Remedy Entertainment has solidifed themselves as one of the best storytellers in gaming with Control, a cinematic and exhilarating masterpiece from start to finish
Remedy Entertainment have become absolute masters of storytelling in videogames. Cutting their teeth on the legendary Max Payne and its sequel in the early noughties, 2010's Alan Wake marked the studio's shift to focusing on narrative and atmosphere above all else, a supernatural and chilling vibe emanating from the classic thriller.
Fast forward to their next big project, published by Microsoft itself as an Xbox One exclusive: Quantum Break. A risky title which hoped to truly become an interactive movie/show by blending live action "episodes" with extended gameplay segments, the ambitious project was a marvel in branching narrative and carefully crafted storytelling. The live-action TV show featured AAA production values and a solid cast of veteran actors with production being handled by a proper television studio, with tons of different scenes shown to players depending on their actions and choices made during the game which could lead to quite different outcomes and narrative beats.
The gameplay itself was an extremely well-polished third-person action game, utilizing various time-based abilities alongside conventional firearms in the epic time-travelling mind-bender. The abilities offered an impressive array of effects and looked stunning in action, particularly in set-pieces where time itself was being warped and distorted - a scene where a ship came crashing through a bridge only for time to stop mid-wreck and slowly go back and forth in a broken time loop truly has to be seen to be believed.
The story unfolded at a perfect pace and offered players not only great replay value in making different choices to see how the story differs, but also in finding plenty of collectables which offered deep insight into the lore and backstory of the lovingly crafted world.
While some didn't appreciate being pulled from the game to watch half-hour live-action segments, it was a unique experience and one that deserves appreciation for the quality and superb storytelling on display by Remedy and the seamless transition between videogame and television show and back again, with both media forms being blended together beautifully and maintaining the same aesthetic.
With Control, Remedy took the things they'd learned and experimented with (to great effect) in Quantum Break and honed those skills to near-perfection.
Opting for a return to pure gaming without the divisive live-action tie-in, Control nonetheless utilizes skilled (though not well-known like in Quantum Break) actors in the roles of the game's characters, not only to more realistically capture the world but to offer a level of line delivery and confidence rarely seen in gaming.
Like Quantum Break before it, Control immediately catches the eye with its clean, modern environmental design and sleek sci-fi look. On top of that crisp sheen is a slight film grain and almost-hazy lighting effects that combine to give the game a dream-like quality, adding a veneer of intrigue to the uniquely sci-fi atmosphere.
Replacing the time-focused themes of Quantum Break with the supernatural, Control starts off by dropping Jesse Faden (the mysterious woman you play as throughout the game) in the lobby of the Federal Bureau of Control. The FBC is essentially a copy of the FBI but for the express purpose of containing and studying supernatural phenomena.
The game's brooding atmosphere draws you in as you explore the empty halls of a seemingly abandoned office building. You'll soon come across a delightfully creepy janitor for a "job interview", Jesse explaining in her own head how she has searched for years to find this place and got in by applying for an assistant janitor position.
Jesse is looking to find her long-lost brother, who was apparently taken by the Bureau when they were children. As she explains the situation you quickly realize that she isn't talking to herself - but is she talking to you (the player) or something else entirely?
Nearing the Director of the FBC's office, you hear a gunshot reverberate from behind the door. Cautiously, you enter the office only to find the Director laying on the floor by his desk, blood soaking the ground around his head from a single gunshot wound. An odd-looking pistol rests by his hand and without anyone else in the vicinity, the Director's death was undoubtedly a suicide. Something (not the player, but whomever Jesse is speaking to) tells her to pick up the gun, and next you are thrust fully into the crazy world that Remedy has crafted.
It's after this moment that Control sinks its hooks into you, its mysterious and puzzling questions imploring you to get to the bottom of what's going on and what on earth has happened in this shady government facility.
You quickly discover that the director's weapon comes with a test - if you pass the test and are deemed "worthy", you are given the role of Director of the FBC. If you fail, you die.
After an otherworldly experience, Jesse lowers the gun that she had unwittingly pointed at her own head and is granted the Directorship from an ethereal force which speaks in jumbled, incoherent ramblings that Jesse can somehow understand (which is cleverly relayed to the player in the form of subtitles).
