Conduit 2

Review

posted 5/27/2011 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
Platforms: Wii
Back in 2009, a small independent studio called High Voltage Software decided to buck the trend of minigames and fitness simulators and make an honest to goodness first person shooter on the Wii. That shooter was The Conduit, an old fashioned success story as HVS, primarily a licensed software developer, self-funded a brand new IP for over a year until fans took notice and Sega stepped in to publish the game. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears The Conduit finally arrived on Wii to fans hungry for an FPS to call their own. There was just one problem: The Conduit was kind of disappointing.

Now I don’t want to needlessly bash HVS’s first original game—you can find plenty of that online—but it did have some gameplay issues and in many ways felt behind the times. The single player game was short and only hinted at a massive, conspiracy-theory-exploring story. What’s worse, hackers descended upon the multiplayer and completely ruined what had the potential to be a fun competitive online shooter.

And yet, I still loved that game. I probably gave it a higher score than it deserved but I had so much fun with it, replaying the single player until I’d hunted out all the secrets, and for a few brief months, playing online until cheaters utterly broke the multiplayer with exploits and hacks. The Conduit pioneered advanced graphics, tight controls and online multiplayer on the Wii. It was HVS collectively asking the question, “can we do this?” and the unanimous answer was “we most certainly can!”


And so we have Conduit 2, the sum total of HVS’s experience launching The Conduit, packed into a sequel that is far bigger and more ambitious than its predecessor ever was. Conduit 2 fixes nearly all the problems of the original game and adds an impressive amount of content, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few stumbling blocks along the way.

Let’s look at the single player game first. Conduit 2 is about as direct a sequel as you can get—the opening cutscene (pre-rendered in high-res glory) shows Secret Service agent turned lone hero Michael Ford walking into the conduit that took him right into the first game’s cliffhanger ending. He emerges onto an oilrig appropriately smack in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. He’s still in hot pursuit of the shadowy John Adams, the conspirator-god-alien leader of the Trust. As if Ford doesn’t hate Adams enough, Adams reveals that the self-destruct sequence Ford just escaped bathed Washington D.C. in deadly radiation, killing Ford’s family in the process. So begins Ford’s new quest for revenge and truth, spanning locations including Siberia, China, South America and even the Lost City of Atlantis.

It’s certainly a much bigger premise than the first game’s, but the characterization is a bit off. Due to scheduling issues, none of the talented cult scifi actors from The Conduit—most notably Kevin “Hercules” Sorbo—could reprise their roles, necessitated a total recast of Conduit 2’s chief characters.


While I definitely miss Sorbo as Prometheus (his replacement feels more like an expositional battle butler than an alien mastermind), Michael Ford’s new voice is the biggest change. HVS signed none other than Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem. While Jon St. John is a talented voice actor, it seems like HVS told him to go full Duke in his portrayal of Agent Ford; he even tosses in a few of Mr. Nukem’s signature one-liners. It’s a stark contrast to the minimalist, dryly sardonic Ford played by Mark Sheppard in the first game, and for fans of The Conduit it will be a pretty jarring change. Many critics slammed The Conduit and its protagonist for not having enough blatant emotion, but personally I prefer Sheppard’s take—he felt much more like a disillusioned but still highly professional Secret Service agent. Jon St. John goes for the full snarky action hero portrayal, which is even less characteristic considering Ford’s family just got murdered. He does a good job overall but the new Michael Ford definitely is definitely an acquired taste.

Of the three recast leads, John Adams fares the best. His original actor, Morgan Sheppard, certainly made Adams come across as an ancient, scheming mastermind, but his new actor lends a vitality and confidence to the character. It fits well—Adams is done hiding and he’s a much louder, more visible villain who is putting his long-simmering plan into action. I just wish they would’ve developed him a little more—you almost see less of him in the sequel than you did in The Conduit.

