Release Date: November 18th, 2012
Initial Cost: $299.99 (Basic) / $349.99 (Deluxe)
Version Reviewed: Deluxe Set
Games Played for Review: Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros U, ZombiU, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Trine 2, Nano Assault Neo
Back in 2004 Nintendo showed off what was originally code named (and later permanently so) the Nintendo DS system during their E3 press conference. Little did we know that we were looking into their console future as well.
The Wii U looks a great deal like their last system, the Nintendo Wii, but with a more rounded design and this new 6.2 inch (16:9) touch screen cradled in the middle of a more traditional controller. This new controller, called the "Wii U GamePad" by Nintendo in honor of the original NES GamePad, is the real draw that will be key to its survival in the upcoming console generation by trying to introduce new ways to interact for both single and multiplayer games.
The 6.2 inch tablet proves to be the most engaging, and to some most confusing, thing about the Wii U. For people that haven't been keeping up with what the system is about the GamePad is viewed as just a separate add on for the original Wii instead of a part for a whole new console generation. This may prove just a misstep as people that are in the know begin to pick it up and show it off. I myself have already had to explain to at least 2 couples so far what the controller really is and that there is a new system hiding behind its remarkable abilities.
The graphics on the Wii U can be a tricky subject to judge as the console is new to developers to learn and Nintendo has been pretty quite about what exactly is stored in the console that powers it. All we know right now is it is using an IBM Power Architecture Multi-Core processor along with an AMD Radeon High Definition GPU with an eDRAM cache on the chip die. Neither Nintendo or IBM have given specifics on what the processor is clocked to or even how many cores it is running. All we know about the GPU is that while it is a Radeon it is a much more recent one than the 360 is running. The system has 2GB of system ram, with 1GB going exclusively to the system and the other 1GB going to the games so multitasking can be handled with no issue.
With the technicals out of the way, I can go into how I feel the visuals have stood up against what is out now along with how I believe it may go in the upcoming years against the next Microsoft or Sony systems. People have pointed out that ports from the 360/PS3 like Assassins Creed III and Call of Duty: Black Ops II are running, for the most part, side by side their counterparts on the launch day of the system. These games have really shown what the existing generation is capable of after the many years of development and tweaking developers and publishers have dug from the console. If you take that into account and then realize that not only is the Wii U doing this now on day one, but it is also running the GamePad in real time as well it shows power that isn't taken advantage of yet in my opinion. The games of today were not possible, or even considered, back when their respective systems launched. The jump from Perfect Dark Zero with it's flat, overly-shiny, textures and horrible framerate up to the spectacle that is Halo 4 which is finally running in true 720p or the horrible lauch ports the PS3 received but is now showing games like Uncharted 3. The next generation of systems can't make the jump all to the way to the talked about "4K" resolution without also making a huge price jump day one along with requiring a whole new TV for just about everyone to experience it. Nintendo has alot to prove in regards to the Wii U's graphical capability, along with third-party support to help get that movement going along but only time will tell if this enough to either stand with the new systems to come, or to at least have a succeful nitch of its own to work with.
The GamePad feels very natural in your hand, despite the wider hold you have on it than a traditional controller. Clocking in at about a pound, I never once had an issue holding it for long periods of time, even when I was doing so with my left and browsing the web with the stylus in my right.
The touch screen is responsive just as the DS/3DS touch screen which the GamePads tech was based from. During game play for ZombiU I could easily manage my inventory, input codes for puzzles, or activate the quick slots for my items during the action. Nintendo Land used it for causing wind to guide my balloon laden Mii about, to throw Pikmin at robotic creatures, or simply to select the many Miis walking about to see who was who. Even the simple act of going thru menus seems to be easier because everything that could be selected via buttons could just as easily be tapped on the screen which was natural. These are just some simple things I was able to do since lauch with more coming all the time. But if you really want to see what potential is possible with an added touch screen, simply look no further than the multitude of ideas that the Nintendo DS and its successors have spawned. All of those ideas could work here. Surgery on patients, strategy games that rival PC controls, or simply pinpointing drop points...the sky is the limit. We just need developers to run with this instead of simply doing ports.
