Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

The Conduit (Emulated/PC, 2009): Really? Kevin Sorbo? Seriously?
January 29, 2012, 2:36 am
Filed under: The Conduit (Emulated/PC, 2009, US)

Ever suffered from the videogame doldrums? I’ve got a bad case of it right now. The first stage of this illness begins when you dive into a videogame, but then you realize after a few hours of play that either it’s never going to meet your expectations, or it is truly poor (or even simply average), or that it has absolutely no atmosphere, or that it is glitchy, or confusing, or…pick your poison. But because of this stupid pact you have with yourself that you will finish every damn videogame you ever start (unless it is so broken that it cannot be completed), you cringe at having committed yourself to hours of joyless—or even worse, frustrating–play.

For me, the game was id Software’s “Rage.” Upon seeing the sparkling graphics stretching to the horizon, I was overjoyed. Then, like almost every critic I read, I started playing it and realized there really was nothing here. No connection to the cardboard characters or their fates, an endless list of tiresome fetch quests, a threadbare story, a world that looked wide open but wasn’t, and a faint whiff of “Borderlands” lurking about the place (sans coop, but with extra slide guitar in the incidental music). And I so wanted to love it all. Errrr. Probably the worst thing I could’ve done before booting up “Rage” was to crawl my way through the drama-heavy, atmosphere drenched, character driven game “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” (posted on this blog), which expertly scratches that drippy-drama-storytelling itch and had an expertly paced, gasp-inducing ending that lingered for days afterwards. By the way, the ending to “Rage,” if you’ve not played it, is exactly as cursory as everyone says. It’s…pathetic, honestly.

Oh, but wait—there is a second stage to the videogame doldrums, when the condition becomes acute and life-threatening. In an attempt to break the ennui created by the first turd (that you realize will occupy the next 30 hours of your life since you are obligated to play it), you enter into contract with another video game on the side (like a mistress, or an addictive curative). But oh terrible fate! You discover that your alternate videogame, too, is uninspired, and you’ve opened up yet another can of worms you’ve got to swallow whole. (OK, I’m not being entirely fair here.) In this case, I started playing “The Conduit” (2009) on my PC using the Wii/Gamecube emulator “Dolphin.”  Actually my reasons for even writing about High Voltage’s “The Conduit” on this blog are specious; it certainly is not an overlooked title, it isn’t a gem in disguise, and it wasn’t developed and poorly translated to English in the Ukraine. (That was a joke.) I only am writing a (shorter than usual) post about it because I thought sharing a little information regarding how “The Conduit” performs in emulation may be of some interest to any emu users out there. Oh, that, and I took some screenshots and had to post them somewhere.

There were always a handful of (I mean, like 3) Wii games I was interested in. But having zero interest in owning a Wii, those titles always faded into the background. “The Conduit” was one of those titles, whose gameplay footage looked like a not-bad-last-gen-ish, uncomplicated, Halo ripoff with motion controls. Thankfully, the Dolphin emulator has allowed me to try a few of these titles without having to buy a Wii. Using the Wii motion controls with your PC to play is a breeze if you are not aware of this. Your best bet is to go to the Dolphin emulator website (Google it) and read their FAQs. Or you can read my rambling discussion of it here on my post about “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories,” which chronicles my time as a Dolphin virgin.

I’m going to abbreviate my discussion of the “The Conduit” proper, since many easily accessible reviews of it exist. But in essence, you play Mr. Ford, a special agent who tromps all over the most well-known (but wrecked) Washington D.C. landmarks (the wrecked Oval Office, the wrecked National Library, the wrecked Pentagon—as well as crawling underneath those wrecked landmarks through lots of unremarkable sewer tunnels). Why is everything wrecked? Well, of course, aliens (the Drudge, about 6 varieties) have invaded the city, disrupting the lives of both residents and elected officials. Transistor radios conveniently dropped everywhere allow you to listen in to the conspiracy-laced chatter of right-wing and left-wing commentators, as the nation goes to hell in a hand basket. The Drudge have entered our nation’s capital using a series of “conduits” (Wha? No!) through which they pass from their planet …or dimension…or whatever (since we actually never find out where or when these aliens originate). The game begins “in medias res” amidst a high-action sequence, and then it flashes back to 5 days prior. For the rest of the game, you work your way back up to those beginning moments, which are the end of the game, basically.

