The Nintendo Wii U is again trying to redefine the way we play but can the dual-screen attack really unite us all? Matt Hill investigates…
[Extended version of an article published in November on T3.com]
T3 was the first UK title to get hands-on with the NIntendo Wii U a full two E3s ago when it was just a fledgling concept. We liked it a lot.
However, the landscape has changed somewhat since then, with everyone from Sony to Apple having a pop at second-screen gaming. With the next gen of consoles set to launch in 2013, has Nintendo left its home reinvention too late?
[Size, build and bolt-ons]
Well, this new console certainly sees it trying to harness the social acceptability of its staggeringly successful predecessor – all the Nintendo Wii’s peripherals are still compatible, as are the games, and the base unit even looks similar, if elongated – while returning to the company’s more high-specced, GameCube-esque past.
So yes, the graphics are HD at last and, yes, you can buy a Pro Controller (£40) with an Xbox-like grip so you won’t be excluded from full-fat Call of Duty like some pixelated pariah.
A good start, but that’s not the main event. If all you’re after is bleeding-edge tech specs, Nintendo is not your company. What it does do is innovate, and the results can be thrilling. With the Wii U it’s produced a refined system totally in balance with itself rather than just an interconnecting collection of gadgetry.
[Fun and games with the GamePad]
The key part is the wireless GamePad controller. It may look odd, but it’s clearly been tweaked within an inch of its life. Originally toting Nintendo 3DS-esque circle pads, the design has been overhauled to offer full analogue controls, just like the Sony PS3 and Xbox 360.
Light at just 500g with ergonomic curves, we spent several days clutching it and not once did our hands ache or sweat. While some may find it a bit toy-like, it’s reliably chunky, made to be passed around the family, down the back of the sofa, and back again. The 6.2-inch display is only a resistive one-touch screen, so it won’t trouble the iPad or PS Vita in tech terms, but it’s implementation that counts.
The accelerometer, gyroscope and geomagnetic sensor inside the GamePad mean motion-sensing is integral and, via a sensor bar atop your TV, very accurate. Use it to aim an archery bow in Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, scan areas off of the main screen for signs of the undead in ZombiU or “sping, sping, sping” ninja stars like that game in the advert.
A TV button launches Nintendo’s remote app to turn the GamePad into an infrared telly controller. There’s also a front-facing camera of unquoted but clearly low meggage. Not just for video chat, it’s also used to personalise games – Mario Chase, the hide and seek homage, shows the hider’s face on your TV screen, smirking until you catch ’em.
Charged by microUSB from the console or in a dock cradle if you splash out on the Premium Pack, it gets three to five hours of gameplay out of a two and a half hour charge, depending on your preferred settings.
Similar to a 3DS’s life with 3D fully enabled, it will therefore struggle with long, wireless gaming sessions, but thankfully it can be plugged in separately from the console. A plug socket by the sofa and there’s still no need for wires all over your living room between unit and controller.
[Let me see those system features…]
As well as gaming and chat, the Wii U menu connects to the Miiverse social network, an internet browser and eShop for downloadable games, all accessed on your main telly or touchscreen. The GamePad can’t be taken out of the house, connected as it is, graphically if not umbilically, to the console, but it can be fired up exclusively from the TV for quick tablet-like gaming or web browsing bursts.
All of the processing power is in the base unit, the GamePad merely a wireless vessel with a screen that houses a beamed signal from the main unit. That we didn’t find any latency in picture or sound is incredibly impressive.
The Wii U only comes with one GamePad, but each console can support two – no launch titles take advantage of this, alas (or the NFC reader). Social gaming is still the key, though, with the ability to connect numerous Wii Remotes.
Titles like Nintendo Land are full of co-operative and collaborative challenges that use the GamePad as a second hub, away from prying eyes, whether it’s to act as dungeon master against three Remote-wielders or as captain of a ship giving the others a lift.
