The Conduit

Review

posted 7/31/2009 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
Nothing builds hype like a shooter. The first-person perspective immerses the player like no other genre, the near-universal inclusion of competitive multiplayer makes the games highly social, and the focus on graphics makes the games more dazzling and eye-catching than any other. Regardless of the gameplay merits of any particular FPS, you just can’t ignore them—they’re the blockbuster hits that get the most attention.

Up until now the Wii has been missing out on this hype, because as a platform it perceivably lacks two of the main ingredients of a successful FPS. Its puny GPU supposedly doesn’t have the technical bells and whistles that make a shooter dazzle the senses. Meanwhile Nintendo’s laughably weak online service and insistence on using counterintuitive friend codes make it a real chore to connect and play online. And yet, the Wii has one aspect that makes FPS a perfect fit for the console: controls. Hypothetically the Wii remote is the next best thing to a PC’s mouse and keyboard but with the aforementioned drawbacks and the console’s perceived audience of minigame hungry baby boomers and toddlers, few developers have dared scratch the surface of the FPS genre on Wii.

And then there was High Voltage Software. The studio has been quietly working on licensed games for years now, but they’ve never made an original IP. Their Chief Creative Officer Eric Nofsinger and several of his team members liked the Wii and believed in what it could do, but like so many other Wii owners they were dismayed that their consoles were collecting dust. They decided to change that, to make a game that they’d genuinely want to play on the Wii, one that was only possible with the Wii’s controls but that also pushed the platform’s graphics and online capabilities. For over a year they developed their breakout FPS The Conduit without the aid of a publisher, a risky move, but ultimately Sega backed the project.

Hardcore Wii owners came out of the woodwork and hyped the daylights out of the game from PAX to E3, but now that the much-anticipated Conduit is finally here, can it hope to live up to expectations? Well, in terms of what HVS was aiming for The Conduit succeeds in every major area, but whether it excels or not is a bit more complicated. It may seem easy to quantify many of Conduit’s faults and dismiss the game as unremarkable, but there is much more to it than meets the eye.


The Conduit’s story follows a familiar formula. You play as Secret Service agent Michael Ford, a man recruited by the illuminati-like Trust organization to combat a growing series of paranormal crises in Washington, D.C., culminating in an invasion by hostile insectoid aliens known as the Drudge. The whole thing appears clichéd to a fault, but unlike the Halo series and its shameless theft of everything from Larry Niven to Aliens, Conduit has more going on beneath the surface than a simple space marines vs. bug-eyed monsters conflict. Nofsinger expressed the desire to present a multilayered story that players could ignore if they wanted to, so it takes some digging to get at the story’s significance.

HVS has amassed and blended dozens of conspiracy theories to construct Conduit’s plot. Cryptic messages referencing ancient gods litter the corridors, news broadcasts mention Skull and Bones members planted throughout the government, the symbols of the freemasons and illuminati are hidden in weapon repositories, heck, the radios scattered around the levels even have numbered stations playing on them. My main problem was that these conspiracy references weren’t as overt as the stuff in, say, Deus Ex.

You get the feeling that there’s a lot going on in Conduit’s world and yet you see very little of it, and it’s hard to tell what is significant to the overall plot and what is just for atmosphere. It enhances the sense of being a pawn in the middle of a huge chess match, but so little of the story is expounded upon that unless you’re really interested and go poking around, it’s hard to stay engaged. After beating the game, some more of it made sense to me and the earlier messages about Sumerian mythology snapped into place, but a lot is still ambiguous. It’s also cool that most of the game’s pre-launch advertising presented misleading story details or outright disinformation, which enhances some of the plot’s early twists.

Something tells me that HVS is gearing up for one hell of a sequel with a very involved plot, and it’s not just the game’s “finish the fight” cliffhanger ending. As a standalone game, however, Conduit has a straightforward story with a couple really cool twists but only hints of future greatness. In any case the plot had the intended effect; Nofsinger said he hoped curious players would Google the clues sprinkled across the campaign, and they’ve made me comb through Wikipedia’s tinfoil hat directory to understand all the references.