Once you adjust to the dramatic shift in tone, you’ll find Conduit 2’s single player is a significant evolution of its predecessor. HVS has implemented a number of the FPS conventions that have become mainstream in the last two years and they fit the somewhat old-school Conduit mould well. The slowly regenerating health bar has been replaced with the now-standard reddening screen popularized by Call of Duty, and a desperately needed dash function has been added and fits surprisingly well into the already crowded control scheme.


Speaking of controls, most of the previous setups remain the same with only a few tweaks here and there, and as before you can customize the controls to an almost absurd degree. Like in the first game it will take you a while to find a setup that is pitch perfect, but once you get something that fits your style the controls exceed the presets you’d find in almost any game. If you have Wii MotionPlus, Conduit 2 takes advantage of it by smoothing out the pointer accuracy and making turning and aiming more precise and responsive. I’ve played with and without MotionPlus enabled and the difference is quite noticeable.

The single player levels once again have an attention to detail that is rarely found in modern shooters, but the new focus on vibrant art direction and exotic locales pushes the level design far past the first game’s rather pedestrian stages. Each location has a lot of thought put into it, with particular emphasis on environmental effects and eye-catching architecture; HVS obviously took criticism of The Conduit’s blander areas to heart.

This focus on colorful levels really evens out the overall aesthetic too: pixel-shaded setpieces, textures, characters and weapons aren’t nearly as obvious and out of place as they were against The Conduit’s drab, lower-res backgrounds. Conduit 2 is a much prettier game top to bottom and while the Quantum 3 engine is still impressive and significantly upgraded, a large portion of the visual leap lies in the better art. I could also spot lessons HVS learned from their intervening games like Tournament of Legends and Iron Man 2—there’s a lot more goofy color and personality here and the shiny metallic surfaces and armors look better than ever.


While the first game took place entirely in D.C. you only spend one level there in Conduit 2, as you explore the bombed out streets and search for clues. I was actually a little saddened by this; Conduit 2’s D.C. is compellingly plastered with propaganda posters and conveys that the Trust really are taking over, but aside from a brief trek through the National Archive it lacks in landmarks. I was hoping for a shootout at the Vietnam memorial, or a trip through the Smithsonian.

The rest of the levels make up for it, though, and once again they’re all peppered with secrets, conspiracy messages and unlockables for you to scan with the All Seeing Eye. Instead of just unlocking a few cheats the new secrets factor into an extensive in-game store, similar to Call of Duty Black Ops and its CoD Points. Scanning all those secrets with the new and improved ASE gives you money to spend at the store, and even unlocks new weapons and perks for both multiplayer and single player; in fact, a thorough player could unlock the majority of the game’s arsenal just by finding all the weapon blueprints.

There are also coordinates to secret levels, but these stages are somewhat disappointing in that they are little more than repurposed multiplayer maps, filled with more secrets and endlessly spawning enemies. I missed the combo lock puzzles and accompanying weapon caches, but at least HVS took out those aggravating ghost mines. The ASE overall has much better things to do this time, and it functions more like Metroid Prime’s scan visor, which is a very good thing.


While the ASE is more than just an arbitrary puzzle solver this time, the main attraction is once again the arsenal. All of the weapons from The Conduit return in the sequel and many of them have seen innovative upgrades in the form of secondary functions. For example, the secondary mode for all of the human weapons is ironsights or scopes; Conduit 2 adopts the mechanic that Call of Duty standardized but doesn’t jump on wholeheartedly on the bandwagon, doing things its own way. For all of the guns that don’t have ironsights, namely the Trust and alien guns, HVS has implemented secondary modes similar to classic scifi shooters like Perfect Dark. The Hive Cannon is back but can now lob a sticky pheromone ball at targets which attracts all of the explosive wasps subsequently fired from the gun. The TCP launcher is far more useful with its secondary ability to plant proximity charges.

