The Wii U feels like it has potential. That's an extremely easy fallback for the uncertainty I feel after testing out Nintendo's next-gen system, which has undergone much criticism for not technically being next-gen.
At the Wii U Experience event held last weekend in Washington, D.C., the Wii U demos offered a couple new IP that incorporate the GamePad in interesting ways. Platinum Games' Project P-100 and Ubisoft's ZombiU were the clear standouts among a selection of augmented ports of recent releases and rehashed Nintendo franchises. For example, Batman Arkham Asylum's inventory gets moved to the GamePad in the Wii U Armored Edition version, and New Super Mario Bros. U has a few, well, new touchscreen bells and whistles.
Much of the gameplay at the event gave the GamePad-holding player additional information that gives them an edge over or different strategies from the other Wiimote-wielding participants or audience members. The term "asymmetrical gameplay," which involves two or more players participating in the same game but under different rule sets and experiences, gets thrown around often.
The GamePad itself feels wonderful. For a device that bears a touch screen, accelerometer, camera and full array of buttons customarily on console controllers, it's surprisingly light and fits neatly into hands of all sizes, from my embarrassingly dainty lady-fingers to hands that prefer the size of (what I think is a hugely monstrous) DSi XL. The Wii U will be able to support up to two GamePads simultaneously, but this feature won’t come into play until well after the system launches.
The implementation of the GamePad obviously varies by game. Here's how it was used in the games presented at the Wii U Experience. The games listed below are slated for lease on or around the Wii U’s launch toward the end of 2012.
In this RTS beat-'em-up, the player leads a colorful herd of Power Ranger-esque superheroes to fight enemies—mechs in this case—using either button or touch-based controls on the GamePad. The resulting intense, over-the-top gameplay is how you know Platinum Games has arrived on the Wii U.
The demo doesn't give a whole lot of background or story. Your directives so far are essentially 1) find giant mech and 2) take out giant mech). Your heroes moves like a swarm of Pikmin as they scatter and regroup under the strategic formations, but their attacks and powerful groupwide transformations ring with Viewtiful Joe's henshin-a-go-go vibes. This super squad can form anything, it seems. In the demo, the heroes could assemble into a sword to bash enemies, a rope to scale buildings, a hang glider to fly, and more.
The controls are slightly overwhelming at first, simply because most commands can be carried out with both touch and analog controls and figuring out which setup works best, along with which strategies to execute, can take some experimenting. I had forgotten to use some of the more helpful tips as I ran through the level, which led to my demise when I hadn't remembered to recruit enough heroes (you can recruit fallen enemies by drawing a semicircle around them on the GamePad) and, as a result, didn't have enough of them to arrange into the aforementioned hang glider that would've allowed a safe escape from the rooftop of a crumbling building.
Set in a well-constructed environment with an off-the-charts rating in creepiness, ZombiU is a survival FPS with a nice off-screen inventory and interesting capture-the-flag local multiplayer mode. Emphasis on the survival aspect—if the zombies so much as nibble on you in ZombiU, you become one of the undead. One bite and you're done. Once you become infected, however, you can still respawn and hunt down your zombified self to regain your lost loot.
In single-player mode, the GamePad is used to manage the player's inventory in real time (that is, there is no pause screen but having the GamePad available to view makes on-the-fly management of items simple).
In the local multiplayer mode, the GamePad displays a top-down view of the map. The GamePad-wielding player could place up to 10 zombies across the map to stop the other player, a zombie-fighting survivor controlled with the Wii U's Pro Controller, from capturing four flags in the area. The GamePad player had four types of zombies, each with their own strength. The first player to capture all the flags wins.
When I played as the zombie strategist, my plans hit a serious hitch when the survivor escaped from the area I was trying to pin down and the zombies I had dispatched did not give chase. They just stood in the area I had left them, and as I had hit the cap of 10 zombies (which I was previously unaware of), I could only watch as the survivor captured the remaining flags.
Initially, ZombiU seems to be a successful application of the Wii U's "asymmetrical gameplay" concept to the horror genre. How many local players will be able to join this battle against the zombie dispatcher is unknown; not too much is known about the specifics of online play at this point either.
I'd read other previews that claimed the GamePad was a glorified inventory screen tacked on to this well-received Batman game. This seems to be a silly claim to make after saying the ZombiU inventory setup is slick. The difference is that the Arkham Asylum GamePad screen directly mimics the TV screen display, and to access the inventory, the player must go through an additional button press (rather than just have it out and always available on the GamePad and leaving the TV display to focus on the game itself).