As Jesse seeks out other people to make sense of this, low, muffled voices begin to grow louder, quietly repeating phrases as if part of some sort of chant. Jesse comes across business people suspended in midair, motionless in awkward positions, no sign of life in them aside from their odd mumblings which are echoed by the other people suspended in the air, combining to form a haunting melody which serves as brooding background noise.
All of a sudden armed people appear, possessed by who knows what as they open fire. The Director's service weapon proves a capable pistol as you dispatch your first opposition, which you dub the "Hiss" given the hissing incantations murmured by all of the possessed people floating around aimlessly and attacking you alike.
As you venture further into the FBC building, which you find out is named the "Oldest House", Control slowly lets you in on the situation unfolding around you.
The history of the FBC and the Oldest House it calls home, and exactly how Jesse (and her brother) fit into the unravelling conspiracy is slowly but surely revealed to the player. Remedy constantly feeds you tidbits and answers to your questions, while simultaneously giving you more questions to mull over and new information that makes you only want to find out more, constantly drawing you deeper into their incredibly realized world.
And the world of Control is quite literally insane. Everyday inanimate objects become supernatural killers with unique personalities, a normal-looking hotel becomes a portal to other worlds, dead office workers remain suspended in midair throughout a shapeshifting building. Yet Remedy does such a masterful job grounding the experience in reality and history that soon enough its crazy world becomes normal.
You'll quickly become familiar with the FBC vernacular, which includes terms like Altered World Events, which describe dangerous (even fatal) happenings that occur thanks to supernatural forces tied to Objects of Power (or OoPs), which are everyday objects that are basically possessed by forces beyond our own understanding. These Objects of Power share a connection to the Astral Plane, which is an otherworldly dimension (which is what Jesse visited when she picked up the Director's weapon) and is also where the Board (an upside down pyramid which spoke to Jesse and granted her the Directorship) is located. The Board quickly becomes an obvious key to the FBC, as it seems to know much more than its willing to share but does give guidance from time to time.
All these terms may seem confusing at first and certainly seem weird when you're reading about it instead of experiencing the game, but Control slowly fills you in as you go, explaining concepts simply and intuitively and letting you fully grasp an idea before adding another or expanding upon it.
Not only is Remedy a master of worldbuilding and storytelling, but they are an incredible teacher - if schools actually want children to learn and embrace concepts, they should hire the people at Remedy to design their curriculum.
As you progress in the Oldest House as the new Director, you'll find new abilities to use (much like in Quantum Break, though with a supernatural slant rather than time-bending mechanics) by "binding" Objects of Power to Jesse - in a simple explanation, removing the powers that are tied to the object and instead applying them to Jesse, who has the ability to control them for herself.
These powers include the incredibly useful Launch, which allows Jesse to pick up and hurl an object (be it a chunk of concrete, a fire extinguisher, a desk, or any other object you can find) at a target, the Shield which rips objects from the environment to form a protective barrier in front of Jesse, a standard Dash ability, a force push-style melee attack, the descriptively-named Levitation and even the ability to turn an enemy into an ally for a short period of time with Seize.
As you complete missions and side quests, you'll be given ability points which can be spent to upgrade your various powers as well as upgrade your health and energy (which is needed to use your abilities). Some of these upgrades can be very powerful, such as letting you catch and fire back grenades or rockets in midair with Launch, a ground slam to damage enemies in a small area, levitating to impressive heights for an increased length of time, and even taking control of multiple enemies at once.
As for your trusty service weapon, the Director's sidearm has a storied past and allows its wielder to shape it to their needs, allowing it to stay relevant and powerful even as technology progresses. As such, you'll be able to purchase different weapon schematics to change the supernatural firearm into different variations, including a shotgun-style variant, a charge-up sniper, an SMG, and a rocket launcher. You can purchase upgrade schematics which become available as you progress and increase the level of each weapon variant up to level three, which increases the damage the weapon does in that mode and unlocks an additional modification slot to add upgrades to.
You can equip two weapon variants at once in the loadout screen and switch between the two at any time with a click of a button, though the ammo shared between them is the same - the service weapon automatically recharges once a meter reaches empty or after a few seconds without being fired, with each variant using a different amount of charge per shot.
Each variation can have up to three modifications equipped which can be found throughout the game world or on downed enemies. These mods have various effects, such as increasing damage, reducing energy consumption per shot, increasing the fire rate, or variant specific upgrades like having more projectiles fired per shotgun shot or increasing the zoom on the sniper.
