Six years later, the Big N is back with a new, more technically proficient console that supports high definition graphics and proves the company's savvy once again with the world's first touchscreen controller. While the general public is still clearly in the firm's sights, this time Nintendo appears to be returning to the serious gamer. Let's see if the Wii U has what it takes to meet the demands of two groups with very different desires.
Generous ProportionsResembling an outsized portable console, the Wii U GamePad is a sort of hybrid touchscreen tablet/game controller. But don't be fooled: while the touchscreen means the GamePad can be used as a standalone device without a TV, it won't function without the console, because that's where all the processing takes place. So it doesn't actually work as a portable device (see exceptions...) since you have to keep a wireless connection between it and the console. As we saw while testing the system, you can play up to 10 metres away, as long as there are no obstacles between the two devices, or in the next room if the walls aren't too thick or dense (a drywall partition will do). Beyond that, you start to lose the connection and your game pauses until you return within reach.
The first time you meet the Wii U GamePad, it's hard not to be struck by the size of the thing. It has the generous proportions of a device 25 cm wide, over 13 cm tall and 4 cm thick. And yet, it weighs only 500 grammes and fits comfortably in your hands. The weight is well distributed and your thumbs land right on the control sticks. And the ergonomic design makes the back just as well-suited to the human hand as the front.
Good ScreenWhile it clearly doesn't rival the PlayStation Vita's OLED screen, the Wii U GamePad's display nonetheless impressed us with its good viewing angles (it isn't TN), and a responsiveness and colour accuracy that we found entirely acceptable. But we'll still take a look with our sensor and magnifying glass in the coming weeks to give you a closer look. In the meantime, we can say that our subjective impression is entirely positive, even though the black depth could use some work.
854 x 480 resolution on a screen with a 6.2" (15.75 cm) diagonal gives a pixel density of 158 dpi, which is good for gaming, although once again the PS Vita beats it at 960 x 544 pixels for 221 dpi. The image isn't quite as detailed as when it's on a TV screen, but that's no surprise and it doesn't hinder the gameplay in any way. The resistive touchscreen recognises only one pressure point at a time (unlike the capacitive screens used in high-end smartphones, this is not a multi-touch screen). However, the sensitivity is excellent, similar to the DS and 3DS.
The Battery ProblemNintendo is advertising five hours of battery life. We found different. According to our measurements, the GamePad didn't last close to that long with ordinary playing. With the default settings (screen brightness at four out of five) and the volume up three-quarters of the way, the Wii U GamePad lasted just three hours and twenty minutes (3/5 ZombiU, 1/5 Nintendo Land and 1/5 navigating through the menus). If you turn on the energy saver and lower the brightness then you can get around four hours, but not much more.
It's really disappointing that Nintendo used a low capacity battery, but it's possible that at some point they'll offer a longer lasting one, because the battery compartment is only held closed with a two-screw mechanism. However, it's a shame it isn't a full-on removable battery system like you have on the Xbox 360, for example, which allows you to use a set of several batteries. To get around the issue there's an accessory brand that has already come up with a solution, as you can see below. Nintendo didn't authorise us to unscrew the cover, so here's a photo of iFixit doing it instead (image on left). What you see is a 1,500 mAh battery, which necessarily hardly cuts it for a device of this magnitude.
Sober, DiscreetNot only is the console small (268 x 172 x 46 mm and 1.6 kg), but it's quiet, too. We picked up 37.8 dB at one metre's distance and 36 dB at three metres' distance. You can hear the fan running, but it's much quieter than the PS3 and Xbox 360. When we put our sound level meter directly on the console the readings varied from 48 dB to 51 dB.
Even though it requires more ventilation than the Wii, the Wii U stays relatively cool and only consumes around 30 W while running. While playing ZombiU the console never even consumed 40 W, bringing the average to roughly 34 W. These are excellent readings, which are confirmed when you turn the console off, because it consumes nothing on standby (unlike other devices I can think of...).