Whether it’s just a generic conspiracy romp or an introduction to something much bigger, the story wouldn’t mean anything if the gameplay wasn’t good. Thankfully Conduit has a competent, if not groundbreaking solo campaign by today’s standards. HVS based the entire game in D.C. so you get to see several historic locations, both from regular American tradition and conspiracy lore. During Conduit’s somewhat brief 8 hour campaign you’ll gun your way through a besieged Reagan Airport while terror advisories play ironically over the intercom; engage in a pitched shootout with Drudge drones on the shattered steps of the Jefferson Memorial; explore the Library of Congress and the Drudge-infested tunnels beneath it; and blast through a repurposed Bunker 13 in an early attempt to ascertain the truth.

These and the other locations are all iconic and fun to play around in but they fall prey to typical FPS level design: large set piece rooms connected by long twisty corridors filled with various kinds of cover. This makes for some memorable shootouts but the levels and the gameplay they facilitate aren’t exactly revolutionary. In particular I would’ve liked to see more open outdoor locations like the National Mall—after all, the Washington Monument featured prominently in the game’s advertising, and you only glimpse it from the Jefferson Memorial.

The design also has some balance drawbacks that make Conduit an ordeal on the harder settings. After a pleasantly challenging play through the “Guarded” difficulty I cranked it up to “Severe,” Conduit’s version of Halo’s Legendary mode. While the game was harder overall a few sequences became practically impossible; this is due to Conduit’s main gameplay style. Most areas are populated by enemies that are quickly reinforced by new waves that come out of Drudge egg pods or the titular conduits, glowing energy portals. There really isn’t any way to handle these sections other than barging in, staying on your toes and trashing the spawners; after getting accustomed to “duck and cover” games like Call of Duty and Gears of War, unlearning my tendency to dig in and stay put took some time.

This "mad charge" gameplay is manageable on easier settings but on the harder ones where it only takes a few shots to kill you, it’s downright maddening. Coupled with some questionable checkpoint placement it makes the hardest difficulty settings feel unfair and unbalanced rather than a meaty challenge.


That said I did make it through “Severe.” and when I just had to rush in and hope I came out alive, it was a refreshing change from cowering behind a rock in Halo waiting for my shields to recharge. I was simultaneously cursing and praising the AI as enemies took cover, flanked me, tossed grenades, healed themselves while under fire and rushed me when they had far superior numbers. Many reviewers have called the AI dumb; I’d like to see them beat the game on “Severe” and say that. Still, the “rush in, kill the spawners” scenario shows up time and time again—not enough to get boring, but I would’ve liked to see a few more ideas brought to the table.

At least you get an awesome arsenal with which to ventilate/vaporize the enemy. There are three classes of weaponry: standard human including automatics a shotgun and a rocket launcher, the psychedelic Trust plasma rifles and launchers, and the fleshy, bony Drudge biomass guns. HVS had some fun designing a few around the Wii’s abilities. The crustaceous Drudge Shrieker launches guided explosive orbs that you direct with the remote pointer. The Deatomizer fires a charged shot of bolo plasma bolts that can be angled by twisting the Wii remote, leading to a satisfying “wraparound” effect where the bolts encircle a target in neon blue death. The Hive Cannon, reminiscent of a few Half Life guns, fires insects and the firing radius can be widened or narrowed again by twisting the remote. The rest of the guns are more traditional, but every one of them is satisfying to use and as I’ve learned online, all can be used to lethal effect. There are even hidden weapon caches that hold super-powered versions of a few of the guns, so there’s no lack of variety.

Agent Ford’s most iconic piece of kit (and the plot’s central Macguffin) is a handheld sphere appropriately called the All Seeing Eye, or ASE. The little gadget can reveal hidden messages, detonate ghostly mines, expose invisible, invulnerable Drudge, and solve simple puzzles to open the aforementioned weapon caches. It’s also used for more mundane things like hacking terminals and while it’s a nicely symbolic item, I would’ve liked to see more creative uses for it, or at least some deeper puzzles.

