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Wot I Think: Control

Taking the Hiss

Control wasn't what I was expecting. The developers of this third-person psy-shooter have been nattering about “weird fiction” and belabouring the game's literary inspirations. After telekinetically yeeting myself through it, however, I’ve found little insightful storytelling, just a trad conspiracy/mystery story, and lots of colourful excuses as to how someone can suddenly develop superpowers. But when it feels this satisfying to lift an office chair with your brain and hoof it at a row of monster guards, I don’t care that it’s the videogame equivalent of Warehouse 13. Control is also surprisingly funny. Those looking for a Lynchian labyrinth of hidden meaning might find it here if they squint, but what I found was a solid comedy pastiche of the X-Files, right down to a mysterious smoking man. I wouldn’t want it to be anything else.

You are Jesse Faden, a woman who has seemingly walked off the New York City streets, and into a brutalist government building that no other city-dweller can see, despite it towering over the skyline. It's the Federal Bureau of Control, and it is in the midst of a lockdown. A disastrous entity (which you name "the Hiss") has appeared and is infecting the staff, turning them into shooty monsters with heads that explode into blurry mist when you bullet them up.

You achieve this with a special gun. Alice L has already gone through a lot of the details about this Rubik's Cube of a firearm. Basically, though, it's a gun with many modes. It changes shape at your behest from pistol to shotgun to grenade launcher to snipey rail gun to rat-tat-tat-tat machine gun. There are upgrades, made with materials you find in boxes, or which are dropped by enemies. You find attachments for the gun the same way. Some make the machine gun fire faster, others control the spread of the shotty's pellets, and so on.

What about when the gun runs out of bullets? Well, that's when you start using your superpowers. You discover your inner telepath quite early, and pick up new abilities as you explore the shifting corridors of the Bureau's building. Soon, fights take on a pattern of shooting at the Hissy boys until your gun runs out of ammo, then flinging bits of concrete at your foes while it reloads. Later, you'll be doing quick, blinky dodges, or lifting rubble up to use as a shield, or simply hovering in mid-air and brainwashing the nearest Hisspot so he fights for you.

This rhythm of pop-pop-fling-fling feels good for most of the game, but it also rarely changes. There is a playfulness to the fighting when each new ability shows up, but I found myself tiring of the same repeated, 60-second formula by the end of it all. The game makes efforts to mix up this formula by adding more baddies - shieldy shootmen, flying flingers, explodey wobblecorpses - or setting fights in rooms with gaping insta-death pits, but it rarely felt like an adequate change of pace.

Indeed, fights in tighter quarters often feel cramped, and chuckable objects or small bits of geometry sometimes get in your way as you strafe about, leading to a sort of mid-fight stickiness. That's an infrequent problem, but one that contributes to the increasingly frustrating nature of gun battles as the game goes on.

Control's sense of repetitiveness is down to a few small features. To refill your health bar, for example, you have to hoover up blue droplets that fall from enemies, which makes the instinct of falling back when you’re hurt counter-productive. You need to kill lots of Hissants, then whoosh out into the open and slurp up the health as you fight. A lot of last-ditch zooms to get health end in death and an annoying jaunt back through the level, because when you die, you respawn back at the last control point (checkpoints you can also fast travel between). This makes repeated deaths an exercise in navigating the most recently traversed couple of corridors over and over, and sometimes repeating skirmishes you've already won.

I mention these problems up-front, but know that most of the battles are enjoyable fling-fests. Control is a very serviceable shooter. It feels good in the fingerbits, you know? And there are a lot of wobbly visual effects that make your powers feel like smooth Hollywood super-nonsense. Lift a bench off the ground, and the paper and debris around it will float beside you too. Psychically punch a toilet cubicle and it will shatter into pleasing splinters, the cistern crumbling beneath your mental rage. One psy-brawl takes place in a model town where all the waist-high houses are made of plywood. As the last Hisshead dies and the fight music fades away, the whole place is left as a mess of sawdust and smashed miniature bungalows.

