Nintendo Wii U review
Console launches don't happen very often. So when Nintendo announced the Wii U - its sixth generation gaming machine - back in 2011 it should have been cause for the usual ruckus of pant-wetting over-excitement.
Only in the lead up to launch the Wii U excitement-o-meter has ranged from anywhere between great to awful. By and large this is due to the GamePad - a giant, touchscreen-bearing controller that can facet a second near-virtual-reality style window onto the gaming world for some titles, or can be used instead of the TV to play games.
It's split the critics and it's also split the public, so what and who to believe? Pocket-lint has been living with the Wii U for a week now. Will it go down in history as "Nintendo's Dreamcast", destined to a life at the back of a dusty cupboard and without ongoing third party title support, or has Nintendo belted out an innovative and distinctive next generation console to win over the modern gaming world in the same way the original Wii did?
Nintendo goes HD
It would seem almost obvious for a current console to be able to output a high definition video signal, but the Wii U is Nintendo's first console to feature an HDMI output. Play the original Wii, then flip over to the Wii U and the resolution difference is immediately obvious. About time too.
The console is available in two flavours: the "Basic" white-finish 8GB package finished, priced £249.99, and the "Premium" black-finish 32GB system, priced at £299.99. However, due to internal installations the Basic package only has 3GB of accessible space, while the Premium console has around 25GB of freed-up storage available.
We've had the Premium console in the office to check out, though the simple black plastic finish easily marks, so will only look "premium" if extra care is taken with it.
To the crux of it, the controversial yet innovative - and there are two words that aren't often seen side by side - GamePad. For anyone who's not seen one, it's essentially a 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen at the centre of a 500g controller with two analogue thumbsticks, a diamond-shaped four button array to the right, twin left and right triggers and a batch of other useful but ultimately less important buttons. It's shaped like a small table, for want of a better comparison, with rounded edges and plenty of shiny, fingerprint-sucking plastic.
Its party trick is that the second screen can be used to "look around" a virtual environment. Say, for example, you're playing the game on the TV directly in front of you and an enemy shoots you from the right - it's possible to physically move the GamePad to the right and see on its screen what's going on "over there" for that more immersive experience.
The touchscreen is responsive and, here's a neat trick, if you're in a single telly household then the channel can be changed to watch the telly, while you can keep on playing the Wii U game on the GamePad. The 'Pad can even be set up to act as a TV remote control, including power, volume, channel and source input controls. All very clever, eh?
But here's the thing: if a controller is larger than the console it's boxed up with, surely someone's made some miscalculations with the tape-measure?
What might sound like an abomination of an R&D experiment on account of its physical dimensions really doesn't feel so bad in the hand though. As well as its aforementioned plusses above, after not so long you'll forget that you're handling a huge slab of controller. It's really none too bad and doesn't feel alien in terms of layout or comfort.
It's not that part of the design that cuts the positive hum a little short. Because - and short being the operative word here - the GamePad's communication range with the Wii U console just isn't extensive enough. Our test machine worked fine from the room next door and even through two closed doors. But a little further away and halfway down some stairs, or that extra distance into the bedroom, and things started to stutter. Musical splutters, stuttery visuals and, ultimately, your chances of gaming success - just like whichever character you happen to be playing - therefore die. Arguably same-room play is a fair expectation, but it doesn't exploit, say, one of the kids hiding out in their room a storey away from the TV.
That's not all though. Battery life is short too; really short. Every few hours the GamePad will need to be placed into its charging dock to rejuice its battery. Fortunately you won't need to spend the extra cash splashing out on any extra batteries, but the process of having to jump in and out of gaming is a nuisance.
The touchscreen also isn't tablet-esque as it can only handle single-finger presses, so no fancy pinching or gestures that might have been extra useful for map views, for example. It's also not possible to use more than one GamePad at a time, presumably as that would be too process intensive, so instead multiplayer experiences rely on the addition of a Wii Pro Controller or a Wiimote - y'know, the original Wii's wand-like controller - neither of which feature in the Wii U's box.
