The Conduit - Review

Jan 29, 2009
If you want to learn something about a science-fiction, alien-invasion shooter before playing it, just pay close attention to how it names its enemies. The single words developers choose to boil their interstellar or interdimensional threats down to often inadvertently reveal the character of the game beneath. Halo's Covenant and Flood conjure an aura of biblical scale and religious devotion. Half-Life 2's Combine suggests seamless integration and sleek, powerful technology. Killzone's Helghast sounds like grim, Germanic warmongering.

The alien invaders in Wii FPS contender The Conduit are called the Drudge.

What does that say to you? Thankless, plodding toil, a dearth of imagination, a dry and dogged adherence to convention? Something grey, unvaried, undistinguished, average? Right on all counts, unfortunately. The rule holds true for this technically sound but desperately uninspiring shooter. Name thy enemy, name thyself.

The enthusiastic self-publicists at developer High Voltage software have long been bragging about The Conduit's format-leading graphical prowess and how its pinpoint controls would consign twin-stick first-person shooting to the bin. This was the game that would finally endear the Wii to gaming's headshot heartlands, and prove those who always suspected it could be a perfect home for the FPS right. The claims were eye-catching enough to earn publishing support from SEGA, and on-message enough to earn Nintendo's namedrop blessing. And to be fair, they were half-true.
'The Conduit' Screenshot 1

A reasonably reconstructed White House is the game's least boring location. Well, it's not a bunker, a sewer or an airport.

The Conduit's pointer control is fast, precise, effortless and finely-tuned, whether by High Voltage in the excellent default setting, or yourself in the sort of frighteningly granular array of options - from deadzone to cursor-lock to motion sensitivity - that you'd expect of a late-nineties hardcore PC game. There's a decent sense of weight to your character, subtly effective camera movements, a useful semi-lock on the Z button that tracks the camera (but not your sights) on a particular enemy, and generally superior responsiveness and head control to previous standard-setter Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.

There are a few more commands than there are comfortably accessible buttons - however you configure it, you'll end up with something vital like reload a slightly awkward thumb-stretch away - but all in all, these controls are hard to fault and a joy to use. They really are a watershed proof-of-concept for the Wii's FPS capability, even if the magnitude of the achievement is mostly down to surprise that no-one else quite managed it before. And yes, pad control on other consoles, no matter how well calibrated, does seem a little clumsy after The Conduit.
'The Conduit' Screenshot 2

The ASE fails to find anything of interest.

The problem lies in what High Voltage asks you to do with these magnificent controls: shoot the same handful of clichéd enemies over and over again with poorly differentiated, unrewarding weapons, in repetitive and characterless locations, according to the whim of a meaninglessly threadbare and generic plot, and unburdened by considerations of strategy, tactics, options, or anything that might stir the most wavering half-mast of a raised eyebrow of interest. The Conduit might as well have been designed by an algorithm, it's so resolutely free of creativity.

Helbine (or Comghast?) troopers with glowing goggles, gurgling aliens who look like emaciated Covenant Elites, ineffectual spooks who didn't make it into Perfect Dark (the first one) and a few spindly bugs attack you in predictably stupid patterns from the other end of re-used corridors or across the occasional open space, which only seems large and exciting because of the tight confines you've been in and deja vu you've been experiencing for the previous 10 minutes. That's it, for nine none-too-long levels, before a Z-files conspiracy plot that is shockingly free of incident draws to a close.

It's not the short length so much as the complete lack of depth that disappoints. There's a reasonable number of guns to use, and they do include some charge-and-release energy weapons ripped off from Halo and a novel gadget or two, like the beam gun that fires three bolts along a line determined by how you twist the remote. But there's nothing to choose between any of them for effectiveness in any given situation, and the only reason to switch between your two guns or replace one for another it all-too-frequent boredom. They've had all the life balanced out of them.

Similarly, the option to change difficulty level on the fly is welcome, but only possible because it does nothing but alter the numerical values of damage you deal and receive. It doesn't change the enemy's numbers or effectiveness, and can't do anything to conjure intelligent or surprising behaviour from their AI, or interesting dynamics from fighting them. They either run straight at you, or they don't, and you usually only have one avenue of attack.

An attempt to vary the pace a little with the inclusion of the ASE or All Seeing Eye - an orb that reveals secrets invisible to the naked eye - is as transparent as it sounds and as the clues that ham-fistedly remind you to use it. Collectables for collecting's sake, "ghost mines", puzzles without depth or purpose and the same secret bunker with the same unimpressive secret gun in it for the fourth level in a row do nothing to improve your enjoyment of the flavourless blasting. The same is true of the mechanical achievements, awarded for completing levels or shooting X number of enemies with gun Y.
'The Conduit' Screenshot 3

Like so many FPS enemies, The Conduit's all sport convenient, glowing headshot targets.

