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Game Review: Control

Posted in video game design, video gaming by commorancy on February 12, 2021

505 Studio’s Control is game that seems like it should have been a good game. Unfortunately, it’s an average third person shooter with a lot of problematic game design elements sporting one almost redeeming concept. Let’s explore.

What kind of Game is it?

Control is a game about, well, control of sorts. Not so much the control you might expect, but the control that the game designers want you to come to know. Basically, your player character, Jesse, is thrown into a world of objects dubbed O.o.P. or Objects of Power. These are everyday objects that contain a supernatural force. In this sense, the game ripped off Friday the 13th The Series and Warehouse 13. Both of these TV series revolved everyday objects imbued with a supernatural element that, if harnessed, would typically lead to wanton destruction.

In this same vein, the game world in Control has this same problem. These everyday power objects not only allow people to harness the supernatural forces within, these objects bestow unique abilities upon the bearer. However, in those aforementioned TV series, their objects not only gave the person a supernatural ability, it typically sapped the good out of the person leaving only evil behind. In this video game, this object situation does not similarly exist. The player character remains in full control of their faculties and remains sane and able to ward off any evil that may be part of the object.

As you might surmise, as you progress and find more and more power objects, the player character grows in strength and abilities. That’s how the skill tree opens and progresses. The game is much like other similar superhero games like the Infamous series, The Darkness series and, to a lesser extent, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. Basically, as you find and gain abilities, your character’s strength grows. It’s obvious that this setup is leading to a final boss level where you’ll have to close out the game using many, if not all of the character’s abilities to defeat that final boss. It’s a fairly standard and cliché setup for a video game.

Story

The story in this game is mostly utilitarian. It primarily exists for the purpose of creating this video game. The story is essentially there to support the character’s gaining of new abilities, not the other way around. The character finds herself in a building called the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC)… it’s this video game’s equivalent of the FBI or CIA… with the added twist of also investigating all things of a supernatural nature. This situation she finds herself in affords her new abilities along the way. Though, she already has one ability that she’s already gained as a result of exposure to a power object when she and her brother were both kids.

Now, Jesse finds herself confronting the very outfit that kidnapped her brother, but at the same time becoming the FBC’s savior because the building has somehow gone completely out of control… which, this story setup is probably predictably obvious.

The first object of power that Jesse finds (well, technically the second) is a gun which now affords her protection. There’s nothing really very special about this object of power other than it’s a gun. I was a little disappointed to find the game developers offering up the weakest of all power objects as the first that she finds. I mean, what’s the point in finding an object of power if it doesn’t somehow confer a new supernatural ability? No, instead we find a gun that’s just a gun. It shoots bullets, but other than that it doesn’t do much in the way of anything else. It’s not even a very powerful weapon. It’s simply a pistol. So far, the game is starting off weak.

Abilities

As the game progresses, Jesse gains more and newer powers and abilities. The difficulty is that this is a slow row to hoe. Meaning, this game is about as slow burn as it gets. Don’t expect to get many abilities very fast at all. They definitely come to Jesse at a very, very slow pace.

Still, her abilities and powers grow as she slowly finds the objects to help her improve her situation with “The Hiss”. As I said above, the building itself has gone out of control. Most of the people in the building are floating catatonic many feet above the ground. These unfortunate people are under the control of what Jesse dubs, “The Hiss”. It’s basically a form of mind control that forces people into this catatonic floating state. Jesse and any who are wearing a Hedron Resonance Amplifier (HRA) can avoid becoming a casualty of “The Hiss”.

As Jesse progresses into the game and into the building, she finds all sorts of departments investigating all sorts of paranormal activities, including ESP, telekinesis, mind control and so on. Unfortunately, the game throws all of this information at you, but Jesse makes no comments on any of it. It’s like she’s simply expecting to see all of this stuff as she makes her way through the Bureau of Control building. Nope, to her it’s not a surprise at all. Yet, to the player, the questions all remain open as the story addresses none of this.

Control Points

As Jesse makes her way through this labyrinthine maze of a building, she finds red circular zones with 3 parabolic dishes aiming at the center. These control points, once “cleansed”, allow Jesse to fast travel to these points in the building. As a game mechanic, fast travel points are convenient. For the game’s story, this whole system feels contrived. Regardless, the control points not only allow Jesse to straighten out screwed up parts of the building through “cleansing”, it allows her to use these points to move around the building more easily… which is needed in this convoluted design of a building.

