Control (2019) review

I was a big fan of Max Payne and an even bigger fan of Max Payne 2 – I think it’s one of the best action shooters of the early 2000s, with immensely satisfying gunplay. I haven’t kept up with Remedy’s games since then though, so I can’t compare Control to Alan Wake or Quantum Break, which I’ve heard is set in the same narrative universe.

Control is a weird game in many ways. Instead of talking about the plot / setting (which is what most reviews do), I’d like to start with the core combat mechanics. (I’d like to believe that the team at Remedy started the project with ideas about the core combat – which is about a small set of superhuman abilities on top of a run & gun third-person shooter – and then crafted a world and story around it.)

Combat design

The entire combat mechanics can be categorized in 3 buckets:

  • Physics abilities that share a common energy meter (auto-regenerates)
    • “Launch” – grabbing objects, including rockets & grenades fired at you, and hurling them at targets. (This is easily the coolest ability as it takes into account the mass of the object – heavier objects take longer to grab and fly slower, but do tons of damage given their momentum)
    • “Shield” – raising a shield made out of debris that blocks projectile damage
    • “Evade” – a quick dash in a specified direction
    • “Ground Slam” – while levitated, expend all of your energy to slam the ground doing AOE damage
  • Conditional abilities that have no resource nor cool-downs
    • “Seize” – mind-controls an enemy when they are low on health, duration based
    • “Levitation” – suspending in air at a specified height (controlled by how long you held down jump), gradually start dropping after some time; once you start falling you can’t levitate again until you hit solid ground
  • 5 weapons, which share a common ammo-like energy meter that auto regenerates
    • Can fast switch between 2 selected weapons; changing to other weapons require pausing and accessing the menu UI
    • Fairly typical weapon archetypes: semi-auto pistol that’s great at headshots; shotgun; machine gun; grenade launcher; sniper rifle (that pierces all targets in a line)

The core combat revolves around resource management of the energy and ammo meters while being mindful of your position. You are very fragile when your energy is fully depleted, as you rely on Shield and Evade for damage mitigation (good old covers being the only remaining option). The addition of Levitation means you also have to keep track of how long you’ve been in the air, as some level designs have platfomer elements where you can instantly die due to falling off the play-area.

There aren’t a ton of variety to the enemies (and by the game’s end encounters do feel repetitive), but they generally serve the combat mechanics well. Compared to other third-person shooters, combat in Control is a lot more vertical, given you and a few enemies can levitate. Enemies have distinct strengths / weaknesses: armored enemies (armor auto regenerates) can be impossible for most weapons, but are easily devastated by Launch; mini-boss like enemies typically have specific vulnerability windows (often right before they unleash an attack).

The combat isn’t particularly fast-paced (this isn’t Doom), especially if you take a methodical cover-based approach. Fights generally happen in generously sized spaces, and you are encouraged to frequently reposition. There are generous amounts of Launch-able objects (anything and everything from fire extinguishers to sofas / tables and even low-health enemies). By the end of most fights, the area will resemble the end of the elevator scene in The Matrix – lots of debris and damaged structure.

The elegance of the combat design is that it supports a lot of play styles, and there are generally multiple solutions which all feel bad-ass. A small example: an enemy fired a rocket at you. You can raise a Shield at the last split-second to perfectly block it, or you can grab it (Launch) and send it back where it came from, or you can Evade sideways.

Where it falls flat somewhat is in balance tuning of certain “tougher” enemies. As mentioned previously these enemies have distinct vulnerability windows – once you understood this, they are not particularly challenging. They do, however, soak up a ton of damage with their long HP bars, leading to drawn-out repetitive fights. An example: there’s a grenade-launcher mini-boss that has a lot of HP and armor. You will see him quite a few times. He’s slow and his grenades are easy to dodge/block/throw back. So fights with him you can generally just ignore him until you’ve cleared the mobs. Then the fight with him is a repetitive phase of waiting for him to fire grenades and then throwing them back (meanwhile using the pistol for extra headshot damage). It’s not hard; it’s just boring.

Level design / art

The levels in Control are fully indoors, set in a supernatural office building. I’d guess some of this were practical constraints due to the combat system (the destructible props). There is a decent amount of variety, beginning in some rather mundane office-space areas before expanding to industrial plants, cavernous excavation sites and futuristic space hangars (and a lot more that I can’t easily describe). There are a lot of incredible set pieces, many of which have world-bending properties similar to Inception, and the game’s cut scenes utilize them well for mood and foreshadowing.

