This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Control.
Control, besides being a very obnoxious title to search for - I mean, I typed in "Control cover" and Google seemed to think I was looking to accessorize my light switches - is a new game by Remedy Entertainment, and you know what, viewers? Blinded though I may be by carelessly-flung knickers and solvent abuse, I'm pretty sure I could've guessed it was a Remedy game; it's got all the hallmarks from their last two games, Alan Wake and Quantum Break, although I'm disappointed that the rhyming scheme has ended, unless we're on the third line of the limerick now:
- "First, Remedy made Alan Wake,
- And followed it with Quantum Break.
- And then came Control,
- All penned to a soul,
- By a squinty young man named Sam Lake."
Those hallmarks being a dense, somewhat inscrutable plot, a fondness for live-action video segments, and a consideration to core gameplay roughly equivalent to the consideration one gives to what shade of beige to paint the downstairs loo.
I'd almost consider Control a direct follow-up to Alan Wake, as it covers very similar themes: a secret occult world lurking beneath reality, the juxtaposition of the horrific against the crushingly mundane; the main difference is that Sam Lake has apparently moved on from Stephen King books and now gets his ideas from binge-reading the SCP Wiki. Control entirely takes place within the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a mysterious, inscrutable government agency tasked with the securing, containing and, you guessed it, protection of mundane objects that have acquired mysterious, inscrutable properties, like a bread bin that inscrutably turns sourdough into multigrain, or a Netflix true crime documentary that mysteriously isn't massively over-sensationalized.
Our protagonist, Jesse... Surname, arrives at the front door of the FBC offices looking for her missing brother, who was taken away by the FBC when they were kids after a major paranormal fustercluck in their hometown. But as she arrives, the FBC is under attack by a mysterious, inscrutable, faceless force that I don't think is the same one from Alan Wake, but is probably at least on nodding terms with it because it does all of the same shit: warp reality and turn humans into violent, corrupted versions of themselves, still weirdly capable of holding and firing guns, which is jolly convenient if one happens to be, say, casting them as enemies in a slightly annoying third-person shooter, but more on that later. Anyway, the FBC Director gets murder-cided, and Jesse becomes the new Director by virtue of being quite near the corpse, for the mysterious and inscrutable nature of the FBC extends even to its hiring policies.
Jesse's a strange character. She comes across as rather emotionally guarded; perhaps understandable, since she originally came here to start a prison riot or something, so to make her motivations clear, the game has her narrate her inmost thoughts in voiceover, often just before she'd talk to someone, which can sometimes come across like we've turned on subtitles for the attention-deficit. "(I should talk to this person about my missing brother.) Hey, did I mention that my brother went missing?"
But what throws me is that she never seems particularly troubled or challenged by anything that goes on; she literally acquires the ability to fly at one point and just shruggingly files it alongside her other superpowers, like a quarterly bank statement. In this way, she reflects her environment, I suppose - this clean, mundane corporate office building that harbors mysterious, inscrutable secrets and the occasional super-powered monster fight - but it does make it hard to relate to her. Personally, I'd react a bit more strongly to suddenly being able to fly; I'd be all like, "Fucking sweet! The squirrels in my garden have imposed upon their last bird feeder!"
Control is sort of an open world in the System Shock style where you can go back to previous levels of the building and random side-quests occasionally pop up to give you a reason to do so, although I always ignored them because having to do more of the combat without the motivation of the main plot felt like putting clothes pegs on my nipples outside of a masturbation context. Remedy games always have this infuriating problem where they put a huge emphasis on storytelling, but have no interest whatsoever in exploring how gameplay can be part of that. "We're making an intrigue about a complex character having to face interpersonal issues against the background of a mysterious, and indeed, inscrutable breakdown of reality!" Sounds good, Remedy; what sort of gameplay will it have? "Gameplay? Pfft, I don't know. Shoot dudes with a gun. Will that be enough for you, little snot-rat? So would you like us to provide you with a nice, shiny ball to bounce as well?"
So for much of the run-time, you are indeed shooting an endless stream of dudes with a gun; then you acquire the telekinesis power, and alternate between "shooting dudes with gun" and "blatting dudes with chunks of floor", which is functionally identical, except you don't have to aim and it's quite a bit funnier. Meanwhile, the story is largely established with cutscenes, random logs and audio documents, and the Remedy trademark live-action videos, and to fully absorb them, we have to stop whatever gameplay we're doing, park our bums down, and listen enraptured with our fists held beneath our chins.
So once again, a Remedy story and its token gameplay live in separate bedrooms like a pair of mismatched housemates too sullen and passive-aggressive to get into a proper argument. There's a tonal clash as well; the static and emotionally cold tone of the story doesn't match the frantic running, gunning, and showering in physics objects and particle effects. But taking the combat by itself, it's more frustrating than cathartic; I'm sure these deep, atmospheric shadows look nice when the screenshots are riding the media merry-go-round, but it makes it hard to tell what the fuck's going on, especially when chunks of floor are flying. More than once, I got killed out of fucking nowhere because what I took to be a random spark or passing raver turned out to be an incoming missile moving with the approximate speed at which a middle-class person passes through a low-income neighborhood.
So back to another overlong loading screen to contemplate my error. Incidentally, I was playing the PS4 version, which appears to be about as well-optimized as a pile of chunky dog vomit on a shagpile carpet; the frame rate gargles gravel the moment the action heats up, but the PS4's fan noise provided a suitable backing track to my weary sighs. But maybe I'm being too harsh on Control because it's named after the thing I don't have on my life. I liked it enough to finish it; Remedy's let's-diplomatically-call-it-"detached attitude to gameplay" works better in this pseudo-open world setting than it did in Alan Break or Quantum Wake, which would just interrupt their strictly linear narratives with contrived gunfights every five minutes like you're trying to read a book while the family dog is trying to chew your feet off.
Even if I didn't get what was going on at times, the story was interesting enough just by the way it explored its ideas, and sometimes, that's enough even without fully grasping the precise nuts and bolts of the plot. Side note: Always seek consent before grasping someone's nuts. But the format demands that the story end on a weaksauce "Now finish all the side-quests!" note, so I'm not prepared to say the story "ends" at all on any satisfying level. In summary, then:
- "Control is intriguing enough
- With its mysterious, inscrutable stuff,
- But the combat is cloying
- And about as annoying
- As a limerick that doesn't end properly."
- Employee of the month: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Actually, I ended up buying one of those control covers 'cos I'm sick of my batteries falling out
- Yeah, but the health insurance is good