Puzzles

As with many games of this nature, Jesse’s challenges sometimes involve cryptic puzzles to be solved. This means working out how to solve the puzzle, sometimes using abilities, sometimes not. For example, one puzzle involves getting punchcards into the correct order in each terminal of five total terminals. Once done, the machine dependent on the correct order of cards inserted into the terminals can then be started. Of course, once started, the machine fails leading Jesse to yet another area of the building to get something else.

When Jesse isn’t solving puzzles, she’s fighting enemies, she’s conversing with an NPC or she’s running around in the building. Many of Jesse’s quests involve either fetching something, doing something for someone or attacking enemies or being attacked.

Combat

Since we were just talking about this very topic, let’s expand on it. Combat is part of any first or third person shooter; otherwise, it’s not a shooter. The enemies in this game are The Hiss, a nebulous set of voices that invade a person and can eventually possess that person and have them do things, including fight. All of the enemies in the game are former FBC officers who have been possessed or transformed by The Hiss. The Hiss is a nebulous enemy who lives in an alternate dimension from the game’s 3D human inhabited world. This supernatural force can reach through into the “real” world and control humans. The Hiss doesn’t seem to have any special agenda other than taking up arms against the game’s protagonist… at least, none that the game has let the gamer in on.

In other words, The Hiss is pretty much like The Flood in the Halo series. It’s a nebulous enemy who uses humans to possess and propagate itself into the real world. Unfortunately, like The Flood in Halo, possessing a human corrupts and transfigures the human into unrecognizable creatures that afford only basic life or death instincts… much like The Flood in Halo.

Jesse uses her ever evolving supernatural abilities and supernatural weapons to dispatch these unwanted abominations. That’s where the player comes in.

The combat is fairly straightforward, but with some glaring problems. The game strongly recommends using manual aiming throughout the game. However, in the options panel, there is an aim assist mode. If you enable this mode, the game, again, strongly recommends playing the game through with this mode off making some nebulous statement about being rewarded for doing so.

Okay, so I tried to do this for a few levels. However, what became painfully obvious is that the over sensitive camera movement makes manual aiming in this game next to impossible. Most games suffer from this same design flaw, but this super sensitive movement is way more pronounced in Control than most games I’ve played. This makes manual aiming a chore. I could live with this chore, however, were it not for the next additional glaring flaw.

Enemies in Control have near perfect aim every single shot even when hidden behind obstructions. While my bullets miss enemies when I’m shooting at them with the reticle directly over the top of them, enemy bullets connect almost instantly. Wait, it gets worse.

Enemies can shoot Jesse in the head from behind objects with perfect aim and take nearly 99% of her health, sometimes all of it, in one shot. Yet, Jesse’s shots do maybe 10% damage to an enemy even in the head. The enemy’s perfect aim when combined with being so overpowered make the game a joke to play. This game isn’t supposed to be another Dark Souls, which Dark Souls is intentionally designed with combat so difficult so as to make you throw the controller across the room on occasion.

It’s one thing when game developers attempt to make enemies operate at about the same damage level as the player. It’s another when developers clearly don’t give two shits about this and set the enemies as one-shot player kills, yet can absorb every bullet in the player’s gun and still not die. Worse, enemies can literally appear out of thin air, standing right next to you and then summarily execute Jesse in one hit. It’s so absurd that you have to laugh to keep from throwing the controller at the screen.

As a result, I enabled aim-assist. If the game is going to cheat by making enemies so overpowered they can kill Jesse in one shot, it was only fair that Jesse obtains a similar advantage. There’s nothing worse than seeing the death screen in a game over and over and over. It gets worse again.

Death Mechanic

If Jesse falls in battle, the game reloads Jesse back to the closest save point. Because save points can be quite far away from where you were playing, that forces you to spend time sprinting all the way back to that point again. It’s not only annoying, it’s an incredible time waste. It can sometimes even become a challenge to get back there if it requires using lifts or yet more combat to get back there. Therefore, doing something to help mitigate the death loading screen and being forced back to the load point is well worth it. This is part of the reason I decided to enable aim-assist from the beginning.

While I’m okay with a small death penalty, such as consuming points that could be used towards upgrades, we don’t need multiple different penalties. Penalties such as this game has:

  1. Loss of points that can be used towards upgrades
  2. Being forced back to closest save point
  3. Loss of current battle in progress
  4. Confusion over where you end up after respawning

Thankfully, the game doesn’t lose the progress or force you to start everything over from scratch after Jesse dies, but you must determine where you are, figure out where you were and then spend time traversing back over there. You might even run into more Hiss along the way just to get back to where Jesse fell.

