Monday, 9 May 2011

President Evil: Conduit 2 review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Format: Wii
Developer: High Voltage Software
Publisher: SEGA
Players: 1-4

The original Conduit was hyped big, then suffered an equivalently high fall. With expectations running rampant among Wii gamers, starved of FPS' and desperate for their console to find its Halo moment, what went forgotten was that The Conduit, though ambitious, was never the big-budget epic many seemed to be holding out for. It was High Voltage Software's first foray into the genre, made even more challenging by the fact that the Wii remote's potential for precision aiming had not yet been unlocked. In the end, the game succeeded on one front: the controls were superb. Unfortunately, the rest of the game reeked of compromise and a developer finding their feet in a genre alien to them. The storytelling and plot were a shambles, the design a haphazard mishmash of better games. The intentions were laudable, but good intentions alone do not build ships, as goes the expression I probably just made up.

The game sold well enough though for High Voltage to get another shot. To their credit, Conduit 2 improves on almost all the areas in which its predecessor was criticised. Environments are bigger and more distinctive, the gameplay is given variety through an increased number of enemy types, boss fights and set-pieces, and the cut-scenes show events as they happen, rather than describing them in monotone. The problem is that the original Conduit's greatest asset - the pointer aiming - has been significantly refined by a number of better FPS' to emerge on the Wii since. Without that advantage, Conduit 2 may represent a big step forward from the original, but nowhere near enough to challenge its new competition.

The first Conduit was a sub-par game elevated to mediocrity by superb controls. Since the game's release, Activision adopted High Voltage's template and refined it to near-perfection in their Call of Duty ports. The integration of the Wii Motion Plus, adding fidelity to the pointer, could have been a trump card for Conduit 2 but for the fact that Red Steel 2 got there first and with a rock-solid 60fps framerate. (As superb as pointer aiming is, a solid framerate becomes more important than ever - just try playing Quantum of Solace if you dare). For online FPS gaming, Wii players now have an excellent first choice in Call of Duty: Black Ops, and a decent second in GoldenEye 007 (which also beat this game to split-screen multiplayer). What was rare less than two years ago has now become commonplace. Conduit 2's controls and customisation are as slick as ever, but no longer stand out except for the fact that you still can't map reloading to a shake of the nunchuck, for whatever reason.

Conduit 2, for its many improvements, still feels like a work in progress even though it is now competing with the pros. I hope that High Voltage continue to push forward in the genre, because if they can continue making progress as quickly as they have between these first two efforts, they stand every chance of pulling off the great game they keep threatening. 

There are some strong ideas here, which could blossom into something terrific with time and investment. The integration between single player and multiplayer modes, where upgrades and items discovered in one carry over into the other, is ingenious and rewards players for visiting both without forcing it on them. The presence of a central hub between levels, allowing you to revisit old missions with new weapons and hunt for pickups that passed you by first time around, adds cohesion to the game's world, even the idea isn't used to its full potential. The inclusion of bases in all team online matches, awarding the team who controls them an incremental boost in health, power or speed, adds a touch of spice to the deathmatch formula without overwhelming it.

The problem is that these innovations alone are not enough to sustain a game whose design improvements have only elevated it to mediocrity and still offers little identity of its own. High Voltage's willingness to change what didn't work first time around is for the most part admirable, but also betrays a lack of confidence in their initial vision. The tone of the story, for example, has taken a shift from the first game's po-faced science-fiction B-movie to an uncomfortable mix of similarly epic intentions with broad parody. 

Lead character Michael Ford has gone from gravelly seriousness to wisecracking dude-about-town, now voiced by the same man as Duke Nukem. As insufferable as the original game's storytelling was, so drastically changing the voice and nature of the lead character undermines every attempt to create interest in the ongoing continuity. It's the same problem as with Hollywood's obsession with prequels and reboots: why should we invest in anything we see happening when it could be rewritten on a whim?

That's not to say that there's much interesting going on anyway. The talking heads might have been exorcised, but the plot is still an indecipherable mess, rendered every more convoluted through the introduction of new characters, alliances and bits of back story gleaned through radio messages à la BioShock and hidden scribblings on walls that don't add up to anything. The villain, until he conveniently turns into a giant monster for the final battle, is still no more exciting than his outward appearance as a balding official with a Donkey Kong-esque tie. If there's one thing you can say (sort of) in its favour, it's that the ending is so delightfully insane, finally bringing together the series' fetishes for American presidential history and sci-fi battle armour, that it raises interest in a third entry just to see if High Voltage abandon all pretence of importance and  embrace full silliness, Army of Darkness style, instead.

