Control might not be Remedy Entertainment’s weirdest game – that honour still belongs to Alan Wake: American Nightmare – but it is definitely intriguing.
That’s not to say Control is perfect, their most technically proficient, or the best release from the Finnish developer. But anyone who persevered through the half-video game, half-television series approach in Quantum Break, or the studio’s fondness for David Lynch and Stephen King in Alan Wake, will find at least something to enjoy in the Federal Bureau of Control, the titular department where Control takes place.
Proceedings begin with Jesse Faden walking through the front doors of the Bureau, an event that’s already weird given the entire place is on lockdown. That’s the beginning of a strange and vague journey through the depths of the paranormal bureau, one which eventually opens up to be Remedy’s best work since Alan Wake.
The Finnish studio has always been inspired by the weird and paranormal, but Control feels like a game where Remedy is able to fully lean once more into the bizarre. Control isn’t a fast paced game, but little time is wasted on needless exposition, character introductions or tying up loose ends.
Precisely how much you get out of Control depends on your patience and willingness to explore, especially since much of the game’s lighter moments and best details are tucked away in side rooms and collectibles that can be easily missed. You don’t even need to resolve much of the Bureau’s mysteries or its predicament before finishing the main story arc, which took me just over ten hours, although you can clean up your quest log after the credits roll.
Remedy’s engineering talent has always been one of their highlights, and for most Control‘s main appeal will be the Jedi-esque design of the battles. After about an hour of gameplay, Jesse unlocks the equivalent of Force powers. Practically any object, or parts of an object, can be ripped out of place and sent flying at a hundred miles an hour into the face of any enemy. Further upgrades let you fling enemy grenades and rockets on a dime.
Before the end of the game, you’ll be hovering mid-air, air dodging at a whim, occasionally mind controlling NPCs for cover while occasionally pumping lead into all manner of corrupted foes. It’s freeing: the very opening of Control initially feels like a cover shooter, only for the game’s verticality to open up massively and for that cover to become your most reliable weapon.
But what binds Control together is the constant internal dialogue of Jesse, who you quickly learn is possessed by an otherworldly being of her own. Jesse is constantly having a back and forth with “her”, as she’s initially called, although you don’t learn until much later in the game precisely how the two became acquainted. I’ll spare you the details, however, since her arc is fundamental to the game’s story.
Equally fundamental is the X-Files-like way in which parts of the Bureau, how they came to being, and basic concepts about Control‘s world are revealed. In the first hour of the game, for instance, you’re given a basic semi-automatic pistol. To learn how to use it, you’re transported to a bright white alternate dimension, the home of The Board and a giant inverted black pyramid.
(A small tip: play the game with subtitles on. The subtitles for the gibberish speech of The Board adds a great bit of humour to the tutorial segments, breaking up the vague doublespeak of Jesse’s inner monologue and Control‘s characters nicely.)
You’re introduced to the pyramid and its occupants early on, but it’s not until a brief trip to the janitor’s office – a delightfully quirky character in his own right – two hours later that you get any clarity on what the pyramid is. It comes via two incredibly creepy hand puppets on an old VHS tape, tucked away in a room that players could quite easily miss.
But if Control‘s biggest strength is the fluidity of the combat and the engine powering it all, it also serves as its greatest weakness. Launch — Control‘s version of Force throw — is so versatile and powerful that you’ll rarely ever need to use anything else, save for some bosses where old-fashioned ammunition still comes in handy.
After starting with the basic weapon and a Force-powered melee attack, you’ll collect enough scrap to modify your basic weapon into fairly standard forms: a shotgun alternative, a sniper-like pistol that charges up, and a fully-automatic version. Once you start levitating, the levels become quite vertical and open. It makes the melee attack and mid-air slam ability largely irrelevant — the latter not too dissimilar from Wrecking Ball’s in Overwatch — since you’ll be keeping your distance from enemies, and the most threatening enemies often dodge and weave around mid-air.
The variety of enemies is also a little weak, if only because you’ll deal with most of them in an identical fashion. Basic creatures affected by the Hiss — the essence that’s taken over the Bureau — will wander into melee range. Corrupted Bureau forces make up the basic ranged mobs, with procedurally generated rangers or captains occasionally appearing as elite enemies with armour that recharges. There’s viral-looking creatures that explode when they come into proximity.
Some creatures fly around at abandon, launching chairs, tables and bits of concrete Jesse’s way. They’ll often dodge the first time you peg an object back, but they’re often vulnerable to a follow-up if you’ve got enough energy in the tank. Every fight will usually have three or four waves, with the larger areas sometimes having five or six rounds of mobs while you deal with a larger boss.
And while I say the game’s biggest weakness might be one of design, the greatest annoyance is a practical one. Control‘s checkpoint system is pretty bad, with the game only saving whenever you restore or check-in with a control point. That works fine for regular roaming, but when you’re in certain missions where the enclosed level design sends you five minutes float/run/Force dodge away from the nearest checkpoint and you have to fight through several waves to get back to where you were … it’s legitimately painful.
But the lack of strategic variety is covered by Control‘s sense of style. Jesse’s self-narration, which Courtney Hope delivers well, isn’t overused. Other characters also don’t overstay their welcome, and while you can go back for multiple conversations with the key members of the Bureau, none of them offer as much intrigue as the ethereal Board or the former director of the Bureau.
You communicate with both through a bakelite red phone called the Hotline, which provides one of the game’s many Twin Peaks-like moments. There’s some outstanding set pieces as the game crawls on, although Remedy has asked that some of the game’s better story beats remain unspoiled until at least the end of the month. They’re definitely worth playing, and one mission in particular reminded me of Titanfall 2‘s “Effects and Cause” level. It’s one of those missions that has you grinning from ear to ear as it plays out, and it hangs around just as long as it needs to before overstaying its welcome.
Even small elements have a nice touch to them. As you explore the hub-like levels of the Bureau, the areas are introduced on screen with a smash cut that reminds me a lot of the excellent Killing Eve:
There’s the wonderfully cryptic janitor Ahti, who recruits you as his ‘assistant’. The Bureau is filled with possessed objects run rampant, including a rubber duck that begins stalking anyone who touches it. One Bureau employee has to constantly stare at a fridge, lest its power run wild. There’s more VHS tapes of the creepy puppets if you go looking, and countless recordings of the Bureau’s research director as he explains basics about the paranormal world, doubling as a journal of his declining mental state as the situation becomes more dire.
The more you wander in Control, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s perfect for those who obsess over achievements and collectibles, because so much of the world exists in the research notes, phone recordings and reports left lying around the Bureau’s levels. It’s not Remedy’s most accomplished and may not be their most successful game — Max Payne‘s John Woo approach is more digestible than the mystery of Control — but it has several fantastic moments, some great mechanics and enough X-Files intrigue to see people through to the end.