It’s not the worst death mechanic in a game, but it’s pretty close to it. Control will lose points for its weak death + respawn mechanic.

Graphics

One shining spot of this game is its world lighting, background objects and atmospherics. It has some of the best atmospherics I’ve seen in a game. It gives the world depth and it serves to give the office space a sense of realism. While the lighting doesn’t work 100% in every situation, there are some lighting conditions that are exceptional. This is one of the shining points in this game, but not the sparkle in this game… that’s coming below. Unfortunately, a lot of game developers put a lot of effort into choosing an engine that offers a substantial level of lighting realism, but then forget to put that same level of effort into the character models.

Speaking of character models, the 3D character models are average in this game, specifically the main character, Jesse. However, even the supporting character models lack. If you want to see character models that look genuinely and stunningly real, you need to look at the Call of Duty series. The character models in Call of Duty are some of the most outstanding and realistic models I’ve yet seen in a game. Sure, even those models look video gamey as all 3D models ultimately do, but they’re probably the closest to using a human model as I’ve seen from a 3D game character. Unfortunately in Control, Jesse (and the rest) aren’t the greatest of 3D models. You can even see that depending on the lighting, the character models can look okay or they can look flat, dull and unconvincing. The hands are particularly bad. It’s like playing a game using Barbie and Ken dolls.

Audio

Unlike many video games which offer the player character no voice, this game does give Jesse, the game’s protagonist, a solid voice. Not only does Jesse have a voice to speak to other characters in the game, this character also has thoughts of her own. It’s a refreshing and welcome change to see a game developer voice the protagonist and give them a backstory that unfolds as we’re traversing through the narrative. Unfortunately, the musical audio portion doesn’t fare as well. The music chosen is not inspiring or powerful. If anything, I’d use the word utilitarian. The music serves its purpose to cue the player into skirmishes, but that’s about as great as it gets. There’s just nothing much inspiring about the music included in this game. There is one exception and that’s discussed below.

Problems

As with most games that have been released in the last two or three years, I find game developers more and more relying on cliché game tropes to carry the story. These tropes make game development easier because most game developers already have toolkits built which can insert these tropes right into the game. Tropes like the press and hold to interact. Tropes like dead enemies dropping health pickups. Tropes like enemies with perfect aim. However, if the tropes were the end of this game’s problems, I might not even mention them. Combined with a bunch of other problems, it just exacerbates Control’s overall problems.

Video games that rely on quests, particularly where the game can carry multiple quests at the same time, have learned to mark not only on the map where the quest destination is, but also mark on the player’s directional HUD system which way to head to get to that destination. Unfortunately, Control does none of this. Not only does it fail to adequately alert the player where on the map is the destination is, it fails to offer a directional HUD or floating marker to lead you in the correct direction.

Instead, the player is forever fumbling his or her way to get to the destination. Sometimes the destination is so obscure and not marked, it’s impossible to find a way to get to it. This problem is compounded by the building’s convoluted and overly complex layout. I realize the building itself is a kind of extra-dimensional structure, able to rearrange itself at will. Regardless, the structure is overly complex requiring traversal of many stairs and small doors to move between and around areas.

Combine this with the fact that doors are level locked, the player has no way to know how to get into an area until you finally and magically hit upon the correct quest that drops the key in your lap.

Map

Yes, the map itself is also a problem. Unlike many games which choose to utilize a separate map screen, this game uses a map overlay. The map overlay obscures the screen itself, yet the screen stays live with the character able to move while the screen map marker moves. This is mostly a negative for the game. It’s great that you can see you’re heading in the correct direction, but because the screen is so overly obscured by the map, trying to traverse the interior of the building can be impossible with the map overlay open.

The only other game that has offered a similar map overly screen was Technomancer. Technomancer‘s game’s map overlay screen, however, chose not to obscure the gamer’s view of the game play field while still allowing the map to be visible. This meant you could leave the map open and traverse the map to your destination. If Control had chosen to allow visibility of the play field at all times, the game play experience with the map open would have been far, far better. As it is now, Control’s kludgy map overlay system is made worse by its failure to be useful other than for quick glances.

