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Control is neither the worst nor best game Remedy has made, it is somewhere in the middle. I am not the best authority on that, seeing as how I haven’t played their prior title, Quantum Break. It was an Xbox One exclusive that by most accounts was a considerable disappointment. QB was an ambitious attempt at bridging the game and television formats, with entire sections literally playing television episodes.
Remedy, since their first studio defining title, Max Payne in 2001, have wanted to play with the episodic format that games seem naturally suited to. After all, games are often about beating level after level to the finish line and a chapter or episode can mirror that well. The Max Payne series, of which Remedy developed the first two and years later would hand off the excellent third to Rockstar, was more chapter oriented than episodic.
Suitably so, as Max Payne is a celebration and light roasting of the noir genre, especially the hard boiled detective variety. Noir often comes in two formats, literature and cinema. Max Payne borrowed from both while also adding a touching comic book flavor through the panel by panel cutscenes that were an exceptional way to get around the technical limitations of the early 2000s.
Even then, sprinkled throughout all of Max Payne and into later titles like Alan Wake and Quantum Break are TV sets playing short snippets of hilariously on point parodies of televised entertainment. By 2010’s Alan Wake, Remedy could actually insert live action into those viewable in-game TV sets, creating an enjoyable disparity between the game’s graphics and actual filmed sets and actors.
Alan Wake remains the best at this experiment, due to most of the episodes the titular protagonist can watch being a respectful imitation of The Twilight Zone and/or Outer Limits, called Night Springs.
This lengthy tangent into Remedy’s past before tackling their newest creation is important, as Control is all about the Finnish studio getting back to what they are best at: atmospheric world building, topsy turvy mind screwery, insertion of other media formats like radio and television into what is ultimately a third person shooting game and a subtle amount of self awareness of how much they know they are not really adding to the genres their games follow, but are reflecting and critiquing, all in good faith.
Jesse Faden is a woman in her late 20s with a most mysterious past and a just as mysterious agenda that is clarified naturally as the game goes on. A mysterious entity is inside her head and it is guiding her for whatever reason to a building in Manhattan that is only visible and enter-able to those who are aware and allowed in.
The Oldest House, home to the enigmatic Federal Bureau of Control, is an amalgamation of various secretive government agencies, like the Men in Black, Marvel’s Shield, the BPRD from Hellboy, with a pinch of Black Mesa and Aperture Laboratories from Valve’s Half-Life and Portal series, respectively. Of course, once Jesse arrives looking for some deeply personal answers, the place has totally gone to hell.
The FBC is the paranormal FBI, in that they investigate, strange, normally unexplainable phenomena that happens in the world. Imagine if the Bermuda Triangle was actually a cursed region in the world. The FBC would be on hand to figure out and classify the reason behind the mystery. That is a short example of the many different things the FBC does. “Objects of power”, as the game calls them, are artifacts that have been “paranaturally” changed to do strange and often dangerous things to reality.
Some objects are portals to other, extremely dangerous planes of existence. Some are predatory creatures, annoying tricksters or generally mundane matter manipulators that can be associated with aspects of human cognition. Ideas of luck, probability, time, determinism and other ways we perceive reality. Control and the FBC is all about finding answers to the unknown, even if on some level, it is an impossible task.
As you might have guessed by now, the Oldest House itself is a massive, possibly infinite artifact of paranatural power itself. The FBC is often at odds with their own headquarters as they are with dealing with matters outside of it. Just navigating the damn place can be a psychological headache. That’s putting it lightly.
A dark, red-looking abnormality called the Hiss have infested the place and many of its denizens and Jesse soon finds herself thrust into the role of becoming the Bureau’s new director, following the prior director’s apparent suicide.
A bewildered Jesse gains the “service weapon”, a gun that can transmogrify into other gun-like forms. She also learns to manipulate the world around her such as telekinetically throwing just about anything not bolted down, forming force fields and levitating.
In order to find the initially vague answers she seeks, she has to clean up the colossal mess that’s been made and prevent the Hiss from finding a way out of the House. Fortunately, there are survivors and they are more than happy for her help.
