Control is something different. Literally and figuratively. On one hand, it’s an incredible action-driven experience with a complex, layered narrative. Just as you’ve come to expect from our beloved studio in Finland. On the other, it’s proof Remedy is capable of radically changing the way it approaches game-design while at the same time, explore concepts the studio was yet to get familiar with. Things like a non-linear experience and freedom of exploration. Combine both hands and you’re holding something unique. There’s a lot to talk about Control and during this review, we’ll do just that. Are you ready? For things are about the get weirder than usual.
Nihil Est Simplex
Let’s start at the beginning. As a studio, Remedy’s core business always revolved around creating extraordinary experiences for a single player. Unfortunately with the industry rapidly changing, that business model needed tweaking. No longer would it be healthy for the studio to bet on one game project and allow for it to have a long development cycle. Instead, the studio chose to split up into various teams and started work, simultaneously, on multiple projects. A lesser amount of time to develop also meant the scope of the projects needed to be contained without compromising on the feats Remedy is known for. To safeguard a decent amount of playtime and replayability, Remedy chose to incorporate a narrative that would be open-ended, a large interconnected world map for the player to explore and progression through (side)quests. To further guarantee the project’s success, a multi-platform release was considered vital. This wish would lock out another partnership with their previous publisher, as Microsoft would likely require the studio to develop solely for PC and Xbox. After pitching the project to various publishing parties, 505 Games was enlisted and Control (Codenamed “P7”) was born.
In Control it is revealed that P7 is also an in-game codename for Jesse Faden (P7 is short for ‘Prime candidate 7’, a person of interest the Federal Bureau of Control sees as possible Director). Faden is the game’s protagonist and is being played by Courtney Hope. For fans of Remedy Hope is no stranger. She also portrayed a character named ‘Beth Wilder; in Remedy’s Quantum Break. The studio chose to continue working with Hope as she was seemingly the perfect fit for the role of Jesse Faden. After casting Faden, the studio thought it would be fitting to also bring back Matthew Poretta (known from Alan Wake) and James McCaffrey (the voice of Max Payne) to create an all-star Remedy ensemble. While Hope and Poretta are directly at the forefront of the game, McCaffrey’s involvement is minimalistic and could be considered as fan service. His character dies right at the beginning and will continue to guide Jesse Faden throughout the game. These moments of guidance can be viewed in full separately and while they are reminiscent of the dialogue as delivered in Max Payne 1 or 2, they all contain the same video footage. While integral to the story, McCaffrey’s character Zachariah Trench remains largely unexplored. The same cannot be said for Poretta’s role. While the character Dr. Casper Darling does not appear in the (base) game, the many video diaries he leaves behind bring him to life. Amazingly, they also bring The Oldest House to life. The videos, as well as the immense amount of detail and destructible environments, all add to a lived-in feel.
Having said that, The Oldest House is really alive. The Federal Bureau of Control is a secret government agency that seeks to protect the world from the unknown. Much like the Men in Black, the FBC governs outside regular jurisdiction and is being managed by its Director. The FBC established its headquarters in The Oldest House after agents discovered its existence due to an ‘Altered World Event’ in the subway tunnels of New York. Altered World Events, or AWE’s, are events in which the laws of reality are violated. Their occurrence can provide access to other dimensions or create Altered Items and Objects of Power. Based on their mysterious behaviors and hazardous effects, the FBC isolates and studies Altered Items in order to understand them and prevent them from posing a threat to human safety.
The Oldest House itself is a Place of Power. And like altered items or objects, it too defies the laws of reality. From the outside a brutalist Skyscraper. Though inside, The Oldest House is an ever-changing building with shifting architecture that contains doorways to many other dimensions (so-called “Thresholds”). The possibilities within the Oldest House are endless and allow for Remedy to create an interesting, varied and yet contained world for the player to explore. Exploration is heavily recommended. The player can find a wide variety of upgrades and resources as well as many Easter Eggs to the previous Remedy developed game titles. The place is also littered with audio-logs and documents that allow the player to immersive deeper into the lore of Control. I’d heavily suggest collecting these as some will connect Control to other games in the Remedy universe in mind-blowing ways.
Not all areas within the Oldest House can be reached at the start of the game. Some require the player to learn specific skills while others are blocked off until you’ve progressed further in the story. Deep within the Oldest House, the player might come across many Objects of Power (‘OoPs’) that can grant the player new abilities. The first one you will pick up is the Service Weapon. The Service Weapon is an Excalibur-like item that can only be wielded by specifically chosen persons. In the case of the Service Weapon, that would be the Director of the FBC. As soon as Jesse picks up the weapon, she is transported to the Astral Plane. The Astral Plane is an area that functions as “proving grounds” and where the Black Pyramid is housed. The Black Pyramid is a mysterious object of significance to Jesse, as it seems to represent the “Board” or leadership of the Oldest House. After Jesse completes the trail of the Service Weapon, she is appointed by the Board as the new Director. It’s after this sequence, the game starts to let the player loose. Other objects grant you the ability to shield, to dash or to levitate. And that’s not even all of them.
Soror et Frater
Are you still with me after reading the above text? Good. It’s complicated for sure but that’s part of the beauty of the game. When you embark on your adventure, nothing seems to make sense. A few hours in and things manage to become even more complicated. However, as you venture onwards, events start to connect. Revelations are made. Within its twisted reality, things start to make sense. Perhaps an example will provide some clarity. Determined to find her long lost brother, Jesse Faden seems to easily come to terms with the strangeness of the Oldest House. At the beginning of the game, this feels off-putting. But as the player progresses further in the story, it’s revealed through past events Jesse is fully aware our world is not the only reality out there. Jesse and her brother Dylan stumbled upon an old slide-projector, an Object of Power, that could act as a doorway to many other worlds and realities. Realizing the danger of such a device, Jesse and Dylan quickly destroy many of the slides but in their act of doing so are interrupted by agents of the FBC. Jesse manages to escape but Dylan is captured. The slide-projector is also taken. When Dr. Casper Darling manages to get his hands on the projector, things go awry and the “Hiss” manage to enter our reality.
