The video gaming world is a fickle one. Its enthusiasts are keen to take every new development and watch it from every angle, dissecting all possibilities and results. Some place impossible emphasis on individual events, while others are more rational and logical. Case in point, The Conduit, High Voltage Software’s much-publicized First Person Shooter for the Wii. For some, the game would immediately end the doubt third parties at one point had with regard to putting their ‘traditional games’ on the Wii, while others immediately labeled it ‘generic’ and ‘bland’ and walked away. So, which is it?
The Conduit follows government agent Michael Ford as he works with an organization called The Trust. They are attempting to stop the operations of Prometheus, a terrorist aiming to take over the government with the aid of bug-like aliens called The Drudge. It’s pretty standard ‘hero gets betrayed, questions who the good guys really are’ stuff, for the most part—the narrative certainly doesn’t let itself get in the way of the gameplay. However, those looking for more will certainly find it—hidden messages all over the levels and myriad radio and TV broadcasts help flesh out what’s going on in the rest of the world and how current events are related to things that actually happened in real life. So, the story is deep for those who want a stronger narrative, and unobtrusive for gamers who just want to run and gun. For better or worse, the end of the game guarantees that, if sales allow it, we’ll be seeing a Conduit 2.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, this is an unabashed run and gun shooter—much more similar to Goldeneye or Perfect Dark (if those games let you jump) than it is to Halo or Call of Duty. By and large, you’re given big guns and grenades, pointed in a straight line, and told to kill all the bad guys. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no strategy involved—running in there with reckless abandon will get you killed in a heartbeat, and intelligent use of the many unique firearms is essential. There are three types of weapons in The Conduit: Human, Drudge, and Trust. Human weapons are your standard pistols, shotguns, SMGs, and burst-fire rifles. Drudge weapons are more focused on disintegration, while the Trust have adapted elements of both. Some of my personal favourites are the Shrieker (Drudge weapon whose bullets can be arced by the Wii Remote's IR) and the lovingly-named HVS45, a magnum that shoots explosive rounds.
Of course, there’s no point in having these fancy weapons without enemies to fire them at. Enemies in the game consist of various forms of Drudge, as well as humans who’ve been turned into Drudge ‘puppets’. The Drudge run the gamut from little explosive guys who trundle up and say ‘boom’, to the foot-soldier-style Drones, to… well, mantis-like things that are five stories tall. As the bigger ones tend to have strong shielding, The Drudge generally aren’t afraid to just book it to your position as soon as they see you, laying down fire with whatever they’ve got handy. Often, these creatures will respawn endlessly until you destroy their portal into this world, the titular conduits. The more-frail-but-more-intelligent humans use better battlefield tactics, often taking cover and working together to flank you. Sometimes they’ll mix it up and charge you in groups of three or four, so you should never take any encounter for granted. All in all, the enemies force you to put the varied weapons to good use.
The way that The Conduit tries to differentiate itself from other similar shooters is through the All Seeing Eye. This floating, highly advanced piece of Trust technology is basically the Swiss army knife for discovering secrets. During main gameplay, this baby is used to disarm invisible bombs, hack computers and invisible locks, and reveal invisible enemies. More exploratory players will also be able to use it to find power weapons hidden in secret rooms, secret Trust data discs used to unlock achievements and cheats, and myriad hidden messages scrawled all over the walls of the game. It works well, for the most part. However, the ‘ghost bombs’ can get incredibly annoying when coupled with a long corridor full of respawning enemies. It takes several seconds to hack a bomb, during which time you cannot shoot and must keep within a short distance of the device—very difficult to do when the enemy you just killed has come back and started shooting you. It’s impossible to simply dance around them, either, as the firefight will invariably lead you to accidentally step on one and cause Mr. Ford an embarrassing death. So, the ASE is a fun, unique device that could have been implemented a bit better.
Now, the three things about The Conduit that have been vaunted by fans and the developers are its controls, its multiplayer, and its graphic engine. To begin with, the controls are completely customizable. For the most part, I was fine with the default setup. It’s very intuitive firing with the B trigger, jumping with the A button, melee attacking by punching with the Wiimote, and throwing a grenade by flicking the Nunchuk. But let’s say that you get tired of accidentally tossing a frag and killing yourself every time you scratch your nose (not that I know anyone who does that!). Simply bring up the menu and you can switch it to pressing right on the D-pad, and allow a Nunchuk swipe to facilitate changing weapons instead. Even the aiming itself can be tweaked to perfection - the size of the bounding box (the box that determines whether you're aiming or turning) can be made to fit the whole screen, or almost non-existant, with separate settings for the X and Y axes. Both the turn speed and the running speed can be set by the player. Even the interface can be customized, so if you find that the ammo counter obstructs your view too much at the top of the screen, you can point at it and pull it down to the bottom. If The Conduit has a major fault, it’s definitely not in the controls department.
