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Review: In Progress: Nintendo Wii U

| November 17, 2012 | 0 Comments


Review: In Progress: Nintendo Wii U

Overview

We are unable to provide a full, scored review of the Wii U console as of this moment due to the inability to test out the online and TV control features of the platform in time for posting. Those features will be patched into the system by the time you read this (and the system goes in sale in North America), but during our week and a half with the console, we were limited to offline play with certain features inaccessible.

In lieu of a final review, here is our review-in-progress, which goes over the system hardware and controller, the available bundles, and several of the launch games. We will follow up with a completed review with score and verdict early this week.

Wii U review

After placing third in a console generation with the GameCube, Nintendo showed that it was no longer willing to compete strictly on software with the 2006 launch of the Wii. The platform proved a phenomenon thanks to its motion controls, ease of use, and low price point, and while it may not have held sway with core gamers for long, the Wii showed that Nintendo could still work wonders with innovation.

The Wii U is the next step, and like its predecessor, it’s something different from the pack. A brand new standalone console, the Wii U may initially offer graphics power comparable to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, both of which have been on the market for several years, but that’s not its main selling point.

What sets the platform apart is its focus on the new Wii U GamePad, a large amalgamation of a traditional controller and a tablet, featuring a 6.2-inch touch display that can work in tandem with what’s being shown on your TV.

Wii U review

It’s the center of the Wii U experience – a single, wireless input device that includes a bit of everything. In addition to the large screen, it includes two analog sticks, a directional pad, eight input buttons, a front-facing camera, and an NFC (Near Field Communication) sensor. It can even control your television.

And much as the GamePad is designed to supplement your big-screen games, whether as a standard controller, a screen for map and inventory info, or one of many other inventive uses, it can also work independently from the TV. Turn on the console and GamePad, and many titles can be played entirely from the small screen, even in another room – though range varies wildly, as we’ll discuss.

Wii U review

The Wii U ships with a single GamePad, and while future games may support two, none do as of now – and they’re not sold separately. Multiplayer games still utilize the last console’s wand-like Wii Remotes and Nunchuk attachments, plus the new Wii U Pro Controller bears a striking resemblance to an Xbox 360 controller.

Beyond the innovative GamePad, the Wii U in most other ways seems intent on rising to the level of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. While the Wii was a smashing success, its lack of high definition output – plus graphics technology barely above that of the previous generation of consoles – dated it quickly as HDTV sales surged and streaming media took off.

Wii U review

Early Wii U launch titles look very similar to current games on the other home consoles – in part because many of the launch titles are top games from other systems, albeit with modifications and enhancements. For Nintendo’s part, the company has finally ushered some of its franchises into high definition with New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land.

And the Wii U is clearly positioned as the center of your digital universe. Apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube will be activated in the coming weeks, while the GamePad can be programmed to control your TV. In December, Nintendo TiVii will be added to the console, allowing users to track and find their favorite media across services, as well as interact with TiVo boxes.

Wii U review

Considering its myriad parts, the Wii U seems to offer a mix of the new and novel and the old and familiar – but what is its worth to both owners of other current game consoles as well as those looking to upgrade from the Wii? And do its initial game offerings warrant early adoption, or should curious parties wait and see how it takes hold in the market?

Hardware

The Wii U is initially available in two distinct packages. On the lower end is the Basic Set, which includes a white Wii U console with 8GB of internal flash storage, a white GamePad, separate AC adapters for the console and controller, an HDMI cable, and a sensor bar for Wii Remotes. The Basic Set is sold for $299.

Wii U review

For $50 more, the Deluxe Set serves up a black console and GamePad, the former offering 32GB of internal flash storage, and in addition to all of the accessories from the Basic Set, the bundle also features a charging cradle for the GamePad, as well as simple stands for both the GamePad and console.

The Deluxe Set also includes a boxed copy of mini-game collection Nintendo Land, which sells separately for $60, and owners earn points on digital purchases that yield credit to use towards additional purchases. All of that goes for $349.