Courtney Hope manages to encapsulate Jesse’s feelings of determination perfectly. Determination to find her long lost brother and to protect the remaining personnel of the FBC. Her voice does barely contain hints of fear. In contrast, her voice is filled with tones of confidence. Early in the game, Jesse states she’s “Happy” to have found the Oldest House, as it finally confirms the fears and doubts she has been bearing for years. A few Hiss here and there, do not seem to change that.
The Hiss is the main enemy in the game. It’s an invisible “being” that can take control over objects and persons. A person can prevent itself from being controlled by the Hiss by wearing a Hedron Resonance Amplifier (HRA). Once taken, the process is irreversible and death is the only “remedy” to eradicate the Hiss out of a body. Key personnel in the Oldest House were the first to acquire an HRA and thus survived the Hiss attack. Jesse does not wear an HRA but is still immune to the Hiss invading her mind. She’s being protected by a being she calls “Polaris” as a result of interacting with the slide-projector. Many of the staff that survived can be interacted with. Some will act as quest-givers or advisors to Jesse. Others might provide some more insight into the events unfolding. The topics of discussion can be selected through several dialogue options. Having said that, there’s no option to choose how Jesse should respond (like in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for example) and thus conversations pan out in a fixed manner.
Portam ad Inferno
The Hiss is incredibly powerful. It’s a certainty you’ll die often in the game. When you die, you’ll be returned to the nearest ‘Control point’ (safe zone) which can result in a bit of back-tracking. Luckily, not all enemies will re-appear. The strategic use of mods and weapons in your loadout is required to ensure survival. However, early in the game, I found a combination that seemed to work for me (Shatter, making the Service Weapon act as a Revolver and Telekinesis, allowing you to use every-day objects as projectiles). As a result, I didn’t bother much for the other options. I was a bit disappointed the game didn’t force me to change my playstyle but after giving it some thought it makes perfect sense. The game gives you the tools to form your playstyle and going in Rambo was the one that seemed to work for me. That might be different for someone else. I do think though with the number of enemies that can surround you, you do need to keep moving. Sniping in a corner will probably get you killed real quick.
The Hiss will appear in many shapes and sizes. In most cases, it will appear as the guards or policing force of The Oldest House. That means it can be equipped with pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, and rocket launchers. Some variants are also capable of levitating, making it extra hard to hit them. Every now and then you might also stumble upon a boss-fight. Most of these are optional, much like the Valkyries in God of War. One, however, is not and because it’s fairly early in the game can be quite the challenge. It clearly functions as a statement indicating these boss-fights are not to be taken lightly and will require a strategy and preparation. All in all the challenging combat makes sure there is danger lurking around every corner. Controlling Jesse feels absolutely great. The action is smooth and tense. It reminded me a lot of Max Payne but then without any cover mechanics (like in Quantum Break or Max Payne 3) or slow-motion. When you’ve gained some abilities the number of enemies starts to increase, forcing you to keep moving. Eventually, you’ll be choreographing your encounters with style and precision.
Depth is something the game is not short on. Apart from all the lore mentioned earlier, the game is rich in atmosphere. One of my main concerns with Control was that graphically it would look too similar to Quantum Break. The two titles are sharing the same engine and many of the same render-techniques. Early screenshots seem to indicate that Control, just like Quantum Break, would have a ‘washed-out softness’ to its visuals. While this softness is present, the game does look significantly different when compared to its predecessor. The game screams for a photo-mode to be implemented and luckily, that mode is confirmed to be coming later this year. I’m extremely curious to see the beautiful photos the community will come up with.
Much of its atmosphere is also established by the game’s amazing great score. Composed by veteran Remedy composer Petri Alanko and newcomer (but an established name in the industry) Martin Stig Anderson. The score takes a back-seat and is less evidently present as in games like Alan Wake and Max Payne. Rather, it’s more ambient of nature and kicks in when it needs to underline events happening on screen. It soundscapes hinted at influences of Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner 2049 and Johan Johansson’s Mandy. Last but certainly not least, The Old Gods of Asgard also popped unexpectedly and I can never forgive myself if I spoiled you how.
Finis est Principium
As we’re about to conclude the review, one question remains. What’s not to love about Control? Honestly, I can’t think of much. The thing that managed to disrupt my experience is timed events. These so-called ‘Bureau Alerts’ are side-missions that pop-up at random and require you to execute an objective within a set amount of time. They are easily ignored but if you are a completionist, these can take you away from the pacing of the main narrative. Nothing major. But as I failed to follow up on many of them, the game would sometimes inform me of my failure in the heat of the moment, while fighting off many Hiss. It just felt a bit messy. Enemies also tend to respawn very quickly. If you like to explore The Oldest House, going from one area to the next and back will often trigger a new wave of enemies. Forcing you to clear those first before you can continue your exploration.
We’ve arrived at the end of this review. In summary, Control is the pinnacle of Remedy game design. The studio managed to encapsulate a complex, layered narrative. Tense and smooth gunplay. An interesting environment, rich with atmosphere, variety, and a fleshed-out universe. An all-star cast and great supporting talent. All why shortening the development time and venturing in unexplored waters. But surely, the story of Jesse Faden is far from over. The developers have clearly stated they are planning to continue the adventure within the Oldest House for months to come through DLC. While the game might have an open-end, it will surely answer any questions you might have raised during play. I might have regained control, but there are still areas in The Oldest House I haven’t explored yet. Time to head back, agent!