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Review: Control is Remedy’s best game yet—and a ray tracing masterpiece

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Enlarge / This is what it looks (and feels) like to play the telekinetic insanity of Remedy Entertainment’s latest game, Control.
Remedy Entertainment

Gamers of a certain age and persuasion have been waiting years for this: a video game from Remedy Studios that feels like a worthy successor to the studio’s 2001 breakout Max Payne. The Finnish studio has been trying for years to pull this off, albeit with less emphasis on MP‘s Matrix-like bullet-time combat and more emphasis on dimension-shifting battles, memorable characters, and serious intrigue.

If you’ve appreciated the developer’s attempts for the past decade-plus, including Alan Wake and Quantum Break—or even if you found those attempts close-but-not-quite—Control should land on your must-play list before year’s end. Consider its status on our end-of-the-year list a given, in spite of some imperfections and fumbles.

And if you paid for one of the newest Nvidia graphics cards on PC, complete with a dedicated ray tracing chip, fast forward that must-play recommendation to “ASAP.” Control is exactly the showcase graphical achievement that will ease any buyer’s remorse.

Fling the boxes, sip the Jesse juice

Control takes its admittedly forgettable name from the game’s fictionalized US agency, the Federal Bureau of Control, or FBC. (Sorry, Janet Jackson fans.) This agency was established decades ago in an effort to contain, research, and possibly exploit a supernatural discovery—the likes of which would make all those “Invade Area 51” Facebook groups blush. Within the game’s opening minutes, your hero, Jesse Faden, declares what she’s doing at the FBC’s doorstep: she was the sole survivor of this agency’s “ground zero” event as a child, and she’s come all this way to find the brother she lost on that day.

A few mysteries remain unanswered when she arrives, like how she knew her brother might be here and why Jesse’s face is all over the agency’s walls as a portrait. (This is explained later, but I’m leaving it vague for now in the course of our spoiler-free coverage.) But clearly, the FBC was expecting Jesse, and conveniently enough, she soon realizes she’s had some powers within her all along. She uses these powers to quell the sudden, terrifying bursts of activity within the FBC, all identifiable by glowing red clouds and a creepy murmur of simultaneous, nonsensical voices. When she arrives, she’s informed that she’s been named head of the agency, just as its leadership and research teams have begun vanishing or, worse, succumbing to forces that turn them into violent, shapeshifting monsters. (It’s a bonkers transition of power within an American agency, but I have to wonder whether Remedy thought the angle seemed weirder in a more innocent political era.)

By tapping into this slew of murmuring voices and shapeshifting forms (dubbed “The Hiss”), Jesse begins embracing her own supernatural powers, which she learns about one at a time while descending further and further into the trippy underbelly of the FBC. And her resulting arsenal of abilities makes her one of the coolest gaming superheroes we’ve seen in a while.

In terms of third-person combat mechanics, the easiest comparison point is Remedy’s own Quantum Break, which revolved around time manipulation. More accurately, Jesse errs on the side of telekinesis and material manipulation. She can use her mind to lift and throw most any object inside the FBC, and in a pinch, she can even break off chunks of ground, ceiling, or wall to use as deadly projectiles. No matter the size of the object, Jesse can likely use her mind to fling it across the room. It’s the game’s coolest party trick—its gravity gun, its Quake rocket launcher, its Super Mario jump.

That power must be balanced with other kinetic abilities, all limited by a recharging “power” meter that drains when used. Eventually, Jesse learns how to warp-jump, which works both as a dodge and a tricky way to fly around; hypnotize her foes into joining her side as limited-time combatants; create a protective, temporary shield while running through danger; and more.

Jesse also packs heat in the form of the Service Weapon, a special pistol taken from the FBC’s former chief. Jesse can use her powers to transform this pistol at will, turning it into a shotgun, a machine gun, a railgun, and other weapons. Like in Halo, only two weapon forms can be set at a time, but unlike Halo, these weapons draw from their own “energy” pool of ammunition, which recharges on a regular basis.