A Menu Interface That Could Have Been FasterThe Wii U's interface looks a lot like the 3DS's. The menus and icons are displayed as boxes laid out on multiple pages. To start a game/app you just touch the icon like on a smartphone. The way the interface is set up would normally be perfect for providing speedy navigation through the menus, if only it didn't run so slowly. It takes twice as long to return to the main menu as on other HD consoles: 20 seconds. And it takes almost just as long to get to the settings menu. Let's hope Nintendo corrects this with an update. Startup is much more reasonable, however, with 23 seconds between the moment you press the button and the moment the home menu appears.
New Gaming PossibilitiesAs was the case with the Wii a few years ago, one of the Wii U's aspirations is to innovate and improve gameplay. And it's succeeding, at least based on the launch games we tried. ZombiU uses the GamePad controller to make the game more immersive, acting as a scanner and aiming device, thanks to the built-in gyroscope. You just point the GamePad to aim as you would on PS Vita or 3DS. The touchscreen can also become a secondary screen on which you manage your inventory, show maps, enter codes... it can even act as a sonar! Through the integrated speakers you can also listen to voice instructions straight from the controller. In short, there are tons of things that no longer need to take up space on your TV screen, even ones that you couldn't have at all without a second screen. We can't wait to see what ideas game developers come up with for the GamePad—especially since the games available now are only launch games that don't necessarily exploit the console's full potential.
The controller is also practical when playing local multiplayer because now you can play with five people in the same game—one person controls the GamePad while the others play on the TV.
Disappointing GraphicsNot only are the GamePad's functionalities only at the budding stage, but you could say the same about the graphics, which, truth be told, are a bit of a letdown. It isn't much of a step up from the Xbox 360 and PS3, which are already six years old. The Wii U is supposed to have similar architecture to the other current HD consoles, but it will be instantly outdated once Microsoft and Sony release their next consoles (in, erm, late 2013?). Of course, we don't doubt that publishers will find a way to make the most out of the system, and when all is said and done we do expect to see some beautiful games on the Wii U. But until then we'll have to make do with multi-platform games, which shouldn't particularly push developers to design gameplays specially for the Wii U.
Gamer Console or Noob Console?While Nintendo has been making concerted efforts to court the gaming community these past months and try and make them forget about the first Wii's focus on the general public, what's left to be seen is whether the console will indeed meet the demands of hardcore gamers. It's still too early to tell, but so far the Wii U looks as though it's off to a good start, considering the first batch of compatible multi-platform games, such as Assassin's Creed 3 and Darksiders 2, as well as the exclusive ZombiU. With its meagre graphics capabilities the Wii didn't see many games of this calibre, but the Wii U is an attempt to compete with the PS3 and Xbox 360, which still have quite a few games left in them. This should be incitation enough for developers to release Wii U-compatible games, although many of the planned 2013 releases haven't been announced for the new Nintendo yet. We'll have to wait and see if this holds true in the long run, when companies will be less inclined to develop games for the current HD consoles. At the end of the day, the Wii U has all the elements in place; now it's up to developers to learn how to put them to use.
By now Nintendo has realised that the family-oriented public is the Wii's real bread and butter. And they haven't forgotten the casual crowd this time, either, offering much more accessible group-fun games, such as Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U.
I Already Own an HD Console (Xbox 360, PS3). Should I Get the Wii U?To buy a Wii U today is to make a bet on the future. And who knows what that holds in store. On the one hand, the new touchscreen controller has fabulous potential that's just waiting to be exploited. On the other, the technical components appear to be similar to the current generation of competing HD consoles that launched six years ago.
As things stand, if you're a fan of Nintendo's homespun games (Mario, Zelda, etc.) then it isn't even a question—the Wii U is an excellent console, even if it has its flaws. Just know that it doesn't play Blu-rays or act as a jukebox. Nintendo apparently doesn't intend to follow Microsoft and Sony down that road. Considering the company's areas of focus, the Wii U should continue to shine at local multiplayer games, which will make it a good family console, like the first Wii.