Strange science and slick supernatural shooting
Developer Remedy Entertainment have been experimenting with shooters for a while now, but they haven’t been able to match the winning formula of their Max Payne series. That’s not to say that their recent games were bad. Alan Wake was originally meant to be an open world game, but it ended up being a strangely alluring linear shooter thanks to illuminating combat. Quantum Break got serious about time-travel and provided some cool visual combat effects alongside a distracting TV series accompaniment. Control is a non-linear amalgamation of their previous games, with a bit of looter-shooter mixed in. Although not their best game, Control succeeds because of great combat encounters and a strangely appealing set of characters.
Jesse knows the pain caused by floppy disks
Players become Jesse Faden, who is searching for her brother that's been missing for 17 years. She believes the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) took him and has arrived at their headquarters to ask questions. But nobody is around to answer them; the lobby is deserted. After she makes her way to the Director’s office, she finds him dead on the floor. A strange weapon is nearby, and when Jesse picks it up, everything changes. She becomes the new Director of the FBC—no initiation necessary. Being the new Director should make the search for her brother a lot easier, but the FBC is not operating under normal conditions.
Normally the Federal Bureau of Control concerns itself with the strange and unusual. It tracks, collects, and studies mundane objects that behave in extraordinary ways, like a floppy disc that grants somebody the ability to hurl things across the room. The Director’s weapon is another such item, and the FBC headquarters, called the Oldest House, is not a normal office building. Only aging technology functions within its walls and there are vaults scattered around that employees can shelter inside when things go wrong. This time, things have gone so wrong that most did not have time to get to safety.
Eventually, Jesse finds some FBC agents, but they are floating in the air and whispering a bizarre chant. She has stumbled upon the first manifestation of a supernatural force known as the Hiss. The Hiss have breached the Oldest House, corrupted agents, and the building is in lockdown. Some of the extraordinary items have broken free and part of Jesse’s role is to close Pandora’s box. Not so easy when many of the Hiss are armed and dangerous.
The prominence of the supernatural brings intrigue, similar to Alan Wake. It hits that sweet spot between freaky and horrifying. Nothing is quite normal and yet many events in the FBC are everyday occurrences. There is a special light switch cord that will transport Jesse to a quaint Oceanview Motel & Casino that connects to other dimensions. And since the Oldest House is in flux, sometimes other dimensions come to visit. Information about the supernatural is provided in videos, audio logs, and research documents. Jesse may have a normal goal, but she’ll learn many abnormal things along the way.
Capture the control points to remove the lockdown
Jesse Faden is not a great protagonist. Most of the time she is annoyed by the situation. When she does talk to survivors—that give her side tasks or info—she conveys her own thoughts via short internal monologues. This usually means she says something so blindingly obvious that it makes her appear mentally slow. The most interesting aspect of Jesse is the supernatural entity that is linked to her, but this is not explored in any appreciable depth. When Jesse is not annoyed, she’s emotionally neutral, as though her role is to allow other characters to bring the story to life.
Fortunately the rest of the cast is strong. It is a diverse group, from a mold-collecting professor to a creepy janitor that leaves his cleaning equipment around. The standouts are two scientists: Emily Pope and Dr. Darling. You meet Emily Pope early and, although she isn’t aware of the true factors behind the catastrophe, she knows enough to act as a guide. The exuberance she displays when Jesse tells her something new about the Hiss is rather likable. Emily is played well by Antonia Bernath (Syanna from The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine) and her enunciation is excellent. The other star of the show is the lead Hiss researcher, Dr. Darling, played by Matthew Porretta (voice of Alan Wake). Unlike Emily, Darling appears in live-action video presentations and makes the Hiss information even more entertaining via comedic delivery and strong body language. Porretta has good range and Darling’s videos are always a treat.
The dearly-departed Director is played by James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne. Although no longer alive, the previous Director sends Jesse information via a special astral-plane hotline. These messages are hidden in menus, probably because their delivery is awful—a ten-second live-action clip of smoke and shadows, looped for 90 seconds. The audio content is much better, consisting of poetic language that belongs in a Max Payne game. Trench’s participation makes it easy to imagine what endless wonder awaits us should Remedy ever get back the franchise they started.
Dr. Darling has many lessons to teach those willing to listen
But the best character of the game is the building itself—the Oldest House. While it initially appears to be just offices, it is more like an industrial complex with power stations, research labs, meeting rooms, isolation chambers, and training areas joined into a big spider web. An overhead map makes navigation easy, although overlapping corridors are a bit confusing. The Oldest House consists of four unconnected sectors. Each has many control points, used for fast travel. The setup is not quite open world, but it is non-linear and different from usual for the developers. It works nicely, and Jesse continually gains higher security clearance so she can access even more rooms in previously-visited areas.
