Remedy Entertainment returns with Control – a new game that mixes their usual third person action with a strange supernatural tale and… the best Force powers ever.
As far we’re concerned being weird is almost always a positive, especially when the alternative is being ordinary, predictable, or overfamiliar. And yet weirdness is in the eye of the beholder and most people have their own unique perspective on what counts as odd and what doesn’t. Which creates a problem for any game trying to sell itself as knowingly weird. Control is certainly unusual, no matter what way you look at it, but rather than the setting and storyline the most interesting thing about it is the excellent third person action.
Control developer Remedy are best known as the creators of Max Payne and Alan Wake, although their most recent release was the less successful Quantum Break. Despite the varying settings all their major games have a similar style of third person action and in that sense Control is very reminiscent of Quantum Break in particular. But their previous games have also all suffered from a lack of progression in their mechanics, where the gameplay and abilities go largely unchanged from the beginning of the game to the end. But that is not a problem in Control.
According to Remedy themselves, Control is inspired by the new weird genre of fiction and owes a very obvious debt to the excellent Annihilation by Alex Garland. The basic plot of Control is actually fairly straightforward though, as you play the seemingly ordinary Jesse Fade who gains entry to the Federal Bureau of Control while it’s being invaded by an interdimensional presence known as The Hiss. Before you know it she’s the new director of the agency and suddenly possessed of supernatural powers.
Jesse is at the bureau in order to look for answers about her lost brother but beyond that, and the fact that’s she’s constantly talking to someone, or something, in her head, you know almost nothing about her at the beginning of the game – or for a long time after to be honest. Given the odd setting it is surprising how quickly the game runs through the initial set-up, with Jesse failing to react to anything going on around her in any kind of realistic fashion. As a result, in only a few short minutes, you’re running around the bureau’s magical headquarters in what is essentially a 3D Metroidvania.
The Oldest House, as it’s called, has TARDIS like qualities in that it’s implied to be alive and seems vastly bigger than it should be, with shifting rooms and gateways to other dimensions. For most of the time though it is just a grey concrete edifice, a brutalist skyscraper filled with possessed former agents that will attack you on sight. At first you can only defend yourself with a transforming gun – that switches between what is essentially a pistol, shotgun, submachinegun, and other shooter staples – but early on you also get the ability to use telekinesis… and it is wonderful.
Since you’re effectively using the Force many games have featured telekinesis in the past but never has it felt so powerful and versatile as it does here. You can pick up almost any object in the game world and throw it but if there’s nothing around you, you can just rip off a chunk of concrete from the walls or floor. This combined with some excellent destructible scenery can turn a sedate looking foyer into what looks like a bomb site within just a few minutes and it looks and feels fantastic.
There are other abilities you gain along the way, such as a shield and the ability to possess enemies, although the flying you see in all the trailers comes in fairly late in the game. Abilities and weapons can be upgraded with earned loot, although Control isn’t really an action role-playing game and you don’t level up yourself except to gain extra slots for your own buffs.
The timing of Control and Astral Chain this week is very odd, considering both are third person action games that feature an ‘astral plane’ made up of what looks like giant cubes of black marble. But the similarities are skin deep and the structure and gameplay of Control has a very different focus, whereas its astral plane is used as little more than a tutorial area when gaining new powers.
Given the overly straightforward structure of their previous games we thought Metroidvania would be the perfect match for Remedy but somehow they’ve managed to make exploring an open-ended game world still feel surprisingly linear. What little backtracking there is to do is mostly via fast travel and while there are time-limited side quests that pop up at random their rewards are so minor, and they repeat so often, you quickly lose interest.
And then there’s the question of weirdness. Your mileage may vary but to be honest we wouldn’t say Control was all that weird at all. Although there are exceptions, and things do certainly get more fantastical towards the end, most of the time you’re just running around a concrete office interior performing ordinary video game tasks like fixing generator pumps and finding key cards. Compared to anything from Super Mario Odyssey to Silent Hill the game really isn’t that strange, especially if you want to bring the surrealist oddities of Suda51 into the fight.
That’s not necessarily a problem except when it comes to the narrative, which goes nowhere for the first two-thirds of the game and offers almost no characterisation for Jesse – which is only compensated for by the excellent voice-acting. Unlike Annihilation, which the game is so keen to pillage for its visuals, there’s little thematic depth to the game’s story and while things do get more interesting as you approach the climax it’s too little too late.
The same could be said for the enemies which, for the majority of the time, are just ordinary soldiers with ordinary guns. Occasionally there’s some that fly and others that explode when they get close, but again it’s surprisingly late in the game before anything genuinely weird happens. You begin to realise that all the talk of ‘Objects of Power’ and the X-Files style background flavour is just window-dressing on a game that could’ve been about anything really.
Ultimately, Control is still making the same mistakes as Quantum Break, just to a less severe degree. The action is fantastic but the context given to it – the story and the structure of the game – takes away more than it adds. With this game Remedy has perfected their particular style of third person action but they have still yet to find the perfect vehicle for it. It’s not weird that Control should still be enjoyable despite that, but it is frustrating that it isn’t the cast iron classic we were hoping for.
Control game review
In Short: The flawed storytelling squanders its full potential but even with a few missteps this is still one of the most enjoyable action games of the year.
Pros: The gunplay and superpowers are superbly realised, with the best use of telekinesis ever in a video game. Impressive destructible scenery and some ambitious visuals.
Cons: The Metroidvania structure often seems wasted and the primary setting isn’t as visually interesting as Remedy think. Underdeveloped story and characters. Too many human enemies.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: 27th August 2019
Age Rating: 16
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