Online multiplayer is probably the most-anticipated feature of the game. There have been other online-enabled offerings in this genre on Wii, some with higher player counts and others with larger pedigrees. However, this is really the first big shooter designed with the Wii’s capabilities in mind, and the first to offer some semblance of a modern matchmaking system. You can select to join a friend’s match, a regional match, or a worldwide match. Yes, the dreaded Friend Codes are here in full effect, but they’re handled as elegantly as I’ve seen in any game. You can send a Conduit Friend Request to anyone on your Wii’s list, as well as to anyone in a private game (allowing you to easily add ‘friends of friends’). The Wii Speak microphone is supported, though you can only talk to your friends when in a public game (in a private match, everyone near your character can hear you). As far as game modes go, it’s mostly standard FPS fare for 12 players, with The Conduit’s own versions of Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Oddball, etc. The most unique (and probably the most fun) multiplayer mode is called Bounty Hunter. This Free-For-All mode challenges players not to be trigger-happy and kill everything they see. Instead, they must only hunt down their specified target, and will actually lose points for killing anyone else. This creates some mad tension as everyone frantically searches for their mark - doubly so if more than one person is assigned the same target, especially as you don't have any indication of who is hunting you until they start firing. All multiplayer modes are also made much more fun because of the simple act of physically aiming or punching. They even included a Halo-style medal system that does an admirable job of matching you with players of similar skill. The multiplayer will definitely keep dedicated players interested for months if not more.
The graphics were the part of The Conduit that originally sparked such a frenzy over the game. How did they fare? That depends on if you’re more interested in the technical or the artistic side. The Quantum3 Engine under the game’s hood is probably the best on the Wii. There are often 10-15 vividly-animated enemies onscreen, analyzing your position and figuring out how best to proceed. Explosions can be going off all over the place, with bright red-orange Drudge shots ricocheting everywhere, and no matter how big the current building is, the framerate stays steady as a rock at 30 FPS. As with most games, the graphics take a hit in multiplayer, but it’s still a quantum leap ahead of other first-person games on the Wii in the tech department. I did have one glitch on the technical side - I fell through a floor into computer space in one of the levels. However, it only happened once and doesn't affect my overall view of the engine. It’s just a shame that this high level of graphical fidelity didn’t allow for splitscreen multiplayer. High Voltage’s other upcoming FPS, The Grinder, uses the same engine and has this feature, so maybe a Conduit 2 down the line will allow more than one player per TV. On the art side? Not so impressive. The art direction is competent, but underwhelming. As you’re fighting through various national landmarks in Washington, such as the Pentagon, the Lincoln Memorial, and even the White House, you’ll scarcely be able to tell the difference between each. When the Oval Office looks just like any other VIP workplace, you know something’s wrong.
The sound in The Conduit is above average—typical ‘summer blockbuster’ stuff with a few enhancements. The music has a dark, fast-paced, espionage-style theme for the most part. The sounds for reloading weapons come from both the TV and the Wii Remote’s speaker, adding a lot of satisfying immersion. Unfortunately, the dialogue is where the sound falls flat. Mr. Ford sounds like a bad Matt Damon ripoff, and the lines they give him don’t help. Having just had an unpleasant conversation with the enemy, most people wouldn’t say, “You can go to hell. The only thing I need to save this country from is you.” It’s difficult to tell if this is intentionally campy or if High Voltage just wanted to give their game a ‘harder edge,’ but some of the dialogue is just groan-worthy. It doesn’t help that some of the smaller Drudge sound like wannabe Grunts from Halo, minus the actual funny chatter. Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) does a good job as Michael's Trust contact--naturally dark and mysterious. Once Prometheus gets inside your head, though, while he's voiced well, the dialogue goes straight back to Campsville.
Value-wise, the Conduit is hard to beat. Multiple difficulty levels and tons of Achievements to unlock in a ~9-hour campaign, depending on the difficulty level, and untold hours of multiplayer hijinks with your friends or with strangers online. The unfortunate lack of local multiplayer is the main black spot on the Conduit’s nice, clean dinner jacket.
So, all in all, is The Conduit ‘generic’? Or god’s gift to Wii? Gamers coming in looking for either will be disappointed. It doesn’t revolutionize the First-Person Shooter genre, as there are no vehicles like in Halo, no monsters to control as in The Darkness, and definitely no Morph Ball to be found. However, the high-quality graphics engine, very solid single-player, and online multiplayer that surpasses everything else on the system (even the venerable Mario Kart), put this game far above most efforts on Wii, and the perfect and fun controls greatly enhance the traditional shooting gameplay. So, no, the final product may not have warranted the impossible hype, but the Conduit is a very high-quality shooter that’s not to be missed by any self-respecting action gamer.