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Wii U review: a week with Nintendo's new console

by Andrew Yoon, Nov 17, 2012 9:01pm PST
Related Topics – Nintendo, Review, Wii U

Nintendo is never happy with maintaining the status quo. Like Wii before it, Nintendo's latest home console pivots away from what gamers would expect out of a traditional system. Yeah, Wii U can do motion controls like Nintendo's last-gen system--but the GamePad tablet introduces a whole new way to play.

I've been lucky enough to have the Wii U for over a week now. Here's what's thrilled me about the system and what's surprised me.

GamePad

With a six-inch screen and weighing just a pound, the Wii U GamePad is a surprisingly comfortable device to use. While it lacks the high-tech sheen of say, an iPad, the controller is clearly designed to be played for hours on end. With terrific analog sticks (that click in) and a full suite of buttons, the GamePad perfectly accommodates the "core" games that comprise much of the Wii U launch lineup. While the tablet may look more like a 3DS or Vita, I found it far more comfortable to use over hours of gameplay.

There's been some hubbub over the GamePad's use of a resistive screen instead of a capacitive one. What that essentially means is that you won't be able to perform multi-touch gestures on the touch screen. However, there hasn't been a single moment where I've lamented the antiquated touch screen tech. The GamePad does a remarkable job responding to touch, whether you're navigating the OS or having to swipe through a game page. Being able to use the stylus for certain games is also a nice touch--a feature that many capacitive screens don't allow.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the GamePad is its battery life. Nintendo estimates a 3- to 5-hour battery life for the tablet, and that's simply not enough for hardcore gamers that like to binge-game. From my experience, it appears battery life is closer to 3 hours than 5, but do note that the screen brightness is set to near-maximum by default. (You can change the brightness by hitting the Home button during a game and selecting Controller Settings.)

It's happened to me countless times, where I'll be in the middle of a game and the flashing red indicator will pop up on the bottom of my GamePad. You will be able to plug the system into an AC adapter and continue playing, but the lackluster battery life is definitely a nuisance.

The short battery life also interfered with one of my favorite features of playing with the GamePad: being able to play away from the television. While you won't be able to take the GamePad more than one room away from the base unit, there's something truly remarkable about playing PS3-quality games on a handheld. The fact that there's no latency whatsoever, even when 20 feet away from the device, is nothing short of a technical marvel. Being able to lie down in bed and play Mass Effect 3 is something that even the Vita can't do. While not every game supports this feature, it's an added convenience that I'm sure everyone will take advantage of--even if they don't plan to.

TV Remote

Another feature that I didn't expect to love was the GamePad's TV remote functionality. However, I use this feature every time I play Wii U. When you first start the console, you'll be able to register your TV in the easiest process I have ever seen for a universal remote. You simply type in your TV manufacturer's name, and you'll be done, pretty much. Then, when you hit the TV button on the bottom of the GamePad, you'll bring up a very rudimentary menu. Oddly, while it may not have many bells and whistles, I find myself using it all the time. Why bother reaching for the remote when I can change my TV's volume directly from the GamePad?

Smartly, Nintendo has made it so that you can use the TV remote features without turning on the Wii U console. By hitting TV, you'll be able to just use the GamePad as a remote. When you're ready to play Wii U, turn on the power and switch to the correct TV input--all from one device. Thanks to the rather unique nature of the GamePad, I doubt this is a feature that Microsoft or Sony will be able to match ever. Here's hoping that Nintendo continues expanding this functionality in future system updates.

This is a surprisingly useful feature

Wii U OS

Speaking of updates, you'll need to endure quite a large day-one patch in order to access most of the system's functionality. Out of the box, the Wii U can create Miis and play Wii U games... and that's it. Online features, such as Nintendo Network, access to video apps, and even the ability to play original Wii games are all locked out without the update. Oddly, all of these icons will appear on the menu--you just won't be able to access any of this content.

It took me over two hours to download the update. According to Geoff Keighley, the patch comes in at around 5GB. Do keep that in mind if you have bandwidth limits, or if you planned on enjoying your system right away.

With the update downloaded, I found myself enjoying how well Wii U handles multitasking. When you hit the Home button during a game, you'll be able to access your Friends List, Miiverse, and even the excellent Internet Browser while having the game paused. Apparently, you'll also be able to use Nintendo TVii while the game is suspended. That's extraordinary.