As you purchase upgrades you'll also unlock up to three personnel mod slots, which are modifications that improve Jesse as opposed to her service weapon. These can include health or energy increases and improved recharge rates, lessened energy consumption when using different abilities, enhancements to specific abilities' damage and more.
With every objective and side mission completed as well as through each kill, you earn Source which is essentially the in-game currency. Using Source in conjunction with various crafting items found in the world and dropped by enemies, you can purchase new weapon types, upgrade your weapons, and craft random weapon or personnel mods of differing rarity.
The upgrading system is intuitive and deep and allows a real sense of progression in your abilities and power, with plenty of incentive given to players to encourage them to explore the Oldest House and complete the various side missions (which are just as good as the main story line).
Anyone who's played Quantum Break will be familiar with how combat feels in a Remedy title; responsive, snappy and clean. The abilities are particularly fun to use and make you feel extremely powerful, even clever when they're put to good use.
Though you can alter your loadout at any time and equip any mods or weapon types, purchasing improvements and upgrades can only be done at Control Points - these are specific locations around the Oldest House which can be reclaimed from the Hiss by using Jesse's power to bind them, creating a fast travel point and upgrade station. If you die at any time, you'll also conveniently respawn at the nearest unlocked Control Point.
In addition to offering upgrades and fast travel, Control Points also allow you to turn in and activate Board Countermeasures - these are essentially bounties which reward you with crafting materials or mods in exchange for completing certain tasks, like killing a specific amount of Hiss in a certain area of the Oldest House, using a certain weapon type to eliminate enemies, or taking out specific enemy types. You can equip up to three countermeasures at once and see your progress from the menu at any point, and can turn in a completed task at any Control Point to earn your reward. There are always things to do and multiple ways to improve your abilities as you play.
The Oldest House is a character in and of itself, constantly changing with the encroaching Hiss infection sealing off sections and changing the layout of the rooms themselves.
Capturing a Control Point clears the Hiss structures from the surrounding area, resulting in impressively cinematic changes to the Oldest House as new paths are unearthed and the clean and clinical architecture of the building is brought back.
This Metroidvania style of game design (returning to the same level multiple times to explore different sections as locked areas become accessible) permeates throughout the title and is also replicated with its use of clearance cards, which will lock certain sections of the Bureau until later in the game when proper clearance is attained. In some games it can be annoying to have sections sealed off or hidden, but here it's done so intelligently it's largely hidden from the player and is thus a brilliant implementation of the genre.
Hiss enemies can still spawn in captured areas however, and there are also Bureau alerts given randomly throughout your playthrough - added to your mission screen, these are time-limited events where Hiss have invaded a section of the Oldest House. Clearing them out will result in extra crafting and Source rewards, but if you die (either while trying to complete the alert, or while doing another task) the alert will be lost and any rewards it offered along with it.
In addition to all of the weapon options and abilities at your disposal, Control offers great variety in the opposition as well - while the Hiss all have a similar, glowing look, they are made up of many different units of the FBC and some even sport powers similar to your own.
Hiss units include standard infantry, snipers that deal massive damage on a successful hit, RPG-toting demolition experts, heavily armoured variants with machineguns or grenade launchers, telekinetic types that levitate and hurl objects at you (and are good at avoiding launched objects in return), cyclone-like balls of whirling objects that cannot be killed but must be avoided instead, teleporting power spheres that heal nearby Hiss, and more.
Later in the game you'll also discover an infected type of enemy thriving where a virulent mold has turned members of the FBC into zombie-like corpses that are covered in said mold. This mold's scent is so attractive to humans that they hilariously can't help but try eating it, only for it to kill them and take control of them. These lumbering enemies can shoot spores from their mouths or overwhelm up close with melee attacks, and the overgrown sections of the Oldest House provide a very different biome to explore.
Perhaps even more immersive than the beautifully detailed environments is the physicality of it all.
Remedy has taken great care in creating a fully rendered environment, with virtually every object in the world being a fully realized 3D model; items and pieces of paper fall off desks as you bump into them, paintings and light fixtures fall off walls when you launch objects at them, panel facades chip away to reveal concrete foundations that bullets bore into when you shoot them, chunks of concrete and flooring get ripped from the ground as you telekinetically gather material to launch at opponents.
Not only does the game look great, but everything in the game feels like it has a weight to it: that it's a tangible item and not just an immobile object there as set dressing. The damage modeling is another fully realized step in creating one of the most immersive worlds in gaming history.
