It's two-for-one week as I review SMALL WORLD over at Cracked LCD and a Fixed LCD review of THE CONDUIT down below.
SMALL WORLD kind of surprised me. It's interesting how a couple of minor tweaks and a change of setting made a big difference on my reception of the VINCI system. I think it's a Pretty Good Eurogame, and that's not really surprising since it's really one of those pre-PRINCES OF FLORENCE ones that was around before crap like the Ystari games and GOA turned up to drive the Eurogame party into the ground.
One of the interesting things about it is that it is actually very thematic, and on a conceptual level. The executive theme has obviously been changed to this dopey, generic fantasy thing but that really changes the tone and atmosphere of the game a lot. It's probably the best of the Days of Wonder lot, all things considered.
Now, without further ado, here's Fixed LCD 1.1: THE CONDUIT Review.
That’s the comparison I keep coming back to when evaluating THE CONDUIT, the tremendously hyped Wii release from High Voltage Software that was widely promoted as being a true, next-gen first person shooter for the somewhat behind-the-tech-curve system. If you’ve ever heard a Christian rock song or seen a video from one of these acts- like Stryper, DC Talk, Petra, or whatever- it’s hard not to notice that these bands make a concerted, focused attempt to appear “cool” and “with it” in order to convince audiences that they can effectively have their hard rock cake and eat it too without fear of spiritual reprisal. However, anyone who has any awareness of current musical trends and styles can easily see that there’s something very desperate and a little too five years ago in even the top artists performing in the genre.
THE CONDUIT is a lot like Christian Rock because it has the same feeling of trying very, very hard to fit in and prove itself in a field that has already left it in the dust. With its 1990s-era box art depicting a generic, sunglasses-clad cyber-soldier and its generic set of FPS tropes and clichés, it feels almost as if High Voltage went down a checklist of shooter ingredients and made sure that everything was there so that gamers could tick off all the boxes and somehow arrive at “hey, this game is as good as HALO 3!” Unfortunately, the list they used is as much the 1999 FPS checklist as it is the 2009 one.
I mean, come on. Another shooter with an H&K MP5? Really? What’s more, there’s at least a hundred other points during the course of the fairly short single-player campaign where anyone who’s played any of the really groundbreaking shooters of the late 1990s and early 2000s are going to experience déjà vu. When I walked into a stairwell and these commandos rappelled down to blast me, all I could think of was how awesome that scene was in HALF LIFE and how cheapjack and contrived it was in THE CONDUIT. The big, arena-like blast-a-thons that tend to appear at the climax of every mission are an awful lot like those in MDK or the HALO games, but they lack the frantic mayhem of the former and the tactical challenge of the latter. And the All Seeing Eye (ASE) device that players use to reveal hidden secrets and activate various functions feels a little too close for comfort to a METROID PRIME visor function. And it’s hard not to think of PERFECT DARK given the weapon set and the government conspiracy theme.
But unlike its predecessors, THE CONDUIT never really manages to conjure up enough atmosphere, sense of time and place, or character- and those are things that I think are really crucial when you’re playing a game where you’re looking through the eyes of the main character- in this case, a faceless nobody named…wait for it…Michael Ford. All American, indeed. “Generic” is a word you’ll see a lot in reviews of THE CONDUIT, and when you’re walking down a featureless, plain gray hallway festooned with a couple of crudely rendered decorations as you will repeatedly in the game, it’s almost like a metaphor for the general sense of blandness and lack of distinction that characterizes the game. It doesn’t help that the story is a truly awful Z-grade admixture of elements culled from NATIONAL TREASURE, THE X-FILES, INDEPENDENCE DAY, dimestore potboiler conspiracy theory novels, and every shooter ever made. Combine a general lack of distinction with some of the most boring and ugly creature and level designs you’ll ever see and you’ve got a couple of the ingredients in place that could make for a terrible video game. And that’s before we figure in Kevin Sorbo’s voice acting.
But despite the fact that the gameplay in the single player campaign taken as a whole feels like a pre-HALF LIFE game (which means expect very little narrative, no cinematic elements, and enemies whose chief AI routine is “run up and shoot that guy in the face”) and the wildly uneven visual presentation that had me alternating between surprise that the Wii could pull off something so advanced and shock at how sloppy and ugly the graphics textures were, I actually did enjoy playing THE CONDUIT. It does deserve mentioning the Wii is the only console I own and the last major FPS I played was HALO 2. I haven’t tried KILLZONE 2 or any of the genre’s new breed so my opinion of THE CONDUIT is likely quite a bit more charitable than most 360 and PS3 gamers can afford. The story sucked, the aliens were stupid, and there’s that sense that the game is simply trying too hard to be a modern FPS and landing sometime in 1998 but as a whole I think it’s a fun play if you squint a little and overlook a lot of glaring, tremendous flaws.
The much touted control scheme is one of the key things that makes THE CONDUIT actually worth playing, and being one of those mouse-and-keyboard guys that bitched about dual analog control I was pleasantly surprised that I found the only-on-Wii controls to be not just great, but precedent-setting. Other Wii shooters have had good controls, but THE CONDUIT’s fine-tuning customization options and almost flawless precision really should set the standard for all future motion controlled games in the genre. There was never a point in the course of the game where I felt the controls were iffy, off, or bad in any way. And for the Wii, I think that’s a first.