The game's dud moments come infrequently, but they do come. Some optional quests end in annoying puzzle bosses, including one temper tantrum of a boss who creates instant death pitfalls in the ground, in a fight where you spend most of the time aiming upwards at a big weak point, unable to glance at what's beneath your feet. I stopped bothering with side quests after another bothersome paranormal boss involving floaty platforming and a bunch of exploding floaty-bads. I think I just don't rate the slow-moving levitate ability that highly.

There are some other small irritations. The lighting does that mega-darken thing when you step into a shadowy area, mimicking the shitness of human vision and making it momentarily hard to see. That’s a modern visual effect I’d be happy to telepathically hurl off a concrete skyscraper. And like I say, the fighting gets a bit frustrating. One scene has you traipsing around a constantly shifting hotel, fighting to rock music. But the tight quarters and lack of cover in a lot of these rooms demands quicker reflexes than most of the rest of the game. Your thumbs and brain might be quicker than old lumberfuck here [points to own face, slowly] so your fight mileage may vary. But to me it felt like an unwelcome spike in difficulty, like the optional boss fights of before.

Of course, I've spoken a lot about the shooty-bangs and flingy-florps, but very little about the chat-o-tale. That's partly a desire to keep spoilers from you, but also because the story, once you scratch away the "weird" stuff, is actually fairly rote. Scientists scienced too hard, experiments have gone wrong, the government is covering stuff up. Standard. But as mentioned above, I was pleasantly surprised at how much humour is buried in the game, mostly in the paraphernalia you pick up along the way. There are funny notes with big redacted patches of text, and research videos featuring the Bureau's head scientist, Dr Darling, surrounded by old knobular machines and big 60s computer banks. These are often worth a chuckle, and have the same corporation-comedy tone as the doctors from oddball Netflix show Maniac.

There is also a darkly comic and unnerving in-game TV show called The Threshold Kids, featuring two puppets with a more eerie presence than Bosco himself. I loved stumbling across these two creepiquins on the office's TV sets, and their first video left me nervously air-laughing like a gasping hyena.

And there's more! It’s funny when your new research assistant Emily starts talking with glee about knives made of interdimensional rock (“Think of the combat applications! Stabbing! Slicing! Gouging!”) It's funny to read back-and-forth memos between two Bureau agents complaining about the weird-ass assignments they have to do, like cataloguing a dead dog for records, or inspecting the contents of a thousand tiny boxes (there is a human tooth in every box). Throughout the story, Jesse has a direct line of communication to an otherworldly pyramid of untold intradimensional knowledge, a being of infinite geometry and mystery and intelligence. It tells you how to craft guns.

This sense of humour saves the game from being a shrugging, dry successor to Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy. It's another reminder that self-awareness is often necessary if you are making something inherently ridiculous. The serious side of Control's tale is mostly told through inner monologue, collectible FMV videos, and dream-flavoured cutscenes. The problem with using dream logic and vague sequences of flashing faces, however, is that just like a dream, it soon becomes unrooted and meaningless. You’ll probably forget Control’s story by the time you brush your teeth the next day. But you'll remember the Threshold Kids and Dr Darling.

Overall, I had a good time, especially when introducing the Hissyfit boys to giant desks at speed. But by the time I reached the end, through the game’s twists and somersaults, I was also sort of glad it was finished. I’ll not be cleaning up the sidequests or indulging in extra Hiss-mopping tasks, because it feels like I’ve seen basically all there is to see in this concrete office. Or at least, enough to get the idea.

What I will praise highly is how Control indulges its own ludicrous nature every step of the way. I can't overstate the fact that it's a funny game - funny enough that the humour keeps you going from fight to fight, searching not for the source of your mysterious enemy, or for the answer to all the sub-mysteries surrounding Jesse, but for the next episode of the Threshold Kids.

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About the Author
Brendan Caldwell avatar

Brendan Caldwell

Former Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.