In terms of bare mechanics and gameplay Conduit’s single player campaign isn’t going to shake up the genre—there are no huge boss fights and it consists almost entirely of down to earth running and gunning—but it’s still a pretty good run and it hits all the FPS staples in a very solid, satisfying way. It if weren’t really fun and addictive to shoot guys over and over again in Conduit then the solo mode would quickly grow thin, but it is a lot of fun and in that way it brings to mind of classics like Doom, Quake 2 and Half Life. Then again, half of what makes the raw gameplay so tasty are the pitch perfect controls.

A lot has been made of the Wii’s apparent glove-like fit to FPS controls and, aside from Nintendo’s own Metroid Prime 3 and the surprisingly good Medal of Honor Heroes 2, HVS is really the only developer to nail it. The basic scheme is comfortable enough for an intermediate player but more experienced gamers will want to fiddle around with the settings a bit. Luckily HVS lets you fiddle to your heart’s content—I haven’t seen this depth of customizability in a console FPS, ever. You can swap any button, adjust any sensitivity, and make your aim as loose or pixel-tight as you desire. Don’t like the default gesture controls for grenades or melee? Assign them to a button. Some of the adjustment sliders even take you back into gameplay so you can test your settings in real time. HVS said that they didn’t want to dictate what was the “best” way to play Conduit, and while they have some good default settings I still tightened things up a bit. It took me a while to find a scheme that was comfortable in both single and multiplayer, but now that I’ve locked it down I find it difficult to go back to dual analog control.

The controls make the biggest difference in multiplayer, leveling a playing field once dominated by analog stick wizards. It’s going to be a blast learning the ins and outs of real, competitive multiplayer on the Wii, and it is definitely Conduit’s most robust successful feature. What began two years ago as local splitscreen play has turned into a fully-featured online mode that rivals most 360 shooters, all because HVS listened to what its fans wanted. HVS has done its best to circumvent the backwards limitations that Nintendo has imposed on their online service, starting with those blasted friend codes. There is still anonymous regional and worldwide matchmaking, but adding friends has never been easier on the Wii.

Yes, you still have to use friend codes to add total strangers to your roster, but if you already have someone in your Wii address book, you can just send them a friend request like on Xbox Live. This is much easier and removes a whole extra step, and I’ve been wondering why more Wii games don’t do this in the first place. Once you’ve friended someone you can add the people on their friend list as well, quick and easy. Conduit also supports the WiiSpeak mic for voice chat between friends, adding even more incentive to friend people. Conduit’s intuitive system creates an almost viral nature to adding friends, and with a list limit of 64 people per profile, I can see the system reaching critical mass soon.

It’s not hard to see that happening, considering the number of traditional and creative options it offers. There are 7 maps, which is a pretty small number but the variety is greater than most other shooters I’ve played. Up to 12 players can participate in any match, and each map is decently balanced for this number of people. The bread and butter modes of deathmatch, team deathmatch and CTF are available, with team objective modes mixing up kill count and flag capture in various ways.


A few of the more original modes are ASE Football, a modern version of GoldenEye’s “hold the briefcase,” and the ever-entertaining Bounty Hunter. This mode assigns every player a specific target—if you kill anyone besides that target or the person hunting you, you lose a point. It’s really a creative idea and a lot of fun to watch 12 paranoid people running around a map, their trigger fingers itchy, doing their best not to blast everyone they see. I did run into sporadic lag in all multiplayer modes, but hopefully this will be ironed out once the servers calm down.

