Remedy return with their first multiplatform console game in 16 years. Not since Max Payne 2 have players on PC, Xbox and PlayStation had the chance to sample what the Finnish studio have to offer. One of the great studios at delivering single player narrative action games, there’s something about their productions that stand out from the crowd, and the latest is possibly the strongest example yet. Control is inspired, weird, creepy and wonderful. It’s the type of game where you effortlessly become engrossed in the world and feel compelled to dig deeper; whilst simultaneously being impressed and horrified at what can come out of the human imagination. It’s also not a game for those that need to keep a firm grip on the concept of permanence in our reality… or need the stairs to stay in the same place each day. Step into the bizarre world of the Federal Bureau of Control.
You play as Jesse Faden, a woman in search of her brother who was taken by the mysterious bureau during a childhood incident in their hometown that caused a lot of adults to disappear. After years of searching she finally reaches the Bureau and infiltrates it with the pretence of becoming a janitor, only to find herself made Director and tasked with preventing the FBC (and the entire world alongside it) being destroyed by the evil Hiss in an Altered World Event. Armed with the Service Weapon she picks up from the old Director’s office, and a strange entity that lives inside her mind, she sets off to uncover the secrets of the people who took her brother, navigate a building that defies physical space, and try to understand why the janitor wants her to keep up cleaning duties. All this and Jesse also has to contend with psychic enemies determined to take her down every step of the way. Cue probably one of the most bizarre action games you’ll ever play.
Control is a third person action/adventure that relies heavily on environmental storytelling and supplemental information to explain what’s happening. Whether it’s reading case files or talking to NPCs, the world is conveyed naturally rather than through a forced narrative. This method blends lots of text documents, an inner monologue and seamless live action video to clue the player in on what the Bureau is and what the next course of action should be. Don’t expect standard way point driven objectives here – there’ll be a pointer to a general location and then you’re all on your own. Not helping much is the fact that the Oldest House (the name of the building Jesse is running around) can reconfigure itself, doesn’t really exist in our world, and contains objects of power that can really ruin someones day. Making the building safe for the employees still left alive is the number one priority, though finding Jesse’s brother is what keeps the plot moving.
That’s the adventure part, now for the action. This is centred around typical third person run and gun style gameplay. What Remedy bring in as the standard means of shooting in Control is the Service Weapon. This gun is a jack of all trades firearm that’s linked to the Astral Plane where the Bureau get their cryptic guidance from. It doesn’t need reloading, only recharging to receive a clip full of ammo, and on a whim it can be swapped between fire modes to deal with whatever enemy is in the way. It has a number of names for them like Shatter, Spin and Pierce, but in effect the variants are pistol, shotgun, machine gun, sniper rifle and rocket launcher. Not having to worry about collecting ammo is nicely liberating, and it’s balanced well with the recharge time and Jesse’s health. She always feels vulnerable and that helps build a sense of dread and caution that would be lacking otherwise.
It’s not just guns, the strange silent creature travelling with Jesse acts as a conduit to unlocking telekinetic powers. Objects can be picked up and flung or used as a temporary shield; Faden can levitate and dash at speed; and she can take control of weakened enemies to fight for her. On their own these aren’t necessarily unique to Control (we’ve seen them in the likes of The Force Unleashed and some are very reminiscent of Second Sight), but combine them with the fully detailed and destructible world and the emergent gameplay becomes something else entirely. Use is limited by an energy bar, so like the more conventional Service Weapon there’s no chance of being all powerful, though upgrading them will given them more varied uses. Having full access to all the powers is pretty much essential in dealing with the different enemy types, and some only become unlocked through side missions, so it pays to keep an eye on the mission log.
With everything set in the Oldest House, it makes sense that this is a non-linear game and that it evolves around a central hub of sorts. The core executive offices are where the surviving NPCs will mostly congregate, though it’s not the only place to receive missions, determined exploration will reveal more of these. As Jesse heads deeper into the otherworldly structure she unlocks control points that act as fast travel between areas as well as respawn points. This isn’t an open world strictly, it still loads between certain sections, but being able to traverse quickly saves a lot of leg work. It’s also useful if you can’t remember exactly where to go when backtracking… the House certainly doesn’t like to make itself easy to wander around and the map isn’t always the easiest to read. Opening a control point also grants access to the upgrades menu for the Service Weapon and the telekinetic powers, and allows bonuses to be applied to weapon configs and Jesse herself.
I can spend time detailing how fluid the combat is, and how challenging it can be, and whether the puzzles are pitched at the right level to try and describe why Control is a joy to play, but really it’s down to the location. It’s the building itself that makes this game, and it’s clear that Remedy have focused on getting the foundations right before layering on the rest. Pretty much everything is destructible and that makes the office environment seem more real. Glass shatters, window blinds sway, chairs get nudged and roll, pillars get blown apart, and even aircon duct pipes deform if you land on them from a height. It’s a pleasure to see the physics in play, and how you turn this to your advantage with the psychic powers. If there’s nothing around that can be launched, sections of concrete are wrenched out of the floor or walls. It’s touches like this that really impress, and the chaos left behind after a particularly explosive encounter is fantastic.
The downside of the destruction is the impact on framerate. Playing on a PS4 Pro it’s mostly been OK, but if things get busy then there’s a hit. It’s by no means unplayable, but it is very noticeable. By all accounts this is prevalent in the base PS4 and Xbox One consoles, but not a factor in the PC version if you’ve got the hardware to cope. There’s also a slowdown each time pause is used and it autosaves, so compensation for those couple of seconds is needed. Despite how well designed the world is, there are a couple of gameplay choices that don’t sit right – Control is guilty of multiple unnecessary currencies that even after finishing I’ve no idea if there’s a pattern to them; and the ending itself is a little abrupt. It’s not a letdown as such, and you do feel like you’re building to a climactic finale, it just doesn’t quite go far enough and the cynic in me thinks it’s partly to encourage the season pass sales.
It’s not like there’s nothing to do once the story is complete though, there are side missions unlocked, collectables to go after and areas to explore for secrets. The way the Oldest House is structured begs for closer inspection to see what secrets it has yet to reveal. There’s also the ambience that oozes its way into your consciousness throughout. Seeing bodies floating in the air and hearing them spout an endless stream of random thoughts creates a really tense atmosphere. Likewise, the use of space and light to almost shift between claustrophobia and agoraphobia helps to put you on edge even in “safe” areas. Then it brings in translocation for some of the puzzle elements that will without doubt have you exclaiming “WTF!” the first time it happens. The techniques used to misdirect and surprise are absolutely superb and are part of what makes Control so compelling.
I’d been sold on Control simply from reading a preview that said it was like playing a David Lynch film. The incongruous elements, the weird yet purposeful characters, and the use of cinematic tricks to confuse and unnerve are prevalent throughout. It’s more than that though because there’s a sense of fun and dark humour just beneath the surface which means it doesn’t really stray into horror. It has pieces that feel more like they’re inspired by Fringe, X-Files, The Twilight Zone and any number of paranormal sci-fi films. There’s a downright disturbing kids TV show too that feels like it would be right at home with Scandinavian pre-school programming. Though having said that I couldn’t really pin down exactly what the core influence is, and that makes it feel all the more fresh and exciting. They don’t release games that often, but when they do Remedy give us a game to that has to be experienced.
Control is out now on PC, Xbox One and PS4 for around £45.