Detective Mode gets a glitzy GamePad treatment. When sleuthing around, tilting and moving around with the device is mirrored on the TV screen. Being able to turn away from the TV screen, but still be able to see the in-game environment through the GamePad controller is a very neat trick, but probably not enough to sell an already-played game on a new system.
Nintendo Land will likely be to Wii U as Wii Sports was to Wii. Easily accessible for all player levels, the Nintendo Land minigames I played at Wii U Experience—The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest and Luigi's Ghost Mansion—again leaned heavily on asymmetrical gameplay, putting a majority of the knowledge in the GamePad player's hands, while the Wiimote players blindly coordinated with or against them.
In Luigi's Ghost Mansion, up to four Wiimote-using players explore a maze-like floor of the mansion to try and ferret out the invisible ghost, which is controlled through the GamePad. If the players manage to find the ghost and weaken it with their flashlights, they win. If the ghost finds and successfully attacks the other four players first, it wins.
Zelda: Battle Quest required all players to cooperate, with one player on the GamePad and up to three on Wiimotes. The GamePad player controls the movement of the Wiimote users—two who play as sword-wielding Links while another carries a bow and arrow—through passageways littered with enemies. The Wiimote users have no control over where they're walking and can only attack.
What the Wii U Experience setting lacked was the crucial, couch-based communications among players sitting next to each other. Cowing under the social unease that results from meeting strangers in large-scale social situations, most of the players remained silent throughout play, even when communication would've greatly improved progress. For example, the ghost in Luigi's Ghost Mansion is indeed invisible but players' Wiimotes will vibrate as it draws near to them. Simply alerting other players to this or other sightings greatly speeds along the game and increases chances of success for the team. Similarly, in Zelda: Battle Quest, the Wiimote players should notify the GamePad holder of their status (if they need to be moved to get a clearer shot) or vice versa (more than a few times, I got shot by enemies I never even saw because of the path the GamePad player had set).
I continuously attempted to get other players talking, but we played mostly in silence. This “alone together” concept, which is the label for the social situation when friends or family are in the same room but everyone is quietly absorbed in the separate worlds of their own electronic devices or screens, is something Nintendo has said it is trying to counter with the Wii U. Had we been more familiar with one another, maybe Nintendo’s push to counter this alone-togetherness might have been more successful, but it was a somewhat frustrating experience.
Additionally, Zelda: Battle Quest would have seriously benefited from the WiiMotion Plus, as it was based mostly on Skyward Sword controls that required slashing in particular directions to dispatch enemies and raising the sword upright to charge it.
Game & Wario
I'd gone to the Game & Wario demo stand hoping for a Wii U take of WarioWare-style games. Instead, I found a couple of minigames that lasted much longer than the gimmick behind it allowed.
The Arrow game inundates the player with waves of Warios that they must shoot using a touch-screen-based bow and arrow on the GamePad. Aiming is done by tilting the GamePad vertically or horizontally, and arrows are fired by pulling down and releasing them on the touch screen’s digital bow. The concept is fun for the first few waves of enemies but feels tiresome even as the difficulty ramps up and cultivates in a boss battle with a mega Wario mech. I was missing the sub-30-second, one-shot format already.
Things didn't look up after three other bystanders and I took a crack at the Fruit minigame, in which a player on the GamePad controls one avatar in a village full of NPCs and attempts to steal fruit off the streets while going unnoticed. In a likely result from lack of communication (and distraction from the nearby ZombiU demo), we failed to form an educated guess on, much less spot, which townsperson might be the GamePad-controlled fruit thief. The game couldn't have lasted longer than a minute or two, but it again felt very drawn out in comparison to past, frenetic WarioWare offerings.
I'm not sold on the Wii U's launch set yet. Aside from ZombiU and Project P-100, the games shown at Wii U Experience were primarily past franchises with a new touch-screen control and inventory functionality from the GamePad. That’s not to say these offerings are inherently bad. New Super Mario Bros. U plays just as well as the Wii version, and Pikmin 3 and Rayman Legends, the Wii U-exclusive sequel to Rayman Origins, look as charming as their predecessors. They just lack a fresh approach to the Wii U’s touch-screen and motion-control capabilities. Many of the touch-based mechanics echo experiences from mobile games.
Combining that with a few remaining unknowns about hardware and multiplayer support, it seems like it’s best to wait and see what the months up to the Wii U’s launch at the end of the year bring.
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