In practice, this juggling of two energy meters makes for some of the most phenomenal third-person combat I’ve ever seen. Imagine this: a well-rounded cast of foes storms Jesse’s position in a massive, vertically staged battle arena, and each enemy comes with its own weapons, tactics, and trippy perks (particularly the floating baddies who easily dodge any flung objects). Successful combat requires constantly dodging and keeping an eye out for enemies that might suddenly appear in a mist, all while alternating between your pistol’s modes of fire and your supernatural pool of Jesse juice.

Those four enemies ahead of you, rushing your position in a veritable row? Fling a table at them to knock them all down at once, then turn to the right to shoot a floater before putting the hurt on a grenade-launching creature on a balcony. Once you’ve weakened the launching foe, if it’s close enough to your position, you can hide behind a crumbling wall for long enough to convert it into an ally so that it helps you finish off the rest of the attacking fray. I ran into so many examples like this, where I always felt like the game pushed my energy resources to their limits to force me to make crucial tactical decisions while shuffling through a variety of satisfying superpowers. No other Remedy action game—not even Max Payne—has felt this fun.

Looks great on any platform—but ray tracing reigns

All the while, every single thing you’re blasting and flinging has a clearly visible effect on the structures and geometry around you, and that emphasis on destructible environments is met by an oil-slick prism swirl that floods the air when corrupted “Hiss” enemies explode. (I’ll take this trippy effect over realistically snapping body parts any day if it looks this cool.) Even without its wild stir of combat, Remedy nails a pretty incredible aesthetic. The FBC unfolds as a glossy, professional government facility, one that’s eventually bombarded with endless, spiraling ceilings, randomly warping walls (usually in arresting geometric patterns), and overgrowth of seemingly organic blobs.

Plus, if you’ve played a Remedy game in the past 13 years, you know the studio loves an opportunity to borrow liberally from the book of David Lynch, and without spoiling its weirder moments and set pieces, I’ll simply say that the game’s visual leaps in logic fit neatly into the game’s otherworldly story without seeming like a ripoff of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.

All of which is to say: if performance is solid on current-gen gaming consoles, then you’re already in for a visually memorable time. But we don’t yet have impressions of the game on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 systems, so we don’t know on that front just yet. In good news, our tests on Windows 10 were quite revealing… because we went to town on its ray tracing pipeline.

The above gallery includes captions and explanations for a bunch of after-and-before moments where I turned on the game’s ray tracing options at the game’s maximum “high” setting, then paused and captured the same moment with ray tracing completely disabled. In some cases, there’s no discernible difference, since plenty of the game has been built to look good across all platforms. In particular, ray tracing effects aren’t going to make a room full of concrete and other generic materials look that much different in terms of shadow and light.

But as soon as players walk into rooms set off by reflective surfaces and more diverse materials, the effect is absolutely stunning. So much so that players are given a pretty intense question on how to proceed: more ray tracing, or more pixels?

As of press time, only Nvidia’s RTX series of graphics cards include ties to the DirectX 12 ray tracing pipeline, which thus limits your potential access to these ray tracing effects. In the case of Nvidia’s cards, enabling ray tracing immediately drops the frame rate an apparent 15-20fps. This is where Nvidia’s exclusive DLSS (deep learning super sampling) pipeline proves handy. This system uses a machine-learning model of 3D-rendering information to upscale any gameplay from a lower rendering resolution. In the case of Control, that’s almost required to get ray-traced performance above a 60fps threshold on respectable resolutions, depending on your graphics card.

In my case, I confirmed a frame rate hovering around 60fps when I used a notebook version of the RTX 2070 GPU at “1080p DLSS” resolution—meaning, a native 720p signal upscaled to 1080p. I could get comfortably in the 70fps range on my desktop system, powered by the $1,199 RTX 2080 Ti, when I ran ray tracing settings at “high” (the maximum) and picked “1440p DLSS” resolution (a native 960p signal upscaled). Want to get all the way to 4K? Even with a pricey card and a DLSS upscale, you’ll have to do some serious option toggling to get anywhere near a 60fps refresh (unless you nix ray tracing, at least).

