The Conduit has received so much attention for the dazzling graphics it's managed to coax out of the Wii that you almost forget there's a game lurking somewhere in there, tucked away behind the bloom and the bump-mapping. But there is a game, and not a bad one by the looks of it, if an hour or two with both single- and multiplayer is anything to go by.
Developer High Voltage Games certainly seems confident, arguing that the company best known for licensed titles and ports has finally created the "definitive first-person shooter experience for the Wii". While it's hard to gauge whether that's true for the moment, The Conduit is at least shaping up to be a deft combination of references, blending an X-Files story with level design tips taken directly from Rare and - slightly more tenuously - the have-it-your-way customisation of Burger King. Strange days, Mulder. Strange days.
High Voltage keeps the storytelling short and sweet, with skippable cut-scenes, few of which head past the ninety-second mark. Set in Washington DC in the near future, The Conduit sees planet Earth in the grip (rather topically) of a mysterious flu virus, and about to experience (hopefully less topically) a full-on alien invasion from a violent, spindly race of insectoid ETs called the Drudge. Cast as Agent Michael Ford - gruff of voice, limited of dialogue - you're caught somewhere between the invaders and the Trust, a shadowy government initiative with wacky guns and secrets to hide.
The tutorial level throws you into the game fully powered-up, on a fight through the Washington subway system with aliens aplenty and a range of crazy off-world munitions with which to tackle them. After that, High Voltage takes all the really fun stuff away and you're sent back to the beginning of the story, piling into Kennedy Airport with your dashing cyber-pyjamas swapped out for a suit and tie, while you take on MIBs with far more traditional weaponry.
As a single-player game, The Conduit is looking confident and speedy. The numbers suggest a fairly contained experience - nine levels, eighteen weapons and fourteen different types of enemy - but High Voltage appears fairly adept at varying the pace, with encounters switching quickly between tight corridor shooting galleries with nowhere to hide, and wider arenas, with enemies attacking from all sides. It's a game that fiddles with elevation to great effect, too, aliens blasting from above while you crawl out of a subway tunnel one moment, before the level swaps things around and perches you at the top of a rubble-strewn staircase the next, where you snipe distant enemies sneaking about below you.
With its complex, snaking level layouts and the breathless manner in which it flings up-close attackers at you, it's not a million miles away from the likes of the original Perfect Dark, but High Voltage is hoping to stamp its own identity on proceedings by creating varied combinations of the carefully calibrated cast of enemies - from the fully-grown Drudge soldiers, oddly frail-looking, decked out in orange disco armour, to nasty blue things that skitter across the floor at great speed, waving too many elbows and mandibles in your face as they close in - and an arsenal of weaponry that spans human, Trust, and Drudge technology.
It's a promising range of toys, with Earth-bound guns tending towards the ploddingly traditional, while Trust tech takes in middle-ground weirdness like the De-atomiser, a beam weapon whose charged shot spreads out according to the angle the remote is held in. The Drudge arsenal embraces the charmingly insane, with treats such as the Shrieker, a laser-guided rocket launcher with cheery mandibles on the front, and a gooey assault rife that swallows its own ammo and looks like a guppy wedged on one arm. If fish make you a bit ill, it's safe to say The Conduit's one to avoid.
Aside from aiming, motion controls are kept to a minimum, with only a scattering of nicely-judged implementations: melee attacking is handled effectively with a swift jab of the remote, and throwing grenades is even better, with targeting using the same reticule as shooting, while lobbing is taken care of with a brisk jiggle of the nunchuk. It's a blessedly no-fuss system, which guarantees a high level of accuracy in the game's tighter confines, and ensures you'll never ignore the more explosive elements of your arsenal for fear of accidentally blowing your own legs off.
It's not all blasting, however: having cleared out an area, High Voltage will often throw a simple puzzle your way - the first one you'll come across is a basic locked-door affair with a spatial brainteaser based on rearranging a set of concentric circles - with added complexity coming through manipulation of the All-Seeing Eye (imagine a kind of Magic 8-Ball designed by deep-space freemasons), a handy gadget which can be used to reveal hidden text, invisible geometry, and, in later levels, booby traps.
The multiplayer game retains the fast pace and complex levels of the single-player campaign and revels in the bizarre potential of the weaponry. With a handful of different maps ranging from the labyrinthine halls and courtyards of the Pentagon to a shattered stretch of downtown, The Conduit supports up to 12 players and favours twitchiness over tactics, with most five-minute rounds ending with a body-count well into double figures. With thirteen modes, including a riff on Oddball using the All-Seeing Eye, alongside more familiar deathmatch strains, High Voltage is using a ranking system for match-making, and offers voice chat via Wii Speak, allowing you to co-ordinate tactics with your own side in team games, or hear the six nearest players in free-for-alls.
It's a surprisingly generous package, but it may ultimately be High Voltage's commitment to customisation that carries the day. Not only can all the controls be entirely reconfigured - although presets are available - but players can also pull the various elements of the HUD around, editing the opacity or even opting to remove them entirely. Crucially, The Conduit allows you tweak almost all of the controls' sensitivity settings: in a particularly handy move, you can easily redraw the game's dead zone, changing how far you have to push the remote in any direction before the screen starts to move with it. It's a simple addition, but it spares The Conduit from the shakiness and over-sensitivity of many Wii titles, where every accidental tremble leaves you spinning around, lost, or staring at the ceiling while enemies pump bullets into your back.
And it's true: graphically, The Conduit looks like little else on the Wii, with shiny reflective surfaces, textures that stay sharp up close, and a range of unexpected lighting effects. It may be a magic trick rather than a miracle - bloom, depth-of-field and excellent reload animations help to draw your eyes away from some fairly simple geometry - yet, far from a criticism, such calculated manipulation suggests High Voltage has the design intelligence to match the technical cleverness of its proprietary Quantum3 engine, hiding you from the elements the console can't handle with some unexpected treats that it can.
While it remains to be seen whether the team's as good at stringing separate encounters into a coherent campaign as it is as papering over the occasional crack in the visuals, so far this is a smart, shapely shooter, with multiplayer that moves at a frantic clip, and a campaign that hits the ground running.
The Conduit is due out exclusively for Wii on 26th June.