Nintendo helped to mature the art of motion gaming (I know they didn't start it, but it really took off with the Wii) and they have brought what they learned along with much more sensitive equipment that brings another layer of control to your games. Nintendo Land lets you use the GamePads gyro and motion capabilities to help aim while you fly Samus's Gunship about, to move a strange wood and spring version of yourself through some crazy puzzles with Donkey Kong, to pilot a ship with F-Zero, or to keep aim while I launched a barrage of folded paper ninja stars at equally folded paper ninjas. ZombiU allowed me to scan the area and treat it like a real time 360 degree "bubble" around me where I could go so far as to turn all the way around in my chair and see behind me while I scoped the area. Many of these things were possible before on the original Wii but it feels more integrated because there is no need for extra add ons like the MotionPlus since it is built into the GamePad this time around.
Speaking of the Wii Remote, Nintendo has made it where most (not sure on the Wii Speak microphone yet as I haven't tested it) work with the Wii U and are available for developers to integrate into their games. Activision showed this off with Call of Duty: Black Ops II where you are able to play using everything from the GamePad, Pro Controller, Wii Remote with Nunchuck, or even the Classic Pro Controller so people can play in whatever way is most comfortable for them. Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros U did this as well where up to 4 other people can play along with the one GamePad user to create some really popular and hectic multiplayer experiences. The Wii Balance Board works but as of this writing I only know of Wii Fit U that is announced to directly use it so far which is supposed to be released during the "launch window" period.
One of the changes that the last generation of systems brought with it was the advancements in media consumption through the systems to help create an "all in one" environment for videos, pictures, and movies. The likes of Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, Zune, Video Unlimited, and more have popped up to let us stream or download our favorites directly to our systems and beyond. The Wii U comes with a good bit of streaming content, but severely lacks in the plug and play department though sadly. I could take videos that I recorded for the site on a flash drive, plug it into my PS3 or 360 and play them directly in full resolution with little to no issue. If I try this on the Wii U though, it tries to reformat the stick as system memory that would be locked to that system from then on until it was reformatted.
Streaming is much more forgiving and thus has become my go to for services like Netflix which was predominetly Xbox360 based before. I would use the Kinect for the simplicity of voice command to go from episode to episode while I powered through a particular TV series but when I would get a phone call I would have to either mute the TV or try a few times to get it to pause by yelling at it over the show. With the gamepad, I have the entire Netflix interface, along with playback controls, right at my finger tips at any moment. And if I want to go lay in bed before going to sleep, I just press the button on the touch screen to bring the experience to the GamePad in an instant then just walk to my room. Before I would have to stop Netflix on the 360, then log into another device like my phone or tablet and resume the playback. I have used this when I made lunch for the kids today by taking the GamePad into the kitchen, made the food, then simply put the video back onto the big screen as soon as I walked back into the room with no issue what so ever.
Nintendo, as of this writing, has added Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and YouTube to their video options but has promised their upcoming Nintendo TVii service to come in December to bring these all together. It was shown off before the launch during their events as a way to combine all of these different channels along with your DVR/Satellite/Cable into a searchable database that provides recommendations for each member of your family (that is registered) as well as making the watching of these all into a social media event with comments tied to Miiverse, Facebook, and Twitter, a history of what has happened before you got there/as you watch, and more. This was supposed to be there at lauch, but was delayed until December so I can not say if this will truly be a benefit or not until I can try it out in the real world.
System Media Formats
The Wii U seems to be repeating a move that Nintendo did on the Wii as it doesn't support CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray formats at all in their traditional media forms. What they have opted to do is have the system use a 12cm proprietory format for their games that supports 25GB of data per layer much like the existing Blu-Ray format that the PS3 currently uses. So while the console does support full 1080p now, don't expect to be playing those new movies on it without streaming them from the likes of Netflix. But in regards to games this leaves the system open for very large expansive games that Nintendo should really take advantage of with their next Metroid or Zelda. Developers have been somewhat limited on their use of such disc space as the PS3 can show with only a few games really taking advantage of it for something more than just letting it be on one disc vs the multiple ones the 360 sees.
The 12cm DVD format that was used for the Wii is supported for direct backwards compatibility. I have not found any signs to say that developers will be able to use this as well for Wii U specific titles if the space of the larger discs is not required. I would wager Nintendo wants them to stick to the new format though myself.
Now memory for game data storage, game saves, and DLC is a bit more confusing but also much more open for what a user really needs. The base internal memory comes in two flavors depending on the system you get. The white "Basic" system comes with only 8GB of internal flash memory while the black "Deluxe" comes with 32GB of internal memory. A good deal of this will be taken up, especially for the "Basic" users, by the day one update and just for system use leaving only about 3GB of user accessible data on the system. Now if you are not downloading anything and just want to save games over time for very basic use, I could see this being good for awhile. In comparison, the Wii only had 512MB of internal storage for its entire life span.
