Hands-on with the Nintendo Wii U

Does Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U console have the required A game to take Christmas? Matt Hill flew to the Japanese giant’s European HQ to find out…

[Originally published on T3.com]

With the Nintendo Wii U finally confirmed as hitting UK shops in time for Yuletide, T3 was eager to see how it was stacking up against the Sony PlayStation 3’s last big push before the PS4, not to mention the incoming Xbox/SmartGlass combo from Microsoft.

We were the first UK magazine to get hands-on with the Wii U two E3s ago when it was a fledgling concept, jetting to Los Angeles for a single day just to soak up its potential. So we guess it makes sense that we’d be flown out for a single day to Nintendo of Europe’s HQ in Frankfurt to reappraise now it’s nearing completion.

Luckily, there was a plethora of big first-party and third-party games, eShop titles and many varieties of controller to make the five-hour commute more than worthwhile.

Hey, good lookin’…

With the Wii U’s housing still not final build, the elongated but pristinely finished developer kits were still to be seen in the cartoon-covered demo area. This meant most of the focus was on the 6.2-inch touch-screened GamePad, which is probably as it should be seeing this is what we’ll all be interacting with.

We’ve written extensively on this previously, but it’s worth mentioning that despite its heft, the GamePad is an ergonomic marvel, the reassuringly solid build of Nintendo hardware having been tweaked after initial feedback to fit your hands perfectly whether you’re standing or sitting.

Control and conquer

As well as the GamePad and a multitude of Motion Plus-inside Wiimotes for multiplayer, we also got extended time with the Pro Controller at last and were pleasantly surprised. A fairly blatant take on the Xbox 360’s hardcore favourite, the silhouette has been shaved so that it’s a more comfortable fit than Microsoft’s, though its inherent lightness doesn’t feel cheap, surprisingly.

The real test will be how the rearranged right analogue stick – now above the action buttons to replicate the GamePad’s configuration – deals with the like of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which was frustratingly one of the only launch-day titles not available to our eager hands.

Triple A time…

Yet we’ve tried out the basics of the Wii U’s hardware before – the priority of this trip was to get extended time on some of the final titles we’re set to see. Nintendo didn’t disappoint, with nearly 20 different games of varying stature, from first-party flagships to eShop curios via third-party triple-A franchises.

The latter were represented by Assassin’s Creed 3, the graphical show-off of the day and really there to flaunt the Wii U’s processing potential. The sea-faring, ship-shooting mission we got to try didn’t so much give us a taste of the game as shouted, “Look at the amazing water effects and the spectrum of  colours in its beachy landscape!”.

It won that battle, but we won the war, as we broke the game soon after by mooring our vessel accidentally in the middle of a firefight – despite the GamePad’s screen acting as a compass and wind-direction meter – unable to proceed without reseting. Take that, Preview Code! (And our game-playing pride.) The visuals, however, were strong and not dissimilar to the PlayStation 3 version to our eyes.

Similarly, the upgraded Mass Effect 3 looks of a current next-gen standard, if you will, its complex character models and intergalactic gun battles crisp and swift, the GamePad’s screen acting as an always-on weapon inventory, map and team organisational tool.

The money shot, though, is when a quick tap of the Home button removes all these add-ons and takes the action to the second display for sofa- or bed-based gaming (sssh, we’re getting old). No matter how many times you’re told this is what it can do, the reality of it remains impossibly cool, playing full-fat Mass Effect on a portable, although admittedly not outside the house.

Bearing in mind that, when doing so, you are sending wireless control signals from the GamePad back to the console which is then beaming the results visually back to the GamePad, we’re pretty stunned that we didn’t experience any latency in gameplay either.

Nintendo’s Land of hope and glory

Yet much of the focus on the Wii U’s graphical prowess is ill placed. It is clearly capable of PS3 or Xbox 360- standard visuals, but this is an upgrade on the Wii, a graphically inferior machine that focused on interaction.

Seriously, seeing the likes of Mario and Zelda in HD is a joy in itself, and the power is there to do more, yet this was never going to be a graphical titan. Instead, it’s again the advances in how we play games that is interesting Nintendo with the Wii U. This is shown best in Nintendo Land, which is perhaps why the firm are so keen to entrench its many pleasures with a large focus on its ware on our visit.

While it may not have the instant “I get it” hit of a Wii Sports, “asymmetric gameplay” is a much harder story for Nintendo Land to tell.

As is co-operation over competition, a quite unnatural trait in many. Despite its “bringing the family together” ethos, the Wii did so mainly by playing on our competitive streaks – sure, there were collaborative modes, but from Gran being able to beat the grandkids at Wii Sports to losing more weight than the rest of your household on Wii Fit via family fisticuffs on Mario Party, this was every man, woman and child for himself. Wii U’s whole mission is to get us to work together. We will be united, whether we like it or not.

The reality is that most of the Nintendo Land mini-games, of which we played more than half, don’t necessarily click on first go, the instinct is to try and beat each other. Yet by the second attempt, you’ve nailed it and you’re ready to put your Mii-avatared life on the line for your Wiimoted brethren, games getting under your skin surreptitiously.

There was a distinct feeling of attendees being wowed by the bright lights and bold single-player shows of the big name games, but then drifting back to the core, co-operative Nintendo ones for repeated plays. There could be a lovely moral message in there somewhere, and if there is, I’m sure Nintendo is the company to find it.

