When a game gives the impression that its developer had an absolute blast making it, that's always a good sign. That's very much how Control, the latest action-adventure game from Finnish outfit Remedy (of Max Payne, Alan Wake and Quantum Break fame), feels. It's certainly the weirdest game you'll encounter this year, based on the most preposterous – albeit highly imaginative – premises you could ask for, and executed with real visual panache.
We've all heard of the FBI, but for Control, Remedy has invented a US government agency called the Federal Bureau of Control, or FBC. Headquartered in a giant, brutalist building in Manhattan, its remit is the paranormal (although it prefers the word "paranatural" – Control has its own entire vocabulary), and its primary mission is to deal with Altered World Events (AWEs) – outbreaks of paranormal activity often caused by Objects Of Power, which are usually hilariously prosaic items yet are dangerously powerful.
A wacky premise
Control starts with protagonist Jesse Faden walking into the FBC building for the first time, marking a 17-year quest to locate the agency, which she believes kidnapped her brother Dylan after a mysterious childhood incident. She finds the building apparently empty, save for the janitor, Ahti, a Finn who constantly mutters hilariously opaque phrases and thinks Jesse is there for an interview as his assistant.
He lets her in and she makes her way to the office of the Director, Zachariah Trench, who is lying dead on the floor, with a gun next to him. That gun turns out to be the so-called Service Weapon, which can only be wielded by the Director of the FBC. Jesse picks it up, binds to it and, consequently is installed as the FBC's new Director. That all the FBC's employees accept her without question as the new boss demonstrates how wacky an agency it is.
Faden swiftly discovers that things are seriously awry at the FBC. Its building, called the Oldest House, has been invaded by the Hiss, an enemy from a different astral plane which takes various forms, and can possess humans – including most of the FBC's staff. Although not all of them; Head of Research, Dr Darling, fabricated and distributed a number of personal devices that protect staff from possession by the Hiss.
Harness your powers
Jesse's mission is to return the Oldest House to a semblance of order, which involves much killing of Hiss, hooking up with FBC employees who are still alive, and playing an ever-growing roster of side-missions. The Service Weapon is a great help in that, since it can shape-shift, effectively becoming a pistol, a shotgun, a sub-machine gun, a sort of charge-sniper and even a rocket-launcher (you can only carry two forms of it with you at any time).
Faden, who is in constant communication with an alien entity, called Polaris, which has been in her head since the childhood incident, also acquires an ever-expanding series of powers (many of which only become available by completing side-missions). They include a very satisfying and handy Half-Life Gravity Gun-style ability to fire random objects at enemies, the ability to levitate (useful for puzzle-solving as well as in combat), a shield, an evade move, the chance to get weakened enemies to fight for her for a while and more.
As with Control's story, its combat system may on paper appear to have been created magpie-style, by throwing as many ideas as possible at it. But, in reality, it hangs together unfeasibly well, breeding a form of action which, while nominally third-person shooting, feels both distinctive and tactical.
Faden is routinely beset by large amounts of enemies with differing abilities (and there are plenty of bosses and mini-bosses). The Service Weapon doesn't require you to find ammo; it runs out after a while, then automatically regenerates. So, you constantly have to mix shooting and Faden's abilities, while remaining perpetually on the move – partly because the only way to regenerate Faden's health is to pick up blue shards dropped by enemies she has killed or wounded. You soon learn to take specific types of Hiss out first (some, for example, can heal their comrades). Going into a big battle with the correct Service Weapon variants is also important.
There's a degree of role-play-style character development, too: all the Service Weapon variants can be modded and upgraded, Faden gets points to bump up her base attributes from completing missions and side-missions, and she can also equip personal mods. We became particularly fond of Shatter, the shotgun variant, which we generally teamed with the excellent base pistol (called Grip), for longer-range shooting.
Way out there
Story-wise, Control is way out there – think of the most batshit-crazy X-Files episode you can remember and multiply its implausibility by a factor of 10. But the amazing aspect of Control is that its story has a bizarre sort of logic to it – it may be out there but it makes a weird form of sense.
Another layer of oddness is added by the Oldest House itself, in which all the game's action takes place. Not only is it big enough to contain a quarry and a power station, but it also marks the intersection of various astral planes, so it constantly morphs and throws curveballs at you along the lines of a giant hotel area which reconfigures into a maze, and a recurring bucolic motel, in which you must solve various puzzles in order to reach new areas.
It contains a number of puzzles, which are characteristically distinctive and generally pretty fun to solve. And there are even some generally humorous moments – usually provided by Ahti the janitor, although Control also pokes fun at the officiousness of US government agencies. And above all else, it has a distinctive and attractive visual style.
If you like third-person shooters then Control offers up one that'll feel quite unlike any you've previously played, thanks to its stratospherically weird paranormal storyline.
Both in terms of gameplay and ambience, Control is utterly original, very distinctive and deeply satisfying, thanks to a decent roster of side-missions and challenges beyond the main story.
Control feels like the game Remedy has been building towards for decades and provides a decent amount of gratifyingly memorable action.