crickets. I gave up on them at that point, so while I did a couple of small, mission-based sidequests, I did no timed events and no board countermeasures.

I played the game with an Xbox One controller hooked up to my PC and it worked well – no issues with mapping, aiming sensitivity was right on where I’d expect it to be, and while it doesn’t make a fuss about it, there does seem to be aim-assist enabled for your parautilitarian Launch power, which will generally line up your debris shot pretty well if you get the crosshairs into the ballpark of your target.

Artistically, I really like the look of the game for the most part. It is very much steeped in a modern realism, so the character models are trying to look like real people, with subsurface scattering creating smooth, non-plasticky skin textures loaded with detail. With all RT features on, the lighting and reflections in the game are superb – detailed, physically-accurate, and pretty well-integrated with the game world – it definitely doesn’t feel like it was tacked on to the game in the eleventh hour. That being said, lighting is used sparingly in the game world to create ambience, and I noticed both with and without RT that there are some spots in the game that are far, far too dark and seem sort of out of line with the intended experience. You can use your ability to launch items to launch lamps into dark corners, but it sometimes creates jarring moments when exploring. Thankfully, combat settings rarely seemed to have much of an issue with it, but since some of the combat in the game, especially as you explore outside the confines of a mission, is random, you’re not always going to be on-rails in a designated combat area when enemies approach. The game does make use of enemy barriers that keep you constrained when the fight is critical to the story, and the areas designed for this are pretty well laid out – it can feel a little claustrophobic, but not awful.

If you buy the PS5/Xbox Series X versions (the PS4/Xbox One versions with the update patch, rather) you can use either a Performance visual mode, giving up raytracing and some visual fidelity to get a pretty stable locked 60 FPS, or you can take a Graphics mode which locks to 30 FPS, with raytracing enabled. Both consoles do raytracing in this game at 25% resolution scale and a reduced range, so while you can get most of the way to the experience I had on PC, the settings are a bit lower and the raytracing fidelity is reduced. It isn’t appreciably bad or anything – if I had played on those platforms, I would definitely have used the quality setting – but it is interesting. Digital Foundry did an excellent analysis that compares the console settings to PC with some side-by-side if you’re that kind of nerd (I know I am).

I loaded the game onto my striped disk array with 8 TB, 7,200 RPM SATA III hard drives, and loading times were reasonably snappy. Most loading screens were done in around 15 seconds, and while I could have made them faster by loading the game on one my SSDs, I liked having the time after death or in fast-travel to cool down or assess my mission. The only times you’ll face a loading screen is for loading in the first time after launch, fast traveling, and reloading after death, so load times can stack up a little bit if you die a lot or fast travel a lot (or both!) so I’d recommend using your fastest available drive if you plan to purchase and play the game. There was some easily-observable pop-in for objects, normal maps, and textures when running around, especially when pitching the camera around. It isn’t always there, but it tends to present in very-unsubtle ways.

Overall, I really enjoyed Control, quite a lot. It is very much the sort of game I would love anyways – heavy narrative, strong themes and characters, focus on world-building and setting the events of the story firmly into the world in which they take place in, and technically interesting with a lot of technology to analyze and understand. It seems to go on sale reasonably frequently on online marketplaces, so if you have the cash to spare, it is well worth a look if you’re on the hunt for an interesting single-player title!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.