It's been six years since we had a proper new game console in our living rooms. That alone was enough to entice me to hunt down actual Wii U hardware, regardless of its quality. But questions remain: How is the GamePad? Is Nintendo finally going to get their online right? Some of these questions still need answers, but thanks to Nintendo Land and ZombiU, my faith in what Nintendo is doing remains intact despite the usual launch day jitters – and a by-the-numbers Mario adventure.
The Wii U isn't going to set the world on fire right out the gate. But so far, I've found it to be a healthy upgrade over a long-since faded Wii. It's tempting to directly compare the Wii U to the 360 and the PS3, but Nintendo is still dancing to its own drum beat, and people like us are just along for the ride. The Wii U launch has been bumpy in spots but I'm feeling pretty good about where it’s heading.
The Console and The GamePad
The console on the whole runs cool and quiet. Other than the hour-long firmware upgrade, the system was painless to setup and get online. I like the look of it, and think Nintendo found a happy medium between the size of the original Wii and the PS3. The GamePad is bigger than I thought it would be, but surprisingly comfortable sitting on your lap or held in front of you while you desperately try to manage your inventory with zombies beating at the door (more on that later).
It's light. The screen looks pretty good (but not great). The DS-like non-capacitive touch screen is a step back compared to what we're used to, but considering that the action is happening on your TV, the lack of fidelity doesn't seem quite as harsh as it would be on your phone or tablet.
The Online Experience
Pretty on the surface.
I like the eShop interface so far, but it remains to be seen how well is handles a larger game library. The rest of the online features, however, are predictably scatterbrained, full of half-measures and interesting ideas that haven't been fully fleshed out. Adding friends without a long string of numbers is nice, but it doesn't seem to have many ramifications for actual games so far. Still a long way to go here. Requiring both players to send a friend request instead of just receiving a notice that someone wants to friend you up should be a parental control toggle, not a rule across the board.
There's hope for the Dark Souls-style passive notes and online tie-ins for the future, but for now we're probably a year off from Nintendo really getting whatever vision they have for online communities implemented properly.
New Super Mario Bros. U
See kids? I'm still relevant. Flying squirrel?! I've done it again.
It's fine. Really, it's fine. If video games were football, Mario would be chewing up yards on the ground and getting plenty of first downs, but he rarely crosses the goal line these days. Nothing flashy, just a few more features on a very old concept. I'm enjoying it, but it's not something you desperately need to play.
One stand out feature I like is the portable Yoshi creatures that make every level you go into easier. They're totally optional, but it's nice to have a back door to get through tough spots when you're frustrated. After clearing a few levels with one that let's me float out of trouble and devours enemies that I run into, I left it behind. It's cool having an organic sort of easy mode available inside the world, but strolling through the levels got old quick.
You earn coins and unlock items for games. Devious.
I was shocked to find this was a full price game if you didn't get the Deluxe bundle, but after spending a couple hours in there, I can see why. Still plenty of "attractions" (mini-games) to explore, but what I've played so far with Karla has been fun. Seems more feature complete and cool than Wii Sports was. Nintendo's decision to not bundle this with every version of the device was a huge misstep. Huge.
Standing in the living room is cool again.
Granted, I'm only three hours in, but this is a system seller so far. A wholly unique game that could be approximated—but never replicated—on other platforms. It takes the potentially game-killing task of taking your eyes off the screen to look at your controller pad and turns it into a total tension device. I've been playing ZombiU standing up, because not only does it make more sense that way, it's more fun. Every time you open your inventory the TV cuts to a third person view of your character rummaging through his or her pack. The game doesn't pause and you have zero situational awareness because not only is the screen showing you very little, you're concentrating on eating your health item or picking your weapon to notice. You learn to get that done quickly.
When you're walking around, you can ping your map on the GamePad, which will give you a red blip if there's something moving around within a certain radius. It's a lot like the Aliens movies. Sometimes it's just rats. Sometimes it's a zombie. Sometimes you think a room is clear and then a dead person on the floor stand up and tries to eat you while you're scanning for loot.
The scanning is why I'm standing in the middle of the living room. When you scan a room you're physically holding your controller up and highlighting drawers, bodies and other things on the small screen to see if they contain anything worth taking. This means you don't have to spend your time opening every desk you come across because a quick scan will tell you if it's worth pursuing. The problem is that what you can scan is relative to what your GamePad's view can see. It's a one-to-one prospect, so if I want to scan the area behind my character, I'm physically turning my back to the TV screen to do it. On the TV, your avatar is bathed in the white light from the scanner which makes you more visible, it's a vulnerable position to be in. You can hear the zombies screeching and moaning in the distance, rats scurrying and door creaking as you have your back to the main view.
I spent ten minutes just picking my way through a level, and Karla remarked that I hadn't even seen a single zombie and she was tense—as if she were the one playing. They've done a remarkable job making the basics of navigating a 3D space and managing your character as feeding the tension one step at a time.
The last things I'll mention for now is the way death is handled. You don't make a character: you're given one. The first hour of the game I spent as an architect named James. He got back to the safe house (with a bag full of loot like flares, medical supplies, ammo, gun upgrades and some other useful goodies) only to die when a horde of zombies attacked. It wasn't game over. The GamePad goes into white noise and the game loads you back into the safe house. Only this time I'm Shelly, the community manager, and all I have is a gun with six bullets and a cricket bat. The NPC in my ear yells "Get out of bed, zombies are coming!" and I pick up where I left off—only weaker, with less stuff. I dispatched the zombies and came face to face with James the zombie architect. It listed his name, how long he lived and what his score was. More importantly, he had his backpack with all my old stuff. Killing zombie Dave saved me a lot of trouble.
A mix of Condemned, Resident Evil and Dead Island with some definite Dark Souls and other rogue-like games influences, ZombiU has captured my imagination so far. We'll see if the rest of the game can keep up with the first few hours.
New consoles have a great deal to live up to. In many ways, the Wii U lacks the hallmarks of jaw-dropping graphics or an online ecosystem that can rival PSN or XBLA. By all accounts, the third-party games are largely competent ports, with some suffering bad frame-rates and long loads. ZombiU can take upward of 20 to 30 seconds to load an area at times. Lots of new platform growing pains here.
But I'm not ready to pronounce the end of Nintendo's momentum or dismiss the potential of the second screen. I've found navigating the system and jumping in and out of games to be nice, and the GamePad helps the experience more than it hinders it. Is it enough to drop $500 or more for some games and a pro controller? Maybe. Few consoles really justify themselves within the first year. I don't expect that to be any different for the Wii U.