Pity the gamer who uses game reviews to decide whether or not to purchase a game. I took two recent Kotaku and Gaming Age reviews for The Conduit–I picked them only because they were two most recent ones I saw. Two contradictions between the reviews jumped out at me.
Unfortunately, I think contradictions like this lead some gamers to look at the metacritic or game ranking average for a game, with the idea that the average somehow balances out these inconsistencies.
I’m with Al Franken — When you encounter seemingly good advice that contradicts other seemingly good advice, ignore them both.
On the map designs:
Kotaku: While much of The Conduit’s single player campaign is a bit monotonous, the levels you have to fight your way through offer up a pretty broad spectrum of settings and maps. The game has you working your way through the White House, the Pentagon, down city streets and inside bunkers. It’s a nice reminder that not all shooters have to take place on a battlefield.
Gaming Age: Unfortunately, the level design doesn’t always make the best use of the setting. Sure, you’ll see some landmark areas, but a lot of places will come off as too generic, in part because the game tends to tunnel you around a lot. Certain sections early on are just corridors and small rooms, with little exploration involved and a set-up that’s almost like a rail gun shooter. One section on a series of train cars especially feels that way, as you’ll open a door, gun down the enemies in front of you, move forward, and repeat. It’s not a big sequence, but it lacks any real innovation for a shooter. There are a couple areas, especially towards the second half of the game, that open up a bit more, but for the most part I felt like the areas you run around in were a little confined.
On the enemy AI:
Kokatu: The enemy artificial intelligence, the heart of any single-player experience in a shooter, is tragically flawed. Enemy aliens and humans occasionally get stuck behind things, continue to fire despite having no clear line of fire, and respond to obvious triggers in the game, allowing you to systematically clear a room with careful footwork.
Gaming Age: I was pretty surprised to find that the enemy AI was handled really well, as I expected the game to be a bit basic considering High Voltage hasn’t had a great deal of FPS experience up to this point. However, the enemies will react well to what you’re doing, and they won’t be content to let you hide behind cover and pop out with shots when you want to. They’ll either try to flush you out with grenades, flank you, or simply rush up to your location and melee you to death, so you can’t get by with sitting still.
Does a game have to innovate to be good? Of course not. Half-Life 2 did not innovate. Age of Empires III did not innovate. Yet, they were great games because of their execution. The Conduit does not innovate the FPS genre, yet it does something else that might be just as challenging.
Many gamers look at The Conduit and see a game that doesn’t havethe FPS features that PS360 and PC gamers have come to expect. The setting and story is fairly generic–aliens are invading and have to be destroyed in a guy with a super suit.
Yet, High Voltage Software focused on the Wii market and its challenges to create a very fun FPS. I’d argue that HVS faced challenges that the PS360 FPS devs don’t have, and these challenges constrained what HVS could do and still succeed.
- The Wii is a huge install base. Yet, it is very diverse, supposedly populated with a lot of non-traditional gamers or, at least, non-traditional hardcore gamers.
- As a result, the Wii’s owners don’t necessarily follow gaming trends and check game sites and magazines with fervor that, say, 360 gamers do. Getting the attention of the diverse Wii crowd is a challenge.
- The Wii has graphical and processing limits that prevent it from creating a FPS or other upmarket game comparable to the PS360.
- The Wii’s network abilities present certain developing and usability challenges. Friend codes aside, game developers can’t rely on the Wii OS [which doesn't really exist] to provide online functionality.
- Console FPS gamers have come to accept and even love their dual-analog controls, yet it’s a control scheme that requires time to learn, in addition to some of the more involved features that games have introduced–like a multiplayer that has RPG qualities and requires gamers to level up.
In short, today’s FPS is probably not well suited to the diverse Wii crowd. Yet, to focus on the non-traditional gamer means leaving the ‘core’ Wii gamers in the cold. So, how to create a FPS that wades in the blue ocean while offering something to those who’ve been on the beach for a long time.
