“It feels sane. Or, just the right kind of insane.”
These are the words of Jesse Faden, main protagonist of Control, musing during a particularly trippy stretch of Remedy Entertainment’s latest video game.
It’s an apt encapsulation of the mind-bending science fiction adventure. It’s way out there, and there’s a lot Remedy gets right. Even if it’s certainly not all right.
Out last week, Control is the latest title from Remedy, the Finnish developer best known for early Max Payne installments, Alan Wake and most recently Quantum Break. (Main writer Sam Lake is one of gaming’s most recognized narrators.) All third person action games, the latter two being plenty wacky in story and presentation. Control keeps in the tradition as an over-the-shoulder single-player adventure where shooting is a key element, plus expands to include abilities of the telekinetic and traversal variety. It’s much more an exploration into the metaphysical and paranormal realms than even Quantum Break, and its mechanics reflect this.
The player takes (I won’t say it, I won’t say it..) hold of the aforementioned Jesse, a woman with a mysterious past, a precious secret and a singular goal: To find her brother Dylan. After an otherworldly event in their hometown, her younger sibling was taken 17 years earlier by a secretive government agency called the Federal Bureau of Control (“FBC”) which investigates paranormal activities and unexplained occurrences using a near unlimited budget. It’s a setup reminiscent of the Men in Black or The X-Files, less common in games than in other media which allows an ideal backdrop for Remedy’s unique brand of storytelling.
Jesse arrives at FBC headquarters, dubbed The Oldest House, a nondescript and unrealistically massive structure in New York City to search for Dylan. Upon entering, she meets a wise, friendly janitor then enters the Director’s Office only to discover the former Bureau leader has been murdered. She picks up his old Service Weapon, which of course means that she’s now the Director. (Naturally. Talk about fast-tracking a career.) This begins a wandering tale of searching for answers in a game world that seems to offer only unending questions.
World items and collectibles in Control are among the best in gaming. Legitimately. Hundreds of pick-ups are strewn about the world. It seems excessive, I know, but it isn’t! In an impossible accomplishment, Remedy crafts each of them to offer bits of lore or tidbits of information that supplement the main campaign.
Unfortunately, The Oldest House’s variety of areas like Research divisions and Executive suites are overrun by a transdimensional virus Jesse names the Hiss. It infects human bodies to transform them into either floating, blabbering shells or creepy, hostile entities. There’s also a kind of mold spreading, which transforms folks into stumbling “hosts,” apparently unrelated to the Hiss though equally as troubling. These groups are the main opposition, the implication being there are deeper forces behind them unbeknownst to even the smartest in the Bureau.
It’s a great foundation, which allows the team to flex its incredible art directing, atmosphere setting and world-building talents. The unsettling vibe results from blending a cookie-cutter corporate aesthetic with spooky lighting and empty spaces, transforming areas that should be bustling with activity into Hiss-infested territory. Because of its alignment with paranormal experiments, the building takes on a life of its own. Shape-shifting and changing form. Almost a character in itself. While unfortunate for employees, this benefits gameplay in application since it allows Jesse to traverse across more varied and vertical areas.
To put it plainly, Control is out there. And that weirdness is obviously intentional, in true Remedy fashion. Its eerie atmosphere grabs attention immediately, then permeates throughout its near 12-15 hour playtime. The team’s focused, absolutely amazing art direction somehow transcends plain corporate spaces into uneasy environments, giving a spectral feel to what should be comfortable. Abandoned laboratories are riddled with scrawled post-it notes and scattered paperwork, where idle research instruments sit unused as researchers float above, chanting in tongues due to the Hiss virus taking hold of their being. It’s unnerving, and beyond effective.
And my, how exquisite is the sound design. It’s impossible to oversell how much it contributes to the experience. When the player enters a new area, an audio cue blares to announce one’s arrival. Sound accentuates action, namely as Jesse deftly wields her abilities. Flinging pieces of the environment here and there while dodging income fire, bullets blazing past with a terrifying “WHIZZ.” Remedy even uses a lack of sound to its advantage, then sprinkles delicate notes or haunting strings in the background depending on the theme of each area. Everyone from the team involved with audio design deserves a raise for this grand achievement.
