Control Preview – Fringe Division
Remedy is a developer known for crafting stylish and unique third-person shooters. Chief amongst these is Max Payne, the franchise that arguably popularised the use of bullet-time in video games. After Remedy sold the IP to Rockstar in 2002 it set out to create Alan Wake. Released in 2012, it still stands today as one of the finest survival horror/third-person shooters ever. In 2016, Remedy released Quantum Break and although very different, it and Alan Wake share DNA.
Where Alan Wake focused on psychological horror and the supernatural, Quantum Break looked to science fiction/horror. Both dealt with explaining the unexplained in far-reaching and wide-ranging narratives, whilst simultaneously telling very personal stories about their respective protagonists.
Max Payne’s narratives are also reflective of this style and it’s a method of storytelling that Remedy has used to great effect. Its new title, Control, is no different. Telling the story of Jesse Faden, Control combines all of Remedy’s prior works; stylistically, mechanically and narratively.
I recently had the opportunity to play through the first four missions in Control and spend about three hours with the game.
Knowing too much about Control’s plot would be detrimental to players so I’ll only repeat what is already known at this stage. Jesse is searching for her brother Dylan who was kidnapped by the mysterious Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) when they were children. Jesse and Dylan were responsible for an ‘Altered World Event’ (AWE) which resulted in the FBC descending on their home town of Ordinary.
As an adult, Jesse finally locates the ‘Oldest House’; the FBC’s headquarter’s in New York City. However, she arrives just as the building is put into lockdown due to the invasion of supernatural beings she calls The Hiss.
Finding the Director of the FBC dead, Jesse is chosen by ‘The Board’ to be the new Director and wield the Service Weapon. The Service Weapon is a shapeshifting firearm and an Object of Power (OoP) that dictates the Bureau’s leadership. The Board is an otherworldly presence that communicates to Jesse via a special telephone that is also an OoP.
As the new Director, Jesse works to clear The Hiss from the Oldest House, save the remaining FBC agents and find her brother.
Big Stakes/Small Stakes
Like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, Control tells a personal story, framed by the incredible and unbelievable. And while the setting and details may seem confusing in reading about them, they’re anything but while you play. Remedy has taken this ambitious concept and made it easily digestible and understandable for the player.
It’s a real achievement in narrative design that high-concept science fiction isn’t confusing or alienating. It certainly makes playing Control tense and thrilling. It also pushes you forward in an effort to uncover more of the plot and get to the bottom of the mysteries.
Jesse is also effectively used as the player’s portal to this world since she’s an outsider herself. Her and the player share a lack of knowledge and understanding about the FBC and The Hiss and both learn in concert.
Unlike other Remedy games, Control doesn’t progress from chapter to chapter, pushing the player forward through a linear path. While there is a linear ‘golden path’ through Control, the Oldest House is a sprawling overworld in the Metroidvania style. Progressing through the narrative unlocks new abilities, new areas and new opportunities to dig deeper into the story.
It’s not exactly open-world, but Control does give players a surprising amount of freedom. Like most Metroidvania games, early on, the world is quite closed off and inaccessible. However, as you progress, the Oldest House rapidly expands with branching paths spreading out and tantalising new discoveries waiting around every corner.
Like all good Metroidvania games, Control often gives you a glimpse of an unreachable area. Teasing you and challenging you to come back when you have the item/skills to access it. Having only played three hours, I came across dozens of examples, filing each one away in my memory banks in the hopes of being able to come back to them.
Unfortunately, in the limited time I had, I didn’t manage to get back to most of them.
Interestingly, I had acquired two of four abilities by the time I reached the end of my hands-on time. The pace at which new items and abilities are discovered is quite quick, though playing through four missions, I got the sense that I had barely scratched the surface of the Oldest House and of Control in general.
Exploration and mysteries aside, Control is primarily a third-person shooter. And from what I’ve played, it’s an exceptionally good one at that. Blending shooting and abilities like only Remedy can (think Quantum Break) Control is fast-paced, over-the-top and ridiculously good fun.
At the core of Control’s shooting is the Service Weapon. When Jesse first acquires it, it’s a standard, high powered handgun. Though, being a supernatural Object of Power, it comes with some nifty tricks.
For a start, there’s no ammo in Control and you don’t reload. Instead, as you fire the Service Weapon, it gradually uses up energy. When you stop firing, it refills itself over time. It’s works similarly to a standard ammo/reload system, however, it frees up a face button. It also adds a layer of strategy to combat.
