Thursday, 6 December 2012

Depending on where you live, the Wii U has been out a few days, a couple of weeks, or is yet to be released. Regardless, you may be wondering whether to invest 300 to 400 Earth credits on Nintendo's latest offering. Having sunk several hours into playing with the console, here are a few thoughts that might help you decide.
Wii U is not a Wii
This sounds obvious, but it warrants mention. The Wii U is not a Wii. The launch titles do not require that you stand up and wave your arms around. This is significant. For many, the Wii experience was Wii Sports, and that experience was largely a social one. Though a great game, once the appeal waned (as eventually happens with nearly all games), the Wii suffered from a lack of quality software (though not a total lack, of course). Few movement-based games delivered on the promise of Wii Sports, and few quality traditional (or so-called hardcore) games appeared to supplement them – at least not in the volumes they did for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
You might argue that, thanks to the screen built into the Wii U's GamePad, the console is founded upon a similar gimmick, which may in turn lead to a similar dearth of meaty gaming content further down the line. Perhaps, but consider: New Super Mario Bros U, arguably the best of Wii U's launch titles, does not rely on the GamePad's screen – at least not for the main thrust of the game. The same is largely true for the cross-format titles appearing on Wii U: Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Assassin's Creed 3 all make use of the GamePad's screen through maps, additional information, menu navigation and object selection, but it is not core to the gameplay. The GamePad's screen may be the most eye-catching facet of the Wii U's design, but it doesn't feel quite so central to the concept as the Wiimote was for the Wii. There's more to say on that, but for now, know that that's probably a good thing.
About that GamePad, then…
If, like me, you were never quite sold on the sideways Wiimote as a traditional gamepad, the good news is that the Wii U's controller delivers. Screen aside, this is a perfectly capable and comfortable controller that does not feel compromised in any way (it has the full quota of buttons, for example). In fact, thanks in part to its size, the GamePad may be the most lap-friendly controller yet devised. One particularly punishing challenge inNew Super Mario Bros U calls for a series of coordinated, sprinting triple jumps. After a few failed attempts I instinctively placed the GamePad on my lap, the better to simultaneously press the controller's face buttons with fingers rather than thumbs. Weirdly, this felt perfectly comfortable. It did the trick, too. Boing, boing, badoing.
The screen itself is good, if not great. Look at it, and you see pixels. Retina display aficionados may dry-swallow an unpalatable ball of nothing at the prospect of playing the latest triple-A title using it – I certainly would – but for tackling an odd level or two of Mario while the TV is otherwise in use, it's perfectly fine.
For multiplayer gaming, it's certainly less of a visual pain in the behind than split-screen mode. That the Wii U can handle two-player over two separate screens in, say, Black Ops 2, is impressive. However, I'd be loath to experience the spectacle of Assassin's Creed 3's single-player campaign, or undertake an extended Ghillie-suited deathmatch campathon (where every pixel can count for long-distance movement-spotting) using the GamePad alone. For certain purposes, the 854×480 resolution isn't up to the job.
That said, the most exciting aspect of the screen are the opportunities it presents for asymmetric multiplayer gameplay. If you're not familiar with that expression, bear with me. This could be a thing.
Live, in glorious asymmetry, it's…
If you want to get asymmetric multiplayer gameplay, play Nintendo Land. The main point of the GamePad's screen seems to be asymmetric multiplayer gaming. If that concept isn't as central to the Wii U as the movement-sensing Wiimote was to the Wii, that's simply by virtue of the fact that most gamers spend most of their time playing alone. That said,Nintendo Land is the Wii U's Wii Sports: the game that shows off what the console is about, and what it can do.
What is asymmetric gaming? I'll answer that with an example. Mario Chaseis one of the various mini-games that make up Nintendo Land. In it, one player, with their Mii dressed in a Mario suit, is given a few seconds to run away and hide from up to four other players (with Miis dressed in Toad costumes). We were playing two-player, so the other Toads were replaced by CPU-controlled robot Yoshis. Mm. When the count is over, the hunt begins, and quickly, inevitably and rather joyously descends into a chase.
Anyway, I, vicariously playing the part of fugitive Mario through my fancy-dressed Mii, take the GamePad, and view the game through its screen. On it, I can see a map of the level with the location of all my pursuers indicated. A pop-out window shows as third-person view of the more localized action, so I can attempt to dodge yapping Yoshi-bots and of course, the Toady Mii of my human pursuer.
My human counterpart, meanwhile, views the action through the television, but is limited to a much more restricted over-the-shoulder view of the technicolor world. The only additional clue to my whereabouts is an indicator revealing the distance I am away, which will either roll up or down on according to whether my assailant is traveling in broadly the right direction. Of course, with more human pursuers, they would be verbally sharing information as to my whereabouts as they glimpse my panicky breaks from cover: instead, my assailant has to settle for robotic Yoshi yaps. It's great fun.
The point is that, thanks to a second screen that only one of the players can see, multiplayer games can take on new and interesting game mechanics by virtue of different players being afforded different views of the game world. The additional possibilities afforded by a second screen aren't limited to asymmetric gaming, of course; nor are they restricted to disposable mini-games; but it's the asymmetric examples that most vividly communicate the potential.
And yet at this stage it is only potential. As fun as they array of mini-games available in Nintendo Land are, this is not a title of sufficient depth and quality to launch a console. It's no Wii Sports. But then it doesn't need to be: Wii U has New Super Mario Bros U for that. And though we've not spent sufficient time with the major launch titles to definitively pass judgement on the absolute worth of the second screen, the aggregate signal emerging from the mess of critical noise appears to be that, so far, the second screen entices more than it delivers. Is that a problem? Not necessarily – it's very early days.
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