Review: Nintendo Wii U

The follow-up to Nintendo's wildly successful Wii is now on shelves worldwide. How do we like it?

NameGame Console: Nintendo Wii-U
At a glance:Original gameplay mechanics,Good launch line-up,Long loading times,Console crashes
Summary:With a firmware update or two, the Wii U could be great.
RRP:$470 (8GB version); $570 (32GB version with bundled game)

A lot of people don't get the Wii U. I understand why - who is it actually meant for? It seems Nintendo is trying to appeal to both the core gamer and the casual gamer, but not really doing either particularly successfully.

But all it takes to understand the Wii U is to spend some time with it: that works especially well if you can get a friend or four to join you.

The Wii U has a tablet-like controller called the gamepad, which has a touchscreen in the middle and all the bits of a controller - the buttons, the thumbsticks, the triggers - on either side of the screen. The gamepad allows for all kind of extra gameplay elements, but my personal favourite is what Nintendo calls "asymmetric gameplay".

Picture this: four people are using the regular old Wiimotes, trying to work together to kill one big bad guy. That bad guy just happens to be you, the one wielding the gamepad. In other words, the person with the gamepad gets to play as the boss, and the people with Wiimotes are the adventurers out to beat them. The boss has their own screen on the gamepad, and can see different things to what the rest of the players are seeing on the TV or monitor. It really is a lot of fun, especially when you have a full team of five people playing at once.

But the gamepad can introduce interesting new features in single-player games, too. Survival/horror game ZombiU is the best example of this so far. Your gamepad functions as your inventory. If you want to open your backpack so you can reload your ammo, you're going to have to use the gamepad. But what's really cool about that is that the game doesn't get paused while you do. On your gamepad's screen, you're looking at your stuff. On your TV screen, your character is crouched on the floor sifting through a backpack, and wide open to attack at any moment. In order to make sure you don't get bitten, you have to be constantly looking up from your gamepad to check for zombies.

While the mechanic is cool and immersive in ZombiU, it's not so cool in some other games. In Scribblenauts Unlimited, which is a fantastic game, I found myself spending all of my time looking at the gamepad and none of the time looking at the TV, because it just wasn't necessary. On the plus side, that means if your partner or your kid wants to watch the TV or play a game on the Xbox, they can do that and you can keep playing your game on the gamepad's screen.

The gamepad isn't the console, though - the actual Wii U itself is a box that's probably about a quarter the size of an Xbox 360. Nintendo says the device is faster than either the 360 or the PS3, but having used it for a while, I find that very hard to believe. Some people are calling it "next-gen", but it doesn't feel that way to me at all. Of course, consoles typically shine in their later years, when developers have learned more about how to use them to best advantage, so it's not much of a negative.

The console has a triple-core IBM processor, and an AMD Radeon HD GPU. It also has 2GB RAM, although only 1GB is usable when in-game - the other gigabyte is dedicated to performing system functions. The basic version of the Wii U comes with 8GB storage, which is sufficient, but it's best to future-proof by paying the extra $100 for the premium version with 32GB storage and NintendoLand, as well. That said, storage is expandable via an external hard drive, or an SD memory card.

The Wii U is Nintendo's first real foray into online gaming, but the Miiverse shows the company considered all aspects. It's basically a message board that can be accessed from either inside or outside a game. If you're playing ZombiU, you can pause, take a screenshot, enter the Miiverse and ask for help on the message board for that particular game. Alternatively, you can just share your thoughts or draw a picture for everyone to see. What's more, the Miiverse is heavily moderated, so it's basically the friendliest place on the internet. If someone draws a picture of something distasteful or writes a racist slur, the post will be removed pretty darn quickly. As someone who gets tired of listening to people bully others on Xbox Live, it's a refreshing experience.

It's also great to see that the Wii U has an impressive launch line-up. There's New Super Mario Bros. U, of course, but you can have some fun with NintendoLand, and third-party titles from Ubisoft like the aforementioned ZombiU and Assassin's Creed III, too. Then there's Black Ops II from Activision, and Scribblenauts from Warner Bros. Hopefully third-party developers will continue to support Nintendo in a big way.

But the Wii U has some serious flaws at launch, and if those problems aren't fixed I can't recommend anyone but the most die-hard Nintendo fan buy it. First of all, it crashes frequently. At first I thought this was exclusive to the title that comes bundled with the premium version of the device, NintendoLand, but it's not. The crashes happened in two different games, and one time the console froze when all I was doing was booting it up. It's not just my device, either - there were many complaints on the Miiverse about this problem. The only workaround seemed to be to disconnect the device from the internet, which is far from ideal.

The loading times on the operating system are straight-up unacceptable. When you try to open any part of the main software - whether it's the Miiverse, your friends list, or just the system settings - you can expect to wait on the loading screen for 30 seconds or so. It gets painful. Fortunately, Nintendo has promised to fix this problem with a firmware update, but for now it's not a good look.

The Wii U has a lot of potential. The freezing and long loading times are extremely unfortunate, though. Granted, new consoles always have issues, but there are some problems that the device just should not have shipped with. Is the Wii U good? Yes. Is it great? Nah, not yet. But with some work it could be.

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Tags NintendogaminggameswiiWii U

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Siobhan Keogh

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