Both single and multiplayer are graced with some truly spectacular production values, for a Wii game anyway. Nofsinger said he wanted HVS to be “the most technically innovative Wii developer on the planet,” and that wasn’t idle boasting. Using their Quantum 3 engine HVS has pulled off graphical tricks that even Nintendo hasn’t managed. Weapons, items, characters and to a lesser extent environmental textures sport a wide range of pixel shader effects, including bump, normal and gloss mapping. High dynamic range lighting adorns the environments, while the scifi guns produce lively bloom glow and particle clouds that make for some gorgeous disintegration effects. Depth-of- field blur melts in when you’re reloading or sighting in on a target and the color bleeds from your screen as you get closer to dying. The enemies and weapons are the real showcase, especially the Drudge and their equipment. Many objects look like they came right out of an Xbox 360 game, and the experience rarely strays from a rock solid 30fsp framerate.

Of course, some concessions have been made to maintain that fluidity. Some of the levels look downright bland and flat—not all of the textures are glossy and high-res, and the level geometry gets rough in spots. I imagine that replacing some of the rote corridors with more elaborate architecture could cover up the visual drawbacks—after all, the library of Congress and Trust labs were far more interesting than Bunker 13. Conduit looks its best when you’re in a highly atmospheric location, drenched in environmental effects and buzzing with enemy activity.

And for the most part, it sounds great too. You’ll get the occasional stock sound effect but the sound designers at HVS have done a great deal to diversify the spectrum of effects you hear, from the guns to the enemies and environmental sounds. The signature whir of the ASE or the agonized scream of a spec-ops troop as he’s reduced to constituent atoms are original and expertly produced. Each gun has distinct clicks, energy whines and organic squishes that add as much to their identity as their appearance.

Conduit’s music, a mix of orchestral, electronica and synth, isn’t as striking or iconic as Perfect Dark’s or Halo’s, but again it’s the subtleties that matter. HVS’s composers focused more on ambience and subtle shifts in music that change dynamically with the action. You might not notice the aural depth your first time through—it’s easy to be distracted by the graphics—but you’ll hear the nuances as you replay the levels. That said there are plenty of driving beats when the action heats up and the main theme is pretty catchy. This is one soundtrack I’d like to see in a standalone release, so I can separate it from the game and appreciate it on its own merits.

The voice acting is top notch. HVS went to the Hollywood scifi niche to get its actors for Conduit. Mark Sheppard (Firefly, the new Battlestar Galactica) is Michael Ford, lending a raspy, mysterious quality that you’d expect from a secret service agent. Oddly enough Mark’s father William Morgan Sheppard (everything from Star Trek to Babylon 5) supplies the voice of Trust director John Adams, and does a good turn as a manipulative condescending conspirator. Hercules himself, Kevin Sorbo, is the confident voice of terrorist leader Prometheus, adding a whole new layer of geek-cred to the cast. HVS was smart to hire professional talent—these three experienced actors turn average dialogue into something special and improve the weight of the story.

And at the end of the day, that sums up Conduit: a decent, above-average FPS that stands out because of the effort and ambition put into it. In some ways HVS’s ambition got the better of them—Conduit has many small flaws and feels just a little rough around the edges. It makes up for these shortcomings by raising the bar in so many areas and at least having the vision and will to try in others. Despite its flaws Conduit is one hell of a first attempt and HVS should only be proud of their accomplishment. They pulled off a lot of technical miracles on the Wii—next-gen graphics, robust multiplayer, spot-on controls—and in a relatively short development period.

Conduit may not be perfect but the innovation it stands for makes it an important game in the Wii’s history. HVS has done a lot in their first original IP and I can’t wait to see what they have in store next. For its will to innovate and the sheer quality and volume of content it offers, I give The Conduit a generous A-






A-
The Conduit is a flawed masterpiece: it doesn’t quite live up to the nigh-unreachable hype built up around it, but by breaking so much ground on the Wii it does something more important than meet the hype. The myriad goals Conduit accomplishes make it much more than the sum of its parts, and ultimately that allows me to excuse its faults as first-time jitters. A solid solo campaign, pioneering graphics and unparalleled multiplayer on the Wii make it a must-have for hardcore and casual Wii owners alike.