The Conduit Preview: Calling Do-Overs

Last night's The Conduit multiplayer event was plagued by major server issues, leaving developer High Voltage Software no choice but to call do-overs.

"We know it's a letdown to you," High Voltage Chief Creative Officer Eric Nofsinger told crestfallen journalists. "It's definitely a letdown to us."

So, with little else to do with 10 completely playable builds of The Conduit, journalists were turned loose on the single player mode that we've only gotten mere tastes of over the last nine months. Here's what we came away with.

What Is It?
The Conduit is a sci-fi first person shooter, developed exclusively for the Wii. Players take the role of ex-Secret Service Agent generic name Michael Ford to fight their way through an alien-attacked Washington D.C. Originally, the game was going to have Wii MotionPlus, but that got scrapped because it was deemed unnecessary . It sounds like they're going to keep Wii Speak in for multiplayer, though.

What We Saw
Robbed of multiplayer and with about three times as many journalists as there were builds, I settled for a sharing playthrough with GamesRadar's Brett Elston. Originally, we were going to pass the controller back and forth every time one of us died – but since Brett rarely ever died and I died all the time, we settled for taking turns by level. In about half an hour, we'd made it all the way to level five or so before Brett started dying regularly.

How Far Along Is It?
The game is due out in June, but it still looks like it's in bad need of a polish. I'd like to think two months is enough time, but according to Creative Director Matt Corso, the art team is still changing things like lighting and textures. Here's hoping it'll all come together.

What Needs Improvement?
Polish, polish, polish: Everything from the graphics to the difficulty balancing could use a couple more passes by the developer. There's nothing glaringly wrong with the game, but a series of minor flaws combined with high expectations for The Conduit could cost High Voltage. Example: the textures are dull – no biggie. But combine that with a level that's difficulty needs balancing (even Brett died like four times on the train in level four), a checkpoint that feels like it's in the wrong place and some wigging-out of the motion controls when trying to turn with the Wii Remote. That's a recipe for harsh or mixed reviews right there.

Holding Down To Crouch: Most of the button-controls in the game were easy to pick up. You tap B to shoot, hold B to charge up the weapon and press A to jump, etc. But crouching involves holding down on the C button – which doesn't really feel intuitive. Especially considering that to toggle a weapon's scope view, all you have to do is press down on the D-pad and it just stays that way ‘til you press it again. That, to me, seems like a better, more intuitive way to crouch.

All Seeing Eye Puzzles Don't Make Much Sense: To be fair, I didn't spend too much time with the All Seeing Eye – but what few puzzles I did encounter with it weren't very puzzle-y because they didn't really have anything to do with logic. For example, you get to a door with a bright yellow alien lock on it. To unlock it, you have to use the Eye to look for two yellow nodes somewhere in the room, focus the Eye on it and press B to charge up the lock. You'd think the challenge of finding the nodes would make for some kind of puzzle – but nope. They're just randomly tossed around the room, making you question whether the lock wasn't just some developer device to slow you down while the engine renders the graphics in the next room.

Gets Old Fast Early On: I'm really hoping the story makes up for the lack of variety to gameplay. Sure, the All Seeing Eye puzzles shake things up a bit; but for the first four levels when you don't have it, combat gets really old really fast. Especially when you die more than four times at a single checkpoint.

What Should Stay The Same?
Control Scheme: When the controller wasn't wigging out from whatever external pressures exerted on it (10 other controllers going at the same time, bright lights, cell phone signals, etc.), the Wii controls worked pretty well. I think High Voltage has done a good job of a) finding a natural-feeling default that will work for everyone and b) providing all kinds of customization options just in case it doesn't feel natural enough for some.

Options Galore: You can change a lot about The Conduit on the fly in any level from the Start menu screen. Wii Remote sensitivity, level difficulty and basic audio/visual options are there. But there's also a layer of tweaks that can turn an easy level into a hardcore experience: for example, there's an option to set the Wii Remote so that when you point it off screen, Agent Ford keeps turning in place (the default is that he stops moving when the reticule leaves the screen). It's a very small, very subtle difference, but it can make a level feel like a completely different experience.

Varied Weapons: I didn't get to see more than four guns in five levels, but there's something like 15 weapons in the game (all available in multiplayer). A lot of them are your basic shooter weapons: pistol, machine gun, alien shocking ray gun, etc. But hidden weapons caches will yield higher-level weapons with additional motion control features, such as an alien rocket launcher that lets you control the rocket with the Wii Remote after you fire.

There Will Be Cheats: Think back to Goldeneye, Turok and Perfect Dark on Nintendo 64 – they all had weird cheats and unlockables that gave the games tons of replayability and spiced up multiplayer like you wouldn't believe. The Conduit plans to offer cheats along the same line – as well as some pre-order bonus codes for unlockable stuff.

It's On The Wii: I don't care if other developers have abandoned the Wii to the casual games scene – there needs to be a middle ground game like The Conduit that straddles hardcore challenge and Little Johnny's First FPS.

Final Thoughts
The biggest problem I foresee for The Conduit comes from shooter fans that are too used to games on PS3 and 360. It takes a lot of work to unlearn the dual analog stick system of moving and shooting; I could see gamers getting frustrated and mistaking The Conduit's controls as the source of their learning curve woes.

That concern aside, Wii gamers will be pleased; because is nothing else, The Conduit is a step in the right direction. It might fall short of expectations on some fronts (especially if they don't get that difficulty balancing sorted out), but the game goes a long way towards exploring what the Wii can really do for the first person experience – as well as for multiplayer (if they get the servers working, that is).