The game seems to have a fairly restrictive palette, with a sharp contrast between grey (when nothing’s happening) and red (when you are fighting). It’s very read-able – whenever there’s still red, you know it isn’t over. It does feel monotonous after an extended session.

The setting is definitely spooky / creepy, especially since most of the time you are alone, but thankfully never fully ventures into horror territory.

I’ve seen some comments complaining about the verticality and maze-like layout of the levels, especially in conjunction with the confusing in-game map. I’ve also had my fair share of wandering around trying to find where to go next, but I’m generally appreciative of the effort here. I got a slight hint of Dark Souls level design principles here, where you sometimes find yourself back at an earlier spot via unlocking a short-cut or accessing the same space at a higher vantage point. And if anything, the maze-like nature is at least fitting with the game’s theme.


I’ll try to write as little as possible about the story, because it’s convoluted, and also because the main plot isn’t that satisfying. Suffice to say it’s a sci-fi mystery, about the female protagonist trying to find out what happened to her brother who was abducted by a secretive government agency (“Federal Bureau of Control”). Very reminiscent of The X-Files. People have also commented on the similarities to SCP Foundation (one of those TIL moments discovering that site).

A lot of the story is delivered through heavy-handed monologues. There’s also a large amount of full motion videos, featuring the head of research of the mysterious FBC. You don’t have to watch any of these; but they are generally well done, even perhaps too good, so that you are often idling at a place watching a video. I liked the music video in particular, it was brilliantly weird and light hearted at the right time in the game.

Also, perhaps taking a page out of Fallout’s playbook, the game heavily utilizes text-based collectibles liberally splattered around the levels to offer optional backstories on supernatural events as well as mundane office life. They are just as effective as their counter-parts in Fallout, painting a vibrant scene that honestly is more interesting than the main story (at least with regards to the brother-sister thread).

Quests & progression

The game has a serviceable abilities tree (each of the afore-mentioned abilities have power-ups, some unlocking passive stats, some unlocking new mechanics). The weapons can be upgraded, and there are RNG-based mods (enemies drop them, you can also craft them) that can be attached. There are also RNG-based mods for your character (which affect passive stats like HP or energy).

As you fight enemies, they drop currency, crafting materials, and mods directly. The mods are largely forgettable – they may offer powerful stats, but it’s not a fun system. I never bothered with the crafting piece.

Likely in an attempt to extend the playtime (and add some combat moments), the game also features random time-limited quests as well as a missions system (e.g. kill x enemies of Y type at location Z). The time-limited quests (do this in the next 20 minutes) are spawned at a few specific world locations, and they can really spawn at any time, even during “boss fights”. You also only have once chance – once you die for any reason, these quests are failed. Overall they can be disruptive to pacing – I’ve ended up just ignoring them, since to tackle them I have to stop what I’m doing, travel to the nearest fast-travel spot, and endure a loading screen.

Bringing it all together

Assembling the above together, and Control is this uneven, weird sci-fi action shooter with moments of brilliance. The plot intrigues but perhaps never really hooks, but the dreamy Inception-like space-bending levels and the pulsating combat generally delivers.

There are two particular highlights I want to call out:

The first is a brief (maybe 10 minutes) sequence in the main plot, where you have to traverse and fight through a particularly disorienting maze (called the Ashtray Maze), accompanied by heavy metal rock music. This is not a particularly difficult bit, even though I did have to play it twice. It’s almost like a scene lifted out of Inception or The Matrix, and it nails the tempo. By the end of it, the female protagonist exclaims to herself “that was awesome!” And I wholeheartedly concur.

The other is a series of optional boss-fights tucked in side quests. Two things are noteworthy here: the main quest line doesn’t have any boss fights – there are at best a few heavily armored enemies with long HP bars. These side quests feature a series of Dark Souls like bosses, with unique mechanics and puzzle designs. From a combat perspective, some of these boss fights (I’ve not played all of them) feature the best of the game, and the difficulty is tuned up in a fair way. In my favorite one so far, the boss is an indescribable ball of stuff that shots out a stream of wooden clocks (yes, this game is weird) towards 4 surrounding platforms. You have to constantly levitate from platform to platform, keeping track of the boss, while also fending off mob spawns. And to best damage the boss, you have to be near/on the platform it is going to attack, and Launch a clock at it right before its attack. I spent a good 2 hours on this boss, due to a variety of deaths (falling down; losing track of the boss attack; got swarmed by suicide mobs).

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