This is probably more important than the launch of new hardware

Nintendo Network

Perhaps more meaningful than the launch of Nintendo's new hardware is the fact that Wii U ships with Nintendo Network, the platform holder's first attempt at a comprehensive online experience. That means you'll be able to have a persistent user ID to connect with online friends. Being able to throw away Friend Codes is incredibly liberating. And adding friends is so incredibly easy now. You'll be able to find players you've recently played with in online games, and you'll be able to manually enter friend requests. Nintendo may be playing catch-up here, but Nintendo Network is living proof that it truly is better late than never.

Miiverse is an interesting part of Nintendo Network, letting you post status updates to your connected friends. It's essentially Facebook or Twitter of just your Nintendo friends. Intriguingly, Nintendo has promised to open up Miiverse to other platforms, including smartphones and the web.

One aspect of Miiverse that clearly trumps Xbox Live and PlayStation Network is the "Communities" feature. Each game can have a dedicated wall, letting users share tips and tricks. Being able to so easily engage in a community directly from your console is quite extraordinary, and makes competing networks seem insular in comparison. Miiverse shows huge potential, especially as it becomes deeply integrated into later Wii U titles.

While Nintendo's social approach to Nintendo Network is a winner, their eShop is a total disaster. It is pretty much impossible to navigate. Want to know what retail games are available to download? Sorry, you can't do that. Want to know what indie games are available to download? You can't do that either. The eShop does do one thing right, however. When you launch it while playing the game, you'll go to a page specifically designed for that title. Theoretically, all DLC will be viewable from here.

Perhaps most distressingly, the eShop doesn't even offer you file sizes of downloads. For example, Assassin's Creed 3 is downloadable. But instead of telling you how large the file is, there's only a warning: "Wii U Basic Set owners must have an external hard drive to download this software." (The PlayStation Store marks the downloadable version of the game at 11GB.)

Media

One of the biggest shortcomings of Nintendo's system is how poorly it handles media. While there's promise in the upcoming TVii feature, and the system will eventually support video apps from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon, it's still quite lacking compared to what PS3 and Xbox 360 offer. Like Wii before it, Wii U does not support DVD or Blu-ray playback. And once again, the system does not support playback of locally stored media.

Don't throw these away, you'll need them

Backwards Compatibility

You'll be able to play most of your original Wii games on Wii U. In fact, you'll be able to transfer content from your old console to your new, provided you follow these rather cumbersome steps. To play original Wii discs, you'll have to launch an emulated Wii menu. It's odd, especially as you'll need to "quit" using the Wii in order to return to the Wii U.

Disappointingly, Wii U offers no upscaling of last-gen Wii games. While backwards-compatible PS3 systems offer scaling options for PS2 and PSone games, Wii U offers nothing of the sort. Those hoping to have a Dolphin experience on Wii U will have to dash those hopes.

Thankfully, Wii U does support every peripheral from the Wii era. That means you won't have to throw out your Wii Remotes, Nunchucks, MotionPlus attachments, etc. In fact, many multiplayer games require these accessories, meaning your investment in the Wii ecosystem will carry over into the new generation. Given titles like Nintendo Land require Wii MotionPlus and Nunchucks for multiplayer, you could be saving hundreds of dollars over new purchasers of the Wii U.

Read our guide on how to transfer Wii games to Wii U!

Game Reviews (last updated 12/6)

This list will be constantly updated with more launch window games.

Conclusion

Although many will read this looking for the answer to the question "should I buy this?," it's a bit too early to answer that right now. (And given the system's short supply, something we don't have to answer quite yet.) Wii U makes good on the promise of offering a very different experience than that of its competitors. However, the games will ultimately determine if Nintendo's GamePad experiment pays off.

It's clear the tech works. The seamless integration of TV and second screen must be commended. Nintendo Network, specifically Miiverse, must be applauded. And Wii U's multitasking capabilities put other consoles to shame. However, many should be (rightfully) worried about the system's graphical prowess. Being able to play Nintendo first-party games in HD for the first time is wonderful--but one wonders if only being able to slightly best current-gen specs will be enough on the precipice of a new console generation. But given the runaway success of the original Wii, perhaps there's no need to worry about that.


This Wii U review was based on a 32GB Pro system provided by the publisher. Nintendo also provided Shacknews a Wii U Pro Controller.




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