This map situation gets much worse. There are times where the map doesn’t even draw in. It’s just a bunch of question marks and words floating in space with no image underlay showing the room layout. You simply have to guess where the hell you are. Even worse, this undrawn map can stay like this for minutes at a time, sometimes eventually drawing in, sometimes not. It’s also weird that the map worked just fine 5 minutes ago, but just a few minutes later it’s not working. I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that a bug this functionally problematic has been allowed to exist in a 505 studio game over a year after release. Though, admittedly this game studio has had a very rough start with Death Stranding… a game that confused a lot of players, was too slow burn and afforded mixed critical reviews. Control also falls into this same boat, but for very different reasons.

Telekenesis (aka Launch)

Yes, this power also falls under a problem area of this game. In a game that allows you to pick up and throw objects, an accurate object targeting system is imperative. Unfortunately, that targeting system fails more often than it succeeds. For example, there’s a point in the game where you’re required to run through an obstacle course in around 60 seconds. As part of this course, you are required to pick up cube structures and throw them into wall plugs to activate them. Far too many times, the game will, instead of picking up the cube which is right under the reticle, it will yank ceiling or wall material down forcing you to send that flying and try again. Sometimes it will fail to grab the cube multiple times in a row using up the precious telekinesis power bar. You only get about 3 tries at this before running out of power and being forced into a slow recharge.

Even with the fastest recharge speed mods, you still have to wait 10-15 (seconds) for the bar to recharge ensuring that you fail the course. I don’t know how many times I had to run through that course before I was able to succeed simply because of this single stupid game design failure.

If you’re developer planning on including short duration timed activities, you need to make damned sure that the mechanics required to complete the course function reliably 100% of the time. Control really failed the gamer with this course. That’s not to say the course cannot be run and succeeded. It will, however, take many trial and error attempts until you can manage to get luck to line up properly with all of the kludgy game mechanics.

Ashtray Maze

Let’s get past all of these pesky problems. What I will say about this particular level is that this level is the payoff for the entire game. It should have been the final thing you do that ends the game. My guess is that this level was designed first. Some developer came up with this level idea which wowed everyone who played it and then a game was wrapped around this one level as a reason for this game to exist.

This puzzle level requires a special object of power to be obtained before it can be run. If you enter into the maze without this object of power, you can only run in circles. Once you have this object of power, the entire level opens up and boy is it impressive. The entire run is so precisely timed to the player that it’s like watching a music video. Yes, even the soundtrack on this level is awesome. As I said, impressive. This level is the sole reason to play Control and, while fleeting, the level is amazing to behold and is the single most impressive thing about this game. After I was done running the level, I was thinking that I want to do it again… it was that impressive.

Unfortunately, one outstanding level can’t redeem a mediocre third person shooter. But, nonetheless, the Ashtray Maze is definitely a must see (and hear) level. It’s too bad the rest of the game couldn’t have been quite so impressive.

Overall

Control is a game not about control, but about being controlled. It’s about, well, nothing much in particular or even too interesting to be honest. This game combines a lot of its not-so-subtle cues from a lot of different games series including Bioshock, Halo, Portal, Assassin’s Creed, Infamous Second Son and Half-Life. In fact, it feels like a mashup of the game series just mentioned. It feels way less original than it should and, thus, it ends up far less impressive overall. However, the developers had a gem of a concept in the Ashtray Maze that they simply squandered away, but which could have been used in many ways all throughout the game to bump up the playability and fun factor of Control.

For example, the silly and repetitive Oceanview Motel sections were not only intensely boring and repetitive, they were completely unnecessary. If those segments had been replaced each with slightly modified runs of the Ashtray Maze, this game could have been much, much better and way more satisifying. I could have done the Ashtray Maze run several times and loved running it every single time. Instead, we got saddled with the trite Oceanview Motel, which is insipid, uninspired, slow and unnecessary. Maybe 505 can learn from these mistakes when crafting the sequel to Control.

One final thing I’ll state is that this game has two endings. This information doesn’t at all spoil the game. However, know that it has a fake out ending and a real one. The fake out ending is still part of the game and there’s a small amount more gameplay (maybe 15-20 minutes) after it, but before you get to the real ending. I’m uncertain why 505 decided to add a fake out ending, particularly so close to the end, but they did. I thought I’d mention it so if you choose to play this game you don’t get caught off-guard thinking that the game ended early and abruptly and put the game away before completing Control.

Graphics: 8.5 out of 10
Sound: 8 out of 10
Game Control: 4 out of 10
Playability: 7 out of 10
Replay value: 1 out of 10
Overall: 4.5 out of 10 (an average third person shooter with only one redeeming level)

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