I like that tried-and-true framing structure. But the problem is the story being framed is beyond generic, with very little in the way of details, clarity, or character. I’ll keep it vague for anyone who might give this title a shot; “The Conduit” doesn’t have much of a narrative punch or backstory to begin with, so it’s a good idea to preserve what is present for anyone discovering this for the first time. But about a quarter of the way through, the “ally” in your headset giving you directions about where to go and what to do (a man called Adams who represents a high-powered, government-friendly conglomerate called The Trust) turns out not to be who you think he is (which doesn’t matter, since—as a disembodied voice– we never see him anyway). Suddenly, and without surprise, the enemy (whose name is Prometheus) is transformed into your ally, although your character is suspicious of his true intentions. Let’s crawl through another sewer, shall we?

As one of the first (and perhaps, at the time, only) shooters on the Wii, developer High Voltage’s idea for the game was twofold, it seems: First they wanted to bring a high-quality FPS for the hardcore shooter fan to the Wii—a market they thought really had not been tapped. And they were right. Second, in developing a proprietary engine, the Quantum3, they wanted to display a video image through the decidedly last-gen Wii that actually resembled an image from current-gen consoles, like the Xbox 360 and the PS3. This included effects like “bump-mapping, reflection and refraction, light and shadow maps and projections, specular and Fresnel effects, emissive and iridescent materials, advanced alpha blends, gloss and detail mapping, motion blur, interactive water with complex surface effects, and animated textures, among other things,” so says Wikipedia. What those “other things” are, I’m not sure. Maybe…chocolate? I didn’t see chocolate in that list anywhere.

For all intents and purposes, I think High Voltage succeeded in those goals, and the game looks pretty darn good considering its age and also its platform. (Also, keep in mind, if playing it through the Dolphin emulator, you can always crank up the resolution—the screenshots here are at 2x the native resolution of the game.)

But because the game is controlled with a Wiimote and Nunchuk motion controller combo, it more often than not feels like an arcade shooter…which is not quite on rails, but it sort of could be. For example, while I played the game—of course fighting the finicky motion controls the entire time, we’ll get to that—I found myself running down a gauntlet sewer with aliens popping in from behind oil drums or crates, to the left, to the right…pew, pew…it just felt like I was holding an air gun at the county fair taking potshots at cardboard cutouts. Maybe it was the motion controller that gave me this feeling (though throwing a grenade at the flick of a wrist never gets old). I’m not sure. But I did not feel the same kind of environmental immersion that many first-person shooters capture so well, and my first impulse is to attribute that lack of connection to the controls instead of, say, the artwork, sound, or even the bland narrative (which is serviceable, even though full of holes).

Though I wrestled with the controls due to my motion-control-virginity, one of the amazing aspects of this game (and every single freaking developer on the planet should bow down to High Voltage on this count) is the customizability of said controls. Here’s a list to get you slavering: Every button and trigger can be remapped; the walking speed of the character can be changed on a slider; the gesture controls can be reassigned; the cursor sensitivity can be changed; you can change how the game behaves when the cursor slides off screen; you can remove or change the location of on-screen HUD elements; you can even change the freaking bounding box size, which determines basically your field of view and motion. And there’s more I won’t mention. No console game (or, frankly PC game) I’ve ever come across allows for this incredible amount of mechanical tweaking. On one hand, this impresses me enormously. On the other hand, the need to build in this much tweakability may also be a testament to exactly how tricky it is to play an FPS with a motion controller (or at least a Wiimote) in the first place. In other words, all this customization might indicate the developer’s incredible sensitivity towards players’ unique needs and wants—or it might simply be evidence that effectively controlling the game is an overwhelming bitch that requires a lot of fiddling with. I’m not sure where I fall regarding this argument, but the game is stronger because these options are present.

