The Conduit Review
The Conduit has been one of the most highly anticipated titles of the year and justly so. For some time now Wii owners have been dreaming of using their Wii remotes for something other than golf or tennis and developer High Voltage Software swore to grant their wish. High Voltage, developers of such varied titles as Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, America's Army: True Soldiers and Dora the Explorer, are an ambitious DIY kind of group. When faced with making a realistic FPS for the Wii, they knew they had their work cut out for them and cleverly modified their proprietary Quantum 3 engine to suit the task at hand. The result is a surprisingly un-Wii-like action shooter.
The Conduit is set in Washington D.C. where a terrorist named Prometheus is leading a series of attacks against the city. John Adams, leader of a shadow organization called “The Trust” sends secret service agent Michael Ford to stop these attacks. To Ford, it looks like a straightforward assignment until he gets in close enough to realize there's more going on than meets the eye.
Before starting the game, you're presented with a surprising number of options which allow you to customize the experience to an amazing degree. Beyond the expected difficulty settings, there are settings for HUD layout, camera style, run speed, turn speed, horizontal and vertical sensitivity, HUD layout and (you'll be glad for this later) a toggle to turn off the reload blur effect. While typical Wii owners may not know what to do with all these settings, hardcore gamers will be in option heaven. The good first impression continues as a brief, introductory tutorial does a good job of showing players the ropes and makes objectives clear through a clean, polished UI and thorough mission briefings. Further, the beginning missions are easy enough to allow players to familiarize themselves with the controls which are for the most part, intuitive and comfortable.
Movement is done with the nunchuck's analog stick with the C button used to crouch and the Z button to target lock. The camera and reticule are controlled by the Wii remote's angle and firing is done with the B button. Weapons are easily swapped using the directional pad while jumping is done with the A button. The two-controller set up takes some getting used to but eventually feels quite natural, especially grenade-throwing which is done by moving the nunchuck in an overhand tossing motion, and punching guys in the throat which is done by moving the Wii remote in a forward jabbing motion. The only issue in regard to controls is that in tight spaces, many an untimely player death is likely to be caused by getting hung up and being unable to turn around. When you enter a narrow space the camera seems to gets stuck on something and no amount of analog stick moving or Wii remote waggling will get you out of it. In spite of this, most players will find the controls solid.
The level design is solid too, if somewhat unimaginative. For Wii owners who are new to shooters, The Conduit may be a revelation but to fans of the genre, the game feels overly familiar. To begin with, the hallways and stairwells, catwalks and sewer tunnels all feel pulled from a hundred other shooters. There's nothing wrong with them; they're just not very creative. There are plenty of rooms to hide in and a generous number of ammo refills and health packs to pick up, exploding tanks and chunks of debris to take cover behind, and lots of doors to unlock and enemies to run at you in waves but all of it's fairly forgettable. Also, for my taste, the game makes too much use of the blood gate strategy (situations where you can't move on until you've killed “X” number of enemies). The weapon designs are only slightly more interesting than the level designs and come in three varieties: Human, Trust and Drudge. The Human and Trust weapons are more or less interchangeable and come in your standard shotguns, pistols, rifles and rocket launchers. The better and more fun weapons to use are the alien Drudge weapons which are fast, powerful and in their organic, reptilian skins look almost alive.
In spite of the relatively conventional mission and weapon design, the game deserves a thumbs up for keeping players on track. By listing the objectives, providing an onscreen arrow to follow and having the ASE point the way, it's nearly impossible to get lost which is no small benefit for new players or players with a poor sense of direction. The game is also paced well and is fairly forgiving due to frequent checkpoints and well-determined mission lengths. The good news is, these and other elements of the game point to it being competently done. The bad news is, there are a number of significant areas where it falls short.
First, the limited number of enemy types makes combat feel much the same throughout and this limitation extends to the bosses which are repeated in more than one place. It's disappointing to build up to a boss battle halfway through the game and realize you're fighting the same boss creature you've fought before, only this time there's two of them. Another issue is inconsistency. Early in the game you're taught to destroy the conduits in order to stem the tide of spawning aliens but in several instances these conduits can't be destroyed because...they just can't. This arbitrarily changes the rules on players and subjects them to a seemingly endless stream of enemies. By far though, the biggest gameplay disappointment is the unrealized potential of the All-Seeing Eye or ASE.
The ASE is a spherical device that floats above Agent Ford's hand that can be used to hack computers, detect unseen Drudge mines and mechanisms and acts something like a GPS. The thing is, apart from opening bio-locks and keeping you from stepping on mines that look like spiky, helium-filled eggplants, the ASE detects things that don't add a whole lot to the game. An ASE icon appears on screen whenever an interactive object is near and most often it'll be detecting hidden Drudge messages or locks. The thing is, the messages don't provide you with any kind of necessary information and don't add much to the story while the locks provide entrance to mostly unnecessary weapons caches. The ASE can also be used to collect Trust information disks but they don't add anything to the fiction either and are collected only to gain an achievement. Not using the ASE to enrich the story feels like a missed opportunity.
Another missed opportunity is the game's sound. While the voice performances by Mark Sheppard (of Battlestar Galactica) as Michael Ford and Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules and Andromeda) as Prometheus are stellar, the rest of the sound pales by comparison. Many of the Drudge sound effects sound like they've been ripped straight from Halo's Covenant sound files and the most memorable thing about the music is that you can easily hear the loop as it repeats. Thankfully, the graphics are better than this, and offer some impressive lighting and shadow effects. Overall, the environments and textures look good so the somewhat flat, generic look of the game is probably due more to uninspired art direction rather than tech limitations.
Speaking of uninspired, it's too bad the dev team didn't put as much effort into the story as they did the tech. When first hearing the game's title, I imagined the Conduit to be a symbol for the hero, Michael Ford, who through the story proves to be the conceptual conduit for some cool, secret something-or-other. Turns out, it's much more straightforward than that; conduits are just the portals the Drudge army spawns through. I guess with today's media-savvy audiences, I was expecting something more sophisticated and I'm surprised at The Conduit's simplistic, often disjointed storytelling approach.
To start, you'll be thrown into the game with nothing but a philosophical voiceover to explain things to you so you only have a vague idea of what you're doing and why. A total lack of cutscenes means the only thing moving the story forward are the mission briefings which in their dry text-ness don't do much to make you care about saving the world. I found myself more or less ignoring the story in the end and just shooting everything that moved. Even considering the flimsy, uninteresting story I'd still be willing to cut the developers some slack if only they hadn't committed the ultimate sin—ending the game on a cliffhanger. The game builds you up to think you're about to face a climactic fight and then the credits roll which is a huge let-down. In my opinion, that's the worst thing you can do to a gamer and any dev team who does it should be soundly beaten. Or at least forced to apologize.
The Conduit offers a competently-executed single player campaign and a variety of significantly more entertaining 12-player online multi-player modes which clearly demonstrate where the game's strengths and weaknesses lie. Ultimately, the game is a solid but flawed first attempt from High Voltage Software at a first person shooter on the Wii.