The graphics are bright and colourful enough to suit such a tone, making an agreeable - if slightly garish - change from the subdued hues that the genre is usually coated in. The art direction has taken a significant turn for the better, with the increased number of outdoor areas in particular making the game more expansive than its confined predecessor. There are still plenty of bunkers to explore, but they at least look distinct from one another. It's not close to the console's best visual offerings, even in its genre (GoldenEye and Metroid Prime Corruption hold the fort there), but is a welcome improvement in most areas from the first game. The exception is the Washington DC level: the 'city' completely lacks a skyline, the architecture repeats itself constantly and has giant metal gates that make it feel less like an invaded city than a crumbling training ground, and the backdrops in the open areas are flat and smudgy. For once, it's a relief once you go back indoors.


Though the environments are on the whole more interesting to navigate and contain more trinkets to uncover, lending the ASE gadget a usefulness sorely lacking in its initial outing, the gameplay remains a bog-standard trudge between firefights. It's effectively caught between two subgenres, lacking the intensity and scene-setting that makes each battle in Call of Duty so memorable, with enemy AI barely existent, but with no trace of the tactical depths (there's no way to sneak around fights as in GoldenEye, for example, or take out enemies without them noticing you) that could have justified the small scale of these encounters.

The boss fights throw in a welcome mixer, but are similarly lacking impact: the much-publicised leviathan boss from the end of the first stage is big in size, but its predictable attack routines - which it repeats at set points around the arena, even if you aren't anywhere nearby - and absence of the destructive force shown earlier mutes any excitement when it should be screaming at you to keep going. A late set-piece that positions you as a gunner defending a dropship in mid-escape is by far the most fast-paced and enjoyable, but all its momentum is lost by the following level being a lazy appropriation of a multiplayer stage that never feels like anything better than the hurried padding it evidently was. (The single player barely lasts beyond an unremarkable five hours). Such a patch-up job only feels more insulting after a character jokes earlier about  how the architect of a Siberian base "reused environments to save time and money, like in [..] videogames". When it's the occasional room being repeated, that's just about passable within the context of the game's low budget (you'll revisit the same Washington DC subway as the first game, for example), but when an entire single-player mission is crammed into a multiplayer stage, High Voltage are pushing their luck too far.

Speaking of patch-up jobs, the game's worst crimes occur when you take it online. (Apart from the uninspiring 'horde mode' knock-off that can also be played alone, I didn't have an opportunity to test the splitscreen, though  for the record, it's four players and doesn't support bots). As a game, it's decent enough: there are all of Call of Duty's customisation options and perks/upgrades, and the weapons are well-balanced - with the more expensive ones slightly more powerful, but all with workable weaknesses - and fun to use. However, though the game is patchable and has been amended several times already, it suffers badly from lag - I played several games of Black Ops afterwards to check if it was my connection, but all was fine.

Even two weeks since release, an issue no patch will fix is the absence of players. Twelve player matches are promised on the box, but in all my playtime I only found that number once and was mostly put in groups of six or fewer. You are also inexplicably unable to select specific modes to play, instead forced to choose between four preset groups (team games, free-for-all games, hardcore team games or hardcore free-for-all games). Freezing is another major issue: I had to reset three times in around five hours of play. Also be aware that if you don't connect to the online mode before playing single-player, a bug will prevent you from completing the first level.

Conduit 2 makes significant advancements in many areas and for those who were satisfied with the original, it maintains what worked in that game and improves on what didn't. While High Voltage deserve a nod for listening to their critics and acting constructively on prior failings, their every step forward is negated by continuing lack of polish elsewhere, especially in the online multiplayer, and improved competition for Wii gamers' money. Whether the developers' efforts will be rewarded for that reason and others is open to significant doubt, but if you can find it at a budget price, Conduit 2 might be worth your while as a brief diversion from better alternatives. I've never believed in the caveat 'for a Wii game' to justify shortcomings - a game can play well or look great without HD - but in a Wii FPS marketplace that has taken two steps forward since The Conduit's release, its sequel has only taken one. [ 5 ]

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