The Conduit – Retro Review

One of the Wii’s biggest weaknesses was a lack of good third party games. Another was a lack of games geared towards teens and adults. Midway through the console’s life, a few publishers tried to fix these issuess by releasing quality software for these demographics. One of those publishers was SEGA. One of those games was The Conduit.

The Conduit is a first-person shooter, developed by High Voltage Software and released in 2009. HVS used state-of-the-art software for both gameplay and graphics, wrote a sci-fi story with elements of conspiracy and espionage, hired a handful of professional film and television actors, and put them all into The Conduit. Its ambitious goal was to be an FPS for the Wii that looked as good and played as well as similar games on the Xbox 360 and PS3.

So did they succeed?

Well, yes and no.

You play as Michael Ford, a government agent who receives orders from John Adams, a member of a secret organization known as the Trust. You are tasked with investigating a terrorist group headed by a mysterious someone known as Prometheus who have stolen an integral piece of Trust technology, the All Seeing Eye. This mission takes you through several notable locations in Washington D.C., and eventually fighting an invading alien race known as the Drudge, as well as human government agents being controlled by the Drudge.

The ASE is the key distinguishing factor from other FPS’s. It works as a scanner, a hacker, a decoder, a locator, and an objective waypoint if the player gets lost. While using the ASE, the player is unable to shoot, leaving you vulnerable when enemies are around, and it has a range of about five feet, so you have to stay close to whatever you are interacting with. A typical situation will have you searching for nodes that deactivate a lock blocking your path, or diffusing invisible proximity mines, or hacking a computer to access information or a hidden exit. It can also be used to scan for optional hidden objects such as Trust Data Discs or Conspiracy Text, or decode Pyramid Locks to secret weapon caches.

The main problem with the ASE as a gameplay mechanic is that it’s a binary use object. It either works or it doesn’t, and it only works when it’s supposed to. Unlike something like Half-Life’s Gravity Gun, it cannot help you find creative new ways to dispatch enemies or solve puzzles. It cannot help your character regenerate health or refill ammo. It just floats over Ford’s hand like an anti-gravity tennis ball until it’s prompted by the game to do something useful.

Levels are split into rooms that task the player with dispatching enemies, destroying Conduits and/or eggsacks — through which Drudge enemies spawn infinitely — wandering around with the ASE looking for the thing that will let you progress, then moving down a linear path to the next kill box. Along the way, you’ll find health kits and ammo stashes for the three different types of weapons: Human (ballistic), Trust (plasma and future-tech), and Drudge (biomass).

Some enemies also drop small health refills when killed, and health will automatically recharge if you stop taking damage for a few seconds. Playing on normal difficulty, I found the game got pretty challenging just before the halfway point. Difficulty can be adjusted on the fly via the pause menu in case you need to adjust it to your personal gameplay style. If you die, you return to the most recent checkpoint. I played the latter 60% or so on easy.

The story is played out through voice-only cutscenes with a text display, much like the CODEC conversations from a Metal Gear game. These cutscenes are well acted by Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame); and British character actors William Morgan Sheppard (you may remember him as Col. Stanley Hargrove from the original Medal of Honor games, though he’s been in pretty much every video game, TV show, and movie ever, in-voice and in-person) and his son Mark Sheppard (best known from Supernatural, which I’ve never watched), both faking moderately passable American accents. The text in these cutscenes is riddled with an embarrassing amount of typographical and grammatical errors, something that a SEGA-published game should have fixed. If you wish to seek out deeper elements of the story, radios are found throughout each level featuring fictional liberal and conservative talk radio hosts informing the public and the player of what’s happening outside your observable environment.

The game controls well enough. Point with the Wii Remote to aim, point to the edges of the screen to turn and look around, and move with the Nunchuk. Shaking the Remote will melee, while shaking the Nunchuk throws a grenade — though these can be switched if desired. All of the other buttons can be mapped however the player wants. Though there are control` presets, I found none of them optimal, and stuck with the default setup and the buttons rearranged to my liking. You’ll want stuff like reload, weapon swap, and ASE convenient. Fire will feel most intuitive on the B trigger. There is also a lock-on like Metroid Prime’s if you want to use it, which can either help or hinder based on the situation.