Does DLSS magically nail a faked higher resolution? Heck no. Screenshots don’t tell that story, since DLSS effectively works like temporal anti-aliasing (TAA) and thus fails the most when the in-game camera is moving. But in practice, the way light bounces as modeled by a full ray tracing pipeline is some of the most impressive stuff I’ve seen in real-time rendering in years. Full-room scenes benefit from a sense of weight and depth, and this lighting doesn’t look insufferably dim, unlike the dramatic-but-iffy lighting model in Metro Exodus. The results are worth the resolution downgrade. I’d argue that the effective resolution and performance with DLSS turned on was somewhere in the 1200p range—clearly sharper than 1080p, and clearly not a perfect pixel match for my 1440p Gsync display. On my notebook version of the RTX 2070, the effective resolution looked like 900p—so, your average Xbox One S game.

Lynchian for better, Lynchian for worse

When the game isn’t impressing with phenomenally fluid combat, rich ray tracing effects, or delightfully tricky puzzle-traversal moments, Control also comes with a standard-issue Remedy Studios plot. It’s jibberish, but boy is it rich.

Remedy is clearly drunk on its vision of a federal mad-scientist agency. For one thing, you won’t find a much better implementation of full-motion video in an action game than in Control. The studio’s knack for FMV was teased in Alan Wake, then proved to be a momentum-stifling, plot-confusing obstacle in the ambitious Quantum Break. Third time’s the charm, apparently, as a slew of mostly optional video moments are cleverly staged and organically inserted into the FBC. At least one of them tantalizingly hints to a connection to another Remedy game.

In BioShock-like fashion, various text documents are strewn all over the FBC’s offices and labs. Unlike in Bioshock, though, these documents do a wonderfully subtle job of setting up clues and answers for moments and set pieces you run into later in the game. Plus, they liberally play with government agencies’ knack for redacting and blacking out swaths of text—and it’s easy to pick out the inherent humor and satire when Remedy goes this route.

The worst part about Control’s plot-immersion attempts comes from the real-time, in-game conversations, which often revolve around sloppy facial animation—sometimes dipping hideously into the uncanny valley—and occasionally rigid dialogue. I counted no less than a dozen moments that seemed like they were originally written in the studio’s native Finnish tongue, then machine translated into English. In Remedy’s defense, the studio winks at this fact in the form of one casting decision. The omnipresent weirdo janitor Ahti slips back and forth between his native Finnish and delightfully broken English when speaking to Jesse, all while issuing directives that sound equal parts ominous and whimsical.

Does that sound like your cup of tea? Does a creepy guy whistling while mopping and talking in circles around the broken logic of a mysterious federal agency, all while your main character remarks openly about how weird she is before continuing on her journey to find her lost, troubled brother draw your interest? If so, then you shouldn’t waste a second diving into the truly possessed weirdness that is Control. The plot payoff goes as far as you want it to, whether you fast-forward through the campaign to chase down the mystery of your sibling or because you dig deeply into side missions and optional flavor text. And every time the plot becomes obnoxious or confusing, you can liven things up with a frenetic, tactically rich opportunity to kick butt via telekinesis. Only in video games.

The good

  • Remedy delivers some of gaming’s best third-person combat yet.
  • Ray tracing on compatible PCs looks so incredible, it’s worth the downgrade in resolution.
  • The plot goes as weird and deep as players might want between the frenetic action.
  • The plot’s supernatural-mystery payoff is on par with the weirdest, most exuberant David Lynch fare.

The bad

  • Beautiful visuals don’t always extend to the uncanny valley of facial animation.
  • The effort spent completing optional missions isn’t necessarily paid off with useful perks.
  • The plot’s supernatural-mystery payoff is on par with the weirdest, most exuberant David Lynch fare. (For some people, that is not a positive.)

The ugly

  • How much you have to pay in 2019 to get this game’s ray traced version to run efficiently.

Verdict: If you seek exhilarating third-person action, buy this before year’s end. If you own a PC GPU that supports DirectX 12 ray tracing, buy this immediately.

ARS T

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