E3 2012: hands-on with Wii U’s games

E3 2012: hands-on with Wii U's games

In yesterday’s Wii U hands-on session we looked at some of the asymmetrical gameplay being explored on Nintendo’s new console. Today we’ll talk about two further examples, but first we’ll look at another part of the Wii U picture that hasn’t yet received as much attention: its graphical capabilities. This aspect hasn’t received equal notice because, while Wii U is considerably more powerful than its predecessor, its games don't look much better than those currently available on 360 or PS3.

Ubisoft’s ZombiU, for example, has the appearance of a proficient 360 title, and no more than that (rather than something sitting among the higher visual order on Microsoft’s console, such as Gears Of War 3). While its lighting, water and smoke effects are atmospheric, all of its tricks will be familiar to those who’ve been playing with HD consoles for six years now.

More immediately appealing in visual terms is Pikmin 3, whose environments, characters and objects have a feeling of crispness, solidity and luminescence that sucks you into its charming world. It’s a matter of visual design rather than technical dazzle, and entirely in keeping with the previous Pikmins’ approach but still, you’ve never seen a videogame strawberry this juicy, a videogame tangerine so seemingly peelable.

Wii U’s HD output brings a subtle but significant edge to New Super Mario Bros U, too. We’ve never seen Mario at this resolution before – not outside of Dolphin or DeviantArt, anyway – and the additional detail gives his smoothly animated form an appearance more akin to something plucked from a CG cartoon. And obviously it’s applied across the entire game, from inflatable Yoshis to gnashing piranha plants, resulting in something that feels entirely familiar and yet more vibrant than any other 2D Mario game. And yet it’s still not as vibrant as Ubisoft’s Rayman Legends, whose graphical approach follows that of 2011’s Rayman Origins, meaning that it outshines NSMBU in terms of variety, use of colour and all-round outlandishness.

Such qualities don’t translate with quite so much impact on the Wii U GamePad’s screen, which serves an interesting role in multiplayer, as shown during Ubisoft's press conference. With up to four companions using Wii Remotes, the GamePad player can manipulate the environment in realtime, dragging their finger across the level, a perfect replica of which appears on the smaller screen. Enemies can be slapped, ropes cut, platforms rotated, catapults twanged and bridges lifted – and that’s just on one level, as progress for the group (or simply one other player) is eased via swipes and pokes. One section during our demo even riffs on rhythm action, to convincing effect. How all this will stand up across an entire game will be an interesting test: Origins played the entirety of its creative hand in its first few hours, with Michel Ancel's team ramping up the difficulty in the second half of the game. Wii U is more overtly targeted to the casual player, so repeating Origins' exacting difficulty curve might not be the best of ideas.

Such GamePad-driven assistance to other players is also in evidence within NSMBU’s ‘boost’ mode, which allows the ‘helping’ player to dot the environment with additional platforms by simply poking the touchscreen. It’s easy to get it wrong and hinder rather than assist, but that in itself can bring its own kind of entertainment, especially with several Remote-wielding players cluttering the screen. At heart, it’s likely an option Nintendo has introduced in order to make Wii U as family-friendly as possible, and it’s easy to envision parents or siblings working alongside younger players – or for the kids to help the aged – to grease the wheels of their experience with the game.

In the absence of any similar multiplayer stylings, ZombiU explores more predictable avenues for the GamePad peripheral. As in Batman Arkham Asylum: Armored Edition, the controller can be used to scan environments for special items by physically moving it around you through up to 360 degrees –not especially tricky when you’re playing standing up in front of a Wii U demo station but one that presents a few issues when you’re reclining in a comfortable chair. More often, however, you’ll be using the GamePad screen to manage your inventory, moving items and weapons from looted zombie corpses into your backpack in realtime by simply sliding them between groups of boxes. Then there are minigames, such as a simplistic-to-the-point-of-not-really-needing-to-even-exist lockpicking challenge. Whether or not this touchscreen interaction builds out to become something more involving remains to be seen, but since this is a launch title we expect Ubisoft has been encouraged to keep the experience as easily digestible as possible. There's definite tension in switching weapons or hacking doors in realtime with the zombie hordes shuffling ever closer, though, and the straight-up zombie-slaughtering action at the game’s core will no doubt appeal to those who made Dead Island a hit.

Pikmin 3, meanwhile, will be instantly familiar to those with experience of Wii's New Play Control Pikmin games, the four protagonists' progress guided here, too, by Nunchuk and Remote. The E3 demo doesn’t provide too many surprises: the new rock Pikmin prove as hardy as you’d expect against both environmental barriers and enemies, while the GamePad screen displays a map of the level which can be scrolled around at any point via touch. It’s also possible to play the game using just the GamePad itself, but pointing around the gameworld via a Remote proves significantly easier, and as such it's little surprise Miyamoto admitted it was the primary method of control during Nintendo's conference, and one the company has been encouraging in show-floor demonstrations.

The GamePad is central, however, to Platinum Games’ Project P-100 (working title, apparently), which allows you to summon up special attack modes by drawing simple shapes on the touchscreen to arrange your group of squat superheroes into formations (sword, gun, etc). A vividly coloured game, with clean lines and an irresistible sense of fun, it ultimately amounts to smashing the living daylights out of otherworldly foes, in the best Platinum tradition. It doesn’t have an enormous amount of depth, and the GamePad-driven elements in the E3 demo hardly push the format, but it’s impossible to deny the game’s verve – and it's a relief to see that Nintendo has secured an exclusive game from at least one highly respected developer.

The appeal of Lego City: Undercover, our final Wii U demo of the day, is similarly difficult to ignore. Simply put, it's Grand Theft Auto from a law-enforcement perspective and rendered in Lego which, when you think about it, makes it a perfect fit for Nintendo, which has always regarded the criminality and violence of Rockstar's series with barely concealed disdain. All of Traveller’s Tales’ trademarks are in place, albeit in the context of an open world, and although the E3 demo is a little rough around the edges this is the sort of game that could prove a system seller to the many millions who’ve been on board since the arrival of Lego Star Wars in 2005. Signing the game as a Wii U exclusive – it's also headed to 3DS – is a smart move on Nintendo’s part, one that further emphasises how family-friendly its new console is intended to be, despite the zombies and ninjas stalking around elsewhere on the platform, and the E3 show floor. 

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