For expanding the memory, Nintendo has opted for one of three (or all so should you choose) choices. You can use the included SD card slot to supplement the flash memory and does support SDHC type cards. And finally, Nintendo built in the option for you to plug in either an external flash drive or a full blown USB external hard drive for storage up to 2TB at a time. Their reasoning for this is because memory costs fluctuate and drop so quickly, they did not want to buy a stock and have to sell them at a higher cost than what a consumer could simply go out and get one for themselves. Mind you it is recommended to use a drive that does have an external powersupply if possible, and this will add a third power outlet that the system will require since the system and the GamePad each have their own.
A quick note about the drives - If you do use something to expand your memory, keep in mind that it will only work with the Wii U, and that system specifically, from that point on unless you reformat the storage, or partition it ahead of time. So plan ahead before you just toss on your usual external drive or cards if you don't want to lose anything or need it for other services.
The nice thing about the Wii U is that it was designed to use both all accessories, but also be able to play almost all original Wii games as well. How it handles this is a bit on the sloppy side though and really needs to be straightened out as the software and firmware mature over the coming months. When you want to play an original Wii title, you have to select the Wii option on the main screen, confirm it by using a Wii Remote and then the Wii U reboots into "Wii Mode" acting just as if it is a traditional Wii and nothing else. The only two things you will notice is that the visuals are being output in 1080p (or whatever resolution you are running the Wii U at) and that there is a channel for going back to the Wii U main menu.
I played a few games like Okami and Silent Hill: Chain of Memories to test out what the Wii U will do for your games and found it to be workable but with subtle changes. I did not see any smoothing of textures, but since the Wii U is now sending the signal in native 1080p via the included HDMI cable, the games were upscaled without any lag when the TV itself had to do it which made for smoother play. This hasn't been confirmed, but was what I believed was going on.
Online has always been the weak point for Nintendo, even though they were one of the original pioneers into taking a console and putting it online all the way back to the days of the Famicom. Since those odd 8-bit experimental days, Nintendo has really dropped the ball aside from the occasional new experiment or just outright tease (Gamecube modem anyone) when it came to online services. The Wii U continues their experimentation but finaly has started to make real steps towards making an actual gaming community for Nintendo instead of their old walled garden known as Friend Codes.
Nintendo's new online service, called Miiverse, has finally dropped the old Friend Code mess in favor of an actual screen name that is much easier to share among the people you know. Sadly, Nintendo has managed to find a way to neuter the social interaction while at the same time expanding it in a way that the likes of Xbox Live or Playstation Network have yet to allow. Let me explain.
Miiverse, like Xbox Live before it, is designed to be connected to every game released on the Wii U from the beginning but in different amounts. The highest level would be right when you turn the system on and you see a ring of games pop up on the tv along with the Miis that are making comments and drawings about the titles. This opens up the entire system to become an open forum for the games by the gamers themselves. Nintendo is going through and moderating the messages though, so something like me putting the website link up managed to get a temporary ban on parts of my account.
Miiverse still falls short of existing services with how messages are sent and your friends list is accessed. There is no central way to be notified of either a friend signing online or if a message is received apart from the blue ring of light around the GamePad's home button. In fact that blue light is the only type of notification you will get during gameplay so you never know if it's as important as someone trying to chat via Wii U Chat or simply just someone turned their system on. Some type of better notification like the alert everyone is familiar with on Xbox Live needs to be implemented. Nintendo needs to make this a priority to fix because both the PS3 and Xbox360 have been doing this for years now.
Nintendo has some serious work to do if Miiverse and the Wii U will be able to fully compare with Xbox Live or even to at least get on even footing with Sony's Playstation Network. They have a good base to work with, but have to put the effort forth to get this console truly online in a way gamers expect now.
In the end Nintendo has come to the table once again with a truly unique system that will take some work to get in line, but could very well become a successful step forward for gaming by introducing new controls and gameplay styles that will help mix things up from what has come before while leaving room for developers to produce the games they have been comfortable with for these past few generations. And while the next Playstation and the successor to the Xbox360 are looming over the horizon (most likely to be announced next year, but still not sure on releasing the same year) we really have no way to say one way or the other how it will stack up against what is only speculation and wishes of the gaming mass. Will it survive the console generation? I believe it will do ok, but I still doubt it will be the head of the pack but will fill the "second console" role much better than the Wii did, while also being viable as a gamers only system if necessary.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10