It's not the visual tour-de-force we've been led to expect, either. Although smooth-running and boasting a high degree of technical polish in the effects, The Conduit suffers from weak, derivative artwork and corner-cutting in the details, and as an entrant in the Wii's beauty pageant it can't hope to hold its own against the sumptuously presented (and, for that matter, vastly more entertaining) House of the Dead: Overkill, for example.

Nonetheless, the snappy, futuristic thrill of the controls adds a great deal of the tactile satisfaction that the guns lack, and the design of The Conduit is so bland that it doesn't do much more wrong than it does right, which is very little. Shooting your way through it is unremarkable but hardly unpleasant. And it does have one notable bonus: very solid, well-engineered and enjoyable online multiplayer.

Let's not get carried away; what The Conduit achieves as a deathmatch game would be considered the bare minimum on any other platform, and it's certainly not without flaws. Matchmaking is sluggish first time, but after that you can play without pause and with little lag, even against distant players. The seven maps are well thought-out, with some devious spawn points, but the game modes are few - basic variants on deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and Oddball - and playlists get old fast, especially if you're unlucky enough to repeatedly stumble on the exhausting and ill-advised 20-minute marathon matches.
'The Conduit' Screenshot 4

There aren't many locations in the game that have enough scale to warrant using a scope, really.

The lack of standout weapons is also a problem. A ranking system adds just enough persistence to keep things interesting for now, but it seems likely that High Voltage won't be able to give the game the nurturing and additional content it needs to survive online in the long term. Still, the lack of any competition on the platform makes this competent deathmatch the Wii's default multiplayer FPS, and it's up to the task.

On any other platform, The Conduit would sink without trace - if we'd ever heard of it in the first place. High Voltage deserves credit for its technology, for its commitment to multiplayer, and for tuning a perfect set of FPS controls on a console that was begging for them. Its efforts shame everyone but Metroid developer Retro who's gone before, and certainly do prove that you can do a great FPS on the Wii. It's just that The Conduit - slender, derivative, mechanical and uninspired - isn't it.

Jan 29, 2009
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.

High Voltage's Quantum 3 engine pushes Wii on a graphical level. Oh, and we like alien guns.
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 All-Seeing Eye will help you find hidden messages and unlockables and open doors.
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 title's robust online multiplayer mode enables 12-player battles.
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.

IGN Insiders can click above to download wallpapers for The Conduit.
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.

User your rifle for some scoped-in head shots.
This is ASE Football. One guy gets the device and the others hunt him down. See how long you can hold onto it.

Closing Comments
It's not revolutionary, but the Conduit is a great first-person shooter designed just for Wii owners. While the game does not turn the genre upside-down, it is innovative in certain areas -- for example, it features the most customizable, precise and enjoyable controls of any console shooter created, hands down. Meanwhile, the technology powering the experience is leaps and bounds ahead of most third- party offerings for Nintendo's system. Combined, you've got a game that controls flawlessly and looks great. If you're okay with a few presentational cliches -- a story involving aliens that seems played out -- and a shooting experience that rarely strays from straightforward running and gunning, you're probably going to love the end product. If, on the other hand, you own another system, nothing The Conduit offers, fantastic controls aside, will seem extraordinary. Supposing you are a single console owner, though, High Voltage's shooter not only delivers a fun single-player quest, but an engaging online mode that will keep you fragging complete with WiiSpeak support for months to come.

Jan 29, 2009
Third-party giant SEGA has twice gambled on Wii's adult demographic and twice fallen short of the grand retail payoff. The first bet, House of the Dead: Overkill, was an on-rails shooter in the publisher's acclaimed zombie series. And the second, MadWorld, was a black and white brawler drenched in gore. Despite good reviews for Overkill and rave reviews for MadWorld, neither title performed very well on the sales charts, which inevitably led to wild speculation as to why that was. According to some pundits, the on-rails nature of House of the Dead ultimately did the game in, just as MadWorld's ultra-stylized monochromatic presentation proved too much for general audiences.

But SEGA's vice president of marketing, Sean Ratcliffe, doesn't seem phased by the results so far. "The mature audience on the Wii is a relatively new audience. The system has traditionally targeted families and kids and not the more mature hardcore gamer. We recognize that when you are trying something new, it may take awhile for the consumer to jump on board with it," he tells us.

MadWorld sold 66,000 copies during the first 20-something days it was on the market, according to data released by sales tracker NPD Group -- not bad for, say, the next Cooking Mama, but well short of expectations for a title considered to be one of Wii's best. And certainly nowhere near first-month sales of similarly AAA software on competing systems; titles like Gears of War blast through the 500,000 sales milestone in less than a week.