To a great extent, I think The Conduit succeeds, even though it’s not a great game. I’ve seen many use the ‘for the Wii’ qualifier–it looks good . . . for a Wii game. It’s good . . . if you only have a Wii. In a way, these are valid judgements. No game exists in a vacuum, so the point of these criticisms is that the PS360 offers far, far better FPS.
Yet, that is also not the point. Those non-traditional Wii gamers aren’t going to buy a 360 or PS3 to play FPS.
Instead, The Conduit is serving a vital function for the Wii and even gaming in general. It’s an attempt to bridge the downmarket and upmarket gamers. So, a comparison to PS360 FPS games misses a larger context.
In a way, it’s like saying a 12-ounce claw hammer, but it’s nothing compared to this 22-ounce, ergonomic framing hammer with removable faces and a titanium handle. Right. That framing hammer has more features than a traditional wood-handled claw hammer, but most people don’t need them.
Yet, even professional carpenters can use a lighter claw hammer. But this hammer analogy fails to capture how a ‘hardcasual’ works to ‘train’ and introduce new gamers. As such, The Conduit cannot simply be judged as something for hardcore gamers. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only way gaming sites and magazines know to evaluate games like The Conduit.
Or to put it another way for gamers, does it make sense to judge a ranger’s melee abilities to a warrior? Not really. You have a way you want to play that help determine what class you choose.
So, how well does The Conduit serve as a ‘hardcasual’ game? I can’t say for sure, but I think all the pieces are there.
Why it works for casual and non-core gamers:
- Sticks to fundamentals–The Conduit is a kind of throwback to the 90s FPS, where it’s fast and run-and-shoot. You’re not going to see more complex strategy gamplay that you can find in other FPS titles.
- Uses a ‘blockbuster’ approach–HVS choose to create a game that’s more like a summer blockbuster movie than an arthouse film. The alien invasion and secret society conspiracy might be old hat, but it can be fun and has wide appeal.
- Keep it clean appealing–HVS also choose a little brighter color palatte than PS360′s usual grey and brown games, although no one will mistake this for The Mushroom kingdom. Just as importantly, this is a bloodless game and has no gore to speak of, so it doesn’t threaten non-traditional gamer sensibilities.
- Use intuitive controls–Without a doubt, dual analog sticks are a cumbersome way to control movement in a game. I never got the hang of aiming well with them, in fact. Yes, in The Conduit, you use two different controls for moving and aiming, but the IR on the Wiimote making aiming not only more intuitive but easier to be precise. There’s even a soft lock-on feature to help first-time FPS gamers.
- Keep it simple–This applies at several levels. Saves are automatic and fairly frequent. Also, it’s a fairly linear game as there are no multiple routes to an objective.
Why it works for the core gamers:
- Uses a familiar gameplay–While not exactly retro, the game is familiar to Quake and Unreal Tournament players. Time to brush off your bunny hopping skills.
- Customize the livelong day–While casual gamers might use this, the Conduit’s customization for controls and the HUD is something core gamers will appreciate.
- Play 13 multiplayer modes online–The game has a good mix of free-for-all and team modes. Nothing here is groundbreaking, although the Bounty Hunter mode is a good variation. While there’s not a leaderboard, you can track your lifetime stats. Also, you gain levels from experience you get from kills, and in public matches, you are matched with gamers with similar experience levels. As for lag, I’ve played more 3 hours online and have yet to see a laggy game [although I also have a 32 ms ping from my Wii]. I’m not having to shoot ahead of players, and I’ve seen no sign of host advantage so far.
- Provide difficult single player–If gamers really good, then they play at the highest difficult level of Severe for more challenge. Gamers who complain of finishing it in 3 or 5 hours are rushing through the game and playing below their skill level.
Are core gamers getting a game just for them? Nope. In a way, they’re taking something of a hit. Yet, this is a bridging type of game for the Wii, and it’s getting a lot of advertising and marketing, which a successful ‘hardcasual’ game.
