Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: The Conduit

Platform: Nintendo Wii

Developer: High Voltage Software

Publisher: Sega of America

# of Players: 1 (1-12 Online)

Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: A

Attention Wii owners: your core FPS has finally arrived... and it's a total blast. The Conduit is a technically impressive first-person shooter with a nifty conspiracy-packed plot, an action-packed single player campaign and innovative multiplayer modes that will keep you playing for months. High Voltage Software has laid down the gauntlet for future Wii developers with this original IP that deserves a home in any genre fan's collection. While the game isn't as stellar in spots as a few high profile releases on certain other consoles, what it does well it does often and that's where it counts.

The overall presentation nicely emulates a summer movie blockbuster, complete with driving music a nicely done opening that sets the tone for things to come and a sequel-friendly climax that will really make you crave a follow-up. You're Agent Michael Ford (voiced by Mark Sheppard), former Secret Service guy, now an operative for an organization called The Trust who finds himself pitted against an invasion by gun-toting aliens out to make life really miserable for the human race. As you go through the game, you'll uncover a bigger conspiracy and more enemies to face, but that's for you to discover on your own play time. Sure, it's not a mind-blowing storyline (if you're smart enough to seek out all the hidden messages in-game and online, the plot becomes more enjoyable), but High Voltage never went on record as saying they were reinventing the FPS genre from that perspective.

What's really the selling point here is the brilliant, completely user defined controls that allows anyone to tailor everything from the HUD layout to game balance. When was the last time you were able to adjust the targeting zone, character movement speed or even the complete button layout for a console FPS and test out your choices on the fly? What's even more impressive is how well the game controls, particularly if you're one of those folks coming from a PC shooter background. For new players, it may take a few runs though the tutorial stage to get the hang of how smooth the game feels and how accurate that Wiimote is (without the Motion Plus add-on, mind you). After that, you'll be in heaven (or sending your enemies to their respective heavens, actually). Based on the total freedom the dev team has given players regarding the customization, expect to see future FPS developers on the Wii use a similar customization scheme.

Meanwhile, back at the review ranch, you'll find that blasting through armor clad Drudge thugs, fast-moving exploding alien bugs, formerly friendly agents and other menaces is fun throughout. While some sections are a bit linear(more due to the Wii's limitations than the developer's skills, mind you), a few of those corridors have hidden rooms and secrets that require using the game's All-Seeing Eye, a floating device that's part of the overall plot as well as a handy tool. You can locate messages scrawled in invisible paint, uncover the aforementioned secret doorways and detect those pesky alien mines left in choice locations. The Eye is also used in the game's minor puzzle elements that have you scouring walls in order to open doors secured by invisible Drudge locks.

Enemy AI is fierce and once you're spotted, expect heavy resistance and a quick death if you try to outgun more than two or three baddies. There are a few exploding fuel tanks or other destructible environmental objects here and there to assist in some spots, but a few tense firefights will put your targeting skills to the test with waves of Drudge drones descending on your position. Once you come across those annoying rolling bugs, you'll soon find that unless you take out the cocoons they're spawning from, you'll never make it past some otherwise easy to navigate hallways. There are also a couple of "boss"-style fights that should keep your trigger finger busy with multiple enemy types coming at you from different directions, enemy spawners and all sorts of fireworks going on. Thankfully, you'll have a wide selection of about 20 weapons to use against your foes, from government-issue firearms and a few grenade types to a few awesome Grudge guns that can turn the tide in short order once you track them down.

Multiplayer is another area where the game stands out, even outstripping some Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 titles in terms of ease of use and game types. Online modes support 12-player matches and while there are a mere seven maps including a few standard deathmatch types, a number of the 13 online modes are supremely addictive and thanks to High Voltage's matchmaking system that makes setting up instant online games a snap. While you can input friend codes as usual, you're also able quickly find a random game to join or invite anyone already on your friends list with no effort. WiiSpeak works like a dream, especially in Free for all, where you're only able to hear yourself and the five closest players chatting it up. Servers have been fairly crowded since the game's launch, so it's nice to see a Wii game getting so much play time online.

As much fun as it is running around shooting each other up in the standard deathmatch, team deathmatch and flag capture variants, the innovative Bounty Hunter mode is one of the best multiplayer FPS modes you'll play. Instead of the usual camp or hop fest where everyone's fair game, each player is assigned ONE specific target and no one else. Killing that person gives you a point, while shooting anyone else subtracts a point. Oh, and yup - you're a target as well. The tension is nearly unbearable when you try this for the first time, but that's what makes this mode a total blast. You'll be feeling an adrenaline rush and massive paranoia as you never know when your number is up and it's pretty hilarious when you and your target spawn near each other and the other person's target happens to be your character. ASE Football, a thrilling "hold the bag" match can also be a ton of laughs if you're playing with a bunch of seasoned FPS jockeys.

Graphically, you're getting the best-looking action game on the Wii thanks to the team's awesomely flexible Quantum3 engine. Character models, weapons, lighting effects and many of the environments are first rate, particularly if you play the game on a big standard definition TV. I have both a HD setup I use for 360 and PS3 games and I was smart enough to hang onto my old 27-inch standard TV for Wii and PlayStation 2 reviews. Yes, The Conduit looks lovely in HD, but is even more of a looker on the lower resolution found on "old" sets. As mentioned above, sure, some of the corridors are straightforward and yes, a few wall textures can get a little blurry up close. On the other hand, it's hard to ignore all the hard work High Voltage put into making the game look so consistently fantastic.

Music, voice acting and sound effects are also excellently implemented throughout the game. Mark Sheppard and his dad W. Morgan Sheppard are perfectly cast as Ford and his Trust superior, John Adams. Kevin Sorbo makes up for Meet the Spartans (well a guy's gotta eat, right?) with a fun vocal performance as Prometheus, head of a "terrorist" group with its own agenda. The different weapons all sound great, and although you may get tired of the Drudge death yells, at least you know they're not getting back up after some of the more intense firefights. Crank up the sound and your neighbors just might call the cops thinking there's a REAL alien invasion going on at your place.

All together, the entire single player campaign is over in about 8 or so hours on the standard difficulty (but not everyone is a FPS wizard, so your total time may vary). On the harder modes, expect a more than healthy level of difficulty that can extend play time a few hours more (unless you're a crack shot that doesn't mind not killing every single enemy or seeking out every secret). Eight hours may not seem like a long time, however, many gamers play in short sessions, so it's entirely possible to get about a week's worth of gameplay from the main campaign and many more hours online with friends.

Overall, The Conduit is indeed a great game and it's even better if you're not some overly jaded PC or "next-gen" console owner looking to compare every aspect of it with the Halos, Killzones and Gears of Wars out there. Is it "perfect?" No - and no game really is, folks. On the other hand, High Voltage has to absolutely be recognized for creating a Wii game that's more than good enough for a sequel while finally doing something great with the Wii's online gaming function. I'm not saying this because I got a free copy of the game, either. My reviewable didn't show up, so I went out and bought the game outright a day after the release. Hell, after seeing it in action and getting more than enough hands-on time, this was one of those times that supporting a great developer was more important than merely hanging out by the mailbox.

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