When we met with the staff of High Voltage Software at E3 a year ago, they didn't even have a meeting room. We sat down on the floor in the hallway and gathered around a small portable TV to check out their latest project, an unsigned Wii game called The Conduit. It was the start of a new beginning for the company. Up until then, they were contract developers, beholden to their publishers' deadlines, budgets, and creative meddling. Weary of releasing games that they knew could be better, they decided to bankroll a title themselves and make it everything it could be. This year, The Conduit was displayed proudly all over the show floor as one of the Wii's key "hardcore" games, and High Voltage was back (this time with their own very nice booth in the South Hall) with two new independent projects to show behind closed doors. We started with Gladiator AD, but it was The Grinder that everyone would be talking about.
See, Nintendo? That's how you do it.
High Voltage's latest is another attempt to prove that the Wii can do a hardcore first-person shooter that can hang with the big boys. It shares more or less the same control setup as its predecessor - a very good thing, since The Conduit's controls are just about as perfect as they come - and it uses the same Quantum 3 Engine to push the humble system to its limits. That's about where the similarities end though; you won't be finding any sci-fi soldiers or laser rifles here.
Instead, we have a bloody, over-the-top horror game with relentless action in the vein of Doom or Painkiller. Inspired by the retro-kitsch of Quentin Tarantino, it covers the screen with a jumpy film grain, and sets its stages in a present day that somehow looks thirty years old. Set in an alternate reality where monsters are infesting the country, The Grinder follows the story of four mercenary monster hunters hired to save a small town from a growing outbreak. And yes, those four characters can all play together online. See, Nintendo? That's how you do it.
Where The Conduit focused on tactical firefights against intelligent enemies, The Grinder goes old-school by throwing as many enemies at you as possible. Thanks to the advanced "instancing" technology, swarms of monsters can fill the screen without ever sending the frame rate below thirty. Admittedly, enemies of each type all seem to look the same, but in the demo alone we spotted at least four types of enemies, including vampires, werewolves, and axe-wielding maniacs. These baddies were all extremely aggressive, and focused mostly on close-range attacks (with the exception of the Slashers, who could toss their axes). It's hard to judge the AI in games like this, since enemies aren't exactly trying to take cover or flush you out, but they were able to be effective in swarming without bumping into each other, which is all it takes for guys like this to be terrifying.
The demo ended all too briefly, and it was clear that the game was still very early, with High Voltage speaking enthusiastically about the many features yet to come, including a robust competitive multiplayer mode to complement the co-op. While it's hard for the dated hardware in the Wii to keep up with the atmosphere of games like Condemned, The Grinder is doing its best do dish out a down-and-dirty blaster that does far more than anyone could have thought. Regardless of whether or not it can stand up to what the other systems have to offer, it's well on its way to surpassing The Conduit and giving 20-something male Wii owners a reason to dust their systems off.