It's a new console! These are momentous events in gaming, and yet nobody seems quite sure how to react to Nintendo's new entrant, the Wii U.
To some, it feels like the last of a generation that launched with the Xbox 360 many years ago. To Nintendo, it's the first of the next generation, well ahead of Microsoft's and Sony's next iterations. It takes an interesting, two-pronged approach to audio and to video, though the two-screen approach can create some problems of its own. It comes with a huge, slow update right off the bat but combines the features of consoles and of portability.
In short, the Wii U is a huge question mark. Is it cool? Is it interesting? Is it gimmicky? And how does that giant gamepad work, anyway? These, and other questions, are what reviewers worldwide have set out to answer.
Most outlets don't score their hardware reviews, so there are no hard numbers to round up. (The exception, Polygon, gave it a 6.5) So here's a whirlwind tour of what reviewers far and wide make of Nintendo's new household name.
The difference between the Wii U's eShop and previous digital storefronts on the Wii and 3DS is remarkable, given that this time it's actually good. Vastly quicker to browse, with an efficient layout and easy access to game info, screenshots, and trailers, the new eShop is an active pleasure to browse. It looks prettier than storefronts on rival machines, works like a charm, and boasts one beautiful feature that Nintendo systems have been aching for—background downloads!
Credit card information can be input easily and saved, and downloads themselves are fairly swift. I'm yet to buy one of the full retail games, because I'm not made of money, but my purchase and download of Chasing Aurora was fast and hassle-free, taking four minutes or so to download. The only issue is that, like with the PlayStation 3, downloaded games must be installed manually, a process that tacks on an extra minute or so of waiting. Once that's done, another few seconds on the home screen will add a fresh-faced icon.
Nintendo's focus on using the GamePad as the centre of the experience—even in these initial stages—is a great idea. Simply going through the motions with the set-up procedure familiarises you with the tablet, and you can even use it as a TV remote (albeit limited to power on/off, input, volume and channel control). Despite the inexpensive parts, there are some pleasant surprises here: this clearly isn't anything like as good as an iPad-style IPS display, but viewing angles are fairly decent and colour reproduction is OK, if not spectacular. The lack of multi-touch support is a serious issue—for the browser in particular—but overall responsiveness from the screen is fine.
We'll be studying the latency in more depth soon with a bit more of a scientific approach, but our first hands-on impressions are positive, as games are equally as playable on the GamePad as they are on the big screen. Indeed, we have the feeling that the Wii U GamePad's response may actually be superior to a great many HDTVs out there, something we'll be quantifying in the upcoming days.
This touch screen works just like the 3DS', which means it can't sense more than one finger at a time, but you can touch it with anything as opposed to typical phone and tablet capacitive screens that need a signal from your body. A front-facing camera and microphone facilitates video chat and can show your face to take pictures of it to display on your TV. The photo/video image quality isn't going to win any awards, but it's enough to do the job. An accelerometer and gyroscope handles motion control, which performs smoothly in launch titles like Nintendo Land. Near Field Communication functionality is built in, but implementation in games is limited at this point. Despite its relatively large size, the GamePad still feels light at 1.1 lbs compared to a standard iPad.
The rechargeable battery is only good for a few hours, but you can maximize that time by going into the controller settings and dimming the screen brightness. There's also an option to turn the screen off if you're not using it, though it comes back on if you touch any buttons.Charging via a cable to the main console is a no-go. You have to run a separate power cord from the GamePad to a wall outlet or use the charging dock included with the deluxe console. I'd gladly trade off more battery life for a heavier controller. The Pro controller, which sells for $50, looks like a 360/PS3 controller and is said to last "up to 80 hours." Be sure to check if it's compatible with the game you want to play, however, as its support is spotty. Notable incompatible titles include New Super Mario Bros. U, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, Batman: Arkham City: Armored Edition, Scribblenauts Unlimited, and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Nintendo just can't seem to get the simplest things right—like voice chat. For those that missed the news, Nintendo's "hardcore" Wii U Pro Controller doesn't come with a headset jack. Which means you'll need to plug your headset into the Wii U GamePad, even when you're not using it. That's ridiculous.
The worries don't stop there. Nintendo has remained mum on what processor is inside the Wii U. Currently, all we know is it's an IBM Power Architecture-based multi-core processor. Except we don't know how many cores, or what it's clocked at, or what its cache size is… etc, etc, etc. For all we know, it could be a beefed up version of the Wii chip—which isn't that wild of a guess.
So what does all that mean? It means what everyone already knew—Wii U won't be as powerful as the PS4 or next Xbox. But is that a surprise? And does it really matter?
I'm not convinced Wii U is going to age as well as the next round of consoles—but I am convinced that it's going to offer a completely unique experience with a large handful of irreplaceable games.
Imagine Twitter, but with threaded conversations, and divided into "communities" around a game, and adorable, and you've got Miiverse. Miiverse lets users send messages both from and about supported games, reply to one another, "follow" users Twitter style, and most importantly, send friend requests right to those people.
Messages can consist of short text or Swapnote-style drawn messages, with which Nintendo staff have helpfully already populated communities. I've already had a good time pseudo-Tweeting with game journalist friends. I look forward to investigating Miiverse further.
One disappointing limitation has already presented itself: you can only follow 1,000 people, and you can only have 100 friends on the Wii U. That continues to be an uncool limit for the Xbox 360, and it's uncool for an ostensibly next-generation system.
Nintendo has promised that it understands the need for third-party support for the Wii U, but it beat a similar drum prior to the launch of the Wii and even the 3DS. The Wii's third-party efforts were largely ignored and generally substandard, and outside of the Monster Hunter series, the 3DS's third-party footprint has dwindled significantly. Put simply, Nintendo has more to prove in this regard than any other platform holder, and it isn't filling us with confidence that we can expect third-party titles will consistently appear on the Wii U. We're even more skeptical that third-party titles will make good use of the Wii U's unique capabilities.
But Nintendo's greatest hurdle is demonstrating that it understands online, and how to use that to offer a good experience to players. As of this writing, the Wii U that customers will buy on November 18th doesn't have an online component—that has to be downloaded in a day one firmware update for the system. While firmware updates are nothing new, no one outside of Nintendo and some third-party developers have any idea how the Wii U's online infrastructure will function. We don't know what the shop experience is. We don't know how you reach out to friends, whether you can join games via invites a la Xbox Live, how voice communication works. In fact, at the time of publish, Nintendo hasn't even enabled backwards compatibility for Wii titles.
But if you are on the fence, if you are wondering if it's time to get a Wii U, we can guess with you that Nintendo is going nowhere, that excellent games from Nintendo are surely on the horizon, and that firmware updates may give the system all of the features it was supposed to have at launch maybe as soon as early December. Having played a batch of games on the Wii U and having had the system in my home for nearly a week, I can confirm that it is a good machine that makes one's console gaming life surprisingly more convenient and luxurious. I just can't tell you that you have to have one now.
Is it time for a gamer to get a Wii U? Is it a must-have?
Give it a month or three. Wait until the "launch window" closes at the end of March and the likes of Pikmin 3, Lego City Undercover and a slew of interesting download-only games are available.
With any new console you might be wisest to give it a year, especially if you want to be able to compare it to what Sony and Microsoft have coming next. And if they don't put screens in their controllers, know right now that Nintendo will have at least that excellent advantage over them.