One of the most impressive visualizations of this individual physicality is a side mission which involves an Object of Power that spawns a limitless amount of clocks (the ticking wooden box, hang-on-the-wall old-fashioned kind) in an area of the Bureau.
Mounds of clocks overflow entire rooms and hallways and as you clamber up and through them, the individual clocks are pushed away and fall, new clocks sliding into the gap created like a sea of plastic balls in a children's ball pit. It's an impressive display of computing physics and of course provides plenty of ammunition for your Launch attacks.
Despite the entire game taking place within the walls of the Oldest House (albeit this includes some trips to the ethereal Astral Plane), the locale's massive area comes with various floors and plenty of diverse sections.
Even though they retain core design principles these sections offer many different looks, from different Hiss corrupted areas to nature's overtaking of some of the lower sections to the black rock quarry offering an entire quarry and dig site inside the building (the Oldest House is astronomically larger inside than the building it looks like on the outside, one of the perks of being a supernatural location).
Unlike most games set in open or semi-open locations, Control doesn't feature a minimap or (as is the new standard) horizontal compass with objective markers - instead, a tap of a button overlays a 2D map onto the screen for the current floor, with your currently selected objective highlighting the section you need to go to in yellow.
This allows Control to utilize an extremely limited HUD to maximize cinematic immersion; a simple reticle which changes based on the configuration of your service weapon equipped, a small ammo meter underneath it when you aim, and contextual buttons as you navigate the world are the only HUD elements you ever see.
You'll likely be consulting the map regularly as you complete objectives, but over time the layout of the building will become more and more familiar, and by the time you complete the game you'll likely know most of the Oldest House's layout as well or better than your own neighbourhood. Even a directionally-challenged person like me soon learned to navigate the game world with ease.
There are also tons of cleverly hidden nooks and secret passages to find offering rewards to those who seek them out, so you'll never get tired of exploring the halls of the Oldest House on your travels.
That exploration is greatly rewarded thanks to literally hundreds of collectables to find lying around the game world. Unlike many collectables in videogames, Control's are a highlight by themselves and are exceptionally well done.
These include tons of written documents, reports, letters, and confidential briefings alongside audio recordings, occasional messages from the Board and the previous Director Trench (who seems to somehow still have a link open to inform Jesse of certain events, either as a remnant of his consciousness or perhaps he is now a part of the Astral Plane itself?), and video recordings. These collectables offer a ton of extra insight and lore and are a blast to uncover, offering clues and context to many of the events in the game as well as fleshing out some of the whacky characters that work for the FBC.
The Dead Letters collectables are a particular highlight; letters sent by ordinary citizens and intercepted by the FBC as they may indicate the presence of Altered Items or Objects of Power, some of the insane (and yet oddly realistic) things claimed by people in those letters is absolutely hilarious, and is made all the more entertaining when real possessed items in the world are found or read about in the FBCs archives. From a fridge that appears inanimate when watched but as soon as no one is looking kills people, to a traffic light that teleports people away from it if they are moving when its light turns to red, to a possessed rubber duck, the kooky objects in Control that take the form of boss fights and min-bosses are an absolute delight.
As many in the FBC's ranks were corrupted by the Hiss outbreak, these collectables and videos are all that is left of them, yet Remedy manages to make many of these characters central to the story - particularly Dr. Casper Darling who seemingly knew much of what was going to happen before the Hiss ever attacked. The informational videos he produced provide both genuine laughs and a smart guide through the zany world of the Oldest House as you go about your travels.
The surviving members of the FBC that you come across are just as well fleshed out, helping you make sense of your role and offering a sense of direction in addition to being sources for side missions. The character and world building on display in Control is truly masterful and makes the game unmissable for gamers of any persuasion.
The one issue that may impact its mainstream appeal is the difficulty - Control bizarrely doesn't have any difficulty level or assist options, meaning that casual gamers wanting primarily to experience the story may get frustrated on certain sections, particularly a few of the boss fights (I'm talking to you, killer fridge).
While the boss fights in Control are very unique and often challenging, each has a path (or a few paths) to victory which can be gleaned from analyzing their attack patterns or other clues, or through trial and error. These make the boss fights compelling and a ton of fun, but to less dedicated gamers they can easily become frustrating and turn them off of such an incredible game.
