If Remedy’s sci-fi game/TV show Quantum Break felt like a bit of a thematic departure from the Finnish studio’s haunting, hypnotic Alan Wake, their latest title, Control, falls somewhere in the middle, offering super-powered shooter gameplay in a sci-fi setting that echoes the moodier, Lynchian aspects of Alan Wake’s aesthetic.
Courtney Hope plays Jesse Faden, a woman who arrives at the “Oldest House,” the Manhattan base of operations for the Federal Bureau of Control, seeking answers to questions that have been burning inside of her for most of her life. When she arrives, a supernatural force called the “hiss” has corrupted the facility, and as a result of a gruesome ritual of sorts, Jesse is made the new director of the bureau, inheriting a living gun (really), hiss-squashing superpowers, and the gargantuan responsibility of regaining control of the Oldest House from the body-snatching hiss. Essentially, it’s a worst-first-day-of-work-ever sim.
The entirety of the game takes place inside the Oldest House, with you “cleansing” control points across the building’s several sprawling sectors. It’s set up like a Metroidvania game of sorts, as you’ll frequently revisit each room to unlock previously inaccessible areas, though the actual traversal of the building and its labyrinthine innards is anything but enjoyable. In fact, it can be supremely annoying, forcing the player to literally run in circles to find an objective. There are no in-game markers or mini-maps to help you navigate the levels – only a full map that, when opened, is superimposed onto the screen as you run around and watch your little icon do the same on the map. I imagine this was done to encourage players to learn the environments in a more visual manner so that the bureau becomes as familiar as the back of your hand, but there isn’t enough architectural and colour variation for this to work as well as intended.
The good news is, for the most part, the combat you engage in as you do your exploring is solid fun. Your gun doesn’t have ammo in the traditional sense – your ammo refills automatically, with an upgradable capacity and cooldown time. There are a handful of different “constructs” the gun can take, each offering different properties that are most effective in different situations. There’s the shotgun-like “shatter” construct, the explosive “charge” construct… essentially all of the basic shooter gun types are represented here.
Gunplay is standard fare on its own. But combined with Jesse’s superpowers, it’s a bit more free-flowing and open to creative improvisation. It’s similar to the time-altering combat in Quantum Break except, in this case, you’re altering the environment with telekinetic attacks, switching between different gun types, taking control (I swear, the puns are unavoidable) of hiss-infected soldiers, and levitating around your foes as you batter them with your powers and launch their comrades’ corpses at them in godlike fashion. Each action is limited by a cooldown time, which forces you to constantly vary your approach.
This all works pretty well. It’s fun launching grenades back at the tank-like hiss grenadiers with your mind just before you blow away the goon sneaking up on you from behind with a well-placed explosive round to the face. But what’s lacking here, ironically, is a sense of empowerment. Games like Infamous make you feel like you’re the most destructive force on the planet, to the point where simply running and gliding around is badass. While the powers in Control look super cool, I never got the feeling that I was revelling in doling out the destruction as much as I should (save for one insanely psychedelic section late in the game – that was amazing). Also, too many times I felt like I died via sucker punch, which is to say, I’d run into a room with no idea where the enemies were positioned, and get blind-sided by three rockets that came from who-knows-where, knocking off 99% of my health bar. Infuriating is too kind a word. What makes things ten times worse is the fact that you’re only ever re-spawned at reclaimed control points after death, and there were A LOT of instances in which I’d have to traverse four or five giant rooms just to get back to where I was when I died, only to get sucker-punched again. And again. And again.
Maybe the biggest gameplay weakness of all is movement in general, which feels a little slippery on the ground and borderline unreliable when you’re floating through the air, which is a real shame. On too many occasions, I’d be on the edge of a platform and begin to levitate to higher ground, only for Jesse to abruptly grab onto a rail mid-takeoff, throwing off my timing and sending me plummeting to my death. Taking cover is a useful tactic in gunfights, but there’s no traditional “snap” to the cover system, just a crouch button that kinda-sorta defends you from projectiles. A Gears Of War/The Division stop-’n’-pop mechanic would have been nice, though that might have discouraged players from getting creative with the superpowers.
Despite these annoyances, I actually generally looked forward to the combat encounters, which is ultimately a good thing, if not a great thing. With a few adjustments, the gameplay could meet its full potential instead of being in that “I died but it totally wasn’t my fault” zone.
The game’s story and aesthetic have a Twilight Zone/Cronenberg/Stephen King appeal that’s incredibly cool if you’re into supernatural and psychological horror, and the jaw-dropping visuals are as eye-catching and trippy as you’d expect from the fine folks at Remedy. There are no live-action cutscenes, at least not nearly to the extent that they were used in Quantum Break, but there are glimpses of live-action imagery sprinkled throughout the campaign that are creepy and unnerving in the best way. Periodically, as you’re walking into a new area, a superimposed silhouette of the previous FBC director is superimposed over the gameplay as a cryptic monologue oozes out of the speakers. And there’s one moment, involving live-action footage of a beach at sunset, that is used to chilling effect and will absolutely blow your mind.
A huge chunk of the story is told via multimedia logs and recordings that fill in the lore behind the Bureau and Jesse’s mysterious past, and while these are produced and acted well, it’s tough to sit through all of the content without breaking up the flow of the game. Overall, the narrative and gameplay aren’t intertwined as organically as I would have hoped, though it’s a big improvement over the discordant experience that was Quantum Break. And some of the individual scenes and moments are so inventive and mind-bending that I’m happy to recommend that people play the game just to experience them. The “Ashtray Maze” is one of the coolest things you’ll see in a game this year, without question.
Control’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses for the most part. I was certainly perturbed for a larger chunk of my playthrough than I would have liked, but the game’s storytelling is inspired (if a little bloodless at times), and the stylized visuals and set pieces never cease to astonish. I’d consider the game a win for Remedy despite the lack of refinement in certain areas.
Control is out now for PC, Xbox One and PS4.