There are a couple of “moments” in THE CONDUIT that were worthwhile- fighting up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial is definitely a high point, as is shooting up the Library of Congress and a couple of the more interesting street fighting segments. It’s really kind of disappointing that the Washington D.C. setting wasn’t really exploited to its fullest with more landmarks and real world, identifiable places. Granted, there’s only so interesting you make a location like the Pentagon (pretty much offices and corridors) but through most of the game I felt that the locations were, again, pretty generic. There’s plenty of cover and a couple of secrets scattered around that make some exploration pay off.
And there is an elemental joy to be experienced in the game that’s common to most titles in the genre, the thrill of running around with various weapons and blowing away commandos and monsters. But really, that’s the same thing that’s been fun since WOLFENSTEIN 3D. Modern shooters couch that traditional gameplay value in stories, settings, and atmosphere but THE CONDUIT completely misses the mark, so if you’re not into the simple fun of shooting up a room full of bad guys then there really isn’t anything else here for you. Granted, if you’re playing a FPS strictly for the story or for deep, sophisticated gameplay then you’re operating under some kind of delusion anyway. Outside of the absolute top examples of the genre (HALF LIFE again), few games have really managed to pull of a strong, distinctive narrative that really drives gameplay. I think RISE OF THE TRIAD and BLOOD had better story and narrative elements than THE CONDUIT.
Multiplayer is decent and offers a variety of options and gameplay formats, but I’ve never been a big fan of online deathmatches and the like. It’s pretty much- again- the same old-same old. Expect to see a bunch of guys running and jumping sideways and backwards shooting a rocket launcher at you while you’re wondering where they found the rocket launchers on the level. And you’ll also get to experience the time-honored deathmatch tradition of being confused as to why emptying two clips worth of 9mm ammo into a guy’s face isn’t killing him. There are a couple of team games available, which I think are the best bet, and some objective-based capture the flag variants. I like the “bounty hunter” mode the best, where you are assigned a target and only get points for killing it. Lag hasn’t been a noticeable problem from me and I haven’t experienced any of the lockups or other problems some have commented on in other forums- I think the multiplayer is done well as a whole and if it’s your kind of thing then it’s definitely serviceable and will add a lot to your enjoyment of the title. Random matchups are probably how most will play the multiplayer games, but if you have WiiSpeak, you can talk real-time with anybody you have a friend code for- provided you have any friend codes. I don’t have WiiSpeak so I never tried this function.
I do have to admit for the first couple of hours I was totally sold on THE CONDUIT and I was pretty sure that the hype was justified- there is a honeymoon period that I think a lot of gamers will have with it where you’re really just kind of surprised to be playing something other than SUPER MARIO GALAXY or BRAWL on the console, let alone a full-featured FPS. I definitely think that a lot of the advance notices and general sense of excitement that the game received were the result of first impressions of demo-length plays and I get a sense that the game is VERY front-loaded with its best content as it seems to peter out halfway through before reaching a very vague and strangely incomplete climax. I think it was after the third mission or so that my good will started to slowly erode as the more glaring problems started to surface- repetition is a big issue, as is the lack of any kind of “holy shit” moments that FPS games tend to be really good at creating. And there are odd technical problems that crop up over the course of the game. When I got to a big boss fight where a Drudge with tentacles was menacing the President’s helicopter, I braced myself for a big fight. I ducked back into the White House and the monster got stuck at the door. Then, he mysteriously disappeared. Fight over.
Despite a host of issues, I do think that as a Wii-exclusive example of the FPS genre THE CONDUIT is marginally successful if only because it doesn’t take any chances and despite the fact that it simply tries too hard to ape classic gameplay models and concepts. I think the only secret truth the game reveals is that the Wii is simply not a platform for an HD console-style shooter. When I was playing the game, about halfway through I realized that it just wasn’t the kind of game I really want to play on the console- if I wanted to play this type of game, I would have bought an Xbox 360. And as far as the system-pushing graphics go, I’d rather see a game with really great and original art direction like MADWORLD or NO MORE HEROES than one with early 360-era lighting and textures.
One of the advertising slogans for THE CONDUIT was “you only get one shot at this”, but I hope that the game doesn’t represent either a design (and sales) Waterloo for hardcore games on the Wii or for High Voltage’s future developments- one of which is THE GRINDER, a horror-themed co-op FPS that already looks like it will redress the current game’s faults and deficiencies with some novel gameplay concepts and a cool monster-hunter theme. However, it is hugely disappointing that the game is nowhere near the product that it really needed to be to get core gamers to look at the console in a new light and it doesn’t do anything that makes it deserving of something better than the dreaded “pretty good for a Wii game” disclaimer. The bottom line for fans of the genre with HD consoles is to stay far, far away from the game but if you’re a Wii-only household then it’s a good rental if you’re in it for the single player, and possibly a good buy if you intend to take advantage of the multiplayer options.
My copy is going to be in the trade-in pile for the METROID PRIME Trilogy release next month.