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Nintendo's 2006 Wii console was a runaway success, catapulting the venerable Japanese company back to the top of the gaming pile with its super-accessible gameplay and appealing price tag. Fast-forward six years, however, and the world of console gaming is very different, with the casual crowd finding fun with smart phone and tablet apps, even as long-time gamers remain glued to their more complex Xbox 360 and PS3 machines.
Can the Wii U rock the world of gaming once more, or has Nintendo's quirky approach to hardware hatched a lame duck? And does this shiny box of tricks deserve a spot beneath your telly? Read on to find out.
The Wii U is available now in two versions: the £248 basic pack, which includes 8GB of storage, and the £299 premium pack, which has 32GB.
Should I buy the Wii U?
If you're an occasional gamer who had fun with the original Wii, or thinking of buying the Wii U for someone who's not that into games, you should think carefully before handing over your cash, because this new system is considerably more complex than Nintendo's last effort.
Instead of waving a wand and tapping a small selection of buttons, the Wii U asks you to wrap your mitts around a fully tooled-up controller, as well as mastering tapping a touchscreen and keeping an eye on two screens at once. Long-time gamers will settle in with no problem, but the learning curve for first-timers may prove frustrating, so have a long hard think before buying.
If you belong to the muscly thumbed hardcore crowd, you're unlikely to find the Wii U as satisfying as the Xbox or PlayStation console you probably already own. I noticed a few instances where the Wii U appeared to lag slightly in the graphical stakes, and while the HD visuals are often gorgeous, I haven't seen anything that looks better than what the Xbox or PS3 pumps out. The bulky controller is heavy, and isn't as suited to quick-fire twitch-reflex gaming as its rival peripherals.
The Wii U is a console for those who already know they need to own one. Nintendo isn't likely to start offering Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Pikmin, Donkey Kong, Smash Bros, Mario Kart or any of its other hot properties on rival systems anytime soon. So if you dearly love those games (and who could blame you?), the Wii U will probably satisfy you, even if it could take a while for some key titles to trickle onto the console.
The Wii U's most important new feature is its chunky tablet GamePad. But how does it feel to use this quirky controller, and what impact does it have on gameplay?
The GamePad fits around your fingers comfortably, leaving your thumbs with plenty of room to grip the analogue sticks or manoeuvre their way to the controller's face buttons.
The 6.2-inch touchscreen isn't too tricky to reach using your thumbs, but to reach beyond the edges of the panel you'll need to let go of the GamePad with one hand. The controller feels quite weighty, and while it's not about to pull you to the ground, you will notice the heft during long play sessions.
It's noticeably heavier than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller, and much chunkier than the feather-light Wii Remote. The GamePad feels a bit plasticky to hold as well, and while it's comfortable to grip, you won't get the sensation that you're holding a piece of premium gadgetry.
On the plus side, all the buttons feel good, and the trigger buttons around the back of the controller move smoothly when you squeeze them, without feeling as spongy as those on the PlayStation 3's controller.
Build quality feels high across the board, and I'm reasonably confident that -- unlike an-- this tablet-esque controller could take a few knocks without giving up the ghost. There's a stylus slotted into a hole at the top, but you'll hardly ever use it, as the touchscreen is large enough to make finger prods reasonably precise.
The analogue sticks are comfy to use, but they can feel just a touch slippery, making for unintentionally erratic in-game movement. The sticks feel quite tall under your thumbs, which mean that sometimes simple tasks like running in a straight line can feel slightly wobbly. That's a minor gripe, but one I suspect dedicated gamers will pick up on.
Long-time game folk will also be frustrated by Nintendo's button placement, which sees the four 'face' buttons (A, B, X and Y) placed beneath the right analogue stick, instead of the on-top placement you'll see on Microsoft or Sony's consoles. I was able to adjust to the change quite quickly, but muscle-memory movements still saw my thumbs leaving the right stick to prod hopelessly at thin air.
Based on my testing, you can expect several hours of battery life from the GamePad when gaming constantly, but you'll need to charge it frequently to keep it topped up -- don't expect it to last for days on end.