Wii U review

It’s extremely difficult to recommend the Basic Set by comparison. Even for those uninterested in Nintendo Land, which serves as a smart tutorial for the system’s various features, the huge increase in storage makes it an essential purchase – especially since only 3GB of the Basic Set’s storage is usable for games, compared to 29GB on the Deluxe console.

Perhaps the Basic Set is only there to make the baseline entry price seem more reasonable, but we can’t imagine it being as in demand by educated consumers. Then again, in the mayhem of the holiday rush, we imagine some buyers will take whatever they can find, though the limited storage space means they’ll likely need to rely on external storage at some point.

Wii U review

The Wii U console itself looks somewhat similar to the original Wii in general build, yet features rounded edges and is notably longer – it measures 10.6 inches long and 6.75 inches wide, with a height of just 1.8 inches. While it reads and plays older Wii games on standard DVDs, the Wii U’s native games run on new 25GB optical discs. GameCube discs will not run on the Wii U.

Wii U review

On the front of the system, you’ll find power and eject buttons, each augmented by a small light. The white light by the eject button illuminates when a disc is in the system, while the power light changes from red to blue when the system is turned on. Below the disc slot is a hidden compartment with two USB ports and an SD Card slot for added storage.

Wii U review

Flip the system around and you’ll find two more USB ports on the right, along with ports on the left for the HDMI cable, other types of AV outputs, power cable, and Wii sensor bar. External hard drives up to 2TB in size can be plugged into the system, though any hard drive will be formatted to work with the Wii U and cannot be used with other devices.

Wii U review

Out of the box, the Wii U only supports Wi-Fi (892.11b/g/n) connections, though a Wii LAN Adapter connected to a USB port can be used for wired Ethernet lines.

GamePad

The Wii U GamePad measures 10.2 inches wide, 5.3 inches tall, and is 0.9 inches deep, and weighs just over a pound. For what seems like a lap-centric device, it’s actually remarkably comfortable in the hands, thanks to contoured grips on the lower back, as well as a ridge that sits between your middle and pointer fingers.

Wii U review

At the center of the experience is the 6.2-inch screen: a 16:9 widescreen, 854×480 (158 ppi) resistive touch display. Like the touch screens on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, it’s a little muted in comparison to a standard screen, but at full brightness, it provides a clear image that’s only occasionally pixelated in parts.

Using resistive touch as opposed to capacitive means it’ll only recognize a single input, but like the DS and 3DS, it’s equally useable with your finger or a stylus, which is conveniently stored on the top, to the left of the right shoulder button.

Wii U review

The GamePad takes a kitchen sink approach to input devices, giving developers a wide array of options for games. Traditional games can use the dual analog sticks and face/shoulder/trigger buttons. Motion games have the accelerometer and gyroscope, while the camera can be used for video conferencing or augmented reality games. An NFC sensor is included (but not currently used by any games) below the D-pad, plus there’s an infrared sensor on the top.

Wii U review

The button layout does take some getting used to, though, especially for those used to controllers from other modern platforms. Having the sticks aligned and so far apart makes it an arrangement unlike that of any other input device. Fans of action games ported from other systems may prefer the Wii U Pro Controller for a title like Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

Many games, including New Super Mario Bros. U, can be played entirely with the GamePad, letting you turn off your television or cede control of that larger screen to a family member for other purposes. With a large display and both external and headphone-enabled sound options, it’s almost like a portable game system. Almost.

Wii U review

Range is an issue. The GamePad reportedly works up to 25 feet away from the console, but walls and other sources of interference may well intervene. In the home office we tested the system in, the GamePad worked perfectly from several feet away. Taking a few steps outside the door, it quickly lost its connection; however, colleagues we’ve spoken to report playing through multiple walls. Your mileage may vary widely here.

