The 2nd best game of 2019: Control

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After I finished playing Control, I wrote one of those snooty reviews that talks a lot about subtext and themes and the designer’s possible motivations.  Basically, stuff that doesn’t include potentially helpful consumer information like a description of the plot, how many hours it takes to beat the game, and whether the graphics are visually stunning.  But as I’ve gone back to Control to finish up some loose ends, I’ve noticed that some of my favorite things are things I might not even have realized at the time because I was too busy mulling over national character and whatnot.  So here are a few addendums to the review. Some things I really appreciate about Control as I go back as a completionist instead of a tourist.

Control manages the difficult task of making inanimate objects seem insidious.  The building, called the Oldest House, is the main example. It’s a fantastic haunted house, easily on par with Citadel Station and Rapture.  Part of its haunting is the way it gives seemingly innocuous items a terrible power. Prey attempted something similar, but more literal. Objects would morph into little black tentacle monsters that you had to kill with a shotgun.  Suddenly a chair or coffee mug is a monster. Boo! Gotcha! That’s one way to do it. These are monsters who aren’t shy about turning into a filing cabinet, so every chair, coffee mug, and filing cabinet is suspect.  

But Control’s insidious objects can’t be vanquished with a shotgun.  Their malevolence is more intangible, and even cosmic. How else could a game get away with making a slide projector both the McGuffin and a boss monster?  How else could one of the most memorable videogame levels you’ll ever play be named after an ashtray? One of my favorite set pieces was a refrigerator in a test chamber.  It’s been 20 years since I was scared of a refrigerator.

Control solves — seemingly effortlessly — something videogames have been struggling with for years: how can you shoot guns and also cast magic spells without favoring one or the other?  Undying put a gun in your left hand and a spell in your right hand. The Bioshock games had the same idea, but the gun was in your right hand. Lucasarts’ Jedi Knight games have been trying something similar as long as they’ve been around.  You can still see them trying in Fallen Order, with a lightsaber instead of a gun. These games all present the question “Why would you fling a Stormtrooper off a precipice when you can just shoot him with a blaster?” Or “Why would you kill a splicer with bees instead of a rivet gun?”  The answer is usually player’s choice. Six of one, half dozen of another. Whatever floats your boat. 

For the most part, these games imagined the non-gun stuff as just another way to shoot someone, but using a different resource.  Rivet guns use bullets, shooting bees uses Adam. Mana and ammo. Basically, dual wielding, each with its own magazine. But Control’s dual wielding gives you two distinct ways to fight, and it gives them both equal weight.  You can shoot according to the usual gunplay, or you can use psychic power to reach out and mess up stuff like an angry toddler. Your motivation to use one or the other is often player’s choice, but when things get intense, when the game really gets going, the answer is more particular.  Which one is available? Guns and magic are each on their own cooldown timer, which means you’ll usually alternate. While one charges, the other fires. Neither has a limit arbitrarily quantified by how many clips you picked up or how many mana potions you drank. They’re both unlimited, equally available, uniquely powerful, and an integral part of every memorable encounter.

Add to this the flying and now the gameplay exists on a whole other axis.  Who knew Control was going to bust the z-axis almost as surely as Descent? What’s perhaps most remarkable about this flying (contrasted to the flying in, say, Anthem or Gravity Rush) is how it’s perfectly integrated with the shooting and the psychic powers.  Jesse just rises into the air and floats around like Mary Poppins or Carrie Fisher in Last Jedi, but you’re still playing the same way you’d play if her feet were on the floor. Previous games struggled to make guns and spells equally relevant. Control manages that, and then throws flying into the mix.  What a show off.

Finally, I want to call out two words Control has added to the lexicon of unforgettable videogame experiences: Ashtray Maze.

So those are a few reasons Control is my second favorite game of 2019.  You can read the more high-falutin’ reasons in my review here.

The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2
2. Control
1. Sunless Skies