It’s been nearly a decade since I played Alan Wake, and it still resonates with me like no other game since then. I had a similar feeling with Max Payne, and even more its sequel, Max Payne II: The Fall of Max Payne. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes these Remedy titles click so well with me, because honestly, there are many things about them that make them fantastic games with a flavor of their own. Be it the twisting stories, the incredible world building, or even each game’s colorful cast of characters, there’s just something about the way their creations come together that appeals to me in a very unique way. For some reason or another, I missed out of Quantum Break, something that I plan on remedying soon (hah!), but boy am I glad I did not sleep on Control.
Frankly, I did not have the best of first impressions when I first tried it at E3 a couple of months ago. My appointment dropped me off at a section in the game with absolutely no context, and given my lack of knowledge about anything related to Control beforehand — totally my fault, I admit! — I spent my demo time running around and just shooting dudes and going “huh” when all the weird world bending stuff happened around me. It was only after I had the chance of playing the game thanks to an early review code sent to me by 505 Games that Control started to make sense, and from the initial hours of play down to the last line in the scrolling credits I was completely hooked.
Remedy’s mastery of referencing pop culture and taking it for a spin is once again at display with Control. If you thought Alan Wake had a lot of Twin Peaks going for it, get ready for a huge dose of X-Files and Fringe — to name a few! — on top of David Lynch’s iconic TV show. As a die-hard fan of all of those, I couldn’t help but stick like glue to the game until I got through it, not just storming through the story, which took quite a while to get through, but also exploring the world within a building that Control takes place in. As Jesse Fadden, a girl looking for her missing brother, you end up in an apparently common location in New York city. The Oldest House is anything but ordinary though. It’s a living construct whose structure is in constant shift as mysterious powers influence not only its makeup, but the people that inhabit it.
That’s where the Federal Bureau of Control made their base of operations, a top secret government agency that specializes in investigating unexplained phenomena, and who Jesse knows took her brother away after something happened in their hometown 17 years ago. She was compelled to go there by a voice only she can apparently hear after spending all that time searching for answers. That’s only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the plot, and thanks to the style of delivery that Remedy’s known for, it’ll take you quite a while before you start thinking you might know what’s really going on. It’s a story that twists on itself, cobbling elements based on real-life events, ordinary items, and a healthy dose of fantastical science mumbo jumbo into a tight web that’s a blast to get lost in.
As a third-person shooter, Control excels in many ways. Minutes into the game, Jesse comes across the Service Weapon, a shifting gun that can assume a number of different forms as you craft and upgrade it throughout Control. It can only be wielded by those deemed worthy of picking up the agency’s Director mantle, and for some reason, she’s one of those people. The Director can also interact with and gain powers from the so-called Objects of Power, seemingly ordinary items that are imbued with energy and carry its user to the Astral Plane when they’re cleansed, granting special abilities to them along the way. The earliest one you pick up — and by far my favorite — is telekinesis, which comes from an old Soviet era floppy disk, that serves as both a means of offense and light puzzle solving throughout Control. Other powers pop up too, like a really convenient shield, but I’d rather keep them unspoiled for you.
Every single one of these powers, along with Jesse’s health bar and her “stamina” can be upgraded as you gather points from quests and story events during Control, and they’re an absolute joy to use during combat. Even in the late game, I kept using the initial throw power, putting points into it every single chance I got until I had it maxed out half way through the story. The smart combination of power use and gunplay makes for some incredibly tense encounters that are a thrill to get through, requiring you to be smart about mixing them up in order not to run out of both at the same time and be left open for attacks. Bullets refresh after a few seconds as well as her powers, and both of these can be improved as you imbue them with the mods you craft or pick up, potentially making them more efficient and powerful, and giving you plenty of different ways to build your character depending on your preferred fighting style.