Turning to story and pacing, describing the main path as a slow burn is an understatement. Once Jesse gets her bearings and encounters the Hiss, she begins seeking out survivors. This begins with Emily Pope, a perky research assistant that’s amassing the few sane people left within a sort of hub space in the Executive sector. Pope advises to track down the remainder of the former Director’s management team, not understanding the urgency of her new Director’s visit because Jesse has not revealed her true intention.
The cast of characters Jesse chases is a laundry list of archetypes. The “mad scientist” Head of Research Dr. Casper Darling, “foreboding former Director” Zachariah Trench and “tough-as-nails” Head of Operations Helen Marshall to name a few. There is one stand-out individual in the oddly prescient janitor Ahti, who makes his premonitions in a sort of endearing garbled English. He seems to know the building, and its secrets, better than anyone else. While many of these are stereotypical, I did find it intriguing to track down their whereabouts and learn about each through context clues and environmental pieces (more on this later!).
Overall, it’s a cryptic, borderline incoherent narrative until the third act when Remedy at least attempts to bring everything together. It’s a lot of “go here, do this and I’ll tell you something later” framework. I know this is a common tactic, I just felt Remedy could devise more intermittent story payoffs rather than saving everything for the end. Or perhaps a radio system that gradually fills in the blanks during missions. Control uses a more of a self-reflective approach, Jesse constantly converses with herself, which adds to the suspense though hurts its structure. Then when Remedy attempts to reconcile the narrative, it remains abstract. Even if by design, it’s still dissatisfying after investing so much time.
Pacing is extremely difficult in non-linear and exploratory experiences. Control blocks off certain areas for endgame using either locked doors or entrances out-of-reach without certain abilities. Plus, Remedy delves into side quests not featured in its earlier endeavors. These are erratic in quality, plus make the game feel bloated. Especially a sort of randomized fetch quest type. Constantly distracting and mostly unnecessary.
A couple of these mini-quests do offer memorable experiences in super cool areas of The Oldest House (maybe even outside of it). One in particular has Jesse cleansing “Altered Items,”everyday objects possessed by unknown forces, for the contact that runs a Containment wing. It seems like busywork at first, then surprises when certain items transport to a multidimensional “Astral Plane” with its own terrors awaiting. If Remedy focused only on these quests, skipped the others, the experience would feel much tighter.
World items and collectibles in Control are among the best in gaming. Legitimately. Hundreds of pick-ups are strewn about the world. It seems excessive, I know, but it isn’t! In an impossible accomplishment, Remedy crafts each of them to offer bits of lore or tidbits of information that supplement the main campaign. These can be corporate forms filled out by sarcastic researchers or personal journals describing a company book club. Or live action video of Dr. Darling’s instructional videos, then his slow descent into madness as he learns more about the risks of paranormal research. Then there’s the disturbing educational puppet show made by employees, for children to learn more about the FBC. This word-building approach through in-game lore is a staple of Remedy games, and is the most consistent part of Control.
Control is solid. Shoot, it’s good. But I still can’t shake the fact that, despite its positives, it doesn’t meet its potential. Like a masterful piece of music degraded by poor recording quality or a fine wine served alongside moldy cheese.
I’ll also compliment the heck out of the studio’s creativity in going beyond abstract concepts to illustrate them using concrete examples. “Objects of Power” are collected by Bureau, basically everyday things like a phone or refrigerator that exhibit special powers due to exposure to parallel realities. Then there’s “Altered World Events,” supernatural occurrences. Jesse even occasionally traverses the Astral Plane when learning new powers, showing her special connection to the supernatural and offering a welcome divergence from the corporate backdrop.
Now I’m likely in the minority, however I think combat is one of Control’s weaker aspects. It’s severely underwhelming in the first half, namely due to average shooting mechanics, a feeble melee attack and a noticeable lack of powers. Abilities are then doled out too slowly. There’s just Launch in the early game, which allows Jesse to control objects and throw them at enemies. Finally the game introduces powers like Evade, Shield and my personal favorite Seize, where Jesse can recruit Hiss allies. These spice up combat later, and destroying parts of the environment under its flexible physics engine feels great. I was hoping to get a base level of each power from jump, then expand from there to learn combinations and synergies. There are at least upgrade paths that offer enhancements, because it’s a video game in 2019.