Whichever Wii U model takes your fancy, it's only the Premium model that includes a copy of Nintendo Land - the Wii U's version of "Wii Sports", albeit minus any, er, proper sports - in the box.
Nintendo Land is ultimately a showcase of what the Wii U and, in particular, the GamePad is all about, hosted by an incredibly irritating robot character whose name - Monita - we don't really care enough about to want to remember.
Far from a graphical wonder, the stylised variety of games utilise the GamePad, multiplayer support and Wiimote with Motion Plus depending on the game played.
At its core Nintendo Land is essentially a mixture of mini games - both solo and multiplayer - designed to show off different elements of what the GamePad can do.
Metroid's Sanus (sort of) makes an appearance in a third person shooter that utilises the GamePad's "look around" feature, though when flying the 'Pad has to be held vertically - as a tilt forwards or backwards acts as a control - which is an awkward position to control from. The GamePad's already starting to feel a bit like Microsoft Kinect in some respects: a great idea, but one that won't suit all and probably won't be desirable to use at all times. Where's the harm in a normal controller?
It's the various multiplayer titles - whether in the Pacman-meets-Bomberman-esque Luigi's Ghost Mansion or Mario-Kart-styled Mario Dash, among others - that's the most fun. It might not be Wii bowling, but it's definitely worth a crack with the rest of the family.
It's a decent enough showcase, but for £40 - take note Basic package purchasers - it's a fair whack of cash of something that should be built in to the machine. For our money it's the other core release titles that will lure people in.
Compared to console launches gone by, the Wii U has a pretty decent array of titles on show. We already know that New Super Mario Bros U is a top title, while the likes of ZombiU is an exclusive lure too.
Then there's Pikmin, the likes of Rayman just around the corner, and some current top titles such as Assassin's Creed 3 and Call Of Duty Black Ops 2 all ready to go. If it keeps up that momentum, and Nintendo knocks out the big guns such as Zelda in the not-too-distant future, then there's a lot of good to be said.
Take a look at the PS3 and Xbox 360's dismal launch lineups and it took those now established consoles quite a bit of time to hook a customer base, despite promising initial sales. Nintendo probably has a little more legwork to do as the original Wii wasn't as concerned about "mature" games, but it looks as though the Wii U already knows that, in the current climate, it can't afford to follow in the steps of its predecessor.
However, with titles like Grand Theft Auto 5 currently no more than "a consideration", it's down to the major third parties to stay on board. If they shy away from Nintendo's latest due to the anticipated fourth generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft in the coming year or two, then the shape of the Wii U's gaming lineup could morph from strong to not-so-good in a reasonably short period. But that's nothing more than speculative comment - for now the lineup is good, and looks to get better, not worse.
What we do know is that from what we have played the Wii U can be really good fun. Sideways-turned Wiimote in hand, Mario jumping along screen, there's a glimmer of that 1988 nostalgia.
Three hours later we're running away from Zombies in the dim, dank London underground in ZombiU - which, being an undead-themed game is oh so 2012 - using the GamePad's features to tap away at various kit or look at the map.
But using the GamePad does take some getting used to. In ZombiU, for example, the need to move your line of sight from TV screen to handheld screen adds a bit of a time barrier and tapping items on its touchscreen to equip them feels slower than with a more traditional controller and superimposed menu system on screen where the eyes remain fixed to one place.
Fortunately more traditional controllers are available, but when apparently premier features such as the GamePad and its unique feature set already feels less mega and more "Mega CD", we do wonder how many game ports will make full use of its quirky charms.
The last part of the Wii U package to become available - as everyone buyer will soon discover upon opening the box and plugging in - is the base system update that establishes much of the online functionality in the UK and Wii backwards compatibility. It needs to be downloaded and installed to open up full connectivity to the likes of Wii Chat, Friend List, Miiverse, eShop and so forth.
Wii titles can't be operated on the GamePad however. Instead you'll need a Wiimote and the Wii U then jumps back into the Wii's old menu system, so it feels just like 2006 all over again.