Control’s enemy behavior in the form of the faceless Hiss invaders pushes you to be smartly aggressive, pushing in when you see an opening, while at the same time keeping an eye out to your resources. It’s very important to protect yourself, because for as much as you can be a force of nature later on in the game when your pet powers are fully upgraded, you’re sure to go down in a couple of well placed hits if you’re not constantly on your feet. The Hiss come in many shapes and sizes, and they approach you in all sorts of manner. Some can fly and control telekinesis just like you, while others stick to being slightly more human, relying on guns and explosives to get the drop on you. That’s when my hand throw ability always comes into play, with me chucking back grenades to them, or any other heavy object lying around The Oldest House. Shields don’t last long at all when you toss a forklift into a Hiss heavy, let me tell you. It’s badass.
As you explore the FBC base, you’ll quickly unlock a lot of fast travel spots called control points that also serve as your means of upgrading your abilities and crafting new mods and guns. Every time you claim one of these points, the shifting nature of The Oldest House is quelled, letting you proceed further into it. Crafting in this game is not convoluted at all, though, and for as numerous as the many item types you can pick up are, none are really rare or hard to get, and as long as you partake into side missions — and why wouldn’t you, they’re all really good — you’ll have plenty to invest into the skills and gun shapes you enjoy. The only part of this system that I found rather shaky was crafting mods, since it’s so easy to get new ones simply by playing through the game as enemy drops, but the option is there for anyone willing to gamble crafting materials in hopes of getting higher grade items. But in case you still find yourself somehow hurting for components, Control pops in quick random missions that award you with some items, as well bonus objectives you can activate, like kill an X number of Hiss units with a certain gun form or power, that you can always find at a control point.
The sense of atmosphere in Control is truly astonishing: it sports a level of detail and care that really sells the whole modern day lo-fi aesthetic the FBC has going within its base of operations. The Thresholds, which are what the changed spots in reality within The Oldest House, are a show apart, and really help play the whole paranormal vibe of Control. I had a dumb smile in my face for about six minutes straight in a particular section of in the late game where Control threw me for a loop and turned into a sensory jumble that even Jesse commented on once we got through it. It’s that sort of mind shake that I want to see and enjoy whenever I play a Remedy game, and to all accounts, Control certainly delivers many times during its run.
None of this world building would be as good if the characters and writing were bad, and Control has none of that, thankfully. As it’s now become tradition, Remedy included a number of real-life performances in Control in the form of informational vids by the head of research for the FBC, as well as the cryptic tight-cut sequences involving the former Director, as well as protagonist Jesse, who’s played by Courtney Hope. Along with Hope, you’ll probably recognize a few other voices and faces if you’ve been playing Remedy’s games over the years, but I’ll leave them for you to pick up on who they are. Other characters are also very well acted, sporting some of the best facial animation I’ve seen in a game to boot.
There are lines and lines of texts to read through in Control, providing you not only with background information on the many items you’ll come into contact with, but for the world in general as well, the life of the FBC agents and paranormal and occult curiosities from this parallel reality that are usually attributed to UFO nuts on the History Channel. It’s all extremely detailed and developed, and in some cases, surprisingly funny on many levels. As with the conspiracy cover-ups, most of these docs have plenty of redactions thrown in for good measure, because it wouldn’t be a game about a secret US government blanketing agency without that sort of stuff. The Smoking Man would be proud.
I have some slight bones to pick about Control’s performance on PlayStation 4. I played through the game for review on an original base model with an SSD installed and the day one patch applied, and even though the load times were a little faster, they still took their merry time, especially when loading into a saved game, or when repeating a combat section I failed — hey, they can get pretty hard, don’t @ me! — even though fast travelling became nearly instant thanks to the solid state drive. When stuff starts flying all around and there are lots of particles on screen during combat, Control also tends to chug and drop the FPS quite a bit, so keep that in mind if you plan on playing it on a normal PS4. There are also occasional hitches when the game autosaves that are a little annoying when you’re interacting with the inventory menus and can only unlock the game by switching back and forth from tab to tab.
There are few games out there that nail story and gameplay quite like Control. It plays with some of my most beloved genres in entertainment in masterful ways, and it has the chops to be one of my top picks this year. If Remedy’s implications are any indication, there’s plenty content coming throughout 2019 and beyond, and I’m certainly going to be there every crooked and twisted step of the way and look into the darkest mysteries surrounding humanity.