There are also times where a ton of enemies will pop up in certain areas, which can become chaotic and difficult to manage, leading to some do-overs - while you aren't really punished for dying, sometimes Control Points aren't super close to the spot you're having issues with and it can become tedious if you're stuck in a tight spot.
In order to make sure everyone can enjoy the masterpiece that is Control, Remedy should seriously consider adding an easy mode for the more narrative focused gamers; the more people that get to experience the exceptional world of Control, the better. And maybe a harder mode as well for those that would like an extra challenge on a second playthrough?
It also occasionally suffers from some performance issues on the console versions - while those on powerful-enough PCs don't have to worry, occasional framerate drops occur and sometimes the map will take an odd amount of time to load (especially weird given that it's a flat 2D map). While nothing major happened to detract from my experience, the normally silky-smooth gameplay was occasionally impacted, and that might be more frequent on base consoles as opposed to the One X or PS4 Pro.
By the latter half of Control, you'll be an expert on Objects of Power, AWEs and the FBC, and your steady stream of questions will not go unheard, with players given answers to how Jesse found the Oldest House and how she relates to all of these events, what happened to her brother Dylan, how the Hiss got into the Oldest House, what happened to Director Trench and more. Like any great mystery though, those answers will leave you with even more questions and a desire to know every single detail.
That curiosity almost leads to ruin as the game "ends" on a massive cliffhanger, leaving you high and dry without answers to the most pertinent questions you seek. The ending is on par with Halo 2's notoriously abrupt and infuriating finish...but as the credits roll, they start to distort, and luckily give way to the game's epilogue, which is its true finale.
Way to flirt with disaster, Remedy.
The creepy, groundhog-day style epilogue sets up the real conclusion which brings a satisfying level of closure to the story, with the well-written last act having an air of finality to it yet still leaving plenty of questions for players to ponder long after the closing credits roll (properly this time).
The climax of the game brilliantly serves as both a satisfactory ending and a continuation point that allows the story to advance, with players able to keep going in the game to mop up side quests and explore the Oldest House right afterward. Many games allow players to return to the game world post-ending to mop up anything they hadn't completed, but most do so by letting players return to the world as it was before the final mission, so it's a nice touch to not have anything which pulls away from the immersion Remedy worked so hard to create and instead allow players to continue the experience without any narrative gaps.
Even after completing all of the main missions, plethora of side objectives, and achievements in the game, Control leaves you wanting more of its delightful universe. Luckily, with plenty of opportunities ripe for exploring, Remedy has announced two full expansions that are coming early next year, including one that looks like it will be a full crossover event featuring Alan Wake, the protagonist of one of Remedy's earlier titles, which was revealed to be a part of the Control universe through collectable documents.
Here's hoping those expansions live up to the main game's standards, and that a sequel is coming sometime down the road.
Control is an absolute masterpiece. Everything about the game exudes polish and confidence, creativity and expertise. The world Remedy has created is one of the most immersive, enticing and beautifully crafted virtual experiences ever made and deserves to be played by anyone and everyone that's ever picked up a controller.
If you have an Xbox One, PS4 or PC and haven't yet played Control, you are missing out on one of the greatest gaming experiences ever crafted.
+Brilliant writing with unmatched character and world building that keeps a perfect pace; the sinister and mysterious tone is perfectly balanced with genuine humour and oddity
+Terrific dialogue and voice acting, combined with a haunting score and very immersive sound effects
+Stunning graphics and graphical effects; top-notch lighting and particle systems are used to great effect here
+Impressive physics engine that gives everything in the game true weight and combined with extensive damage modeling, truly immerses players in the experience
+Exhilarating gameplay is polished and refined to a tee and offers plenty of variety and room for unique playstyles, with lots of upgrades and meaningful modifications
+Unique and challenging bosses and optional mini-bosses that really showcase Remedy's creativity and ingenuity
+One of the most intriguing, deep and lovingly crafted worlds ever created in any form of media that just begs to be explored and unfolds in a natural way that lets you learn all about what's going on, without ever feeling overwhelming or confusing
+Hundreds of meticulously crafted documents and audio/video collectables that expand the lore, offer clues and answers to various happenings in the game, and deliver plenty of humour
+Genuinely satisfying conclusion that deftly ties in to the endgame while setting the stage for expansions and (hopefully) a sequel
-No difficulty select which, combined with some genuinely difficult areas, may turn some players off or cause frustration
-Occasional performance issues on consoles
The Final Score: 10 / 10