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October 16, 2012

Wii U: Will Nintendo’s new GamePad reinvent the playing field?

Posted in: Games

A look at “Mario Chase” from “Nintendo Land.” (Nintendo).

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK

The launch of Nintendo’s newest console — the Wii U — is just about one month away. There is no questioning the system’s ambitions. By replacing one of the main controllers with what is essentially a tablet, the Wii U brings another monitor into the living room — it holds the promise of dual-screen gameplay and aims to transform the TV viewing experience.

Nintendo this week is showing off aspects of the system and its games at a two-day press event at the W Hotel in Hollywood. The last time I was able to get some hands-on time with the Wii U was at E3, and while I left curious to try more, I went home with one nagging question: Would the system’s tablet-like controller — a GamePad that gifts its holder with an alternate view of the action — essentially mean I would forever need two or three people in my living room to fully enjoy the Wii U?

Probably not, but $299.99 or $349.99, depending on the configuration, is a lot of cash to part with and the Wii U has to impress when friends aren’t vying for the GamePad. As more information on the system became available, my fears were gradually calmed. Oddly, not by its games, of which 23 will be available on the system’s Nov. 18 launch (that number includes download-only titles).

Instead, it was the system’s TVii feature that looked to be one of its more promising aspects. If done right, the TVii  can become a one-stop shop for all  TV viewing needs. On-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are placed side-by-side with network schedules, allowing users at once to see all that is available for viewing or purchase.

Alas, there was no hands-on time with the TVii this morning, so whether it works as seamlessly as Nintendo’s demos remains to be seen. For sports fans, the TVii looks to be rather addictive, with previews showing the GamePad as being able to provide in-game statistics, digitally simulcast games and host all sorts of other goodies for those with short-attention spans. Yet questions as to what augmented features are or aren’t available sans an additional subscription weren’t answered.

Instead, attention at the Nintendo presentation at the W Hotel was turned toward launch game “Sing Party.” What followed was an awkward few minutes when Nintendo staffers sang along to the Wanted’s “Glad You Came” and media representatives fidgeted around looking for TVii spec sheets.  Admittedly, Wii U does karaoke well, utilizing the GamePad and the TV to offer different instructions to singers and dancers.

More exciting was the chance to score some time with third-party Wii U games such as Activision’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” and Ubisoft’s “ZombiU.” I desperately want the “U” in “ZombiU” to stand for university, but this is a first-person survival horror game rather than the lighthearted point-and-click zombies-in-college game I’ll continue to dream about.

At E3 “ZombiU” looked to be one of the Wii U’s more impressive titles and in limited sample time it was able to make use of numerous aspects of the Wii U’s technology. The GamePad can become an inventory screen, a flashlight or a rifle scope with just the press of a button and a few movements. The GamePad made it incredibly easy to switch weapons inside the darkened, apocalyptic Tower of London (just drag and drop on the GamePad) and then take aim at fiery oil barrels.

A look at “ZombiU.” (Ubisoft).

The GamePad goes a long way toward providing a so-called immersive experience. Flip on its flashlight and do a 360 on your couch and the GamePad screen allows you to see more of the environment than what’s on the TV screen. Intriguing also is the social aspect — friends who are completing their own missions on their own consoles can leave in-game messages for you to find, a la “Dark Souls.” The more competitive aspect of the game, which sees one person acting as a sort of zombie dungeon master versus a protector of humans, was not previewed today.

First-person war games such as “Call of Duty” are not my personal favorites, but the simplified inventory visualization of the GamePad, allowing a user to quickly navigate and organize an overwhelming amount of weapons, immediately does away with some of the more daunting aspects of the first-person shooter, at least for those of us who prefer our heroes named Mario.

When playing with a friend locally, the GamePad is a vital tool –  clunky split-screens become a thing of the past; I found I’d much rather view the action on the GamePad than the large flat-screen TV in front of me. Maybe that says a lot about the strength of the GamePad’s slick 6.2″ LCD touch screen, or perhaps it’s a simple acknowledgement that smart phones and tablets are transitioning the living room of the future into a place populated with multiple, more intimate screens.

Ultimately, though, for the Wii U to work, the system will have to excite the players who aren’t using the GamePad and are instead forced to use the old Wii controller (additional GamePad will be available for purchase at a later date and are expected to top $100). There are some optimistic signs. Namely “Nintendo Land,” which comes bundled in the $349.99 system.

A collection of 12 mini-games, “Nintendo Land” aims to do for the Wii U what “Wii Sports” did for the Wii — it is out to clearly illustrate why consumers will spark to this system and its non-traditional controls. One of the offerings on display was “Mario Chase,” a winning diversion with a simple premise. The user with the GamePad sees an alternate view of the field of play, and the players with Wii controllers have to hunt down the one behind the GamePad.

“Mario Chase” accomplishes a number of the Wii U’s goals. It allows players and technology to work together, and illustrates the joy of not just a connected home but a home in which devices actually connect. Not bad for a game of hide-and-seek.

– Todd Martens

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