Initially there may be fights over who gets control of the new toy, but the challenges are compelling regardless of your weapon choice. Although, the ability to take your widescreen gaming to the small screen when someone wants to watch telly will never fail to impress.
If anything, the problem with the Wii U is that away from graphical power, which is easily up to current-gen standard but sure to pale in comparison to what Sony and Microsoft have in store, it almost does too many things.
The Wii was such a simple concept; if you could waft your arms, you could play a game. The Wii U’s “asymmetrical gameplay” is more complex, and after its initial announcement some gamers were left scratching their heads. The flip side is that if you give it a chance, the more rich and varied gameplay will have you hooked for far longer.
[Get yourself connected]
The GamePad is such a showstopper that the console itself can be overlooked. However, with HDMI, four USB 2.0 ports for peripherals and external hard drives, and an SDHC slot for further storage, it sure is connected. And with even the premium version sporting just 32GB under the hood, you’ll be needing them.
The menu interface is a brushed up version of the Wii’s grid of app-like squares – with the loading times to match, unfortunately. Though a post-launch patch has sped things up a bit, going in and out of menus is slow and cumbersome.
Which is a shame as the eShop is a far more enjoyable experience than PS Store, while Nintendo’s attempt at a proper social network, Miiverse, is a lovely place to be, all hand-drawn notes and mutual appreciation. Sadly, TVii media streaming still isn’t up and running, though Netflix and Lovefilm both do the basics.
As with all consoles it’s the games as much as the tech that attracts attention. The Wii U’s launch line-up is strong, covering everything from triple-A big-hitters to cheaper indie downloads, single-player adventures to multiplayer feasts. We’d have liked more new franchises, rather than big name games with Wii U features bolted on, but we’re hopeful this will improve post-launch.
[Let the games begin]
Nintendo Land – A great intro to the Wii U’s inputs a la Wii Sports, this comes bundled free in most packages. Includes 12 meaty mini-games themed round Nintendo classics from Donkey Kong to Zelda.
ZombiU – Call of Duty aside, this survival horror is the Wii U’s killer app for the hardcore. Check inventory, maps and clues in real-time on the GamePad while prone to attack? Tense.
FIFA 13 – EA hasn’t quite packed in all its footie sim’s 360 and PS3 features, but stat-heavy sports games really sing on the second screen. No more pausing to make subs or tactical masterstrokes.
New Super Mario Bros U – Sure, it’s a 2D platformer (Galaxy will have to wait), but the breadth of its multi-terrained world is stunning and collaborative multiplayer engaging.
Mass Effect 3 Special Edition – You may have already completed this, but as an example of reinterpretation, it’s a blast, with ace graphics and team organisation via the touchscreen excellent.
Trine 2 Director’s Cut – Proof that Nintendo is upping its downloadable content game, this overhaul of the excellent Xbox Live Arcade fantasy is reborn in new Scribblenauts-esque touchscreen trousers.
Little Inferno – Surprisingly, this is what we’ve spent most of our post-launch time with, a touch-screen winter warmer from the guys behind World of Goo. It’s sure to end up about £3 on iOS, but its virtual fireplace-meets-combo-laden pyro simulator is ace if expensive at £12 from the eShop.
[The final verdict]
Ultimately, the Wii U is a potential-packed system that plays like a dream and at an affordable, if not recession-proof, price. An obvious upgrade for Wii owners as it utilises a lot of the hardware you’ll already have, it’s the clear attempt to tempt hardcore gamers that will be intriguing to see play out.
Like Apple, Nintendo has become a conscientious objector in the tech spec wars, building fine products that you only really appreciate once they’re in your hands. The Wii U once again sees Nintendo plotting its own course and the results are as unique as they are satisfying. We just hope everyone is game.
Out now from £250, games from £9, nintendo.co.uk
Tactile, multi-use GamePad
Full HD graphics for Nintendo at last
Miiverse online network is lovely
Weak GamePad battery life
Menu screens slow to load
Needs more Wii U-specific games
For the original version, with picture gallery, videos and more, visit T3.com