Before The Conduit, High Voltage Software was a company known for the Hunter: The Reckoning series on a good day and its selection of licensed software on a bad one. But more than a year into Wii's life cycle, the studio's leaders realized that few third-parties were even trying to make high quality titles for the traditional player and so they jumped at the opportunity -- the chance to prove themselves. Unfortunately, like so many other developers interested in creating Wii titles not overrun with mini-games and waggle, HVS had a battle on its hands because most publishers weren't up for the gamble. That being true, the company started work on a Wii-exclusive first-person shooter backed by a powerful proprietary 3D engine designed to maximize the system's technical potential -- and it funded the entire project itself. It was a risky move that most developers could not afford to take, but it paid off -- not only did The Conduit eventually land a big-name publisher in SEGA, but the game has remained at the tippity-top of our audience's most wanted lists since we unveiled it so long ago.
It's kind of a videogame Cinderella story, but does it have a happy ending? For gamers, yes. The Conduit is not a revolutionary first-person shooter, but it's a damned good one, particularly if you only own a Wii. High Voltage has created an FPS with great controls and graphics, a fun single-player romp and an addictive multiplayer offering. The biggest complaint I can make of the package is that it doesn't really upend the genre with some fantastic new twist, but simply clings to the fundamentals that made shooters fun to begin with. Thus, if you already own a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, both clogged with FPS titles, you've probably experiened some variation of The Conduit before. At the same time, the game certainly fills a library gap on Nintendo's console so if you've been marveling at the shooters on the other systems but don't have the cash to throw around, here at last is an effort you can be proud of.
Watch our Video Review of The Conduit
In the Conduit, you play as Agent Ford, a mysteriously gifted operative who goes to work for a top secret organization known only as the Trust as it fights against an impending alien invasion. The narrative, which also involves government conspiracies and advanced computer technology, has been seen in numerous X-Files-y themed videogame forms spanning multiple generations, from Area 51 to Perfect Dark, and at this point it borders on cliche. While the premise itself is not new, High Voltage has to its credit cut no corners where presentation is concerned. Not only does the story throw you for a loop now and again, but it's all made more immersive by way of excellent voice acting courtesy Kevin Sorbo of Hercules and Mark Sheppard of Battlestar Galactica fame. A series of well-produced pre-level cut-scenes and in-game dialogs between primary characters keeps the story flowing alongside the play challenges. The tale is engrossing while it lasts, and yet it all ends so suddenly that some players are bound to be disappointed. Of course, assuming sales are good, a sequel is all but guaranteed.
I've no doubt that overzealous system-hating fanboys will assert that there is nothing particularly special about The Conduit, but I don't believe that. In my experience, the title features the tightest, most comfortable control scheme of any console-based first-person shooter to date and that's true because of an innovative, highly customizable configuration that's already changing the way developers approach FPSs on Wii. It's also an accomplishment that shouldn't simply be shrugged off. After all, Nintendo's console was founded on a unique controller and The Conduit makes good on its potential by enabling you the option to fully tweak your controls to your liking, setting horizontal and vertical sensitivity, dead zone, turn speed, running speed, HUD layout and transparency, and more. You can fiddle with the settings until you create the perfect control scheme for your preference, and all of your modifications will be seen in real-time as you play the title, which is a pretty amazing feat. As a result, you will inevitably discover a configuration that makes playing the game very, very fun because you'll be able to reliably target and shoot down enemies without wrestling with a setup that you're not comfortable with. It's such a simple inclusion, but it makes all the difference, and you can bet it's going to be copied endlessly.
On a side note, you can fully tweak your button layout, too, even going so far as to assign motion controls to certain moves, but I happen to like the standard configuration HVS has come up with. You shoot with the B-trigger, jump with A button, crouch and lock-onto enemies with the nunchuk's buttons and can select between two guns with the D-Pad. With a quick flick of the nunchuk, you can toss grenades and if you thrust forward with the Wii remote, you'll knock enemies out with the butt of your gun. Normally I'd be against such gestural inclusions because they so often prove unreliable, but they work flawlessly every time in The Conduit and they allow for a more immersive combat experience, which is commendable. (In the developer's next game, The Grinder, it has opted to assign melee combat to a button because you're fighting too many enemies at any given moment and gestures would therefore not be ideal. It's clear to me that these guys know Wii's strengths and weaknesses.)
The game itself is split into two modes: single-player and online multiplayer. The single-player portion is comprised of nine missions that took me about five and a half hours to complete. That's the number the game clocked when I had blasted through the last stage, anyway, but it is a bit misleading because it does not consider any of my deaths and subsequent restarts. I'd realistically tack on a couple more hours to the experience, which puts it at about average length for a shooter. Additionally, the title features a full achievements system and hidden data tracks scattered throughout levels that unlock cheats and concept art. And of course, you can also change the difficulty so that the normally-forgiving AI characters mount more formidable offensives. (By the way, one little gripe: you will find yourself fighting the same small selection of enemies throughout the adventure.)
The Conduit is very much a straightforward, linear FPS focused on simple run-and-gun gameplay. It really does seem to be a Wii version of Perfect Dark in that regard. Therefore, if you've grown accustomed to FPSs with relentlessly scripted scenarios, vehicular combat, and that one big feature (destructible environments in Red Faction; the ability to command monsters in The Darkness), you will probably find The Conduit's designs lacking by comparison. I can see that, but the gunplay in High Voltage's project is no less intense or enjoyable as you run through futuristic bases and dilapidated city backdrops pumping bullet after bullet into soldiers and aliens. You will use a variety of weapons, from pistols and shotguns to rocket launchers and alien blasters, to dispose of foes with satisfying accuracy. And when you're not shooting them down, you'll be able to select Ford's All-Seeing Eye, a special gadget that can hack into computers, find secret portals and messages, and unlock doorways through the city, to progress, which mixes up the action some and is also good fun.
When you're all finished with the single-player mode, you can hop online and continue the fight via The Conduit's 12-player-compatible online component, a very welcomed addition that greatly enhances replay value. The bad news is that you'll still need to trade friend codes with your buddies before you can play them, but don't worry because there's also plenty of good news. The Conduit features a robust list of modes and maps to play online and nearly 20 weapons to use as you rip through arenas blasting foes. There's the standard marathon in free-for-all, an every-man-for-himself fragfest set to a countdown timer, but there also some good variations. In ASE Football, you search a map for the gadget and then try to hold onto it the longest without being shot dead. And in Bounty Hunter, you must search locales for a specific target and if you shoot the wrong opponent, you'll be penalized. There's also team play scenarios like capture the flag, an oldie but goodie. Thankfully supports WiiSpeak online so you can actually chat with your friends as you run about levels destroying each other or opponents. What a concept!
I tested the online portion several times in preparation for this review and it yielded mixed results. In various matches with upward of eight or 10 players, I noticed that in some cases everything ran beautifully. No lag, perfect WiiSpeak recognition, and the end result was nothing short of addictive. The variety in maps is adequate, the gameplay styles enjoyable and with such tight controls at your fingertips, the matches really do get intense. However, I also encountered situations overrun with lag in which on-screen characters would skip around erratically, making maintained matches virtually unplayable. It seems clear to me that the technology is in place for some great online experiences, but whether or not you actually get them may depend on your connection speed, as well as how many people are playing against you. Even with this split between good and bad connections, though, I think there will be a lot of Wii owners willing to suffer through some laggy battles for the good ones, which make possible some truly entertaining fragfests.
©2009-06-22, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved