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Now on the Wii: Aliens, Guns and the Capitol

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, June 28, 2009

When you're lobbing radiation grenades and fighting aliens on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial on an otherwise quiet Washington evening, it's hard not to feel a sense of history. After all, this is the same address where the climactic final events of one of last year's best video games, Fallout 3, took place.

That's right, a digitized version of Washington is getting blown up on TV screens again, this time in a Wii-only video game called The Conduit, a just-released title that lets players blast away in familiar locales such as the White House, Union Station and Reagan National Airport. And even though this new game isn't quite the accomplishment that Fallout 3 was, I suppose I'll always enjoy the opportunity to blast bad guys and battle against shadowy conspiracies in the ol' home town.

"There are so few games set in Washington, D.C., and there's such great architecture there," said Eric Nofsinger, chief creative officer at the Chicago company that developed this new title. "We quickly fell in love with it as a game space."

High Voltage Software isn't exactly a household name among gamers because the small outfit has specialized in taking some of the industry's less-glamorous opportunities. Case in point: Nofsinger and his colleagues decided on Washington as a setting for its new game after traveling here to meet with government clients when the firm was developing a firefighter training simulator. During those business trips, the team started to picture the city as a good backdrop for the action game that it hopes will put them on the map.

The company initially considered setting the game in multiple cities, but eventually decided Washington had enough interesting locales. Not every location the company scouted out made it into the final project; the National Zoo and the Smithsonian, for example, were thrown out due to potential legal issues.

Aside from the setting, gamers have been chattering about the Conduit all year. The popular Wii has introduced millions of mainstream consumers to the idea that they might actually like the occasional video game, but some gamers have turned their noses up at the console and its motion-sensing controllers, which they deride as a gimmick. The Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 have more computer horsepower, and better graphics, after all. The Conduit marks a somewhat rare attempt to make a Halo-style action game exclusively for Nintendo's console.

Playing on the Wii's unique strengths, The Conduit's controls were designed to be intuitive. To toss a grenade, you flick your wrist in a throwing motion. Run out of ammunition, and you can make a quick jabbing motion to strike a bad guy in the face. When your character's health is low, the Wii controller throbs in your hand like a heartbeat.

Actor Mark Sheppard stars in The Conduit as the voice of the game's protagonist, government agent Michael Ford. If you're a TV junkie, you're already familiar with Sheppard, who has appeared in Monk, CSI, 24 and Dollhouse. Sci-fi fans might know Sheppard best as the twisted attorney on the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica.

Sheppard, as it turns out, is a big fan of action games such as Call of Duty. But even though he owns all the latest game consoles, the Wii at his house mostly had been gathering dust until now.

"I thought it was the most idiotic thing I'd ever heard of in my life," he said of his initial reaction to the project. "Why would you make a first-person shooter for the Wii?"

Now, Sheppard says High Voltage "knocked it out of the park" and he is so supportive of the game that he traveled to Washington with Nofsinger and his team to help show it off. I'm not sure who came across as more excited about The Conduit -- the actor or the game's creators.

"There's a great energy around this game and around this company, it's very infectious," Sheppard said. "If I hadn't worked on it, I'd still buy it because it's a reason to finally turn my Wii on."

So far, critics have also been favorable to High Voltage's big attempt to break into the limelight. The Conduit has gotten positive write-ups at Metacritic.com, a Web site that aggregates reviews for games, movies and TV shows. "While the game does not turn the genre upside-down, it is innovative," concluded a fairly typical review at the influential game site IGN.com.

Sounds about right to me. And one piece of advice that I've recently gleaned from a few hours of playing The Conduit: If you ever get into a firefight with a spooky set of secret agents while speeding away from Reagan National on a mostly empty Metro train, be careful with your grenade lobbing arm. Get a little too excited, you see, and the hand grenades bounce off the ceiling and land at your feet.

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