Retrofuturism is having a bit of a moment right now. It’s always been popular to imagine what the far off future of the year 2000 would have looked like to citizen of the 1890s. But In the last couple of years a brand of futurism based in a 1970s aesthetic has started to take hold. Classic properties like Star Wars and Star Trek have taken their art direction back to basics. Netflix series like Stranger Things and Maniac have gained notoriety for its distinct vision of the future that was decked out in vacuum tubes and punch cards. And then, of course, there’s Control.
Control, the new game from Remedy Entertainment and 505 Games, is perfect for the retrofuturist treatment. The shady government agencies and paranormal threats at its core are right at home in a bygone vision of the world’s future. Placing that story in a world filled up with brutalist architecture and cathode ray tubes is a perfect fit.
Of course, there’s also another reason that Control’s retro setting feels so appropriate. Retrofuturist stories take place in a world that is almost picturesque. Their setting provides a nostalgic comfort that encourages us to overlook the shadowy threat in the corner. But when someone (usually a scientist) pushes reality to the breaking point, that otherwise perfect setting is destroyed. “Why,” we proclaim as the audience, “Why couldn’t you just have been happy with ‘good enough’.”
That experience – the bitter pain of watching something seemingly perfect be destroyed by unnecessary ambition – is a lot like playing Control.
Let’s start with the good. Because there is a lot of good in Control. The playable character in the game is Jesse Faden, a young woman who happens to have a strange paranormal entity living in her brain. Thanks to this entity, Jesse is able to gain access to The Oldest House, a skyscraper in New York City which is home to a clandestine government agency called the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC). The FBC deals with paranormal threats and answers to a supernatural collective housed in an inverted black pyramid known only as The Board.
That’s when things start to get weird.
Within the universe of Control there are objects and places “of Power.” Things which can emit or harness incredible inter-dimensional forces. The FBC’s headquarters, The Oldest House, is a place of power. It appears on the outside to be a normal New York City skyscraper. But, on the inside, it’s a catacombic labyrinth whose geometry is constantly changing.
When Jesse enters The Oldest House, she quickly gets her hands on The Service Revolver, an object of power with some self-explanatory properties and some which are less expected. The Service Revolver is the player’s weapon throughout the game. But also, by picking it up and resisting the urge to shoot herself in the head, Jesse becomes the director of the FBC. And everyone else who works there is just cool with that? Probably because it’s hard enough to question your boss’ management decisions when they aren’t a fleet mysterious trans-dimensional aliens.
From a gameplay perspective, the Service Revolver provides Control with some excellent mechanics. First, it’s a gun that never has to be reloaded. As its ammo is depleted, the player just has to stop shooting for a little while and the revolver will gradually fill back up with paranormal rounds. Second, the Service Revolver is four guns in one. Players start with the Pistol setting and, over the course of the game, unlock the machine gun, sniper rifle, and RPG settings.
While the Service Revolver has various configurations, they never require players to enter an equipment menu or to compare any stats. Just by hitting one button, it switches from one configuration to the next. Its ease of use in both these regards keeps Control feeling more like a sci-fi RPG than a third-person shooter. And this mean players keep their focus where it should be in Control, on the absolutely buck-wild story the game is telling rather than on stat breakdowns and offensive advantages.
This philosophy, of keeping player’s focus where it belongs, carries throughout the entirety of Control. Throughout the game, Jesse gains new powers as she discovers new Objects of Power. Each time she discovers a new power, the player is taken to a platformer level where the power can be rehearsed without risk. These powers range from telekinesis to mind control to flight. But they’re always presented in an easy to understand way and based on a controller scheme that doesn’t require expert timing or complex combos. The whole thing has an ease of use that feels natural.
Jesse rallies her powers against a supernatural entity called The Hiss. The Hiss has invaded The Oldest House and taken over the minds of most of it’s inhabitants. The result is that most of Jesse’s physical enemies are largely the same.
For the vast majority of the game Jesse is fighting former members of the FBC. Occasionally there will be an enemy with a shield that requires more concentrated assault. Sometimes, even, those enemies are bosses who are astonishingly big FBC agents with shields. But, regardless of size or shieldedness, they tend to run together.
And now it seems we’ve wandered into the negatives. And while, yes, the homogeneity of the enemies is boring. But it makes sense. Given the game’s plot and the nature of The Hiss, it all makes sense. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it all fits together in a sort of narrative tapestry. It feels strange to say, but the weirder the enemies are in Control, the less interesting they seem. There’s a narrative backing to the boring enemies. When the occasional monster does show up, it feels out of place.
But that’s far from the worst part of Control. To fully understand what makes Control bad, nearly unplayable in fact, we need to get technical. Because, you see, Control’s flaws lay in its technical capabilities. Like the scientists in a retrofuturist story, the programmers behind Control pushed the technology they had to its absolute limits. But in pushing it so far, they created a game that is, at its best, irritating. At it’s worst it’s entirely unplayable.
PC gamers know the consequences of trying to run a game too advanced for your system. Lagging is inevitable and the game will freeze up. Avoiding these basic system shortcomings is supposed to be the appeal of console gaming. But somehow the folks at Remedy have discarded console performance norms so throughly that they created a game that will not run on modern systems.
Modern gaming systems, which are capable of rendering in 4K, oftentimes run at 60 frames per second. The bare minimum in today’s market is 30 fps. During complex battle scenes involving multiple NPCs in Control, it is not uncommon for the game to plummet to 10 fps. And God forbid a player try and exit the pause menu, in which case the game freezes altogether.
It may seem like a small nit to pick. But it’s a vital one. The performance is the only thing that stops Control from being a perfect game. But without even a basic level of performance we cannot recommend that anyone buy Control. Remedy had intimated that they are working to fix Control’s performance issues. But until they do, the game is an absolute waste of money.
We want to love Control. Its riveting gameplay and freaky story are like catnip. But until Remedy figures out what is going on with how this game runs, it’s a thorn in our side. We’re like the protagonist in a retrofuturistic hell-scape. We can’t look away, even though we know that the thing we’re starting at is destroying us.