There will be spoilers.
Black Rock Quarry in Control is a visual wonder. Few games get me to marvel at rock – caves were the worst part of INFRA (Loiste Interactive, 2016) – but, my God, I was screenshotting up a whole folder of rock formations. Here’s some rock. Here’s Jesse standing in front of some more rock. Here’s Jesse looking into the distance, by some rock.
Combat in Control was settling down, a little too much. I was comfortable with most fights and had become somewhat complacent. Bored, even. But the quarry threw a screwball into the process.
Once you’ve waded deep into the quarry and liberated a prism from the rock – a fetch quest required to forward the main plot – astral spikes then pop into existence throughout the quarry. Astral spikes are a slow-moving but invulnerable foe. If they spot you, they will inexorably drift towards your location – bullets and telekinesis will not dissuade them from ending your existence. Exactly why they like the quarry so much, I am unsure; perhaps there’s some narrative implication I am missing.
But the quarry becomes genuinely tense, because these spikes are so noisy you are easily ambushed from behind when watching one in front of you. Even worse, Control drops in a few Hiss goons as you head for the exit through a claustrophobic bottleneck of a cavern. You’re forced into a combat stance when all you want to do is get the hell out of there, with astral spikes rumbling towards you from all directions. It turned out the best solution was to just run through all the enemies and hope for the best – the Hiss will fight with the spikes, but it’s an unfair contest, so don’t hang around for the spikes to win out.
I was still stuck with two-minute loading times after death but, to my surprise, ALT+TABbing out of the game fixed the problem. ALT+TAB out, wait until you can hear Control play some music or ambient noise, then ALT+TAB back in. It never failed. Suddenly I had won minutes back of my life and I could hate the game a little less.
I’d come to the conclusion that Control was a sort of reverse Shock game (eg System Shock, Bioshock, Prey). I’ve suggested in the comments that Control is not an open-world game but a Shocklike: a heavily authoritarian/ideological environment, scientific overreach, something gone horribly wrong. The usual Shock formula, though, is either for a state of decay to persist (Bioshock) or deteriorate (System Shock 2, Prey). As Control progresses, Jesse never fails to repel the Hiss and the Bureau of Control gradually reasserts itself. The Central Executive area you clear first becomes a hub for Bureau staff to congregate in. There’s a genuine sense of positive momentum.
But sidequests were starting to bulge my mission checklist. I don’t like to leave sidequests until the end of a game, because they can feel a little narratively flat if the main questline is done. More importantly, they are useful for providing boosts and upgrades that will help power progress later on.
The first sidequest I tried was locating Dr. Underhill, which was easily done although I had assumed it was too dangerous to enter the area she was found in, because of the “mold”. Previous rooms I’d entered full of mold had proven to be bloody dangerous. But then she sent me deeper into the mold threshold on a fetch quest and I encountered some mold enemies who fired guided missiles. Trying to stay living was too much of an ask. I died again and again, no matter how slowly I went. I gave up on the mold and returned to the main storyline, heading into Containment…
…and pretty quickly I was offered another sidequest which was to head into the “clocks” threshold. Down in the mold area, I’d overheard some guards chatting about the creepiness of all the clocks so I had high expectations for this mission. Except it closely resembled someone’s Unity experiment, spawning two million copies of the same clock asset in featureless corridors. It didn’t feel creepy or eerie. It was just Control doing that Control thing again. A suggestion of strange which winds up feeling mundane because everything is strange.
This sidequest had two parts though. The first part was to bring someone back alive but the second part was to take on an altered item responsible for the clocks threshold – an anchor. Except there was no obvious way to get across a chasm to initiate a boss fight on the other side. I eventually gave up and turned to a walkthrough which told me I needed the ability to fly. Oh… that meant I was back on the main quest, then.
To acquire the ability to fly, I needed to overcome the notorious Salvador boss. I had been warned that Salvador was trouble. Salvador is a new type of enemy, surrounded by a whirlwind of bricks and rubble. But he’s also surrounded by a number of Hiss agents. So while he’s pinning you down behind cover, you can easily become flanked by his henchmen which can make the fight viciously short.
However, the player should have the Seize ability at this point, which gives Jesse the ability to turn a weakened Hiss enemy to her side. This was all the edge I needed and I defeated Salvador after maybe just two or three attempts. Occasionally, Control has that Dark Souls feel where all you need is the correct strategy and a boss fight becomes dramatically easier.
Now it cannot be overstated that Control is a different place once you can fly. There are plenty of nooks and crannies which are only reachable through flight and, wow, I began spending a lot of time re-exploring areas I had “finished”. I also found a few areas that Control had marked as secrets. But I wasn’t looking for Control’s approval to go to these places. I go where I want.
While these cool new powers are tangible additions to your combat options, all those tiny mods you can pick up feel like a joke. You acquire them at a fair clip, but comparing mods to improve shootyness by a tedious 1% percentage difference feels like a joke. The white symbols for these mods are difficult to distinguish at a glance – you tend to spend a few minutes during every Control session to pare down your finds. Apparently you can go on special missions for the Board to acquire more mods. Are you kidding me?
And that reminds me of the “Expeditions” sidequest. You can use the jukebox to jump into another Black Rock threshold location and be massacred by infinite Hiss foot soldiers while attempting to do some menial tasks like stand in one spot for awhile. The reward, if you pull this off within 20 minutes, is to receive a mod. I wasn’t bothered about the mod, so much, but I did want to complete at least the first tier of the Expeditions sidequest. I quit, reader. Combat is usually won through being careful and tactical but this sidequest continuously throws enemies at you and if you spend all your time fighting you won’t spend any time doing tasks. It’s not impossible but it’s also not fun if you haven’t got a solid grasp of Jesse’s abilities.
I was enjoying the combat, Control. But not that much.
Next: Slave to the Rhythm