Thursday, May 21, 2009

Preview: Plugging into The Conduit

With Sega's upcoming Wii-exclusive FPS, The Conduit set to hit retail this month, I had the extremely great fortune to spend some quality hands-on time with the game (along with High Voltage's Eric Nofsinger and Josh Olson) at a recent press event here in NYC. As an added bonus, actor Mark Sheppard lead character "Agent Michael Ford" in the game) was on hand with full-on enthusiasm for the game, developer and the current state of gaming.

If you're among the skeptics who dislike the Wii for any number of ridiculous reasons or simply think that a quality console exclusive FPS isn't at all possible on the system, you might want to reconsider those ill-informed opinions. High Voltage Software has absolutely set the bar for the genre on the console in terms of graphics, game speed and on-the-fly user customization. A a completely in-house project, the team has crafted a brilliant true "gamer's game" that forces you to relearn tried and true skills as you deal with packs of human and alien enemies that want you dead by any means necessary.

As for the controls, remember the first time you played a FPS with a keyboard/mouse control setup? Even if you're a console gamer not initially comfortable with this different way of playing, with practice, WASD movement and mouse clicking became second nature. The Conduit replicates this feeling so perfectly that it's initially jarring to play a Wii game that's so responsive. This means veteran PC FPS fans will need to jump in and learn to swim about as much as players new to the genre. Once you dial in the controls then customize them and the GUI to your play style (another innovation more console shooters need), the game becomes a total and intuitive thrill ride.

The chock full o' conspiracies plot plays out through a combination of voice-overs and in-game mission updates that don't distract from the near-constant action. I won't go into everything in this preview, but let's just say there's a nice X-Files undertone to the proceedings, what with all the hidden messages and secrets to uncover if you so desire. Right from the beginning, the highly cinematic presentation pulls you in enough to make you think there's a movie or TV series somewhere in the works based on the property. Sega of America wisely snapped up the publishing rights and let the dev team work on the game at their own pace, a great thing in this age of high-profile console releases requiring patches right out of the packaging.

In addition to a nice selection of weapons, you'll get to use an awesome "All Seeing Eye" device (ASE) that can uncover secret messages, reveal and activate hidden switches and even detect invisible alien mines. There are also televisions and portable radios scattered throughout the game that can be accessed in case players want to get more involved in the overall plot. In speaking to Eric Nofsinger (High Voltage's Chief Creative Officer), he let me know that players can choose to blast through the entire game without tracking down every message, but the dev team really wanted to reward players that take the time to read, watch and listen to everything they can track down. There are also hidden collectibles in each level that unlock bonus content, so that ASE unit will get quite a workout once caertain maps are cleared of enemies.

Visually, High Voltage is doing things with the Wii that will make you want to crack your console open to check for some sort of 3D accelerator. The level of detail the proprietary Quantum 3 engine can display is constantly amazing with excellent lighting effects, depth of field and even destructible objects in a wide variety of environments. If anything, the team has made disrespecting the Wii for its lack of horsepower totally insane and should hopefully drive more developers to push the console even further. The sound production is equally spectacular with a driving musical score and theater-quality sound effects that really pull you into the game.

From the beginning, Mark Sheppard (Battlestar Galactica's Romo Lampkin, among other genre roles) was onboard the project as was his father, W. Morgan Sheppard (Star Trek, Transformers), no stranger to videogame voice acting thanks to his work on the first few Medal of Honor titles. Speaking to Sheppard was quite exciting, as we're both on the same page when it comes to how we see the state of gaming today. Rather than comparing one game experience to another, we both look at each game as a seperate game experience in every aspect from the game world, plot and overall value for the money. I've met a few actors who've worked on game projects previously, but almost none who were as involved or excited about their digital work as Sheppard. He's also a fan of (respectable) fans and actually digs the convention scene.

As for The Conduit, Sheppard has been playing through different builds of the game during development and stated "Between the single player and multiplayer modes, you're getting real value here." Believe it or else, when he said this, it in no way sounded like false hype or something read from a prepared script. We were actually discussing the 13 multiplayer modes the game will ship with and his comment came while my head was spinning as the excellent Bounty Hunter mode was being explained. I'd write a lot more, but let's save something for the review, right? Right now, let's just say you'll absolutely have to pick up the game to see those multiplayer modes that include the innovative use of WiiSpeak voice chat, even more innovative online playlist setup and more.

June 23rd will be quite a busy day around here, mostly because I'll be glued to my TV blasting through The Conduit from start to finish. High Voltage also has a bunch of Wii-exclusive shocks coming up (The Grinder and Gladiator A.D.), so they're looking like one of the premiere developers for the console at this point.

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