Control isn’t the type of game that comes around very often. While the mechanics for a lot of the game are familiar, there’s a good amount of risk involved when developing an entirely single-player experience. There are no differing modes to fall back on if one isn’t well received. Remedy Entertainment’s Control is coming out at a good time though. The back half of August is relatively busy this year, but it is a solid month ahead of the onslaught of Fall releases.
I’ve been following Control since its announcement. I even had the opportunity to interview game director Mikael Kasurinen back in 2018 at E3, and it seems like the initial showing from that year is pretty similar to what is in our hands today.
Control takes place in New York. Specifically, at the Federal Bureau of Control (which I’ll be referring to as FBC from here on out). Players take control of Jesse Faden as she searches for answers regarding her brother’s disappearance. A strange encounter from when she was younger has given her a guiding force that she has given the moniker Polaris. The FBC is located in a building that can’t be seen unless you’re looking for it, but once she’s inside, she discovers that the building is under lockdown.
An entity known as The Hiss has taken over the workers of the FBC. After discovering the body of the former Director of the FBC, she finds the Service Weapon, and assumes acting directorial duties of the FBC. We’re going to avoid spoilers for the sake of this review. Part of what makes Control so great is how well the mystery behind the FBC, The Hiss, and Jesse’s journey are all intertwined with each other.
It would have been easy for this experience to be a linear, story-driven experience, and in a way it is, but everything inside the FBC is connected. Not one thing that Remedy has put into Control doesn’t come full circle at some point. This gives Control really great momentum throughout. I finished my playthrough around the 25 hour mark (most of that over just a couple of days), but it could easily be finished in about 15.
As much as the story is about Jesse Faden’s search for her brother’s whereabouts, it’s just as much of her learning to be the director of the FBC. Settling into her role means she learns about her past and exactly what the FBC does. My absolute favorite thing about Control was learning about Objects of Power. These are items that people see every day that have been exposed to some sort of force that alters the way they behave. A refrigerator that must be watched 24/7 or else it kills is a standout here, but all of them are interesting in their own way.
There are a number of side-missions and hidden locations for players to uncover though (and a lot of them revolve around Objects of Power), which gives a compelling argument to find out as much about the FBC and The Oldest House (the building where the FBC is located) as you can. The side-missions in Control are often just as interesting as the main campaign, and generally involve helping different FBC departments perform various tasks.
The side-missions are often where a lot of the really interesting and giant monsters lie in wait too. Not just that, but Control has a great cast of characters. Of course, Jesse is an incredible protagonist, but a lot of the less-seen cast also deserve credit too. Langston is the head of the Containment Sector where a number of paranormal items are kept in the FBC. Some have escaped and he tasks Jesse with tracking them down. Down below the building mold has taken hold and Jesse needs to find the source in order to remove them from the building’s ecosystem. Someone that will probably become a fan favorite is Ahti, the janitor. I did occasionally have trouble understanding him through his thick accent, but apart from Jesse, he is clearly the most interesting character here, and deserved far more screen time than he got.
Remedy’s Northlight engine gives the world and characters an incredible look. Characters have full mo-cap, and surfaces have a great amount of texture and reflections. Something that Mikael touched on during my interview with him was how the team at Remedy wanted all surfaces and materials to behave as they should if they are interacted with. Solid surfaces crumble, glass shatters, and wood splinters.
This was something I put to the test when Control launched, and tried to shoot or punch as many different surfaces as possible. I was pretty amazed to see that they really did behave like I expected them to. Columns lost chunks of concrete off the sides, reducing cover, dashing through stacks of books causes pages to fly through the air, and shooting at a sheet of glass leaves bullet holes appropriately. Game optimization and the tech behind it isn’t something I know a lot about, but Control has some really smart gameplay design going on here to keep everything running as smooth as possible, especially when the bullets and rocks start flying.
It wasn’t all sunny skies though on the technical side. When things really got hectic I had significant frame drops. I was playing on the Xbox One X and it was generally pretty brief, so it wasn’t too bad. Also, a weird thing happened when coming out of any menu. Any time I paused the game or went into my inventory and mission menu, when returning to the game I had a good three or four seconds of frame drops, whether I was in a fight or not. Again, not a huge issue, but these frame drops were worse than the ones I had during hectic battles.
Speaking of combat, the gunplay in Control is pretty great. Jesse’s Service Weapon almost becomes its own character as it shifts between forms depending on the situation. At the outset, Jesse only has one form at her disposal, a regular pistol form. As she explores the FBC she’ll earn a handful of other forms to use like a shotgun form, grenade launcher form, and even a sniper form. These different forms can be modified even further to suit your play style. Mods that Jesse finds throughout the game can change the way all the different forms behave, and can drastically change the outcome of an encounter.
There was one frustrating boss fight (where I died probably 30 times) that I finally beat because of the weapon forms and mods I had equipped. I do wish that there was some added difficulty in Control, or maybe some more challenging encounters. I died a handful of times here and there (I was playing on normal difficulty), but other than that one battle, I was often uncontested.
Jesse can’t just rely on the Service Weapon though. Control’s level design is metroidvania inspired, which means that players will end up going back to explore already explored areas to find hidden locations they might have missed from not having the right ability. However, all of the abilities that Jesse learns are combat based too. The Service Weapon doesn’t have infinite ammo, and players need to learn how to utilize every ability in Jesse’s arsenal in order to survive every encounter. Both ammo and ability points recharge (which can be altered with mods), so using them in tandem quickly becomes second nature to not use all your ammo and ability meter at once.
Completing missions and fighting enemies rewards players with in-game currency and ability points. Ability points can be sunk into Jesse’s abilities, while the currency can be used to upgrade weapons (along with the required materials) or craft new mods for Jesse or her weapons. Players can upgrade the tier of mod crafting using materials they find while exploring, to craft higher end mods.
I could heap praise on Control all day long for its characters, level design, or top-notch storytelling, but a big reason I kept exploring was for documents and recordings. Each area has a ton of hidden documents and recordings that give hints into what the FBC is about, things they do in different departments, or even therapy recordings of Jesse and her brother. There are video recordings too (which seemed like they could have been live action), but with how good the character models were in Control, that could have gone either way.
I said before that the Service Weapon almost becomes its own character, but The Oldest House deserves a character spot. Hallways and corridors can twist and turn to unlock new areas, or my favorite area, The Ashtray Maze, is a mind-bending area that almost forced my eyes to betray me a few times. Hell, a cord attached to a light transports Jesse into a motel (it sounds crazy, but it eventually makes sense) where players must solve a brief puzzle in order to continue through to a new area. Each ridiculous area in Control had me gripped, and I didn’t want to stop until I had fully explored each area.
It’s a pretty trippy ride, but Remedy has built an incredible world inside the isolated FBC building. Jesse is a very strong protagonist, with a great cast of supporting characters. A spiraling story that doesn’t slow down once it starts help propel this action game to one of the best titles of the year. Not only that, Control is Remedy’s best title since 2010’s Alan Wake, and while the journey eventually comes to an end, hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jesse Faden.