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Control exists in that same exciting sweet spot of familiarity and freshness that Marvel's Spider-Man and God of War occupied in 2018. It's a title that doesn't exactly push the boundaries of action-adventure possibilities in moment-to-moment gameplay terms - which is to say that everything you're asked to do clicks instantly, much like those PlayStation hits. But its confident aesthetic approach, its compelling storyline, its hidden depths and its sheer ambition are incredibly impressive, and raise the bar for the narrative-focused projects that its makers at Finland's Remedy Entertainment have become famous for.
The studio's past games of comparable and precedent-setting DNA - Max Payne and its sequel, Alan Wake and Quantum Break - all mixed a palpable everydayness with extraordinary, fantastical situations. And so it is with Control, a game that casts the player as Jesse Faden, who walks into an unremarkable New York building on an overcast day completely unaware - or, is she? - of the high-stakes human dramas and otherworldly eldritch horrors that await inside.
Jesse arrives at the Federal Bureau of Control, a government-funded organisation committed to the study and containment of paranatural objects and elements, in search of her brother, Dylan. But within minutes, she's thrust to the forefront of a battle against an invasive force, an evil resonance, which threatens to leak across a multitude of dimensions, and exterminate the humans living in the one we call home.
That's The Hiss, and it's effectively Control's primary antagonist, although it manifests itself in a plethora of physical shapes and sizes. Some of these are humans, former employees of the FBC, who came to work never knowing that this shift would be their last. While Jesse attempts to extract The Hiss from 'infected' personel, it's made clear early on that the only way to treat this menace is with violence. And so, having rapidly ascended to the top of the FBC's management ladder and collected the shape-shifting and function-switching Service Weapon - a single gun that can unleash fiery death in a variety of unlockable formations - she takes the fight to The Hiss.
The Service Weapon is an Object of Power - and as Jesse discovers more of these Oops (lol) in the FBC's headquarters, The Oldest House, so she unlocks supernatural abilities to complement her flexible firearm. She learns to create a shield; to seize control of enemies and turn them to her side, against their own kind; to levitate, and to dodge at great speed; and to use telekinesis to fire office chairs, fire extinguishers, air conditioning units, lamps, vases or simply chunks of the walls or floor at cannon-fodder NPCs.
The hows and the whys behind all of this are explored in astonishing detail via deliciously campy videos, audio logs and near-countless readable collectibles, scattered liberally throughout The Oldest House - which, like Jesse, has a lot more to it than first meets the eye. Its executive suites and service elevators, neat rows of desks and wood-panelled hallways hide a prison, a power plant, a quarry and more - and that's before excursions to the astral plane and explorations of alternate dimensions are folded into the mix.
Suffice to say that The Oldest House is an enigmatic environment, and the lore-building love that Remedy has poured into it makes it an equal of any open-world role-player's land and sea. Other games may span cities, countries, and even universes, while Control sticks to 'a building'. But The Oldest House's walls are a construct of perception as much as they are a physical, tangible manifestation of a boundary, and as such must be assumed here to be fluid and endless.
Speaking of fluidity, the combat of Control, mixing left-trigger-to-aim gunplay convention and the superhero-like powers described above - a clear continuation of Quantum Break's keep-moving modus operandi - is a joy to behold, pure poetry in motion, so long as your hardware can handle it.
Played on the base-model PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Control can suffer some jarring slow down - I know, because I've been experiencing it on the latter. This is being fixed, but if you want to get the best out of an experience that is clearly pushing the limits of this generation's gaming machines, put yourself in front of a high-end PC, or the extra-grunt consoles that have supplemented the original PS4 and XBO.
With its story skirting around similar themes to those seen in SCP fiction, concerning objects and entities that do not conform to the recognised laws of physics, or any kind of universally acknowledged natural law and order, Control twists and turns with gleeful abandon, delivering a procession of rewarding pay-offs that feel like a series of The X-Files that never got made. And if Jesse is its Scully, then its Mulder is the player themself, always pushing the protagonist to go further, deeper, into the darkness of The Oldest House, in search of revelations that she always suspected.
Control owes a degree of debt, too, to Dark Souls and games of its ilk that do away with obvious, on-HUD destination markers, and leave the player to work out their next course of action. (Watch our interview for more.) You have to listen to what you're being told, read the documents you pick up, and study the signposts that adorn the walls of The Oldest House. There is a map, but no way of laying a breadcrumb-trail path from point A to B - and Control revels in taking you off piste, into side-missions and setting you timed events, to hidden locations where clear-cut connections can be made to past Remedy releases. Because Control is not a game that exists entirely in a world of its own - there are echoes of stories woven through its own that take you to Bright Falls, to Cauldron Lake... to Alan Wake.
But to say anything more about that is to begin spoiling the wonderful detail that Remedy has gone into with Control's library of literature - while you can blast through this game, ignoring the numerous files Jesse will lay her hands upon, you'll miss the nuances of its narrative by doing so. So pause a moment, read the letters and the reports, and begin joining your own dots together. Trust me when I say it'll make the whole game, come its conclusion, feel so much more special.
And when all is said and done, and reflection is possible with the weight of expectation long lifted, Control shines as a superlative example of its genre, and as the best Remedy game yet. It's a late-generation great in the vein of Shadow of the Colossus or The Last of Us, a game only possible when its makers have lived with the available technology long enough to truly merge it with their artistic aspirations. It has a few hiccups that hold it back - the (hopefully temporarily) patchy performance noted above foremost amongst them - but nothing ever snaps you out of what is an incredible piece of interactive fiction, with plenty of enjoyably intense combat, brain-tickling puzzles, and characters to genuinely care about.
Through its successful combination of a less hand-holding, less-linear approach to gameplay and studio-best narrative boldness, Control sets the stage for a long-overdue Alan Wake sequel that now, frankly, has to happen. And like God of War and Spider-Man last year, it should start clearing some shelf space for when 2019's award season rolls around.
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