Hands-on with Nintendo’s Upcoming Wii U
Announced at the last minute and many peoples highlight of the Eurogamer Expo. Nintendo’s new system took its European bow in style in a nicely designed and laid out area featuring a variety of great games. Without question it drew a massive crowd over the entire weekend. Queues to play ZombiU were possibly the longest in the Expo as people waited in line, for hours at a time to get to grips with what most people perceive to be the WiiU’s first killer app.
The actual console is significantly longer than I had anticipated, hinting at the level of power under the hood. Most people in attendance were surprised by this, having probably imagined the device to be about the same size as the original Wii console. Nintendo representatives on the day informed me that it was “19 times more powerful than PS3”. Having spent a decent amount of time with the launch software I doubt these claims and would take it with a grain of salt, as the games on show at the expo appeared directly comparable to Xbox360 and PS3 titles and certainly no better. Having said that, the games are launch titles and the software can only improve in scope, gameplay and visual flair as developers get to grips with the hardware.
It would be impossible to go any further without discussing the huge innovation that is the WiiU Gamepad. Big? Most certainly, in fact it seems bigger in the flesh than initial press pictures suggested. Unwieldy? Perhaps, although the short bursts of playtime allocated to visitors of the expo really didn’t offer enough time to formulate a valid opinion. Having said that the WiiU Gamepad starts to feel a little more comfortable in the hands after only a few minutes of play. Contours to the rear of the unit fit relatively snugly although not perfectly. The controller features dual analogue sticks, a traditional d-pad, four main face buttons, four shoulder triggers, a pair of stereo speakers, a touch screen interface, gyroscope, camera, microphone, accelerometer, and also supports near field communication allowing it to interact with physical products such as game cards or figurines. Even the most critical observer would have to admit that Nintendo have covered all the bases with this one.
Whilst screen resolution is clearly inferior to other tablet devices like iPad it still delivers a satisfyingly sharp image and looks surprisingly hi-tech for a Nintendo product. Its use as a secondary screen for both single and multiplayer games is truly innovative and was shown off to great effect on the day.
On top of this the WiiU Gamepad can also be used as a portable screen to play entire games, as a substitute to the full size television. This is brilliant news for those of us who share a screen between movie nights, games and television shows. If someone in the house wants to watch television you can simply switch the main game screen to the Gamepad and carry on playing, wirelessly, around your home. This function will of course not work with titles that resolutely depend on having a secondary screen for gameplay requirements.
It seems that the WiiU is attempting to re invent multiplayer group gaming in much the same way that Wii Sports managed. Games involving five players, four of which are using Wiimotes and one using the gamepad and the benefit of their own screen are the staple of Nintendoland. This allows for interesting asymmetric competition in multiplayer titles such as Luigi’s Ghost Mansion.
Ghost Mansion is a ghoulish game of hide and seek. One player takes charge of the ghost character using the Gamepad whilst four other players control Mii characters starting in all four corners of a Bomberman style maze. Character movement initially feels sluggish but it turns out to be a big part of the fun. The ghost character can move more quickly and can see all of the other characters on the Gamepad screen. The four players must work together in an attempt to catch the ghost, who is detectable via vibrations in the Wiimotes and is caught by lighting it up with a torch for a period of time, draining an energy bar. The ghost character meanwhile can win by incapacitating all four of the player characters, who are able to revive eachother when downed. Overall it is a fun and charming multiplayer distraction typical of Nintendo design.
New Super Mario Bros U is entirely as expected. It offers sublime platform game design with exemplary control in a whimsical setting. It looks absolutely gorgeous in 1080p HD format. Need I say any more on the single player experience? Not really.
The multiplayer aspect of NSMBWU follows on from the Wii forerunner and continues to feel anarchic, laboured and truthfully, at odds with the game play requirements of precision platforming. Running at pace towards a sequence of jumps that you know you are perfectly set up to make, only to be scuppered by a lesser player falling into your way and knocking you into a pit is truly annoying. Maybe this way of playing a Mario is fun for a group of drunken casual gamers but I can’t imagine ever wanting to play like this. It’s the platforming equivalent of playing Streetfighter2 against an unskilled button basher, who’s complete lack of understanding of the title makes them impossible to read.
Oppressive, dark, brutal, sinister, terrifying. Words to describe a Nintendo launch title? Not usually, but in the case of ZombiU, Ubisoft Montpellier have succeeded in making hardcore adult gaming a reality on Nintendo’s new machine from day one.
Setting off from a safe house somewhere in the depths of the banks of the Thames, our random survivor picks up a couple of items and heads out into the dark, murky landscape that is post Zombie apocalypse London. Movement controls are exactly as any player would expect of an FPS game with dual sticks taking charge of movement and view angle. The large controller feels perfectly suited to the game and the analogue sticks offer a good degree of control over the characters movement. Using a torch to find a way though the incredibly dark setting it isn’t long before the game forces the player to dispatch with one of the undead horde. After six guttural swings of a cricket bat the lurching enemy is downed, his head in bits all over the floor. Looting his body offers nothing. Moving forward through the dank, dark environment more zombies appear in the distance. The Nintendo assistant informs me that one of the creatures has a bomb strapped to his back and that approaching with a melee weapon would be suicide. Lifting the WiiU gamepad to head height initiates a 360 degree scan of the surrounding area, which offers a great amount of strategic detail. It seems a little like the detective mode in Rocksteady’s recent Arkham games.
Our character collects a sniper rifle and targets the bomb laden zombie. Boom! The zombies are no more and the way forward looks clear. Rushing forward at pace, turning down into a tunnel, perhaps into some sort of area of catacombs he is abruptly pinned by another enemy. This one is too close and the zombie sinks its teeth into flesh. Sudden and permanent death is a recurrent theme of ZombiU. Play switches back to another character, and the fight for survival continues.
ZombiU does look to be very good indeed. Graphically impressive, structurally innovative and also very gruesome, it might just be the true re imagining of the survival horror genre. As franchises like Resident Evil stride further and further towards being action shooters it is refreshing to see a game take terror, darkness and permanent death seriously. This game looks bloody, brain munchingly brilliant.
Other titles playable on the day included Pikmin 3 which looked delightful although I didn’t manage to play it and Rayman Legends, which offers gorgeous, hand drawn characterisation and animation along with really tight single and two-player platforming. Control is perfect and the levels are fun.
The controller was terrific fun to use whilst playing each of the titles on show and gameplay innovations will be plentiful if Nintendo’s current offerings are anything to go by. WiiU might turn out to simply be the machine Nintendo should have released six years ago, something that merely competes with this current generation rather than supersedes it. I doubt it will have the technical grunt to keep up with the upcoming Sony and Microsoft platforms but I don’t doubt that it will deliver interesting and fun gaming experiences.
Never underestimate the Nintendo effect, they can create gaming experiences that are master classes in design and shrug off any need to compete on a technical level. New Zelda and Mario games in 1080p? Yes please, I’m pre ordering one.