We've all been there. You watch a game being played - perhaps at a friends' place, an arcade, or some sort of exhibition-style event. Looks amazing, you're buzzing. The lead character is tearing through enemies, pulling off all manner of amazing moves. And then it's your turn - and you immediately fail to recreate what just danced across your eyeballs. Your fingers don't go where they should; your on-screen avatar flaps and flops their way to failure. Pffft.
It's a first time, granted - but that satisfaction you were so craving just didn't come. Control isn't like that. It's incredibly intuitive, protagonist Jesse Faden's array of supernatural powers tied to inputs that really highlight what an all-thumbs dog's dinner the likes of God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 could be at times. The jump button, held just a fraction longer, sees her levitate; an offensive shield is mapped to one bumper, the ability to telekinetically toss an office chair, whiteboard or lump of broken masonry to the other. Gunplay follows the familiar format of left trigger to aim, right to squeeze out high-velocity death.
But don't let that accessibility be mistaken for predictability. Control - the new game from the makers of Alan Wake and Max Payne, Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment - has its share of surprises. For one, its setting is actually two in one, as the mysterious Oldest House - headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control (the FBC), a stateside agency concerned with all things unexplainably weird (yes, there are echoes of The X-Files here) - is full of portals to the Astral Plane. This alternative dimension is where abilities can be upgraded via the acquisition of Objects of Power, and bosses battled.
Secondly, let's take a look at that gun for a second. Named simply a Service Weapon, it's a firearm that can be massively modified for different types of attack, and shifts its shape accordingly. Also, it can only be wielded by the director of the FBC and - spoiler alert! - Jesse has, at some point during the course of the game's story, become that person. Which probably means something very bad and likely very deadly has happened to the previous incumbent; but there's no time to dwell on that, not with a swarm of Hiss-controlled enemies attacking on foot and from air alike.
The Hiss, about that. See, the Oldest House is in a bit of a state, right now; right now being the time of the game; the time of the game being the present day; albeit the present day with a bunch of old-school tech because it's safer, apparently, when you're dealing with cross-dimensional hazards. The Hiss has infiltrated the building, closing off several of its rooms until Jesse can unlock them (activating fast-travel points in the process - handy, given this is a metroidvania-style affair where returning to past locations with new abilities is encouraged); and the force has infected countless FBC staffers and visitors.
Alas, there's no peaceful, non-lethal way to placate these accidental aggressors. While stunning them, and subsequently chasing the Hiss from their souls, would have been cool to see: no dice. It's murder, plain and simple - only, with the host of powers Jesse has at her disposal, simplicity actually means a most fantastically entertaining and visually jaw-dropping onslaught of DIY projectiles, ground-shaking pugilism and even a side-helping of mind control, as she turns enemies into temporary allies.
Which does make Jesse's role in all of this a little less than black and white. She's restoring order, cleaning up, dispelling a force beyond comprehension. These are unequivocally good things, befitting of someone in a senior role at any organisation. And yet: she's murdering hundreds of men and women who Just Happened To Be There When Shit Hit Fan. That doesn't quite sit right with me, on a first impression - one that, in fairness, offered little narrative context for the background to the Hiss's arrival, or the individuals it has overtaken. As it must be noted that there are humans floating around the building, suspended in a kind of Ulysses 31 stasis, their bodies untouched by the Hiss. Maybe only The Bad Guys got warped into something a whole lot more nasty.
But what cannot be denied is just how exhilarating it is to play Control, to move Jesse through the Oldest House's intriguing spaces, its creaking corridors and echoing hallways, everything touched by the brush of brutalism. (For all the concrete on show, it's a surprisingly organic environment.) Even when I wander into an area that the preview build isn't quite capable of handling, tanking the frame rate to the disappointment of attending reps, everything feels and looks fantastic.
Which brings me back to where I began: pick this up for the first time, and within a minute or two, Control is delivering thrills. There's a distinctly low barrier for entry, to get into the good stuff; and yes, I'm playing with a lot of Jesse's abilities unlocked, but still, they all click effortlessly, stringing together with a fluidity that almost tricks my brain that I've played hours of this game already.
Perhaps my prior experience with Max Payne and Alan Wake helps - there are definitely echos of those games here, likewise the superpower-charged Quantum Break, a better game than some readers will think from its mixed reception. Remedy is playing to its strengths here, certainly. But why shouldn't they? In a gaming landscape where legitimately compelling single-player experiences aren't quite as common as they used to be, it's reassuring, warming, to find a studio not denying itself its best life. This isn't BioWare breaking form to deliver a project outside of their comfort zone; it's a team - a small, committed team - understanding what it enjoys, what its audience has come to love, and pushing just a bit beyond those expectations.
It's more than enough, on a first showing, for this mostly solo gamer to feel right at home in the Oldest House, already.
Control is released on 27 August, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, published by 505 Games.
Featured Image Credit: Remedy Entertainment/505 Games