While the story that Control tells is meant at times to be hard to follow, as the nature of Jesse’s situation is far, far from normal, the voice acting often makes it hard to really connect with the complex concepts that the game is trying to explore with the player.
Jesse and most of the cast come across as flat, purposefully or not, and few really made me care about their fates as much as I would like. The irony is not lost on me that the two most interesting characters Control has to offer are dead and possibly dead. Zacharias Trench, played by James McCaffrey, the voice and eventual mo-capped face of Max Payne himself, was the director before Jesse.
Much like the iconic noir cop he played in the past, McCaffrey’s Trench is a sad man who ruins his life for the sake of the Bureau’s responsibilities, however worthwhile they may be. Through the “hotline”, a red phone which connects with apparently prerecorded messages of Trench, she informs Jesse of various topics involving the Bureau, the hiss, the Oldest House and himself.
You really feel sorry for Trench’s Atlas-like struggle as director and half the time I almost thought that Mr. Payne himself had changed his name and gotten a crazy new job following the course of his series’ story.
The other figure that drew me in is Dr. Casper Darling, played in live action “instructional videos” by the voice of Alan Wake, Matthew Porretta, who looks way different than the character he once voiced. A semi-portly scientist with an understandable nervousness to him, he tries to explain in laymen’s terms the purpose and research of the FBC.
The mystery of his disappearance and falling out with Director Trench is one of the more interesting plot threads Jesse and the player can follow. Sadly, the central mystery that Jesse is trying to resolve isn’t as captivating. Her motivations are somewhat spoiler-laden so what I can say is that Jesse’s journey through the Oldest House and the secrets they hold is the strong enough glue that holds the experience together.
The nature of the gunplay Control offers is strong but not as enjoyable or well thought out as my experiences with Max Payne’s extravagant bullet-time shootouts or Alan Wake’s literal light vs dark encounters. The problem isn’t so much in the weapon selection which is quite good, it’s how you equip your weapons(through a pause menu) and that they are only as effective as the mods you find, create and use for them. Often, the results in satisfying combat are lacking.
Some weapons you can upgrade like the grenade launcheresque “Charge” is often woefully under-powered, even though the weapon’s intent is labelled more as stun than defeat. “Spin”, analogous to a sub-machine gun is frustratingly weak and the shortburst method the game states as best to use isn’t always so. I often relied on two types for the service weapon to transform into, “Shatter”, which is like a shotgun and “Pierce”, which is a charged sniper rifle.
There’s no ammo, instead a cool-off system. Your additional powers such as telekinetically throwing objects is often a way to do some damage to your opponents when you’re in the cooling period for the service weapon. Your abilities also have a limited gauge to recharge as well, so it’s a matter of Jesse’s movement, placement in the area, health pickups she makes along the way and balancing weapon and power usage.
The basic setup of how Jesse fights her way through the Oldest House is solid, if unexceptional. It is marred more by the frankly frustrating difficulty spikes, especially in some enraging yet optional boss encounters and the often awful frame-rate.
I must remind the reader that I am reviewing the Playstation 4 version of Control, so I can not speak for the performance of the game on the Xbox One or PC. Considering Remedy’s roots on the PC platform I imagine and could easily verify if Microsoft Windows is the format to best enjoy Control.
The PS4 version, while definitely functioning and not a deal-breaker, dampens the immersion, sense of well, control you have in moving Jesse in and out of combat and the pop-in of textures and long load times paint not the best picture for Remedy’s optimization efforts for at least one console.
This is disappointing, because their Xbox 360 version of Alan Wake, nine years earlier, is silky smooth and helps with the enjoyable horror atmosphere that title was going for. That might have had something to do with Alan Wake being a Microsoft exclusive, but my case against PS4 Control stands.
Control is not so much a triumphant culmination of the skills tempered and lessons learned from Remedy’s earlier work, but a successful enough reevaluation of what their output is going to be going forward. Quantum Break, based on the critical and commercial reception back in 2016, was an ambitious miscalculation.
Control is a complicated but worthwhile return to form for Finland’s premier game studio. If that is not enough encouragement to give it a try, it does have some of the most rewarding fan service to their past work to boot. To put it another way, if we can’t have another Max Payne from them or a long desired Alan Wake sequel, Control does some creative things to split the difference.