Version tested: Wii
If you want to learn something about a science-fiction, alien-invasion shooter before playing it, just pay close attention to how it names its enemies. The single words developers choose to boil their interstellar or interdimensional threats down to often inadvertently reveal the character of the game beneath. Halo's Covenant and Flood conjure an aura of biblical scale and religious devotion. Half-Life 2's Combine suggests seamless integration and sleek, powerful technology. Killzone's Helghast sounds like grim, Germanic warmongering.
The alien invaders in Wii FPS contender The Conduit are called the Drudge.
What does that say to you? Thankless, plodding toil, a dearth of imagination, a dry and dogged adherence to convention? Something grey, unvaried, undistinguished, average? Right on all counts, unfortunately. The rule holds true for this technically sound but desperately uninspiring shooter. Name thy enemy, name thyself.
The enthusiastic self-publicists at developer High Voltage software have long been bragging about The Conduit's format-leading graphical prowess and how its pinpoint controls would consign twin-stick first-person shooting to the bin. This was the game that would finally endear the Wii to gaming's headshot heartlands, and prove those who always suspected it could be a perfect home for the FPS right. The claims were eye-catching enough to earn publishing support from SEGA, and on-message enough to earn Nintendo's namedrop blessing. And to be fair, they were half-true.
The Conduit's pointer control is fast, precise, effortless and finely-tuned, whether by High Voltage in the excellent default setting, or yourself in the sort of frighteningly granular array of options - from deadzone to cursor-lock to motion sensitivity - that you'd expect of a late-nineties hardcore PC game. There's a decent sense of weight to your character, subtly effective camera movements, a useful semi-lock on the Z button that tracks the camera (but not your sights) on a particular enemy, and generally superior responsiveness and head control to previous standard-setter Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
There are a few more commands than there are comfortably accessible buttons - however you configure it, you'll end up with something vital like reload a slightly awkward thumb-stretch away - but all in all, these controls are hard to fault and a joy to use. They really are a watershed proof-of-concept for the Wii's FPS capability, even if the magnitude of the achievement is mostly down to surprise that no-one else quite managed it before. And yes, pad control on other consoles, no matter how well calibrated, does seem a little clumsy after The Conduit.
The problem lies in what High Voltage asks you to do with these magnificent controls: shoot the same handful of clichéd enemies over and over again with poorly differentiated, unrewarding weapons, in repetitive and characterless locations, according to the whim of a meaninglessly threadbare and generic plot, and unburdened by considerations of strategy, tactics, options, or anything that might stir the most wavering half-mast of a raised eyebrow of interest. The Conduit might as well have been designed by an algorithm, it's so resolutely free of creativity.
Helbine (or Comghast?) troopers with glowing goggles, gurgling aliens who look like emaciated Covenant Elites, ineffectual spooks who didn't make it into Perfect Dark (the first one) and a few spindly bugs attack you in predictably stupid patterns from the other end of re-used corridors or across the occasional open space, which only seems large and exciting because of the tight confines you've been in and deja vu you've been experiencing for the previous 10 minutes. That's it, for nine none-too-long levels, before a Z-files conspiracy plot that is shockingly free of incident draws to a close.
It's not the short length so much as the complete lack of depth that disappoints. There's a reasonable number of guns to use, and they do include some charge-and-release energy weapons ripped off from Halo and a novel gadget or two, like the beam gun that fires three bolts along a line determined by how you twist the remote. But there's nothing to choose between any of them for effectiveness in any given situation, and the only reason to switch between your two guns or replace one for another it all-too-frequent boredom. They've had all the life balanced out of them.
Similarly, the option to change difficulty level on the fly is welcome, but only possible because it does nothing but alter the numerical values of damage you deal and receive. It doesn't change the enemy's numbers or effectiveness, and can't do anything to conjure intelligent or surprising behaviour from their AI, or interesting dynamics from fighting them. They either run straight at you, or they don't, and you usually only have one avenue of attack.
An attempt to vary the pace a little with the inclusion of the ASE or All Seeing Eye - an orb that reveals secrets invisible to the naked eye - is as transparent as it sounds and as the clues that ham-fistedly remind you to use it. Collectables for collecting's sake, "ghost mines", puzzles without depth or purpose and the same secret bunker with the same unimpressive secret gun in it for the fourth level in a row do nothing to improve your enjoyment of the flavourless blasting. The same is true of the mechanical achievements, awarded for completing levels or shooting X number of enemies with gun Y.
It's not the visual tour-de-force we've been led to expect, either. Although smooth-running and boasting a high degree of technical polish in the effects, The Conduit suffers from weak, derivative artwork and corner-cutting in the details, and as an entrant in the Wii's beauty pageant it can't hope to hold its own against the sumptuously presented (and, for that matter, vastly more entertaining) House of the Dead: Overkill, for example.
Nonetheless, the snappy, futuristic thrill of the controls adds a great deal of the tactile satisfaction that the guns lack, and the design of The Conduit is so bland that it doesn't do much more wrong than it does right, which is very little. Shooting your way through it is unremarkable but hardly unpleasant. And it does have one notable bonus: very solid, well-engineered and enjoyable online multiplayer.
Let's not get carried away; what The Conduit achieves as a deathmatch game would be considered the bare minimum on any other platform, and it's certainly not without flaws. Matchmaking is sluggish first time, but after that you can play without pause and with little lag, even against distant players. The seven maps are well thought-out, with some devious spawn points, but the game modes are few - basic variants on deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and Oddball - and playlists get old fast, especially if you're unlucky enough to repeatedly stumble on the exhausting and ill-advised 20-minute marathon matches.
The lack of standout weapons is also a problem. A ranking system adds just enough persistence to keep things interesting for now, but it seems likely that High Voltage won't be able to give the game the nurturing and additional content it needs to survive online in the long term. Still, the lack of any competition on the platform makes this competent deathmatch the Wii's default multiplayer FPS, and it's up to the task.
On any other platform, The Conduit would sink without trace - if we'd ever heard of it in the first place. High Voltage deserves credit for its technology, for its commitment to multiplayer, and for tuning a perfect set of FPS controls on a console that was begging for them. Its efforts shame everyone but Metroid developer Retro who's gone before, and certainly do prove that you can do a great FPS on the Wii. It's just that The Conduit - slender, derivative, mechanical and uninspired - isn't it.
5 / 10