The patch update took around 45 minutes to download on our so-so internet connection - which is not anywhere near as bad as the purported 5GB package that US users had to deal with.
However, not everything comes bundled in the package this time around. Nintendo TVii - see what they did there? - still isn't available. What form the TV service will come in when it's up and running is still something of a mystery.
Separate apps also require individual updates, so it seems Nintendo's opted for a more bite-sized distribution of updates for a more user-friendly experience on unboxing day.
For example the pre-loaded Netflix - the £5.99 a month movie-streaming platform - requires an additional download to get it up and running. But it's a rather cool experience when it is up and running and here's where the Wii U does well on the streaming front straight out of the box (well, almost straight out of the box).
The GamePad's touchscreen can be used to navigate movie titles, fast forward, rewind and all those other controls, but it can also be used as the screen for playback. It's a clever idea, but is limited by the GamePad's battery life and distance from console issues.
The nearest competitor to this experience would be Microsoft Smartglass for Xbox 360 - but to use it will require the purchase of an additional tablet device. Admittedly, a separate tablet is a far more pleasing visual experience that ought to be larger and last out for longer per charge than the GamePad, but the cost implication is a serious consideration.
At present the Nintendo eShop - the place to go online and buy all thing Wii U - looks pretty enough but is a bit thin on the ground when it comes to demos - as in there are none at launch - but is full of trailers and other downloads. It will fill up more over time and, just like Playstation and Microsoft equivalents, ought to be an important hub of the Wii U as time progresses. It's streets ahead of the original Wii's limited shop and online experience, that's for sure.
However, navigation is dragged down by the slow operating system. Exiting Netflix takes over 20 seconds to get back to the home screen. Why? There's no need for such waiting around. Nintendo really needs to fix this up to make for a more fluid experience. In the day and age of the tablet, smartphone and advanced operating systems there's just no excuse for it.
The Wii U isn't without its share of issues. The GamePad is undeniably large, its battery life is poor, the communication distance to the console is limited, no more than one can be used at a time, there's no multi-touch functionality and having a second screen in front of you isn't always desirable.
The operating system, too, is slow. We hope it will get a speed boost via firmware as, for now at least, it seems illogical than the world's most powerful gaming machine takes 15 seconds to exit a YouTube application and return to the main screen.
Judging a games console on the merit of its launch status and usually slim selection of games titles is often an unreliable path. Remember the Playstation 3's poor launch line-up and high price tag? We've seen it all before, so to dish out the criticism on Nintendo's Wii U should hardly be surprising or unexpected.
No, despite some questionable errors, a console should be judged on what it does best: gaming. And from what we've seen so far the Wii U sure can deliver in that department, with some added fun from the GamePad's abilities. Though, from our point of view, a Wiimote or Pro Controller will be the preferable devices - both of which fail to appear in the console's box.
Unlike its Wii predecessor there are a few more "hardened" games in the pack from day dot - think ZombiU, Assassin's Creed 3 and Black Ops 2 - and then, of course, Nintendo's saving grace - the one trump card that's the main reason to buy it - is its exclusive, heritage titles.
Fans still want to play Mario - and New Super Mario Bros U is excellent - Mario Kart, Zelda, Pikmin and other classics. But here's the gamble: most of those titles don't yet exist, so it's down to Nintendo to continue to pull some brilliant games out of the bag well into the future to ensure the console's ongoing success.
Third parties also have to stay on board otherwise it could be "the way of the Dreamcast", and with Playstation 4 and Xbox 720 announcements and consoles anticipated in 2013/14 the Wii almost certainly won't be able to match up to those graphical standards. Will that spell the end of third party AAA title support?
Whether its days are either many or numbered, for now the support sounds strong enough to last, and in our view it's best to consider individual games' merits beyond the hardware. In its current state there are lots of questions and weak spots, as highlighted. Reviewed in a year from now and again in two years' time and the score could slip right up or down the scale.
Would we buy a Wii U? Yes, definitely - if only to play Mario, ZombiU and some of the expected future titles. Would a Wii U replace an established PS3 or Xbox 360? No, probably not.