Enemy AI is all but non-existent. They are always en guarde, and mostly just bob and weave while attacking in your general direction. Some of the Drudge aliens have unique attacks. The smaller ones will charge at you, swinging at you with their… um, claws? hands? club- or blade-like appendages? Some of them will charge at you and explode (seems like a rather useless natural defense mechanism, but whatever… I guess bees aren’t much better off, now that I think about it… Where was I?). Others fly around and shoot at you from the air. One has a cloaking device you have to disable with your ASE. But pretty much all of your enemies are of the run-and-gun variety. They don’t even try to avoid grenades or environmental hazards.

Not that there are many of those either. Absolutely nothing in this game is destructible except the occasional randomly placed exploding tanks. It’s baffling to me that more than a decade after GoldenEye gave us exploding computers, cameras, and chairs, The Conduit can’t even give a monitor a damage texture or have a piece break off of a table when shot. Enemies barely even react to their wounds.

The levels start out quick and simple, like something out of GoldenEye or Perfect Dark. The first few level will only take about ten minutes or so each to beat. Later levels can take more than a half-hour. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that they’re padded with recycled environments that make them feel repetitive. One level late in the game used the exact same office space and stairwell three times. I felt like I was running in continuous loop. I would’ve preferred a shorter campaign to an unimaginatively prolonged one.

The graphics looks good, when appended with the recurrent qualifier of “for a Wii game”. When compared to other contemporary first-person shooters, it’s not so great, actually. It even pales when compared to many previous generation games by the fact that HVS tried to create complex modern graphics on an underpowered system. Had they gone for simpler yet more stylized graphics, it might have fared better. Xbox/PS2/GameCube developers tended to work WITH those systems’ limitations. The Conduit attempts to defy them with varying results.

But through all of these glaring flaws, there is still an enjoyable game in here. The plot takes some neat twists and there is some genuinely entertaining dialog throughout. Levels are laid out with plenty of (indestructible) objects to hide behind in a firefight, and the pinpoint aiming made possible by the pointer controls makes popping off head shots a breeze, as long as you can stand still enough to take your aim. Kill boxes usually require some strategy to succeed, especially when multiple types of enemies are attacking you at once while you try to find the key to your exit. Even though most levels follow a pretty standard pattern of shoot this, scan that, move forward, lather, rinse, repeat, the superficial variety helps keep it from feeling TOO repetitive.

Ultimately, The Conduit has an intangible goodness that balances out its quantifiable weaknesses. It is, for the most part, fun. And while that fun comes with an implied asterisk, I cannot deny that I enjoyed it most of the way through. Though some levels dragged on longer than I would have liked, and the ending was the very definition of anticlimactic, I am actually eager to check out its various unlockables and its SEGA-developed sequel in the not-too-distant future.

So did High Voltage Software succeed at making an FPS for the Wii that looked as good and played as well as similar games on the Xbox 360 and PS3? Yes and no. In trying to make it look good, they managed to make it look worse, especially in retrospect. The game plays quite well, though with very few original ideas to make it stand out from the glut of shooters at the time. The plot creates a lore that the developers hoped would spawn an ongoing franchise. Unfortunately, this game fell victim to the typically poor sales for any third party Wii game, leaving those plans abandoned. I imagine Conduit 2 exists solely to tie up loose ends and appease the few devoted players.

If you have a Wii or Wii U, and you’re looking for something cheap to kill about 10 hours with, The Conduit is worth a try. Typically selling used for around $5, it’s hard to consider it much of a gamble, anyway. Multiplayer is nonexistent, obviously, so play it for its campaign, then put it on your shelf for the novelty it is: a T-rated FPS on a system mostly used for playing Mario games and virtual bowling.

I give The Conduit a 3½ out of 5.