The new weapons are even weirder and cooler than the repurposed old ones. The AR-C Eclipse rifle forces you to balance between two extremes: its primary fire deals more damage as the gun heats up but quickly overheats the weapon, while its secondary fire activates a cloaking device, but cools the gun exponentially until it freezes over. The Dark Star fires weak tagging shots that inflict negligible damage over time, but once a tagged enemy is killed their life force charges the gun’s secondary mode—the ability to launch black holes. My only real concern with the guns is that many of them have been drastically rebalanced. The Strike Rifle has a smaller clip and takes longer to charge, making it more of a semi-auto sniper weapon. The Deatomizer has lost its zoom scope but carries a full-auto secondary, effectively making it a beefed-up plasma SMG. The MP5’s ironsights turn it from a throwaway bullet-hose into a formidable secondary automatic. It took me a while to relearn my old favorites and put them back to use.

As before ramping up the difficulty will make the enemies significantly smarter and more dangerous, so learning the ins and outs of Conduit 2’s guns can save you a lot of frustration when you’re tackling the game on Severe difficulty. The enemies have also seen upgrades in appearance, with several kinds of shock troops, haz-mat guys and heavy armor types. The Drudge have received the biggest facelift and have a far more distinctive appearance, with a few insectoid similarities to Mass Effect 2’s Collectors. They also sound much cooler—instead of Halo Elite rip-offs, they bellow in alien screams that sound like a combination of KotoR’s Selkath and I’m not sure what else. It’s just too bad that the ally Drudge helping Ford are a bit goofy like everything else in this sequel.


With all enemies the focus is now on headshots—most foot soldiers can take prodigious punishment to the torso and limbs, and the heavy troopers can withstand epic amounts of fire so it’s always a good idea to pop off their helmets with a well-placed SCAR round. While there are still larger, tougher enemies like there were in the first game, Conduit 2 also has a few bosses that pop up during the campaign. The oilrig level ends with an epic fight against a Leviathan, and the China level’s finale has you battling an ancient alien named Li who is not too pleased to see Prometheus. That boss fight was quite challenging and I had to retry it several times; word to the wise, don’t go into it with a sniper rifle.

Despite being superior to the original game in many ways, Conduit 2’s solo campaign still feels wanting to me. The over-the-top dialogue is somewhat distracting and the plot still doesn’t explore a lot of the elaborate conspiracy theories that were hinted at in The Conduit’s sequel hook. The last part of the game is also quite abrupt—Ford’s visit to South America is short and somewhat confusing, and feels rushed. The end battle with Adams is also brief and a tad uninspired, and the lead-in to the next game borders on ridiculous; you’ll either be scratching your head or suppressing giggles, or both. This truncated ending robs the story of its momentum and makes the solo campaign seem shorter than it really is.

Of course Conduit 2’s solo campaign is only half the game, and really more like a third of the game when you get down to it. Conduit 2’s multiplayer casts The Conduit’s online portion in the same contrast that it does its single player—namely, that it was basically an ambitious experiment, a simple framework that proved such a multiplayer was possible on the Wii. HVS has taken that framework and run with it, fleshing it out exponentially and seamlessly including most of the features we’ve come to expect in online FPS.


The most substantial addition is a system of four character loadouts, which can incidentally be used in the solo story too. Each loadout lets you not only customize your player model but edit weapons and “suit upgrades,” Conduit 2’s version of unlockable perks. These include everything from essentials like better armor and metal legs that give you infinite sprint, to weapon and skill focuses that essentially let you build specialized classes. With explosion buffs, healing skills, and at least three upgrades for the Phase Rifle, you can easily fashion demoman, medic and sniper classes. As I stated earlier you can unlock a whole lot of generic upgrades just by exploring the solo levels, but some require a certain number of medals.

Medals are Conduit 2’s special mini-achievements, and they can be earned repeatedly for actions ranging from headshots to flag captures to tea-bagging and stealth melees. Not only do these net you XP but they add up to unlock new upgrades; for example, getting the faster revive skill requires that you heal 50 teammates and get 50 medic medals. As you can imagine nabbing so many medals takes a lot of dedicated play, and I wouldn’t be surprised if friends started setting up achievement matches just to unlock the perks faster. This at least keeps everyone from upgrading the black hole-shooting Dark Star or the sniper rifle that can see through walls, but with the weapons so brutally balanced already, it takes some real practice to get good with the weirder ones until you get those perks.