Luckily, the GamePad is wireless, but the rechargeable (and replaceable) Lithium Ion battery doesn’t last for long. Charging to full takes about 2.5 hours, which gives you 3-5 hours of play. With the GamePad’s screen brightness on max, we found it to be on the lower end of that spectrum.

Wii U review

While the GamePad can be used while it’s plugged into the wall, there’s currently no way to charge it through the system during gameplay via USB, akin to the Xbox 360′s Play & Charge Kit. That’s an odd omission, seeing as the Wii U Pro Controller (sold separately from the console) does come with a USB charging cable, though it doesn’t plug into the GamePad.

Interface and TV control

Without the online patch, we are not only unable to connect with other users, but also access the hardware settings as of this writing. As such, we’ve seen and experienced a limited amount of the Wii U’s interface, and none of the online functionality. We’ll have a full breakdown of the Wii U interface and TV control features in our full review, coming very soon.

Online Functionality

We’ll have a full breakdown of the Wii U’s online functionality – including the eShop, web browser, video chat, and social features – when the full review posts early this week.

Launch games

The Wii U launches with more than 20 retail games in North America on day one, with a handful of titles also expected to be available for purchase in the online eShop – more on that when the full review posts. We’ve had a chance to play several of the more notable retail options, so we’ve collected impressions on how they perform and how they utilize the system’s unique tech.

Wii U review

Nintendo Land is included with the Deluxe Set, and it collects 12 mini-games based on various classic Nintendo properties. It’s a slick set of diversions that collectively serve as a Wii U tutorial, introducing concepts like asymmetrical play (one GamePad user against up to four Wii Remote wielders) along the way.

With unique mechanics in many of the games, Nintendo Land doesn’t have the breezy accessibility of something like Wii Sports, but this light and amusing entry should have been a pack-in for all systems. Sold separately at $60, it’s a tougher recommendation aside from wanting a token launch title or to take in the ample fan service.

Wii U review

Wii U review

Nintendo Land may be the pack-in option (at least for one bundle), but the face of the company is well represented in New Super Mario Bros. U, which like earlier "New" entries returns the series to its side-scrolling roots – though this iteration makes good use of the GamePad. It’s also the first Mario game in high definition, and finally seeing the colorful stages and characters in HD is really a blast.

Building off of the earlier Wii entry, up to four players can take part in New Super Mario Bros. U, plus a GamePad user can help Wii Remote-wielding compatriots by placing platforms in the world with a touch of the stylus. NSMBU can also be played entirely on the GamePad in single-player. While much of the template is familiar, it’s hard to argue with a large and beautiful new Mario platformer.

Another Nintendo title is Sing Party, which puts a new spin on the karaoke genre by having a microphone-wielding singer read lyrics from the GamePad while friends sing and dance around them. Meanwhile, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge updates this year’s ill-regarded violent sword-swinging action game with marginal polish.

Many of the launch games that we didn’t play are enhanced ports of top titles from other platforms. For example, two of the fall’s biggest releases – Assassin’s Creed III and Call of Duty: Black Ops II – are there, with the latter offering separate screen local multiplayer skirmishes using the GamePad and TV. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 delivers fighting action with a bevy of Nintendo-inspired costumes added to the mix.

Other big-name re-releases include Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Mass Effect 3: Special Edition, and Darksiders II, all glossy AAA experiences with added GamePad functionality. Even a game like Just Dance 4 uses the GamePad for creating playlists and having an extra player pick moves on the fly for dancers, who still wield Wii Remotes while bopping around.

Wii U review

Since multiplatform games take up such a large chunk of the launch lineup, its success depends a lot on perspective. If you’re upgrading from a Wii, you’ll find a large number of fantastic HD experiences that simply weren’t possible on that dated hardware. For owners of Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or a capable PC, a lot of the lineup may seem like a retread, with only a handful of titles beyond Nintendo’s own games really delivering fresh experiences.

Verdict

We will provide a verdict and score for the Wii U console review once we’ve had an opportunity to test out the myriad online features and utilize the network-connected menus and interface. Expect the rest of the review in the next few days.



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