While you may have unlimited shots, you aren’t able to fire continuously. You’ll need to take cover and allow the Service Weapon to recharge if you want to survive.
In my hands-on, there were four variants of the Service Weapon to use. The default form is called Grip and three unlockable ones are Spin, Shatter and Pierce. Basically, these are Magnum, Sub-Machine Gun, Sawn-Off Shotgun and Fusion Rifle.
Players are able to equip two weapon forms at a time and switch between them with the press of a button. Watching the Service Weapon shift and change its appearance and function in real-time is undoubtedly cool. What’s cooler, is finding a combination of weapon forms that suit your playstyle and exploiting them for maximum damage.
I preferred to fight at mid to long-range, so I favoured the Grip and Pierce forms, though getting up close with Shatter was also a joy. Whichever weapon forms you choose though are likely to compliment the way you play and the abilities you favour.
After acquiring the Service Weapon and coming in contact with The Board and The Hiss, Jesse discovers that she has some bad-ass superpowers. Her standard melee is powerful enough to destroy almost anything in her path.
I’m not even joking.
I spent far too long smashing up desks, toilet cubicles, paintings, wooden wall panelling and anything else I found with Jesse’s melee. The level of destructibility in the environment is truly impressive and although it’s largely aesthetic, there were a few occasions that it also served as a gameplay mechanic.
Abilities in Control are tied to an energy meter that depletes as you use them. Some abilities use more energy than others and you’re also able to reduce their cost and increase the energy bar.
Like the Service Weapon’s energy, ability energy recharges after a short delay. Surviving firefights will take a delicate balancing act of shooting and abilities.
The first ability I actually unlocked was Launch. This is your basic Jedi telekinesis. Jesse can target objects in the environment, drag them to her then launch them at enemies. As you level this ability up, you’re able to move larger objects, weakened enemies and even dead bodies. It also serves a strategic purpose as some of The Hiss have over shields that are susceptible to thrown objects.
It’s also really hilarious to hurl things across the room. I don’t know why. It just is.
Jesse also has access to a quick dodge that moves her out of harm’s way and can also be used in the air to cover longer distances than a standard jump. The dodge becomes essential during the more hectic firefights as getting behind cover is sometimes all you can do to stay alive.
The last ability I got to play with is Shield. Using this, Jesse creates a wall of debris to protect herself from enemy attacks. While useful in some combat situations (especially as you level it up) it’s more useful in approaching enemies from far off in order to avoid damage before proper combat can begin.
To get the most out of Control you’ll need to learn to combine gunplay and abilities. As you learn how best to use each ability and the best combinations of weapon forms, you’ll be able to play to your particular strengths.
The more I played, the more it became apparent that combat in Control is a delicate seesaw in which you need to balance your weapon and ability energies. It’s imperative to play cleverly and to retreat as required. The game even flat out tells you during cutscenes that if you stop moving and don’t take cover, you will die.
Remedy’s games often wear their inspirations on their sleeves. Alan Wake is the most obvious example with clear influences taken from Twin Peaks, Stephen King and The Twilight Zone. Quantum Break’s influences were more nebulous but featured set pieces that referenced Inception and the general tone evoked Looper and sci-fi indie movie Primer.
Control is more obvious in its influences. Chief amongst them, at least in my mind, is Fringe. The spectre of Fox’s sci-fi series looms large over Control including the shady government organisation, threats from the unknown and an increasingly disturbing mystery.
However, Control appears as though Fringe was directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cutscenes often feature extended, pregnant pauses and conversations are shot in a way that emphasises interesting and odd angles. Kubrick’s influence is especially apparent in moments when the camera focuses on the empty environment, shooting it in a way that accentuates the Brutalist architecture and the foreign, unwelcoming nature of the Oldest House.
Especially unnerving is the way the Oldest House reshapes itself as you clear out The Hiss. Entire sections change and warp to open pathways and the overall feeling is an uneasy one, not unlike The Shining.
Control is a game that could only have come from Remedy.
It’s odd, unsettling and incredibly stylish and it attempts to create an experience other developers would shy away from. This swirling mass of ideas, mechanics and visuals could certainly come undone under the weight of its own ambition but from what I’ve seen so far, Control is under no such threat.
Featuring thoughtful pacing and a delicately balanced cadence of combat, exploration and exposition, Control is Remedy at its absolute best.
I can’t wait to spend more time in the Oldest House, to solve all of its mysteries and to see what happens to Jesse Faden.
August 27 can’t come soon enough.