Welcome to the Oldest House, a building that can only be found if you know what it is or are looking for it. This is a building that looms above New York’s skyline, but somehow avoids your glance, a massive blindspot for almost everyone in America, their eyes sliding off it. Inside, the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), an organisation that not even the federal government seems to know exists, protects our world from forces unseen and sometimes unknowable.
The Oldest House isn’t only good at hiding away, the building shifts its internal walls, and is larger on the inside than the outside, spilling into dimensional pockets and sometimes finding the paranormal. Working here ranges from unsettling to downright deadly, but everyone here understands that without the FBC, life as we know it might unravel in an instant. Of course, you don’t really know that. To be fair though, the Bureau takes great care and goes to extreme lengths to hide itself and paranatural events away, ranging from misinformation campaigns, media control, hypnotic interviews and eliminating problems. You, Jesse Faden, arrived here in search of answers, to verify that you didn’t imagine what happened in your childhood; the things you saw, the people that abducted your brother. But something is wrong here. Really wrong. Where are the staff? What is that noise pushing in on your mind? This is Control.
Things quickly start going sideways, or perhaps in a direction we don’t have a name for. You find the Director of the FBC dead in his office, a strange gun nearby. You pick up the gun, get taken to another place, a place where everything is white except for a massive upside-down pyramid, where alien voices speak to you, but somehow you understand them. You are now Director, thanks to this odd, shifting gun you picked up, and the previous Director is somehow talking to you, images and sounds in your mind offering advice and direction.
The Oldest House is in lockdown. How you got in is a complete mystery and some unknown threat is attacking and taking over the staff of the building. Many of these staff do nothing, floating in the air babbling in unison. Others attack, some with paranatural abilities that they didn’t possess before. Somehow this siren call of hissing, screaming, babbling sounds and images that claws at your mind doesn’t turn you, which seems to attract the ire of this unknown and seemingly unknowable entity that has invaded the Oldest House, that wants to get out into the world. The Hiss has infected more than the people though. Altered Items and Objects of Power, seemingly normal things the Bureau has found, confiscated and contained for research are getting restless and aggressive thanks to The Hiss. Even the Oldest House, an Object of Power itself, is shifting dramatically, turning massive rooms into claustrophobic mazes and impossible spaces. Unless you can find the Control Points and attune them, the very building itself will bar your path.
The Oldest House is a place you explore a lot like a Metroidvania title, except the game is a lot clearer on how to progress than other games of that genre. Locked doors, impossible jumps, rooms filled with poisonous growths or powerful enemies will keep you out of certain areas. I was slightly disappointed that so many of these areas have quests that take you directly to them rather than being a place to explore later to discover some new fact or aspect of the classified secrets. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t secrets to discover, it just curbed my exploration as I would generally get sent to those hard to reach places for something later on.
Control is the kind of game where you are excited to find a piece of paper to read, something that might illuminate what was going on here, or what was happening before The Hiss arrived.
Side quests tend to give you new powers or a rare item that you can use to upgrade your Service Weapon, the fun paranatural gun that can change shape to be a shotgun or a sniper rifle. The gun doesn’t need ammo, but it does take some time to charge up again, meaning you need to fight by mixing your powers in-between shots, to make sure you give both your energy bar and your weapon time to recharge. Fights are lethal and at times too lethal, making some fights slide over the point of feeling challenging to feeling unfair. This is often the case in the endgame side quest areas or in large rooms where you aren’t aware of where the enemy is, giving them a chance to line up a devastating attack. Get ready to see a fair share of loading screens as you return to the last Control Point you activated, as some enemies will make you feel like your health bar is made of dreams held together with wet paper.
The true showstoppers here are the various abilities you unlock in order to take on enemies. The staple is a throw that picks up a nearby chair, table or water cooler to hurl into an enemy. If there are no loose items around, Jesse will rip a section of wall or floor out, meaning you always have something to throw at enemies. This attack does a lot of damage and can stagger enemies, stopping a big attack or giving you a chance to line up a few headshots. Your arsenal grows over time, and the various quests you do will let you unlock stronger versions of your powers or new ways to use them. Throw enemy bodies and grenades? Check. Make a shield of debris to absorb an incoming attack? Check. It looks and feels great to use these powers, watching an office space turn to debris as you throw filing cabinets into enemies or a grenade back behind tiled pillars. This is also where the biggest fault of the game rears its head: performance issues.
Having a world where every surface has removable chunks, where office furniture can fly around and be moved, hurled and destroyed wreaks havoc on the performance of the console. Frequent framerate drops occur, often during critical moments in combat as the PS4 battles to keep up with all the calculations it is being forced to process at once. I lost count of how many times the action slowed to a juddering crawl, and how many times I died when it was too difficult to react to situations. As amazing as it looks throwing a grenade back into the corner behind a pillar was, it almost immediately led to regret as everything started wading through syrup on screen.
This same performance hit occurs when you find a new video in the game. Rather than having a TV show like Quantum Break, there are instructional videos prepped by the head of research, Dr Darling. These live-action videos are shown directly in the game, on TVs or projectors and as they load there is a definite loss of performance. Sometimes it was so bad it felt like my console had frozen, only to spring back to life as the video played. Between the performance dips and waiting for every sign and painting to load in, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the first big sign that my base PS4 just wasn’t up to the task and that the game was maybe meant for the mid-cycle upgrades. I will only know once other reviews go live and I can see how other platforms managed.
Control is the kind of game where you are excited to find a piece of paper to read, something that might illuminate what was going on here, or what was happening before The Hiss arrived. Sections of these reports are redacted and working out what the missing information is by finding documents elsewhere or looking around the Oldest House was a fulfilling part of the journey. The story it tells, the journey of Jesse Faden and the many secrets in this imposing building are gorgeous and wonderfully told and were it not for the performance issues and late-game squishiness vs bullet sponges, I would give this game a gold award. Control is bursting at the seams with The Outer Limits style stories and some marvellous Alan Wake references to get the old grey matter pondering on that mystery all over again. I have purposefully left information about characters and themes out completely, just like an overzealous document redactor would, because until you go in, anything more is CLASSIFIED.