While Conduit 2 does add dedicated split-screen combat and a cooperative enemy wave mode called Invasion—two things The Conduit sorely lacked—once again the meat of the multiplayer is played online. 12-player matches include everything from standard CTF , assassination, and control point games to original gametypes where you storm an enemy base and attack their power generator, or ASE basketball, a twist on CTF where you not only have to take the enemy team’s ASE but also dunk it through your team’s hoop. There’s certainly no lack of variety and you’ll be experiencing all of it, whether you want to or not.


Unlike the new GoldenEye, Conduit 2 doesn’t let you pick individual game types in online matchmaking but instead groups them into free-for-all and team grab-bags. Players still get to vote between two maps and gametypes but that’s the extent of the choice. This ensures that each mode gets a decent amount of play but if you just want some old-fashioned team deathmatch you might have to wait a round or two. Of course you can choose whatever mode you want when you make a custom match, but you better add lots of friends to make it worthwhile. Luckily Conduit 2 lets you add rivals after every match, and like the first game you can send simple friend requests to people already in your Wii address book.

Conduit 2 has a bigger map count this time and the selection overall is much better. The improvements made to the single player environments apply to the multiplayer maps as well, and while many of them are inspired by the story locations some are completely original. Three of the maps from The Conduit make a return, but one happens to be the enormous Pentagon map, one I was never thrilled with in the first game. It’s just too big and the chokepoints are too easy to exploit; I would’ve preferred the Hospital instead, which was cramped, hectic and perfect for crazy free-for-alls. While there are a couple duds the good far out-weights the bad this time, which wasn’t the case in the first game. Each map is also equipped with three control points—one for health, weapon damage and speed—and capping them automatically buffs that stat for your team. This adds a small meta-game of control point capture to any team game, a secondary layer of strategy that you can pursue or ignore at your discretion.

The learning curve is pretty steep and the hodge-podge of shooter conventions makes Conduit 2’s multiplayer a bit difficult to adjust to, but when you get the hang of things it’s a lot of fun, just as good as GoldenEye in its own way if not as instantly addicting. In fact it’s fantastic when it works…but agonizing when it doesn’t. I understand the game has only been out for a couple weeks but I’ve run into a number of bugs and issues. While lag rarely gets too bad it can be unbearable sometimes, and I’ve had lobbies just freeze on me once or twice.


HVS is clearly shaking the bugs out of their ambitious new online system, but thankfully there is little recourse for cheaters this time. The developers can now apply mandatory updates to plug exploits and bugs, and almost every other time I’ve connected to the good old Nintendo Wifi network the game has downloaded such an update. I have run into some matches full of cheaters but I never see the same hacks twice, which means HVS is being diligent. Keep posting those exploit movies on Youtube, hackers—it just makes it easier for HVS to fix them. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, Conduit 2’s multiplayer will get better and smoother with age.

Conduit 2 really is one of the last big releases on Wii. While it’s still a bit rough around the edges and a few of the old flaws still remain, it feels far more complete than The Conduit and there’s a ton of content to explore. There are so many facets to this game that even if a couple irritate you, you can just move on to the next one and enjoy the experience as a whole. There really isn’t any one big issue that ruins Conduit 2 or puts the brakes on the fun, and HVS deserves credit for fixing so many of the pitfalls from the first game and delivering a compelling FPS at the same time.

With so much retro shooter blood mixed up with modern tricks and designs, Conduit 2 is equal parts old school FPS and portent of things to come, particularly on Nintendo consoles. With Project Café on the horizon and a promising Conduit 2 tech demo already running on the 3DS, I’m eager to see where High Voltage Software takes Agent Ford next.
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