The simplest thing you can say about Control, and one any Quantum Break or Alan Wake fan would appreciate, is that Remedy’s style of bizarre, mystical world building is well and truly back.
I had the chance to spend just over three hours with Control last Friday, playing through the start of the game to about halfway through the third mission. That includes the initial setup, where protagonist Jesse Faden discovers the suicide of the previous Director, and the initial experiences with “The Hiss”.
It’s probably easier to talk about what Control isn’t, because by the end of the third mission I wasn’t much closer to understanding much of the actual plot. Jesse, who you play as throughout the game, quickly becomes the Bureau’s Director but she’s not there to save the Bureau. Her town (literally called Ordinary) growing up was the centre of what’s described as an altered world event, or “Ground Zero”, and Jesse’s brother was abducted as a result.
Searching for answers, Jesse makes her way into the Bureau. She’s not supposed to have gotten through, because the whole facility went into lockdown while it was combating “The Hiss”. Jesse also seems at odds, with much of the narrative coming from the inner conflict with herself, or maybe a dual personality.
That’s on top of the fact that, somehow, the former Bureau director — same bloke who put a gun to his head in the opening — is communicating with Jesse throughout. Sometimes you’ll get overlays of the director on the main screen, almost like the G-Man is passing orders directly into your ear. Other times Jesse will just react with incredulation, all the while talking about getting whispers from some pyramid on some astral plane.
It’s not exactly Twin Peaks, although it’s pretty clear the studio has enjoyed themselves doing their best David Lynch impression.
A perfect example of Control‘s trippy bullshit is the pyramid.
Jesse mentions it early in the game, not longer after collecting the pistol. “The pyramid spoke to me and it was just noise and I understood every word,” she says. Uh, OK Remedy.
About two hours after this segment, and not long before I was due to leave, I discovered a room not far from a creepy, unusual janitor. After falling through a hole in a kitchen and going through some light jumping puzzles to obtain an Object of Power — a merry-go-round unicorn, I shit you not — I came across a small TV in what looked like a locker room.
With the tone of a dial-up modem in the background, two creepy puppets pop up on the screen trying to draw. One of them goes to draw the pyramid, and tries explaining what the fuck is going on. The pyramid is apparently stuck in the astral plane, the same place where you go for all your tutorials, and that the “white goes on forever”.
The pyramid is one of the biggest motifs in the early stages, and the only way it’s definitively explained? Through a VCR in a back room somewhere that you could easily miss entirely.
Playing Control reminds me a bit of the experience I had with Days Gone, although the opening is nowhere near as slow, or as jarring. But it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The game has the initial setup of a cover shooter. Most of the Bureau is locked off, so you’re forced to proceed fairly linearly through the passageways and early fights.
You don’t have the ability to dodge or fling objects around, so the first few fights and early mini-boss fight are all a matter of sprinting to cover, forcibly pushing in the right stick to crouch (because it’s not a cover shooter) and then remembering to crouch again when you run out of ammo (because the game doesn’t do it automatically).
It’s clumsy. Even after Jesse powers up a little and gets access to more powers, fights still have that cover shooter-esque feel, but you’re just a lot more exposed. It’s something I genuinely wish I was playing with a mouse and keyboard, just because the limited ammo and repeatedly pushing the thumbstick in isn’t a great experience.
Control is a bit too minimalist as well. After rescuing some Bureau employees and going through the cut-scene, the game told me that I’d acquired some skill points. I never got a prompt telling me how to spend those skill points, which was doubly frustrating after having just wasted a couple of minutes searching for a corrupted employee (with no help from the HUD or mini-map). It wasn’t until I wandered over to the nearby checkpoint — which is literally a control point that you cleanse, slamming your gun into the ground like Talion when he secures a fortress in Shadow of War — that I had clarity on what I could buy, and what skills and mods could be unlocked.
Along with the mods that you can unlock along the way for your character and weapon, Jesse has seven separate skill trees to work her way done. Spending a certain number of skill points gets you bonus slots for your weapons and character, and there’s a shop of sorts at each control point where you can buy randomised mods, craft upgrades, and change outfits if you want.
It’s the most normal element of Control, which means it’s also the bit that feels the most out of place.
What’s more interesting, and more why Control is worth your time amongst what’s become a seriously packed month, are the elements where Control fully leans into the Twin Peaks shtick.
After chatting with Emily, perhaps the closest thing the Bureau has left to an actual administrator, you’re informed of a bakelite phone that will let you communicate with the former director. The dead bloke.
The phone’s locked away in a separate glass window that’s seemingly hovering in the distance, a little like the cages built for Magneto in the X-Men movies. After turning a light on and off, you’re transported to an empty American hotel.
Nothing much happens in the hotel, but eventually you’re back in the Bureau and a bridge appears that lets you walk over to the phone. That triggers another tutorial sequence, a series of stealth sequences where you’re dodging blobs that look like possessed masses of graphite going about their business (until you grumpily wander into their space).
Once you’ve ducked past them, the subtitles read: “We expect compulsive/weekly calls.” All the subtitles in the astral plane take the piss like this. They’re good for a laugh.
They don’t come any closer to explaining what the fresh hell is actually going on in Control, but I suspect I’ll find out the answer to that around August 27, when Control launches on PS4, Xbox One and PC (as an Epic Games exclusive).