Sure, Max Payne has inspired no shortage of imitators but there’s nobody out there filling the niche and taking the kinds of risks that Remedy are known for.
On paper, there are plenty of other studios who could have made games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break. But in reality, it's difficult to separate those games from the Remedy-isms they exhibit and embody.
The idea that anybody but Remedy is going to make a fake network-TV budget science fiction series that intertwines with their time-travel third-person shooter or a Twilight Zone-inspired spin-off to “Twin Peaks meets Stephen King” is on-its-face absurd. Even if the degree to which they succeed can vary wildly, Remedy’s games have always excelled at emphasising the Finnish developer’s unique sense of craftsmanship and humanity.
And while Control is a strong contender for Remedy’s best game yet, the thing that impresses me the most about it is how it manages to be just that without without compromising on the lingering weirdness that the studio is known for.
Set in a vaguely contemporary New York City, Control is a third-person action game wrapped in the trappings of modern science fiction thriller. You play as Jesse Faden, an orphan who turns up on the doorstep of the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) right as a legion of malevolent forces within the so-called Oldest House break loose.
In the world of Control, the FBC is a shadowy government agency responsible for the suppression and management of supernatural and unexplained phenomena. One such phenomena - a pan-dimensional force called The Hiss - has invaded and infected the building, distorting the building’s brutalist infrastructure and possessing the people within.
One thing leads to another and Jesse finds herself promoted. As the new director of the FBC, she’s armed with a supernatural gun called The Service Weapon and tasked with reclaiming each sector of the building from the Hiss, saving as many agents as she can and bringing order to the chaos.
As this premise might suggest, Control is Remedy’s most non-linear game to date. Similar to Prey or System Shock, there’s a sprawling complex to explore and plenty of ways to go about it. What’s more, the further in you get, the more dynamic and rewarding the moment-to-moment gameplay becomes.
Initially, you’re restricted to just using Jesse’s Service Weapon with Control playing out like a stock-standard corridor shooter. Later, once you bind a cursed floppy disk to your will, you gain the ability to throw objects using telekinesis.
At that point, the big picture for the kind of combat experience that Remedy wants you to have becomes clear and Control evolves into something closer to Infamous or Prototype than Alan Wake or Max Payne. Like the latter, there's a a great sense of physicality and latent kinetics to the world. Like the former, it only takes a small use of your powers for the world to buzz and explode around you. Papers go flying, desks are flipped and concrete crumbles.
I’ve always been thrilled and fascinated by pseudo-scientific things like ESP and telekinesis. I even once started something akin to an after-school club where some friends and I tried to harness our latent psychic abilities*.
Yet I’ve never seen any other game evoke the specific power fantasy that telekinesis involves as right as Control does. The draw for telekinesis isn’t about having more strength than a normal human nor being able to deploy that strength at a distance.
For me, the draw has always been in the absence of friction between mind and matter, the feedback loop of perfect focus and absolute efficiency. You’re not a hammer but a scalpel. You pick a target. You swat them like a fly.
Control absolutely nails this very specific dynamic. There’s an incredible sense of power and low friction to throwing Jesse into battle and flinging enemy formations apart with a single thought. In Quantum Break, combat became more difficult as enemies caught up with your advance time-travel abilities. Control is more asymmetrical and ultimately reverses this dynamic.
As far as gaming protagonists go, Jesse is a bit of a glass cannon. It only takes a few good hits to take you down and the footsoldiers of the Hiss have plenty of weapons at their disposal. Some use guns. Others try to club you to death. Some sneak up on you using camouflage. Others try to assail you from above. One-to-one though? None of them can stand in your way. This tension incentivizes you to strike hard and fast.
And as you take out enemies, you’ll collect both modifiers for your weapons and base stats, abilities and resources. That last one is the closest thing to an in-game currency Control has, as it exists primarily to be crafted into modifiers for your weapons, abilities and base stats. This part of the game is competent enough that it never gets in the way but it's more-or-less there to give the combat a cursory sense of progression. After all, who doesn’t want to watch the numbers go up?
Grind your way through enough fights, face down a few enchanted artifacts and Control eventually takes a turn for the Metroidvania. The game’s story twists, turns and prompts you to revisit older areas and find the secrets, paths, enemies and boss fights hidden therein.
There’s a trove of details to be discovered here and the brutalist environment design in Control strikes a great balance between keeping combat encounters fun and also coming across like a reasonably realistic place to work.
Sure, the FBC seems like a geometrically-impossible nightmare but there’s a still sense of lived-in-ness, density and scale to each section of the game that helps things come across as sort-of believable. I’ve never seen a sprawling government or corporate building quite as grandiose as The Oldest House but I’ve definitely been to places that feel like it. I suspect that the reason as to why lies in the details.
Like many of Remedy’s other games, The Oldest House is littered with fun collectables, audio diaries and memos that add color, charm and character to the world. Hell, half the reason Alan Wake is beloved is because it lets them push their pulpy and playful penchant for genre fiction to the forefront of the story rather than the margins.
Though underappreciated when compared to developers like Bioware, Remedy’s writing has always been their secret weapon and the out-of-left-field premise Control gives them plenty to play with. You get the expected nods to inspirations like Warehouse 13 and SCP but, more than anything else, the game’s storytelling gets a boost from the fact that there aren’t really any other developers dabbling in this specific science fiction niche. Not with this kind of budget and certainly not with the amount of FMVs that Remedy have stuffed into Control.
Remedy have always had a thing for the technique and where other developers have left FMVs in the past, the Finnish developer has doubled down in stunning fashion. Control is - by a margin - the most FMV-heavy game they’ve ever made and every second of it is glorious. Things don’t get quite as fourth-wall breaking as they did with Alan Wake’s Mr. Scratch but the FMV-led moments in Control go a long way towards making it one of the more memorable action games of the year.
Overall, it feels like Control taps into this rich vein of weirdness that’s unlike anything else and I can’t wait to see where Remedy take things when it comes to post-release content for the game. Though the main plot does feel like it becomes one-twist-too-convoluted for its own good, the writing in Control is charmingly strange in a way that stands out and in a way that few other games this year are able to match.
The Bottom Line
Even if the foundations give the game a similar look and feel to Alan Wake and Quantum Break, the specific combat and narrative hooks that Control evokes are more than distinct enough for it to stand out.
It’d be easy to write off Control as just Remedy sticking to what they know but that description just doesn’t do it justice. It feels like a refinement and modernisation of the type of games that Remedy has made before. More than that, there’s a sense of focus here that lets Control soar where Quantum Break and Alan Wake merely succeeded.
As much as I enjoyed the gimmicky faux-TV shows and trans-media experiments that Remedy’s last two games have included, it’s honestly refreshing to see them return to their roots of just making great video games. It turns out they’re really good at it and they show up in a big way with Control.
Control sees Remedy’s trademark storytelling go weirder than ever before but it’s the newfound sense of focus here that sees them deliver one of 2019’s best action games rather than just another game that isn’t Alan Wake 2.
Control is available now on PC (exclusively through the Epic Game Store), Xbox One and Playstation 4.
*It was a phase, alright!