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Control is a fascinating work of video game storytelling that levitates above its limitations

Image: Control (Remedy Games)

Hidden in plain sight, right in the middle of New York City, there’s a massive brutalist skyscraper known as The Oldest House. The general public doesn’t know this, but the building is the headquarters for the Federal Bureau Of Control, a government organization that’s tasked with monitoring, researching, and containing “paranatural” events—i.e. all the spooky stuff you’ll be dealing with while playing through Remedy’s new story-driven shooter, Control. A few days before the start of the game’s story, the FBC was invaded by an extra-dimensional hivemind being known as The Hiss, and most of its agents have either been killed or assimilated. That’s where you—or, at least, Control protagonist Jesse Faden—comes in. The you in this case is one of the game’s many intriguing mysteries, as Jesse establishes early on that you are the one who directed her to the FBC, and you are the one she confides in when she’s not sure if she can trust the remaining still-human weirdos she meets inside The Oldest House.

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Control is the latest game from Remedy, the studio behind the first two Max Payne games, and not only is it fantastic, but it feels like a natural evolution of the sort of narrative-focused games the studio has been making for a long time—to the extent that it’s not a stretch to say that this is a spiritual successor to Remedy’s excellent Alan Wake. Control is a shooter, and like Quantum Break (Remedy’s mostly failed attempt to bridge TV and games by literally and inelegantly merging the two mediums), the shooting is broken up by story segments, and a lot of cool reality-bending superpowers. Shortly after arriving at the FBC, Jesse gains access to the “Service Weapon,” a transforming gun used by the group’s former Director (with a voice that should sound very familiar to longtime Remedy fans). The gun fills all sorts of weapon archetypes all on its own, transforming from a handgun to a shotgun to a grenade launcher. Meanwhile, Jesse’s superpowers mostly involve grabbing distant pieces of the environment like a Jedi and launching them at enemies (complete with fabulous displays of destructible nonsense).

And while the combat can get a little repetitive, the powers and the shooting always feel cool thanks to Remedy’s excellent animation work. Lifting a desk off of the floor and launching it directly at the head of a Hiss-corrupted agent looks great, with the enemies whipping back like you would expect from someone who just got nailed by a flying desk. And a lot of the poses that Jesse makes during a firefight have powerful “dodge this” energy. In short, Jesse Faden is cool, and for a character who’s so emotionally closed off, and whose backstory is largely a mystery early on, it’s easy to get a sense of who she is just from the way she moves, even before Control starts to offer explanations. All that character work on the part of the game’s animators is highlighted while using Control’s standout ability, a levitation power that you can use to float around during fights, or to slow your fall while descending into one of the FBC’s many cavernous pits. Rather than launching herself up like Superman, Jesse just lifts into the air with the grace of a flying ballerina; but while she’s floating, she moves her arms and legs with a bit of hesitancy… almost like a real person would, if they suddenly learned how to fly.

At the risk of reading too much into a single animation, this little touch reflects who Jesse is: She’ll confidently jump into a task, but she might not actually know what to do when she gets there. Case in point: She knows she wants to get answers from the FBC about a paranatural experience she had as a kid, but she ignores all of the warning signs about just how much she might not like what she finds. This same look-before-you-leap tendency even comes through in gameplay, with Control refusing to gate either story missions or sidequests behind level or ability requirements. You, like Jesse, can definitely take on any task that comes your way, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re even capable of doing it—which mostly means you’re free to try whatever you want, but just know that you might get slaughtered.

It’s a clever, open-ended approach that gives Control a certain Metroid flavor, but it also inadvertently sets up the game’s biggest issue. While it can be fun to hesitantly tiptoe your way through an area that you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be in yet, there are far too many instances in Control where the game will unexpectedly hit you with huge difficulty spikes. And not interesting difficulty, either; this isn’t about smarter enemies or more interesting set-ups, just bad guys that deal out more damage, and take less in turn. Hitting a wall like that will force you to go back and grind for weapon upgrades or new abilities, bringing story momentum to a halt. And while we’re on the topic of the game’s relatively few faults, the map (a very important tool for a Metroid-style game) is almost hilariously obtuse. The Oldest House has plenty of twisting hallways—some of which have a habit of changing where they are and where they go—so before you start to find your own way around the place, it can just look like a jumbled mess of garbage.

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Luckily, all of those frustrations are worth it for a chance to go deeper into Jesse Faden’s story, and her fucked-up adventures inside The Oldest House. Not since Rapture or the Aperture labs has a fantastical video game setting felt more like a real place, and Control accomplishes that in a bunch of different ways. There are bathrooms everywhere, for one thing, and the only purpose they serve is to show that—up until a few days ago—The Oldest House was actually a place where normal people did (admittedly very weird) business. There are also a ton of collectible documents and video files to find, and while games have been doing that for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when video game NPCs weren’t recording their inner thoughts on a tape and then leaving that tape on the ground when they die, that supplementary reading material is rarely as fun or well-written as it is in Control.

There are little storylines that play out exclusively in the world, like one document that discusses an upcoming office book club, with a few FBC employees getting together to read a YA sci-fi novel. Hours later, you can find multiple documents that include reviews for that fictional book, with different members of the book club offering totally different takes that are all completely irrelevant to the core plot, but undercut the spooky seriousness of the main story and act as a reminder that the Hiss drones you’ve spent the game killing all used to be regular humans. There’s another message where someone suggests putting together a Sesame Street-style show about the FBC for the children who have been taken in by the organization, and later on you can find tapes of this show that are creepy as hell (both in terms of literal content, and in the timely idea of a government organization secretly rounding up so many kids that it has to find creative ways to appease them).

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To say too much about the actual story here would be a disservice to how nicely the game teases out details and big reveals (meeting the one Hiss-corrupted human who still seems to possess his faculties is fantastically unsettling), but it’s worth noting that Control does provide satisfying answers to pretty much all of the mysteries it sets up. (We’ll be running a rare games-centric Spoiler Space later this week to talk about its biggest reveals.) Alan Wake had a cool and shocking cliffhanger ending, but Control isn’t one of those puzzle box mysteries where the journey is more interesting than the destination. By the end, you’ll know what brought Jesse to the FBC, how and why The Hiss have taken over, and why Jesse talks to the you in her head. It’s a shame that you have to work a little harder than necessary to get those answers, but Remedy has once again managed to put out a game that is so much better than the sum of its parts.

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