There’s a point in Control where Jesse, our enigmatic lead, mutters to herself “I’m happy. It feels sane, or just the right kind of insane. I never want to leave”. Never in a game has a character uttered something so in tune with my feelings while playing. Remedy is one of the few developers who have managed to nail an almost perfect marriage between story and gameplay. As such, it makes sense that Control represents the ultimate refinement of everything they’ve done thus far. It’s a big call, but I’d even go as far as to say that it’s Remedy’s best.
Control follows Jesse Faden, a woman who travels to the Federal Bureau of Control in search of her younger brother who was previously kidnapped by the Bureau following a supernatural event. Jesse discovers it overrun by a supernatural force known as “the Hiss”. They’ve invaded and corrupted the building, and presumably murdered the director of the Bureau. Following this, the director’s unique weapon chooses Jesse prompting the Bureau to instate Jesse as the new director. In the search for her brother, Jesse agrees to help defeat the hiss and restore order to the Bureau.
Sam Lake and his team of writers at Remedy are masters at crafting engaging stories with extensive backstories and Control is no different. The main plot itself, while a bit abstract at times, is both alluring and captivating. But the way Control stands apart from the rest is the way it presents an underlying mystery that slowly unravels, grabbing your attention from beginning to end. The story itself doesn’t consciously make the effort to explain every lingering plot thread, but there’s room for interpretation no less. Not since BioShock Infinite has a game been so thought-provoking, with Control remaining on my mind long after the credits have rolled. Its revelations are on a smaller scale, for sure, but it’s nonetheless satisfying to piece it all together.
Wearing its influences on its sleeve, Control plays out similarly to media such as Inception, LOST, The X-Files and even Remedy’s own like Alan Wake. But whether you dive into the supplemental material of the game’s hundreds of files to further flesh out the story, or just follow Jesse’s own tale, Control is engaging from beginning to end. The less you know the better, however, so we should move on.
As a game, Control is one of Remedy’s most ambitious. You control Jesse inside the Bureau as she explores the mysterious sources of the Hiss and searches for her brother. I’m not quite ready to declare Control as a pure “open-world” game much like I wouldn’t say the same about games like Metroid or Metal Gear Solid, but Jesse can go wherever her abilities permit. You can choose to follow the main story; you can choose to explore a bit and unlock side quests, or you can just cruise around and have fun with the games (very) respectable combat. The choice is yours – this is easily Remedy’s least linear game yet.
What Control does well is in capturing, like Metroid, a harsh feeling of isolation. And while Metroid does that on an alien planet, Control puts you inside of a sterile brutalist building that’s physically bigger inside than it is out. Jesse comes across people who work for the Bureau during her travels, for sure, but you never really feel like you connect with them while Jesse herself is an enigma. It’s this sense of isolation, this sense of needing to understand the world you’re in that makes Control so inviting, and so enticing to explore.
When you’re not exploring, you’ll be in battle, and this is where Control differentiates itself. Remember Psi-Ops? Jesse has access to a combination of five weapons and six psychic powers that complement each other in the battle against numerous enemy types. At first, you’ll be able to get by relying on one or two different abilities; but as the enemy pool diversifies, you’ll need to rely on them all.
The psychic powers are easily what makes Control such a joy to play. Jesse can lift pretty much any object in her view and hurl it at opponents, or even enemies themselves as she grows stronger. She can pull debris close to her to form a shield, before expelling that debris as a violent projectile. She can even influence the minds of enemies to turn them against each other. Add to this the ability to levitate and evade through the air, and you’ve got a pretty fun and varied combat system. All of this would be pointless if Control didn’t handle well, but thankfully, the combat brings together responsive controls with dynamic options that never get old. This is Remedy’s best combat system without a doubt.
When not playing through the story missions or exploring the Bureau, Jesse can also carry out other activities to improve her abilities and load-outs. The primary side missions in Control are mainly the good kind – they flesh out the world of the game and the goings-on of the Bureau itself. Oddly enough, some of the most memorable boss battles are even contained within them, making them well worth your while to seek out. The others are referred to as “countermeasures,” and are typical, presumably randomised tasks. They are more mundane objectives such as killing enemy types with a specific weapon to killing enemies without taking damage to just killing enemies within a particular location.
These missions are simple but give you an excellent way to build up your mods for Jesse. Jesse herself can not only outfit her weapons with mod pieces but also herself to augment her powers. Better damage, health, and energy cooldowns are all examples of the buffs that these mods provide, which can be slotted in and out of your load-out as much as you want. They’re impactful enough to give you a noticeable advantage in a tricky battle, but at the same time don’t require too much micro-management. I rolled my eyes when I picked up my first mod in Control, worried Remedy had succumbed to the pervasive looter shooter craze, but thankfully it’s handled well here.
It’s not just shooting and mindless exploration either, as some of the optional content can be quite challenging. Not only is every boss battle a true test of your grip on Jesse’s skill set, but the puzzles you’ll come across are incredibly satisfying. You’ll have to look around the environment to solve them; read files, decipher mindless scrawl on a whiteboard and decode messages to solve them. This isn’t represented by a forced and gimmicky gameplay mechanic, but instead, in an organic way that means when you do solve it, you’ll feel smart. That’s what a good puzzle should do in games.
Without a doubt, the most wondrous thing about Control, other than its abstract concept, is just how visually striking it is. While at first glance the game takes place in a sterile concrete jungle, Remedy has done well here. The world itself continually warps and shifts to provide something interesting to feast on visually and is to be commended. The cinematography of lingering shots and the harsh yet resplendent lighting contribute to some of the most distinct visuals we’ve seen this gen and alone make Control worth experiencing. It’s an absolute feast visually, and a joy to look over a room after combat is over to see how much debris is on the floor – debris you created with your own brand of mayhem and chaos.
The sound design is similarly deft. A neat selection of actors who’ve previously worked with Remedy their other games all show up here and give great performances for each of their characters. Like any good thriller, Control also handles its soundtrack and ambient music superbly. The game knows just when to amp the music up as a battle approaches, when to play music sets a dark or brooding atmosphere or when to play nothing at all. Control isn’t strictly a thriller and most definitely not a horror, but its masterful use of sound makes some moments tense.
Unfortunately, with such ambition comes a bit of a caveat. While nowhere near as plagued with performance issues as games like Quantum Break, Control does have the odd bout of slowdown when switching between menus, maps and when the destruction gets a bit too over the top. I did wait to see if the day one patch would fix this, but unfortunately, the problem, while improved, persisted. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but if you’re especially sensitive to this kind of thing, it bears mentioning.
But the question remains as to whether you’ll enjoy Control or not. If you prefer your stories to be delivered through excessive exposition and wrapped up nicely with little room for interpretation, Control probably won’t be for you. If you like a good mystery, or even a good thriller, and enjoy piecing things together then you’re sure to love Control. After all, isn’t that what a good mystery should be?
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED ON AN XBOX ONE X FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Control is a slick and stylish win for Remedy, their best work yet. With strong combat, an engaging story and striking visuals, Control is a masterclass in both style and substance. It’s abstract, it’s bold, and it’s wicked fun.