Even though it’s mostly a corridor game [at least through 4 of the 9 missions], I still find it well done for that type of game. And I want to keep playing it.
As for the graphics, I think they are excellent. No Wii game will have HD graphics. Some of the environment textures are flat, and it’s obvious that HVS focused on the character models and textures than the environment. Yet, it’s hardly an eyesore. Instead, I see a lot of lighting effects and good animations. As I’m playing, I’m not thinking of Halo 3 or other HD FPS games.
With The Conduit, I’m playing a very fun but familiar game. I like the online matches. I like the fast pace. I’m enjoying the community. As with almost anything that tries to appeal to a range of skills, The Conduit can’t be the perfect casual game or the perfect hardcore game. But as a hardcasual game, I think HVS nails it with The Conduit.
I have become a heavy reader of news about The Conduit, including gamer reactions to it. Over the weekend, Nintendo Power went out with a review of the game, giving it an 8. Now, some are dismayed because this is the same score given to Call of Duty – World at War. The thinking goes like this: The Conduit has to be ranked very highly to be a blockbuster or, at least, successful enough to warrant a sequel because this is a game for the core. If it’s an average game, conventional wisdom says that the Wii won’t get more hardcore games.
I think this thinking has had merit in typcial FPS on the HD consoles where selling to core gamers is the end-all and be-all. The core FPS gamers on the 360 and PS3 are rather lareger and are required for a FPS to succeed, especially given the $10-25 million put into producting these high def affairs. But this thinking misses the design of The Conduit and its appeal.
High voltage Software [the developer] has said that The Conduit is a game aimed at the core and the casual gamers
When I say that we’re core, I mean that we have a level of detail and depth and customisation and variety that core gamers demand. When I say that we’re accessible and that we’re also aiming for the mainstream, that is why we specifically chose the art style we did, and the setting.
Good reviews will be important but not critical for a game with this kind of design. But it’s very possible for The Conduit to be ‘merely’ good and still succeed very, very well. As in millions of sales. Let’s face it–a lot of Wii owners don’t look at reviews, hence Carnival Games sells millions.
Selling to the mainstream Wii gamer is critical for The Conduit. That’s not a slight of the core gamer, but to be honest, the core gamer is undependable when it comes to Wii games. So, I see a few things more important than game reviews when it comes to selling The Conduit to the maintream or casual Wii gamer:
- Commercials and ads in non-gamer media–The Nintendo Channel isn’t nearly in the gamer’s face, like game ads on the 360, so Sega is going to have to market The Conduit in other ways to get the mainstream gamer’s attention–like ads in primetime tv, non-game magazines, and web ads on generally popular sites. And after writing this, I found a statement from HVS that they are just starting to advertise in enthusiast and mainstream media.
- Safety–The Conduit has to come across as something accessible and not too gory. We know that The Conduit will be a kind of bloodness violence, which is palatable. Plus, we’re talking about killing aliens. Some core gamers complained when the game got a Teen rating, but that rating will be a party of the safety appeal, which is important. Parents will feel safer in buying it for their kids, and older Wii owners who don’t want blood-drenched scenes will be tempted.
- Sex appeal–I think Eric is on the right track to try make an appeal similar to a blockbuster, action movie. The game has to project this, both from its box and its ads. The conspiracy theory/secret organization/alien invasion might be common fare for gamers, but it’s still appealing if done well. Plus the game has to look cool. A lot of folks might not be able to talk about the different kind of lighting and bumping, but they know what looks cool. Having shiny surfaces and a colorful palette [not greys and browns] will grab attention.
There are other contributors, but these are the more critical ones, I think, and include finer distinctions. My point isn’t that The Conduit will sell millions, but it can by being a “hard-casual” game that does things like the above right. Mario Kart Wii is #35 on metacritic with an average of 82, yet it’s a top seller. I don’t think The Conduit will do that well, but review scores don’t make these kind hard-casual games the success they are. Selling to the just hardcore gamers isn’t enough with a ‘blue ocean’ product.