Where to begin? When it comes to Remedy’s Control it’s almost fitting to start at the end and then work your way back. Much in the same way some of us digest reviews. Check out the score, have a glance at the conclusion, and then go back to the beginning to get some context. For Control this isn’t talking about anything specific that comes from its final moments, or the sense of closure imparted from its spectacular and grandiose finale. Where the state-of-mind bending supernatural story and setting reaches its conclusion.
Beginning here one can’t help but revel in the slow and measured crescendo of Control’s story, mechanics, action and characters. The inventive sci-fi concepts, wonderful art direction and genuinely engaging combat. Plus, a generous helping of sci-fi weirdness. All packed into what may initially feel like Remedy’s least ambitious project in years. A thought born from the infrequent but increasingly high-profile nature of the development studio’s releases — going all the way back to the original Max Payne.
Prior to Control the studio’s most recent effort was Microsoft Games Studios’ Quantum Break in 2016, which presented a time-travel heavy sci-fi story alongside what was essentially a full season of a television series. Inside a cinematic action game.
Set in a singular location, the stark and imposing Federal Bureau of Control, one might get the impression that Control is Remedy-lite. Especially when you factor in that under three years of development time is noticeably shorter than the very long wait we’ve had to endure between Remedy productions. Of course, Remedy-lite or being less ambitious isn’t the case at all. One could easily point to Control as the studio’s most impressive and realised version of the style of game it has been cooking up for decades.
“... one can’t help but revel in the slow and measured crescendo of Control’s story, mechanics, action and characters”
In fact, let’s do just that. Control is Remedy’s most impressive game to date. From how the story develops alongside the mechanics, to the exploration and excellent level design, to the sheer Use-The-Force-like spectacle that the action sequences quickly morph into. Action that is every bit as kinetic and engaging as any exploratory sequence or film-like setup found within. A Remedy production where the focus on a singular location has led to perhaps one of the most inventive and visually spectacular digital environments we’ve seen in a long while.
The Federal Bureau of Control is a place like no other. Bureaucracy, pristine white shirts and slacks, board rooms, office cubicles, scientists, secret installations, impressive technology, and strange interdimensional forces coming together. Bodies floating in the air, chanting in a religious but still eerily monotonous way – unable to be cleansed.
In continuing the studio’s long history of staying on the forefront of cutting-edge visual fidelity and on-screen magic, for all its stark underground complex vibes and sci-fi oddity - Control is full of detail and awe. The sort of stuff that is often missing in other games. Scuff marks and non-repeated imperfections found on the 1970s inspired carpets and walls and tiles. Often imperceptible but a testament to Remedy’s commitment to immersion. The flip side to this is then wandering into a huge underground quarry that evokes the strange wonder of visiting an alien installation on a distant moon. Or, witnessing devices that can protect or alter forces direct from the Astral Plane.
On the PC, the partnership with NVIDIA – which brings real-time ray-tracing to Control — is nothing short of a glimpse at the next generation of game graphics. More than a high-tech tick in a list of Advanced Settings, transparent reflections add depth and an additional dimension to the Federal Bureau of Control’s various locations – whilst playing into some of the underlying themes of identity and mystery. Looking through a window whilst also seeing both yourself and the environment behind you reflected, is truly stunning to see in real-time. Even more-so when that thing behind you is a giant inverse pyramid hanging from the ceiling.
By this point, if you’re unfamiliar with Control and it’s setting – here’s a bit of a spoiler free setup. The game takes place in FBC headquarters, a secret government facility that exists below the surface of New York. One that investigates strange AWEs (Altered World Events) and catalogues Objects of Power and Altered Items. A facility that is currently under attack from a supernatural or otherworldly force. The brilliantly named and mysterious entity simply known or referred to as The Hiss. As Jesse Faden, you take on the role of The Director with the goal being to regain, well, control of the facility.
“For all its stark underground complex vibes and sci-fi oddity - Control is full of detail and awe.”
This only scratches the surface of the story being told and the universe depicted. Mystery and strangeness abound in Control, where the sci-fi elements and flourishes help ground the fantastical with a sense of purpose. Or, assumed sense of purpose. Even when what you see or read makes little in the way of obvious logical sense, you never feel like there isn’t some form of deeper meaning behind every document, strange object, or incomplete bit of history you stumble across. At a glance – chaotic. But somewhere you know there’s a curtain ready to be pulled to reveal all.
With Control, as with all great sci-fi, in the end it doesn’t even matter if that becomes true or not. The mystery and questions and overall atmosphere are enough to propel Control into the realm of genre greats.
One of Remedy’s greatest talents has been with how it merges its large character and set-piece driven stories with action. In a way that isn’t so much a version of interactive cinema or film, but the videogame equivalent. From Max Payne’s ‘bullet-time’ mechanics that felt genuinely new and fresh to the way physics and lighting were integrated into Alan Wake’s supernatural encounters. Control takes all of this to its natural conclusion, abilities that are akin to Star Wars meets David Lynch with a dash of David Cronenberg. Or Stanley Kubrick. Seeing Jessie’s posture whilst she levitates says a lot about Control. Precise, otherworldly, alien, strange, weird, human. Powerful. Throwing objects around the room in a display of telekinetic anarchy is taking the pristine and familiar and turning it upside down.
“Seeing Jessie’s posture whilst she levitates says a lot about Control. Precise, otherworldly, alien, strange, weird, human. Powerful.”
Where Control takes a detour or switches things up from other Remedy titles comes with its progression and structure; from a pure mechanical and level design perspective. Although it has become somewhat common to describe any single-player experience that features backtracking as “Like Metroidvania”, it’s a sentiment that fits Control. Exploring the Federal Bureau of Control and its various Sections, it’s hard not to be reminded by something like Super Metroid or more specifically Shadow Complex. Which then ties into the weapons you upgrade and evolve, the new supernatural abilities you learn, and using that to explore new corners, find secrets, or revisit previously inaccessible locations.
This repetition or the visiting and re-visiting of locations works wonders for the story being told, and the underlying mystery of both individual and connected events. And the fact that it just feels great to exist in this world. It’s not entirely perfect, a lot of the side-missions and secret locations in terms of reward and objective can begin to feel repetitive and even uninspired. In the ‘take out enemies until this arbitrary progress bar fills up’ sort of way. That said, the excellent combat, detailed environments, the fascinatingly strange setting and wonderful narrative, it’s easy to overlook things like a handful of generic encounters and a mostly confusing map screen.
Control has flaws, but even these give it character. And don’t detract from the overall enjoyment. A brilliant slice of interactive sci-fi and action in a world where we're not only likely to remember for years to come. But, ponder its meaning too.