Quantum Break was a commendable idea that ultimately saw Remedy dig itself into a deep hole with the TV-style interludes and superficially branching plot which could never hope to deliver. At that point, it felt as if Microsoft dropped Remedy faster than you can say Max Payne. The one-time pioneers of the third-person shooter found themselves in the doldrums. What a way to make your comeback though. Control is a Lynchian, physics-bending third-person shooter that’s equal parts The Twilight Zone, X-Files, and the aforementioned Max Payne.
The basic remit of Control is secretive, to say the least. This is a world of intrigue. Of secrets and smoking cigars. Redacted comments, cover-ups, conspiracies and crackpot theories. It’s a world where all the craziest things you’ve ever heard are true. Control is quick to get going and yet refuses to play many of its cards too early, trading kills for access to a growing stack of secrets.
You play as Jesse Faden, the very-soon-to-be Director of the Federal Bureau of Control. Turning up to her first day at the office, she finds the FBC building, the intoxicatingly named ‘The Oldest House’, practically abandoned and over-run by a strange force known as ‘The Hiss’. The Oldest House isn’t just any old building though. It’s capable of morphing and twisting due to the powerful objects held within; a gargantuan place of dry bureaucracy and, contrastingly, achingly beautiful sights, with multiple floors and ceilings which stretch into the sky, and home to a cast of characters who range from the banal federal grunts, to the off-kilter lonerism of Ahti, the FBC’s janitor who’s capable of cropping up anywhere and everywhere.
It’s a world dripping with evocative imagery, one where you believe just about anything around the corner, whether that’s a tentacled poop monster blocking up the sewer pipes, a magic fridge with a dark secret, or an x-ray machine capable of keeping an army of enemies in thrall.
And you know those little notes everybody just loves to sprinkle around the environments since BioShock really lit the touchpaper on the narrative environments? Control’s filled to the brim with posters and notes and videos and cryptic emails. Unlike most games though, it’s almost universally absorbing and interesting to pick through it all, attempting to decipher some meaning. Slotting in nicely alongside the FBI tone, many of these documents are heavily redacted, teasing further story elements which will be eked out down the line. The concept is nothing new but the delivery provides truly excellent world-building the likes of which we’ve rarely seen. Little tidbits of information and tantalising asides to what’s going on outside the shifting walls of The Old House. Each note you find, each video you watch, peels off an additional layer as you work toward Control’s mind-bending core.
The scene-setting is all well and good but it’s important to remember this is a Remedy Entertainment joint. That name conjures up a lot of thoughts for those who’ve been following them for the past 20 years but most of all it means glorious, balletic, bullet-spewing action. Max Payne was a pioneering giant in this regard and let me tell you - Control does not disappoint on this front.
Being limited to just a single weapon sounded like a cop-out at first but the Service Weapon is an impressive beast. It’s a supernatural firearm which can morph into several different forms, each of which can be variously upgraded with modifiers and enhancements. They’re fairly boilerplate, to be honest, such as your standard pistol, shotgun, and SMG versions. However, using it just feels awesome. Even the humble pistol version can pack a big punch, the booming audio feedback aided by environments which splinter into pieces if you so much as breathe on them. Control is both aesthetically similar to that Matrix lobby and it also crumbles just like it too. Desks are ripped parts, monitors fly through the air, actual chunks of the floor are ripped up, and pillars break apart like cheap styrofoam.
On top of all this, Jesse earns a range of supernatural abilities such as telekinesis, a shield and levitation. It’s telekinesis which is the pick of the bunch though, allowing Jesse to pick up just about any object in the environment and hurl it at enemies in an explosion of violence. It makes this sort of sucking and thumping sound which is just oh so satisfying, topped off by the sort of scenery destruction which is enough to get any action fan giggling.
Playing with these toys literally never gets old, and it’s been too long since I’ve played a game just to mess around with the systems. Control’s tight, structurally speaking, and almost overbearingly brutalist in its architecture, but beneath it all lurks a weaponised sandbox filled with mayhem. There are rules though, to keep you penned in, such as all weapons sharing the same rechargeable ammo, along with a separate bar for the paranormal powers. The constant expenditure of resources in a firefight mean you’ll literally be forced to make use of every tool in your arsenal while you wait for the others to recharge. It’s not often to find a game where you can’t just settle safely on one or two of the most reliables weapons or abilities and it’s refreshing to be given such a versatile and useful toy box.
But, Control isn’t a game without a few foibles. They’re minor but they’re jarring all the same, such is the quality of the rest of the package.
First and foremost, Control is built around the archetypal Metroidvania design. There’s plenty of exploration, back-tracking, and secret routes which can only be unlocked with new abilities or items. However, neither the act of exploration nor the rewards themselves are satisfying enough to justify a jaunt across the map to see what was behind that locked door. Control has a terrible map system, you see. That’s if the map even appears. Sometimes it doesn’t and you have to close and reopen it. Good luck using the map to navigate in a logical manner though, and you’ll need even better fortune remember where those nooks and crannies you couldn’t access. No secrets or unlockables are marked on the maps and you can’t make your own markings either. It’s an unforgivable sin for a Metroidvania as these games typically live or die based on great, readable world design.
As for the rewards, you’ll invariably find a crate which can be opened to unlock a weapon or character modifier. They seem to be randomised and can be attached in limited numbers to offer increased health, faster reloads, less recoil and the like. The problem is, you’ll be picking up literally hundreds of these. Not just from secret areas but wrenched from the evaporated bodies of the fallen. I ended with way too many in fact, leading to occasional bouts of downtime where I would deconstruct dozens of the things for their constituent parts. As you can imagine, doing the Metroidvania thing of backtracking for secrets loses its lustre when you’ve already got hundreds of the very thing you’re collecting.
Fortunately for Remedy, the rest of Control more than makes up for it.
This is a studio dear to my heart from the Max Payne days but one I feared may be on a steady decline. Alan Wake was enjoyable enough and thrived on its intoxicating atmosphere, yet its combat left a little to be desired. And Quantum Break… Quantum Break was a great idea poorly executed. It didn’t so much leave a sour taste in my mouth as it gave me the droopiest of eyelids.
Control is an excellent return to form. Not only is Control comfortably the best Remedy game since Max Payne 2, it may well be the best Remedy game ever. It helps as well that it's astonishingly beautiful, both technically and artistically; from top to bottom, beginning to end, Control is a feast for the senses. Tantalisingly, the very concept of folklore and urban myths being believed into existence is a truly rich template from which this franchise can build. It’s rare to finish a game and already find myself lusting after a sequel.