The controller's second screen is where the Wii U wants to offer innovative gaming kicks, so it's disappointing that the panel itself isn't very impressive. The 854x480-pixel resolution isn't particularly high, and leaves on-screen action looking grainy -- Mario's mustachioed face looks like a jumble of pixels when playing New Super Mario Brothers U.
The screen is also dim, with colours looking drained when compared to the picture you'll get on an HD telly (I was testing the Wii U using a 26-inch Samsung TV). The touchscreen isn't particularly sensitive either, because (like the 3DS handheld) it's a resistive touchscreen, rather than the capacitive kind you get on tablets, smart phones and the .
That means you need to actually press the screen to register a prod, rather than just touching your digit to the top of the glass. It also means there's no multi-touch, so only one poke at a time will register.
It's a shame the second screen isn't more tactile. A huge plus, however, is that there's no noticeable lag between the display on the tablet and on the TV -- actions taking place on one panel are replicated at almost the same instant on the other, so put aside any fears of lag spoiling your fun.
The dual-screen concept opens the door to all manner of gameplay tricks, such as using the GamePad's internal sensors to scan your surroundings in ZombiU, which is a great use of the technology. That game also offers the opportunity to tap on the GamePad's screen to dismantle barricades, or rifle through your inventory while looking away from the telly screen, during which time you're vulnerable to zombie attack.
The aforementioned undead delivered a real scare, and gave a good taste of what the Wii U's second-screen experience could deliver when put to good use. Other launch titles didn't impress me as much however, with blockbuster ports Assassin's Creed 3 and Mass Effect 3 primarily using the controller panel to display the game's map. Even Mario Bros U, Nintendo's own project, only really uses the touchscreen to display exactly what's happening on the TV.
One advantage there is that you can change the TV's input (possible from the controller using a TV button that sits underneath the GamePad's screen) to normal telly and continue playing on the GamePad. This worked fine with Mario -- though as mentioned before, you'll take a hit on the graphics front staring at the lower-resolution touchscreen -- but didn't work with any other games I tried. Note that you can't use the GamePad as a standalone console out and about -- you need to be in wireless range of the mother console.
In other words, there's fun to be had with the Wii U's quirky controller, but it'll depend very much on what developers decide to stick in their games, and second-screen features are not consistent across games. More on that later.
Finally, and with the caveat that this is a subjective judgement that may not resonate with you at all, I don't think the Wii U conjures up the same fun the Wii did six years ago. Nintendo's previous console was so radically different from anything that had come before that it felt inherently fun just to pick it up and start playing with the then-groundbreaking motion-control tech.
The Wii U, on the other hand, is still an unusual device, but no single aspect of it feels as new, or as fun -- rather it's a mishmash of standard technologies, that when combined don't make for the same gleeful thrill that Nintendo's earlier system conjured.
It's fair to say the Wii U launch line-up is hardly inspiring, with only a few games standing out from the worrying pile of forgettable titles. New Super Mario Bros U is the most exciting one -- even though it sees Nintendo flying on full autopilot -- as it's still a chance to play Mario in HD.
ZombiU is another one worth investigating, and is almost certainly the best game to offer GamePad-centric tricks right off the bat. It's a very violent apocalypse survival game, so don't hand it to a young child unless you're happy to foot their therapy bills later in life. Assassin's Creed 3, Mass Effect 3 and Batman: Arkham City are all Wii U conversions of existing games, but stand as great titles in their own right.
I played Assassin's Creed 3 and thought it could look better, with some in-game textures looking worryingly low-res. I still had fun playing it though. Mass Effect 3, meanwhile, looks good and seemed to play very smoothly, and also features a comic book-style introductory episode, which lets you hurriedly select some of the back-story elements you'd get if you had played through the series on Xbox or PS3. Murder-em-up Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is also coming to the Wii U.
I had the most fun with multiplayer minigame-a-thon Nintendo Land, which sees one player using the GamePad and other players using Wii Remotes to play in a series of simple challenges. The fact that one player has access to a second screen that's invisible to other gamers is used to great effect here, and should make for raucous living-room thrills. If you're buying a Wii U for the family for Christmas day, this is a great bet, but be aware that you'll need a sensor bar and spare Wii Remotes, which will be pricey extras if you don't own them already.