I was 14 the first time I heard the term “the New Weird.” I was a fan of eldritch, supernatural horror already, so the idea of “weird” fiction appealed to me. Standing then, in a bookstore, with a book of stories dubbed as such, felt like the threshold of a widening expanse of fiction. I devoured it. Mieville, Danielewski, Hall, and later, VanderMeer; their work became textbooks for my evolving love of strange, slightly terrifying, always intriguing storytelling. It was from this branch of fiction that I found my way to the SCP Foundation, a collective of amateur writers, all sharing a weird a wonderful universe of stories, and the clear inspiration for Remedy’s newest effort, Control.
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that I was already a fan of Remedy’s work prior to the release of Control. I had played Max Payne, but didn’t quite grasp the weird. Instead, Alan Wake was really the game that made me fall in love with their work. I can safely say that with the release of Control Remedy have captured the spirit of my favorite type of storytelling almost flawlessly, and have even crafted a shooter that I love alongside it.
Welcome to the Oldest House
At first, Control comes across as a third person shooter set in a relatively open, but claustrophobic, office building in New York. The twist here, is that this is no ordinary office – this is the Oldest House. You take on the role of Jesse Faden, a woman with a strange past and an uncertain future. Jesse finds herself on the threshold of the Oldest House in search of her brother, who was kidnapped by the mysterious Bureau of Control when they were children. With a strange intelligence guiding her, Jesse tracks the bureau to the Oldest House. Shortly after arriving, it’s clear that things are not as they should be. An aggressive force called the Hiss is taking over Bureau agents and turning them on one another. Through a strange set of events, Jesse finds herself as the new Director of the Bureau, now tasked with saving an organization she barely understands.
The concept of the Bureau of Control is heavily inspired by that of the aforementioned SCP foundation. This is an organization that goes out into the world to hunt strange objects and capture them for research and containment. To give specific examples would spoil some of the game’s best moments, but imagine the idea of a box that cannot be opened, but has something living inside, and you’re getting an idea of what’s in store in this game. It is at times X-Files, at times House of Leaves, and at times Annihilation. This is a title that wears its inspiration on its sleeve, something Remedy has been known for in the past. It worked out to be like catnip to me.
Ultimately, the plot here is a mechanism to move the player, and Jesse, through the world. While there are elements that fail to deliver the weight you expect, the story of Control does a good job of introducing you to just how wild this world is alongside Jesse. And that world (and the characters in it) really is what drives the game.
From the dingy waste management department up to high security containment, these places all felt very real to me, despite how abnormal they really are. These spaces and the things that inhabit them also look stunning. Innovative lighting, flare, and particle effects makes this one of the most gorgeous games of the year. And the fonts! Oh, the fonts.
Scattered notes and audio logs also give more context and background to the world, and I enjoyed each and every one. Some of them even gave me goosebumps to read, making me rethink my understanding of the game’s world.
Also along for the ride are a handful of charming and brilliantly portrayed characters. While Control doesn’t have a large cast, the writing and acting behind each character, whether in dialogue or in Remedy’s signature FMV sequences, is entirely on point. They’re what give the world just enough life to feel worth fighting for. Jesse herself is a great protagonist as well. She’s smart, capable, and confident, but just weird enough to fit in with the rest of the group. Getting to know her felt natural and enjoyable, and I really hope she returns for future installments.
What’s Next Director?
The gameplay in Control is really what surprised me. I expected a fairly linear shooter with some neat supernatural powers. Instead, the exploration and traversal elements of the game feel like a Metroidvania-lite, if you can imagine what that looks like. Rather than provide a stream of new powers that you’ll need to reach new areas, the game handles opening up the world in a more linear, arbitrary fashion. The elevator starts working, you find a keycard, you open a gate, etc. The map slowly unfolds in the early hours, eventually becoming a web of unique locations and winding hallways. All of this provides a great backdrop to your fights with the Hiss, and fight you will.
Control’s combat is to other third person shooters as Bloodborne is to other third person action RPGs. Rather than snap to cover and pop up to shoot, Control wants you to stay mobile and aggressive. Your weapon, dubbed “the Service Weapon,” is a constant; but its shifting modes allow you to change up your tactics. Standbys like a pistol, SMG, and shotgun mode are clear analogues, but the fact that you never run out of ammo is a joy. Instead, you’ll find yourself managing the reload speed of the weapon, instead of managing ammo reserves. You’ll also need to run over fallen enemies to pick up shards of health, important as Jesse is quite fragile. Add to that a really excellent list of powers (which I don’t want to spoil) for mobility, offense, and defense, and you have a rhythmic experience in combat that is highly mobile and at times quite challenging… When it works.
While I found a groove with Control, not everyone will. Whether it’s the game’s poor performance on base consoles, the occasional lack of precision in Jesse’s movement, or a finicky power not triggering as you were expecting, sometimes the immersion breaks, and gives way to frustration. This isn’t helped by the game’s checkpointing. When you die, you’re sent all the way back to the last save point you encountered. What’s odd is that it’s not the same as reloading a save. Quest progress and inventory items are maintained, which makes sending you so far back even more baffling. It only really irked me a couple of times, but it will prove more bothersome to some. There are also some strange UI choices that make navigating the game’s vast array of collectibles frustrating from time to time. None of this impacted my enjoyment of the game, but it will for some.
Finally, the game’s upgrading and progression may leave you underwhelmed. I enjoyed hunting the Oldest House for crafting materials to upgrade my weapons and craft new mods, but not everyone will. Each time you level up a weapon form it becomes more powerful, and unlocks a new mod slot. These mods have a quality level, and do things like increase weapon reload speed, increase fire rate, and some more exotic effects. You also have personal mods, which can increase your health or power meter, increase move speed, or again, have more unique effects. Lastly, a skill tree provides relatively boring flat upgrades to things like health and power effectiveness. You can earn skill points and crafting materials through completing main story and side missions, all of which were exciting and enjoyable to play through. There are also randomized missions that are both selectable and offered on timers, but these are generally pretty skippable, as they don’t offer any compelling rewards and are just “go here and kill ____” type affairs.
If I have any other criticisms of the game, it’s that some of the optional bosses feature additional basic enemies in a frustrating way. The fights themselves were interesting enough, but having to manage the adds could be a pain. It is also important to note that I played the game on an Xbox One X. It performed well for me, but reports of massive issues on base model PS4s and Xboxes make it hard to recommend until more patches on those platforms.
What’s the Word?
Control is a game that really fired on all cylinders for me. I’ve grown tired of the narrative space that so many third-person action games operate in, but this is a world and story I just want more of. By combining that with combat that encouraged me to fight aggressively and strategically, Control shot to the top of my favorite games of 2019. I feel this is Remedy’s best work, and some of the best weird fiction ever produced in games.
- Inspired world and characters
- Exciting level design
- Great combat flow
- Performance issues on base consoles
- Poorly designed checkpointing
- Some frustrating boss encounters