To help clear the Hiss threat, Jesse can deploy some cool supernatural abilities. These are gained by interacting with Objects of Power, some of which are found off the beaten track. The two earliest powers are Evade (dash) and Launch (telekinesis) and they alone would be more than enough for the entire game. Launch is a great version of a power that has been in many other games. Throwing objects has the same punchy feeling as in BioShock, but it is a lot more practical in combat. While you can grab specific physical objects, a simple button press will instantly bring something random from close by, be it a chunk of wall or a chair, which helps immensely in hectic action. Evade is just a pleasant way to move through combat spaces, either to get close for melee attacks, to dodge incoming rockets, or to get behind cover.
Other abilities add more to the frantic action. Shield absorbs damage via a circling wall of rocks, although it is the most boring ability. Seize lets you take control of enemies when their health is low, which helps divert attention. The most iconic power in the game is Levitation, given to the player around seven hours into the game. With it, you can jump into the air and float at a modest speed. It’s a great way to get sight of enemies that cower behind walls. Levitating is liberating but lots of aerial lairizing will leave you in the lurch; you’re exposed in the air, so it’s best used sparingly. The gradual acquisition of powers allows you to really get proficient at each one and they all have upgrades to improve effectiveness and add functionality.
The combat model is rock solid
The service weapon is the only gun in the game, but fret not because it takes many forms. Starting with a pistol, you’ll gain access to variations that turn it into a shotgun, charged shot, rocket launcher, and sub-machine gun. Jesse can swap between two at any time and all forms share ammo to encourage the use of abilities. Each type can be upgraded to hold up to three modification slots, although the upgrade system employs an excessive number of resources. Both modifications and resources are dropped by enemies, or found inside crates, like a modern looter-shooter. Modifications increase headshot damage, reload speed, accuracy, etc. It’s a decent system but the inventory management is a sticking point. There is only limited space and mods are listed in acquisition order, not type / strength. After about six hours, organizing mods becomes needless busywork after encounters.
Whether flying or firing, the various Hiss enemies prove to be awesome fodder. There is great variety, from regular armed guards to distorted agents that cloak. Flying foes fling filing-cabinets and heavily-armored units lob grenades. There are even mold-zombies for all your shambling needs. The most common types tend to have decent AI, charging at you when you run, retreating if they have long-range attacks, and taking cover between shots. The biggest disappointment is that they are annoyingly silent during combat, merely grunting quietly after getting shot.
Combat is consistently entertaining and has a high skill ceiling. No two action pieces play out the same. Some guards have armor, which is best removed by performing melee attacks or throwing objects. Most abilities use recharging energy but health does not recharge, so Jesse must collect health elements dropped by injured foes. It is definitely a strong combat model that holds up over the entire game.
You won't get bored, even in the board meetings
Pacing is one of the game’s highlights, even though it does not use a traditional save system. Like an online game, it remembers when you collect items or complete tasks. If you die, you’ll revive at a control point. Death doesn’t become tedious like in Wolfenstein: Youngblood because if you fought past a few encounters and died, you won’t replay them. The ‘save’ system functions mostly like auto saving, just with a bit more running to get back to where you were. Enemies do reappear in zones, but their makeup and locations are unpredictable. Clearing areas leaves it vacant for a time, so you can explore at leisure.
The interiors of the Oldest House look great. Structures resemble monoliths with vertical features that draw the eye. Textures are usually quite detailed, although some take a few seconds to reach their highest clarity. Lighting has a soft natural quality that makes friendly characters look great. Combat effects are similar to Quantum Break, with lots of warping on screen. When the action heats up, everything breaks in glorious fashion: papers are thrust into the air, glass shatters, and wood paneling rips off walls. It looks good and is sharper than Remedy’s last effort, but it still gets a little blurry on occasion.
Less impressive is the audio package. Outside the great voice work, it is forgettable. Sounds from weapons and effects are decent enough. But music during combat is industrial clattering that’s barely noticeable. Even the few licensed tracks are tragically underused. In combination with the near-mute enemies, the audio side is lacking.
You can always find agents, floating about
Control succeeds through dynamic combat, captivating characters, and slick pacing. Although Jesse is not the most appealing of heroes, others pick up the narrative slack. The strange world inside the Oldest House has secrets, powerful items, and a broad range of enemies to fight off. Supernatural abilities, paired with a versatile service weapon, offer truly great action in environments that crumble gloriously. With tight control of the player’s experience and imposing visuals, the overall quality comes within shouting distance of the Max Payne series. Control may not be the dearest of all my friends, but it is worth getting to know.