The Conduit: A true technical leap for Wii?

Can High Voltage's engine compete with PS3/360?

The Wii doesn't get a huge amount of love nor attention at Digital Foundry, and in some senses this is something we should be addressing. For a start, Nintendo's first-party commitment to 60FPS gameplay is impressive, especially bearing in mind the paucity of system resources on offer. However, for now, we'll be taking a look at High Voltage's The Conduit. Does it live up to the tech promises made in the run-up to its launch, and crucially just how well does it perform?

In theory there is nothing here that shouldn't have been possible on Nintendo GameCube (albeit running at a lower frame-rate or with pared back effects). The platform holder has never revealed the full spec of the Wii, but various leaks have cropped up online, all of which have been helpfully summed up in this Beyond3D forum posting which we consider to be highly accurate.

The bottom line is that the GPU and CPU of the Wii are essentially identical to the GameCube, albeit ramped up by a factor of around 50 per cent in terms of clock speed and die-shrunk (which presumably made the raw speed increase possible as well as making the silicon more economical). This explains why backwards compatibility is to all intents and purposes perfect for running GameCube software. The system downclocks when a Cube title is in play and internal memory pools are re-purposed to match the previous generation's configuration. Insanely, this all means that the base design for the core technology inside Wii is the best part of 10 years old. Insert your own dramatic pause here.

In many senses, this makes the Wii something of a technical marvel in terms of how far that architecture is being pushed in some circumstances. Super Mario Galaxy is in my view a true technical masterpiece for the Wii, born out by how well the visuals scale up to 720p within the Dolphin emulator. In terms of what The Conduit offers over the common or garden release, High Voltage released this tech video which explains the key effects.

In this video from High Voltage, the developer showcases the core visual upgrades the Quantum3 engine adds to its Wii games.

All of which looks fairly impressive in combination, but as individual effects, they are hardly state-of-the-art. Projective textures are pretty old - something Unreal Engine 2 might have bragged about. The water effect looks great, but it is smoke and mirrors to an extent: an environment map on the water surface to fake a reflection (but if it works, why not?). The bloom is most likely a pretty simple process - a glow map indicating areas that get blurred brightness is added and blended to the original texture. Burnout 2 may well have been the first console game to have bloom effects, so again, hardly new. In a sense it can be argued that High Voltage is taking the baton from Factor 5 in terms of what was accomplished on GameCube and then pushing further on the more powerful Wii platform. Quantum3 becomes special simply because it nobody else seems to be doing that.

Let's take a look at actual gameplay then and see what else is going on, and crucially see how well it performs. Frame-rate analysis on any source that is not digital in origin isn't easy (it involves a first pass using automated means, then checking problem areas by eye), but this is certainly a very close, very accurate representation of The Conduit's performance level.

Our performance analysis of The Conduit on Wii. Visual quality is impacted by a downsampling/dithering of the frame-buffer inherent to all Wii and GameCube titles. A higher-resolution version of this is available via the EGTV link.

As you can see, 30FPS is the baseline here, but there is a clear impact on performance related to fillrate and alpha-blended effects (which seem to be operating with a pretty low resolution buffer). It's difficult to make out but there seems to be simple shadowmaps with no self-shadowing. Animation is good, with a decent ragdoll system in place.

If the overall look in the gameplay video looks somewhat "last gen" with some additional effects tacked on, it's worth putting The Conduit up against the best of the previous generation and reminding ourselves of the top-end tech level on the older platforms. Criterion's Black is almost universally acknowledged as the most technically advanced first-person shooter of the PS2/Xbox era with which Wii has much in common. This video is taken from the Xbox Originals version, so chances are it's slightly less optimal compared to the original Xbox and PS2 game (though you do get 4x multisampling AA thrown in for free). That being the case, frame-rate measurement here is more for those interested in Xbox Originals performance - any comparison with The Conduit should be based on overall look and feel.

Performance analysis of the Xbox Originals version of Criterion's Black. The look and feel is the real point of comparison with The Conduit. A higher-resolution version of this video is available via the EGTV click-through.

The overall impression reflects many of the review comments that lauded The Conduit's engine but were far more critical of the artistic direction. The Quantum3 engine is impressive, and it is doing techy stuff that Black never really attempted, but you can't help wonder what the result would be if there were better artists at work and a more coherent vision for the overall look of the game. Still, even in a best-case scenario, it's a clear generation behind the majority of the lower-end points of comparison we have on Xbox 360 and PS3.

In terms of The Conduit's gameplay, the point-and-shoot system is something of a double-edged sword. Pointing at the opponent and shooting is obviously something that is a huge advantage for the Wii over the PS3 and Xbox 360. However, what isn't so welcome is the notion of dragging the reticule all the way over to the edges of the screen to spin around on the spot. Insofar as the aim-and-fire mechanic works well, the notion of essentially pointing off screen to move your in-game "head" feels somewhat counter-intuitive. It makes me wonder whether hand and head-tracking via Project Natal on 360 would have the precision required to produce a more immersive interface (gut feeling: head yes, hand no).

Overall then, it feels as though there is much more to come from the Quantum3 tech, so long as it is married with better assets that are perhaps more tailored to the core technology's strengths and weaknesses - a Super Mario Galaxy/Killzone 2 situation if you like, where the peculiar limitations of the hardware and the engine form a major part of the considerations of the artists.

High Voltage certainly looks set to leverage its technology. Two new games, The Grinder and Gladiator HD, are currently in development, and we'll be looking at those more closely once there is something more muscular and meaningful to report on.

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