Rayman Legends: the best Wii U platformer at E3

Given the incredible reception towards last year's Rayman Origins, we've got pretty high expectations for Rayman Legends. Playable at the Nintendo booth on the E3 2012 show floor, and I had an opportunity to grab a Wii U tablet for myself and sample some co-op gameplay with a Ubisoft representative.

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The first thing that struck me about Rayman Legends is that it's got a lot of visual depth for a 2D platformer. Animated characters and creatures appropriately themed to the level (like bats and rats in a castle-like setting) frolic in the background and foreground, adding a layered visual depth that really makes the action on the primary plane pop. It's got that whimsically bizarre art style that fans of the series will immediately recognize, and each section of the level I experienced provided its own presentational rewards.

Rather than play as Rayman (who was controlled by the Ubisoft rep using the standard gamepad), I took control of Murfy, a winged frog that looked a lot like some sort of amphibious fairy. Using the tablet's touchscreen, I could freely tap or drag to interact with the on-screen action, or simply move him around. It was only a matter of minutes, however, before I was thoroughly impressed by the variety of tablet functionality that developer Ubisoft Montpellier has infused.

One of Murfy's basic abilities allowed me to trace strings of "lums"--the series' collectible baubles--which would visually transform them and double their score multipliers for my co-op partner. I was also able to interact with certain areas of the environment or background characters. Enemies could be tapped to eliminate them, creating safer passage for Rayman, and small towers of bone could be cleared by tapping the bulbous eyes perched atop them. Likewise, some enemies could be grabbed and moved closer to Rayman for easier dispatching, and some--like bats and fiery ghosts--could be eliminated directly, simply by tapping them.

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Where the tablet gameplay really shines, however, is when it's used to affect a number of different physics-based puzzles and mini-games. Some of these instance--such as when Rayman had to navigate a series of platforms, only some of which were safe--required communicating directly with the other players. As Murfy, the tablet's screen revealed the safest path to me as I instructed my co-op companion. Other instances presented us with physics-based puzzles in which I'd tap and rotate part of the environment (by physically rotating the tablet) as Rayman ran through it, or cut a rope with swipe to create a bridge or clear the path.

Yet another example had me firing ordinance from a slingshot placed center screen, so that I could knock out a bunch of fat purple dragons who set Rayman's path ablaze with their halitosis. Each of these instances felt fresh and fun. Though I'd played many physics-based puzzle games before, having them elegantly integrated into a colorful platformer turned out to be a great combination. Rather than feeling like my involvement was optional--as in New Super Mario Bros. U--there was enough unique stuff to do that I felt like an integral part of the game.

My time with Rayman Legends was relatively brief, but in that short time, the game managed to impress me in a number of ways. The tablet functionality far outdoes what Nintendo is doing with its own first-party, holiday platformer for Wii U. My demo was a 2-player affair, but the game will also be playable with up to five players: One tablet user and four players controlling regular characters. I was pleasantly surprised by what I played, and platforming fans should probably keep their eye on this one as the 2012 holiday release nears.