The Service Weapon is both a novel concept and pretty cool in application. It’s a singular firearm that switches forms, each offering a different mechanism like automatic fire or shotgun blasts. Jesse can have two forms equipped at once, and Remedy uses animation cues to distinguish between them. A nice touch. Still, Service Weapon upgrades don’t make much of a difference until the most rare drops start appearing. Offering additional damage against enemy shields or increasing zoom for the precision weapon type are hyper-specific, though admittedly helped against certain enemy archetypes.
Beyond combat, navigating through the many halls of The Oldest House proves frustratingly difficult. Mainly because of how vertical the level design is combined with how poor the map is at displaying direction. There’s no mini-map or compass available. Limited visual indicators, other than in-world signage. The map screen itself often doesn’t even function properly, only halfway loading the names of sections without showing any details or outlines. This is less annoying early, though increasingly insufferable as Jesse visits new areas. Luckily, there’s fast travel. Though again its effectiveness depends on how many “Control Points” one has unlocked.
One much-discussed topic surrounding Control is its inconsistent performance, namely on base consoles released earlier this generation. Digital Foundry goes into much more detail in its great piece, with the verdict being that the game is tuned for PC play though Xbox One X is the best console option. I played on this platform and still experienced issues with frame-rate, texture pop-in and sound drops. Especially during hectic fights, which combine frame-rate dips with a low health effect where the screen turns red. I’m one of the more forgiving you’ll find when it comes to performance, so you know it’s an issue when I point it out.
I also experienced random difficulty spikes, even later game when I was supposed to be at my most powerful. Moving around during combat is integral, the Evade ability crucial. Which eats up chunks of Jesse’s energy bar. Unexpectedly, there’s a couple intensely frustrating boss fights as much due to mechanics as performance. Dying multiple times when you have the mechanics down is agonizing. Had to take a break then return when I wasn’t as ticked off. An instant derailment to general flow, which is much more important in action games than other genres.
Before wrapping, a quick minor spoiler warning for the more sensitive to general plot developments. It’d be a mistake to ignore story progression and the abruptness with with its resolution occurs. Without going too much into detail, Jesse does (eventually) get around to investigating what happened to Dylan. The payoff of her investigation and the ultimate conclusion were underwhelming, not to mention much of the exposition is conveyed via dialogue sequences rather than fluid storytelling. I get this is a byproduct of a lonesome protagonist, though even the content of the narrative was convoluted separate of its delivery.
All in all, whew. This is a long piece. Because there truly is a lot to like in Control. Its chilling sci-fi vibe. Art design of its environments. Incredible, genius world-building through collectibles and in-game videos. Perfect implementation of sound and audio cues. A physics engine that allows for destruction of environments. Select meaningful side quests that go in unexpected directions. Those late game instances where shooting and abilities coalesce into a dazzling display of combat proficiency proves there are plenty of special moments to experience. If you make it that far. Not to mention I dig any game with thought-provoking subject matter, namely what happens when humans experiment with things not of this world and how it impacts those involved.
Control is solid. Shoot, it’s good. But I still can’t shake the fact that, despite its positives, it doesn’t meet its potential. Like a masterful piece of music degraded by poor recording quality or a fine wine served alongside moldy cheese. Average shooting that isn’t up to par with rivals. Awkward navigation resulting from a disconnect between level, map and in-game indicator design. An intentionally opaque story with limited twists and turns or intermittent payoffs. Too many performance issues across platforms. Superfluous side missions and randomized fetch quests that pop up even during tense story moments or monumental boss fights.
Remedy is certainly the type of larger independent studio that I love in theory. Unafraid to take chances amidst competitors intent on churning out annualized franchises or attempting to mimic the success of other games within a given genre. Control is the byproduct of this ingenuity, though for reasons of budget, timing or personnel decisions, doesn’t quite levitate above the realm of perfectly good games with untapped potential.
I’ll certainly remember it when all is said and done this year. For its ambition as much as its failures.
Release Date: August 27, 2019
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.
Recommendation: Control is unique within the third-person action-adventure genre in its unconventional subject matter and strange storytelling approach, so it’s worth experiencing if you enjoy Remedy’s earlier efforts. Just keep in mind frustrations are still present, and I believe they will impact your enjoyment. Oh, and it sounds like you shouldn’t play it on the original PlayStation 4 or Xbox One at least until a patch hits (if ever) due to performance hiccups.
Sources: 505 Games, GamesPress, Remedy Entertainment, Digital Foundry, Screenshots from Xbox One X.