Ever since seeing the first impressive tech demo of the Quantum3 engine a couple of years ago, I've been interested in seeing what High Voltage Software could do with the Nintendo Wii. My interest was further piqued when I briefly saw The Conduit in action at PAX 2008. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with High Voltage's creative Director, Matt Corso, for a look at the game's single player campaign.
Let me start by saying that everything you've heard about the game's graphics is true. For a Wii game, The Conduit shines. With glistening bump-mapped textures and impressive lighting, it's clear The Conduit is squeezing a lot out of Nintendo's console. While the game is limited in the end by the Wii's max resolution of 480p, it still looked pretty good on an HDTV. Furthermore, the game kept its framerate throughout the demo I was shown, and animations seemed smooth and natural. It's obviously still not in the same league graphically as games like Killzone 2 or Bioshock, but it doesn't scream "last-gen" like many other games on the Wii.
Read more for a full preview of The Conduit's Single Player!
Moving on from the graphics, the story of The Conduit puts you in the shoes of Michael Ford, a secret service agent who is investigating sicknesses, disappearances and other strange occurences across Washington DC. Michael ends up working for a mysterious man named Mr. Adams who sends him on counter-terrorism missions for an equally shrouded organization called the Trust. Through his missions for Mr. Adams, Michael encounters The Drudge, an insectoid alien race that entered Earth through conduits, or portals. Often when engaged in combat, Michael must close these conduits in order to stop the onslaught of alien attackers.
One area I was really concerned about with The Conduit was how it worked with the Wii's motion controls. I hadn't really been impressed with the controls in other shooters like Metroid Prime 3, and was interested in how the developers made the Wiimote work for them. Thankfully, it appears High Voltage put a lot of effort into their control scheme, and may have come up with an excellent solution. Most importantly in The Conduit, when the Wiimote is aimed at different parts of the screen, the target reticule responds quickly and accurately. There was no noticeable delay, and Matt was able to dispatch of enemies by pointing and shooting, how you always expected the Wiimote to work. Obviously Matt had a lot of time to practice, but the hope is it works intuitively for everyone.
In addition, just about every aspect of the controls is adjustable, and we're not just talking about button-mapping. The most significant control adjustment a player can make is to their dead zone. On the Wii, the dead zone is an invisible box that the game uses to determine how your actions should be interpreted. The Conduit lets you determine the size of your dead zone on both the horizontal and verticle axis. If you point inside the dead zone, your targeting reticule will aim at a specific part of the screen. Point the Wiimote outside the dead zone, and the camera, or your player's view point, will shift.
In Metroid Prime 3, the default dead zone was very large, making it frustrating to turn, and the controls had a bit of a learning curve. With The Conduit, you can eliminate the dead zone all together if you like and have aiming behave like it would in a 360 or PS3 shooter. I'm guessing that because of the inherent jitterty-ness of Wiimote aiming, most players will want a small to medium sized dead zone, allowing for easy aiming without making it too difficult to turn. Other aspects of the Wii controls you can also adjust include turning speed, cursor speed, and shake and thrust sensitivity (motions that are used for throwing grenades and melee attacks). All of this customization will be necessary for each player to find their perfect settings, as the game does not feature any true lock-on. The player is allowed to highlight enemies and get their status and keep a visual, but all aiming must be done with the Wiimote itself.
High Voltage appear to have put some thought into programming enemy AI, at least in the sections of the game I was able to see. Some Drudge units take cover and behave in ways that are reminiscent of the Elites in Halo, while others attack kamakazi style and explode when they get near. Thankfully, Michael Ford will be armed with a number of different weapons useful for splattering bugs.
The game uses a standard two-weapon system, and Michael will be able to utilize both human and alien technologies. In the demo, Michael started off with the Scar Rifle, which is a hybrid assault/sniper rifle, and eventually obtained the alien Strike Rifle, which can be charged up to fire a blast capable of disintegrating The Drudge. The developers have promised a good mix of both human and alien weapons, some of which will be unveiled at a later date. The protagonist also had a couple of different grenades at his disposal, including the radiation grenade, which is sticky and obviously reminds of Halo's plasma grenades.
In addition, agent Ford has gained control of an alien technology called the All-Seeing Eye. The All-Seeing Eye allows the player to uncover and translate hidden alien messages, which it turns out are in a completely legitimate decipherable language. Additionally, the All-Seeing Eye will be used to solve puzzles, such as finding hidden switches to open doors. Some of these puzzles will be used to advance through the story, but the majority of them will be to uncover secret rooms containing weapons and ammo. In fact, Matt admitted that some advanced weapons will not be made available to the player on a normal play-through of the game, unless they use the All-Seeing Eye to discover their hidden locations.
In the end, The Conduit shows a ton of potential. It could finally be the Wii shooter we'd all hoped to get when the console was unveiled some three and a half years ago. If the controls work as well as it looks like they do, it could provide an experience that allows gamers to really feel like they're aiming a gun at alien creatures, rather than just waggling, locking on, and waggling some more. My only fear with the controls is that with the endless amount of customization, players will have trouble finding their sweet spot when it may have been better for the developers to limit selections to a few predetermined optimum builds.
In addition, the folks at High Voltage have put some effort into creating an interesting sci-fi world that at least has a chance of making the player care about the story and characters. The Drudge and their allies seem like a formidable set of enemies, and guns at Michael Ford's disposal seem varied and interesting. The environments themselves were a well crafted, and the graphics are among the very best seen on the Wii to date.
Much of The Conduit's lasting appeal will come down to if High Voltage can pull off the promised 16 player online multiplayer and find good work-arounds to Nintendo's awful friend code system and historically laggy network connections. However, the single-player campaign at least looks deep and promising enough to stand on its own, so hopefully The Conduit can lead a hardcore gaming charge on the casual motion controlled system.
Finally, one last note of interest to Nintendo fanboys: At the end of the demo, I asked Matt Corso if they had pushed the Wii as far as it could go. His response: "This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are new graphical technologies we've already developed that came along too late to include in The Conduit."