Since my ultimate rationale for writing about this title on the crappy videogames blog is to discuss how the game performs in emulation, let’s move quickly onto that. Overall, as I mentioned, the game performs admirably in Dolphin, with the some of the usual emulator-related caveats. For example, there were some pretty serious slowdowns in large areas. If your PC is not up to snuff, I could see sections of the game becoming unplayable. However, since generally the draw distance in the game is kept to a minimum and the large areas are sprinkled lightly throughout (mainly for arena-type battles that end a chapter), these slowdowns do not make the bulk of the game unplayable.

In addition, there is some slow down when you activate the ASE (All-Seeing-Eye) to solve puzzles and open doors. The ASE is a device you have from the beginning of the game (the narrative mentions who developed it, or maybe it was alien technology, but it’s clearly inconsequential). It is a metal sphere that floats in your hand (you either carry it or a weapon, but not both) and, through its beam, reveals hidden messages, removes the invisible shielding from some enemies, and helps complete some of the game’s main missions (though some critics said the mechanic was underutilized.) The frame rate slowdown when activating the ASE probably has to do with the torch-like cone of light that the ASE emits. It seems Dolphin has some difficulty rendering things like flashlight beams (or, at least the same was true with “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories,” which uses a flashlight extensively). This slow down does not make it unplayable though, since the ASE is only used intermittently throughout the game. And again, if you can throw enough PC power at the problem, you might not experience a slow down at all. I’ve seen footage of the ASE in action on a core i7 processor (with a speed slightly over 4 GHz) on YouTube without a hitch. And if you have this, then can you buy me one too?

One last emulation-related thought: If you pick up “The Conduit” and enjoy it enough to try and slog your way through “The Conduit 2” (2011) using Dolphin, you’ll need to check yourself. Regardless of how much computing power you have, it appears that, at the time of this writing, no emu user can get “The Conduit 2” to run any faster than maybe 15 frames-per-second. I tried it myself, and while it seems to be running fine (no hitching, no hiccups, smooth frame rate), everything simply moves as if it were underwater—Matrix-like slow motion. I’ve heard you can actually play the entire game this way—very slowly. Also, as rendered by the DirectX plugin within the emulator, practically every surface in “The Conduit 2” has a strange reflective quality (that isn’t supposed to be there), which doesn’t break the game, but it makes it look funny. So it seems that actually buying a Wii is the only way to play “The Conduit 2” at this point in time since the emulator can’t seem to chew through it properly. Of course, the ages will change that. And honestly, though it was ho-hum, I enjoyed the first in the series enough that if Dolphin ran the sequel properly, I’d play it.

A non-emu-related weakness in the game reared its ugly head when Kevin Sorbo’s average voice acting erupted in my headphones. In “The Conduit,” Sorbo plays the part of Prometheus, a “rogue agent” who at first appears to be the enemy but then becomes the ally, as I mentioned. Though near the end of the game you get to “meet” Prometheus (I’ll stop there for spoiler reasons), really he’s just a voice in your headset—that’s it. I guess there are Sorbo fans out there, but I never found his television acting to be particularly compelling. I mean, I thought you could’ve dressed him up in his “Hercules” tights, dropped him onto the set of “Andromeda,” and no one would really have been able to tell the difference, right? All of Kevin Sorbo’s characters are just…well, Kevin Sorbo in a different costume, yes? And here in “The Conduit” it’s just Sorbo’s so-so voice all over the place, giving you directions and objectives, telling you this or that odd fact in a completely uninspired way. Eh. I think professional voice acing is imperative in games, no doubt. I’ve even played a handful of games that have damn near imploded due to poor voicing. On the other hand, however, I can’t really understand why developers would want to use such well-known, easily recognized voices, like Sorbo’s, in their games either. Star appeal? Well, for me, it simply yanks me out of immersion…in this case, as I was constantly reflecting on exactly how confusing the entire “Andromeda” series was and how average this dude’s acting was. As he blabbed in my ear, I’d just stop playing and wait for him to shut up. And when he finally would, I would get back to playing the game while trying to forget about him and his crappy TV shows. Why would developers want that effect to occur exactly? I don’t get it. Feel free to enlighten me.