Mario Chase, formerly the Are You Being Served?-esque Chase Mii, is a case in point, basically giving hide and seek a modern lick of paint in the way Draw Something revived Pictionary. The GamePadded player is the hider, monitoring things on the sly with their own screen, their mischievous face beamed in real time to the telly’s top corner by the controller’s camera.

The initial thrust is simple: we must destroy them. Yet the game area is laid out in four colours and every Wiimoted seeker has a bar telling them how many yards away their prey is, so co-operation is vital, be it feeding back statistical location data or simply yelling, “He’s in Green!” over and over.

Elsewhere, the Fable Heroes-esque Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest combines Wiimoted swordsman and a Gamepadded archer to good team effect, the fact that you can’t walk when you’re engaging in combat making structured attacks essential.

Then there’s Metroid Blast’s take on the formula, with the sci-fi theme changing them to plasma-rifle infantry and spaceship drivers, the flying craft able to transport other players to better vantage points as well as fire laser cannon.

Co-operation, co-operation, co-operation

It’s a focus on teamwork that extends beyond Nintendo’s own efforts. The PC and XBLA hit Trine 2 is given a fantastic overhaul for Nintendo’s eShop, its lush, layered, fantastical yet one-pane settings singing on the hardware, the three-character story offering various local and online multiplayer options, and the touch-screen additions hard to imagine not being there.

Our favourite is the wizard’s Scribblenauts-esque ability to create shapes with a swipe or a circle on the GamePad’s display, though the world’s palette appear a little washed out and degraded on the touch screen.

It will be interesting to see how Nintendo prices the downloadable titles, as it’s a market made for the Wii U’s Vita-esque small-screen ability, though the firm’s record on this front isn’t great. We’re ready to be surprised.

But then the co-operative obsession peaks on the ever-gorgeous Rayman Legends, which has some truly inventive multiplayer interactions on the typically single-player story. The first player uses the Pro Controller for the beef of the game, but a GamePadded second player can interact as a Willow the Wisp-style sidekick by painting all over the touch screen in a similar way to how they could (but very rarely did) on the big screen in Super Mario Galaxy.

But then that was just a collect em up extra, here it is given an integral use, pulling levers, moving platforms and, at one point, turning the entire screen with the GamePad’s gyrometer like a Christmas cracker ball game, player one leaping and crawling in tandem to avoid spikes.

There’s also a very clever section that combines the new endless runner iOS version of Rayman, Jungle Run, and Guitar Hero for a two-player rhythm-action runout that sees one player leaping and sliding obstacles in time with the music while the other draws arcs of collectibles in his predicted trajectory. It’s simple but impossibly addictive.

New Super Mario Bros U has similarly great co-operative modes, and for more people at once, but Ubisoft’s effort just pips it for the wow factor.

One more, incredibly scary, thing

Final mention goes to ZombiU, and not just because it’s set in London – though we do like that a lot. Much more so than the visual-orientated triple-A ports, ZombiU is the clearest example yet of the new console’s ability to please the hardcore through interaction.

The graphics are fine if occasionally muddy and unspectacular, but the atmosphere created is one of pure tension. Zombies are not enemies to be mowed down with a machine gun, they’re to be feared and you are nerve-wrackingly susceptible to their attacks.

Knowing this, and with ammunition so scarce it makes Resident Evil look like a feeder, the fact that all your inventory sorting, weapon loading and clue reading has to be done on the GamePad in real time is the definition of living on your wits.

No more reassuring pause screens to hide behind. In turn, the positive of being able to scan areas for zombies by holding up the GamePad to the telly has a heavy negative of making you susceptible to sideways zombie rib tickles as you’re no longer looking at the main screen. Even in a room full of people, we were terrified.

Again, there are fascinating social angles at play here, too. If you are turned into a zombie, you reload as another character without any of your possessions but your old one stills exists as a zombie – in your game and in others’ online. In your one, you can go and find him, kill him (argh!) and nick all your lovely loot back; in other people’s you can track his progress in the zombie ranks throughout your network.

There’s also a clever Demon Souls-esque note system where you can use the touch screen to graffiti messages on walls that will appear in other players’ game worlds, either as clues or playful hindrances. “Hey guys, there’s a huge load of ammo this way! Loads of it! No, no zombies, none at all. A ‘nest’? What’s that?”

Anywhere else this could appear spiteful but it’s the playful nature of Nintendo that gets away with it and makes the Wii U such a fascinating proposition.

The premature verdict

Much like the PlayStation Vita, we think people are under-estimating the Wii U’s potential as a system for advancing the way we play games. The “handheld console within your house” angle appeals massively, taking proper triple-A games off the big TV to not inflict it on the rest of the family or just to relax somewhere, yet the collaborative focus and the way it challenges our pre-conceptions of play is not just a joy, but a good thing for gaming. This really does feel like progress.

Yet the message is being confused. The tentative first E3 reveal, the long lead-up to launch, the sheer difficulty marketing the different ways you can play in a coherent two-line pitch. But as with Apple products, which are also often maligned for failing to engage in a specs war, you only really get Nintendo products when they’re in your hands.

It’s why the graphical focus is, again, missing the point. This really is a new way to play. We just really hope that it repeats the PR gold of the Wii and somehow avoids a fate worse than the Sega Dreamcast of being utterly magical but entirely misunderstood.

From £249.99, nintendo.co.uk, out November 30

For full article with video and photo gallery, head to T3.com

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