"MadWorld was something very different," says Ratcliffe. "It was pretty dark in humor and gameplay so there was a lot of people that had to be open to that one. We know the quality was there, we just need to give the consumer a little room to give it a chance." Ratcliffe notes that House of the Dead: Overkill, which sold only 44,000 units during its first 20 days available, also had "a quirky style to it that people needed to get used to."

"So there was a lot for us to overcome -- all of which we prepared for," he adds. "There will always be the early adopters, but the general consumer sometimes will be a little more reserved."

Then, of course, there's The Conduit, an original first-person shooter developed by High Voltage Software that SEGA picked up to publish late last year. The game has long been considered the third pillar in the third-party's arsenal of mature Wii software. The thing is, House of the Dead had a recognizable brand to fall back on and MadWorld had critical acclaim, yet neither reshaped the sales charts. Why should The Conduit be different? Well, for one, it's got a robust multiplayer component.

"Unlike MadWorld and House of the Dead, The Conduit offers multiplayer, which really will be the key to differentiating this game from others out there. The most successful Wii games offer some element of multiplayer? element to them and this game takes that to a whole new level. Offering incredible online gameplay takes this game out of the TV room and makes it a global experience that we think the Wii gamer has been looking for," says Ratcliffe.

Ratcliffe also says another major advantage of High Voltage's shooter is that, essentially, it delivers an experience that gamers are familiar with. "Where MadWorld and House of the Dead were innovating and offering something totally new, this offers something familiar to gamers – something they know they have a great time with already. This is just giving more of what they already like which means we have a great jumping off point. Essentially, The Conduit is offering hardcore gamers the type of game they already love to play on other systems."

There is one other very important factor, though -- one that cannot be overlooked or dismissed. And frankly, it may be this very detail that truly aids the first-person shooter where Wii sales are concerned. Ratcliffe points it out: "This game is teen rated versus mature meaning that we aren't only targeting the more mature hardcore gamer. It is a little more accessible to gamers of varying ages." Fact is, very few M-rated Wii games have performed to expectations, as both Overkill and MadWorld prove, so hitting the coveted teen rating may be the best thing that could've happened to High Voltage's title.

SEGA aired commercials for both Overkill and MadWorld, but neither showed the games in their best light because the publisher seemed more concerned with upsetting the ESRB than it did with selling the products. MadWorld's TV spots in particular showed only black and white snippets of action scenes that nearly ignored altogether the buckets of bloody carnage which consume and define the experience. Newcomers who spotted the title in TV commercials first would undoubtedly not even know it was overly violent if not for the mature label stamped on the spots at their conclusions. The Conduit's ads are more targeted, featuring snippets of fast, action-packed gameplay coupled with quotes of praise from various outlets, IGN included. Print, online and TV ads have already been airing and will continue to do so.

"Our goal is to reach out to both the hardcore gamer as well as the consumer who are maybe a little out of touch with the hardcore systems and are looking to play something more hardcore on their Wii at home that they share with their whole family," says Ratcliffe. "Overall, it is mostly a male demographic. At the end of the day, we are totally across the board with this one – from IGN to Marvel comics to Sports networks – we are touching on a little bit of everything." Ratcliffe adds that SEGA has targeted the hardcore by airing ads on G4, as well as in magazines and online sites like IGN, but on the flip side, it is "... targeting the more mainstream consuming and putting advertising up on SciFi, Spike, and ESPN." It has also looked to reach out to teens on Facebook, MTV, Adult Swim, FX and WWE events.

So from a marketing standpoint, there's one question left and it's the most important one, which is, how many units does SEGA need to sell of The Conduit for the game to be considered a success? "The game is already successful with us as the reviews have been pretty impressive. Overall the reviews have been strong, and though there will always be some naysayers we definitely feel we have been able to offer gamers the Wii experience we were looking for," Ratcliffe says, sidestepping the question.

What he will give us is this: "Though it is still early days in the retail life of the game, we are seeing very strong week one sales and being the best shooter on the Wii means that we think we will see this game out there and selling well for a long time." And when we press him for specific sales projections, he declines, saying only that SEGA does not release those numbers.

We can always point to anecdotal evidence which backs up Ratcliffe's claims -- specifically, reports of The Conduit selling out at retailers and lots of talk about the game on message boards and blogs, both of which are good signs. Sales tracking site VGchartz projects that the shooter amassed sales of nearly 100,000 units since it launched, information which cannot be verified until official NPD reports hit in the near future. What can be verified, however, is The Conduit's strong online presence. SEGA has previously said that online activity for the game is very high, which suggests that Wii owners are, in fact, picking the title up and connecting to play against others.