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The first words in Alan Wake, intoned by its eponymous hero, are ‘Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic.’ Thus developer Remedy’s deity, and its duty, is decreed: let no laws of objectivity stand in the way of a scare, and no thrill be fenced in by a plot. In short, the Finnish studio has always treated the rational as something to be remedied. No surprise, then, that its new game, Control, considers the irrational – or the paranatural, as it’s referred to – as cause for celebration.
In fact, it’s cause for an entire government department, the Federal Bureau of Control, which operates in such secrecy that its base of operations – a skyscraper in New York called the Oldest House – is invisible. ‘Unless you are purposely trying to find it, you don’t,’ one character explains early on, before adding, with a mischievous dash of personification, ‘The Oldest House doesn’t like attention.’ Well, it certainly knows how to command it – I spent most of the game gawking in wonder. The building is a brutal block of looming grey; its insides are cavernous and shifting, and strange geometries of black rock brood above its vast halls. I can only imagine that it’s secretly pleased when through its doors walks Jesse Faden, who is looking for her missing brother, Dylan.
She has her work cut out for her. Whenever a neighbouring dimension presses against the panes of our own, an Altered World Event occurs – what we think are UFOs, Bigfoot, and most likely Nessie – and the FBC dispatches its minions to poke around. The Oldest House appeared during one such investigation, in 1964, and what better place to base one’s study of the freaky than, as Jesse describes it, ‘an infinite building leading to different dimensions’? But all is not well at the FBC; a malevolent force, which Jesse dubs the Hiss (‘like the sound of poison gas leaking in’), has besieged the bureau, and desperate and scattered employees plead for help. She soon finds a strange gun – a dead ringer for Deckard’s, in Blade Runner – which is known as an Object of Power, and gets busy.
One of the pleasures of playing a Remedy game, when one comes along, is the shooting. The developer ducked its head as cover shooters dominated, and even Quantum Break – the only Remedy shooter to feature a cover mechanic – still had the speedy, freshly-oiled feel of its forebears. So, too, does Control; in fact, the softest nudge of the stick has Jesse marching with the purpose of someone heading into war, or a boardroom, or both. Each clash requires you not to bed down behind a wall but to hare through environments and shuffle between your gun and a modest, but meaningful, array of superpowers. The likes of Levitation; Launch, which lets you will tables through the air at your enemies; and Seize, with which you can turn your enemies against their comrades, make Control a psychic successor to Second Sight and Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy.
Jesse’s gun, dryly designated the Service Weapon, is made up of little quivering cubes; true to its name, these realign to provide a range of services. The barrel flattens out to form a shotgun, or spins and spits like an Uzi. It’s upgradable and customizable, with tiered perks for you to encrust it with (+10% damage, 20% chance to regain ammo etc.). And Jesse herself can be buffed and charged, increasing her hang time while floating (by far the most fun of her abilities), for instance, or piling on the damage done by hurling debris. Seeing as the Hiss slope upwards in numbered difficulty levels, the pace of your progress is measured and marshalled – slightly superficially – by these upgrade trees. They are rather like a pair of inoffensive in-laws – worth popping in on every now and again, to strengthen your standing, but largely ignorable.
It’s the underlying, and unadorned, action that rules the day. Firing a few rounds in Control, you wonder why it is that some developers just get it, and others don’t; gunfire is hot, it crackles with recoil, so much so that Jesse rubs her shoulder between firefights, and the crunch of collateral damage is richly textured – papers fly, stone sprays, and desks are churned into chipping. These make all the more of an impression for being the only real signs, as the gunsmoke clears, that any killing has taken place; your foes, ex-employees hijacked by the Hiss, melt into a rainbow-hued blur, along with any wisps of lingering guilt you might feel. These aren’t the sort of mournful battles in which victory is tinged with woe; they are the high-spirited kind that belong in a crammed cinema on a Saturday night, best accompanied with copious amounts of beer and popcorn.
And I doubt that Sam Lake, the game’s creative director, would want it any other way. Control bears the imprint of Lake’s love of FMV. It’s there in the archival videos you collect, recorded by the FBC’s head scientist, Dr Darling – which hark back to the kooky Dharma Initiative films, in Lost. There are flashes of it in the ghostly visions of the bureau’s old director (played by James McCaffrey, who voiced Max Payne). And we occasionally see Courtney Hope, who plays Jesse, in the flesh. And I’m still not sure why. It shifts from a style to a schtick, a pulpy reminder that you are playing a Remedy game, which some will find enormously reassuring. But they cramp the beauty of the cutscenes elsewhere, which are brought to uncanny life in the Northlight Engine. And the story feels split, as though the powerlines of its plot are plugged into different sockets.
Most of the world’s detail and context lives in collectibles, and the Oldest House is a haven if you enjoy truffling for nuggets of backstory and hints at a shared universe. (For those that pine for an Alan Wake follow-up, Control is like a comfort blanket.) I found myself rifling through so much of the bureau’s arcana – recordings, casefiles, and cross-department communications – that I almost didn’t notice the coolness of my connection to the characters. Jesse’s relationship to Dylan felt frosty and vague, and her mission only gathered urgency and emotion in its final act. By which time the eerie mood of its early moments had melted, and, sadly, I feared the same might happen to my Xbox. I’m sorry to report that, even after a 5GB patch, the framerate crumbles and crawls as the game resorts to cheaper tactics and throws waves of Hiss at you.
Although the performance was a pain at times, it’s the plot that loses its way, reliant on the ramping up of set pieces and enormity until it lands with a flattish finale. Not that it’s terribly important; it’s always those things, in a Remedy game, that vanish from memory, leaving a vivid sense of place and tone behind. I won’t soon forget the Oldest House. Despite the spectres that menace its corridors, I miss being there. It’s clubbable and filled with low-tech allure: leather chairs the colour of crude oil and offices furnished with little more than wood and shadow. ‘I never wanna leave,’ Jesse says, on her roamings. ‘Even with all the horror, I’m happy.’
It’s a wondrous sentiment, tinged with truth. You never feel cut off by all the concrete; you feel at the heart of things. Remedy has always specialised in the creation of enclosed worlds. Think of New York, in Max Payne – a cramped nocturne of tenement halls and slushy alleyways. Or of Alan Wake, which hemmed you in with all those crooning shadows and shivering firs. These are spaces where the illusion of a wider world streams in through portholes: TV shows, late night radio, billboards, recurring brands plastered on vending machines. With Control, the studio has its most fascinating setting: a tower of stone like a lightning conductor for all things weird – all the backwoods towns and boogeymen, the unsolved mysteries and monsters-of-the-week, all those lonely highways and hallways and cut-price motels, stretching endlessly out into the night.
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PC, PlayStation 4
Release Date: August 27, 2019
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