The Wii U console and its distinctive GamePad control device have been floating around convention floors and meeting rooms since its unveiling at last year's E3. But, for one reason or five others, I hadn't gotten my hands on one myself. At least not until yesterday, when Stephen Totilo and I wandered around Nintendo's somewhat-recreated E3 booth in NY.
My sample platter of games included multiplayer games like Luigi's Ghost Mansion, Animal Crossing, and Rayman Legends, which puts one player's focus on the GamePad and others' on the TV screen. I also dabbled with single-player games such as ZombiU and Batman: Arkham City armoured Edition that let you do a few neat things with the GamePad but feel more like traditional TV-based video games with a few new controller tricks.
Hopping into Rayman Legends first, my immediate reaction was how comfortably my hands fell into a natural grip on the Wii U GamePad device. It felt like my iPad, but a bit thicker and adorned with physical control sticks and buttons. And somehow none the heavier.
Rayman Legends was the most ideal experience for showing off the Wii U. It was made with the device in mind, splitting a two-player game into separate experiences, played on separate devices. I played both sides, focusing first on the TV and another round dedicated to focusing on the GamePad. I never had my gaming experience disrupted by having to navigate two screens. I was either cartoonishly running through the level, watching Rayman wall-bounce and glide on the TV, or consumed by the GamePad's touch interface, swiping and tapping with Murfy as Rayman's guide.
Playing Rayman Legends on either the Pro controller or the GamePad felt easy and natural. I voiced some of my thoughts of the Pro controller with Stephen, but Rayman is a simple enough game to where getting the hang of remembering the button placement was just a matter of tripping over Rayman's feet a few times first.
Animal Crossing took an entirely different angle on the GamePad. I played on the guard side, swatting at candy collectors (who play with the standard Wiimotes) before they reached their winning number. But I controlled two guards, and each was mapped to their respective joysticks. Having a screen dedicated to my game while the others shared the TV, I wanted to get an extensive pan of the map to watch them all scurry. So I led my guards off in opposite directions to let the view zoom out. Occasionally, I'd trip up and let my natural inclination to have my thumbs move in the same direction override my gamer sensibilities. It's like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. Tricky, but you can get there.
Eventually I was directing the two guards as if they had minds of their own, sometimes even managing to attack the other players simultaneously. My eyes almost crossed in the process, but my mulitasking skills ended up coming out in full force. I can't remember the last time a game has asked me to micromanage that much all at once.
But what about the other games that use the Wii U GamePad more for novelty than functionality that's rooted in gameplay?
Let's consider ZombiU, the second game outside of Nintendo Land I played during my first Wii U experience. Though the Wii U exclusive was also made with the device's capabilities in mind, it felt less like a Wii U-specific game and more like a game with a few interesting Wii U mechanics. The concept, as Kirk explained for us already, is that the Wii U GamePad is essentially your survival gadget. You'll use it for various reasons, like searching your backpack or viewing the map. Though there are "hotkey" touch buttons made for easy swapping between whatever you choose to map them to, my head was constantly nodding up and down while making my way through the dark and smoky streets of London.
The ZombiU experience was two-fold. On the one hand, it's a first-person shooter game. Using the dual-joysticks with my hands so spread apart felt awkward compared to my typical console FPS experiences. But that's nothing a bit of practice and a few headshots couldn't cure. My bigger issue was how heavy movement felt. I like to be able to swing around to respond to threats behind me or even just within my peripheral view. I could practically feel the metaphorical gears grinding to turn my head and/or body in the direction of the next most threatening zombie. Aiming for the zombie's head was a drawn out ordeal. Zombies are fast, but my arm, apparently, was not. But this is more an issue of the game itself and not the GamePad's joystick responsiveness.
The second core ZombiU experience had me fiddling with the GamePad. This brought my attention down and away from the TV, to rifle through my backpack looking for a health pack, or to start a lock-picking sequence.
Constantly switching perspectives from the main screen to the screen in my hands was often disorienting. Sure, it had somewhat to do with the thrills of a survival horror game. Surprise attacks from ghastly-looking things that want to gnaw on my neck are sure to rattle me. But shifting my eyes between screens made me feel nauseated. I was navigating dark hallways, scanning each room for signs of a lively zombie. Then I'd be pulling up my GamePad as a physical scanner, trying to mouse over highlighted items as accurately as I could using the GamePad's gyroscope. I'd pick something up, probably need to transition back to looking at the TV to shoot off a zombie, and crouch back down into my bag to organise the items I just picked up. It had a dizzying effect on me.
Batman: Arkham City armoured Edition, the last game I tested out on the Wii U, was less stomach-lurching. Partially due to the game relying less frequently on the Wii U GamePad, and partially due to a brighter, less freaky atmosphere. Batman occasionally needs to access his tools to solve puzzles and crimes, but it feels less frequent and distracting than it does in ZombiU.
That's not to say that Batman: Arkham City on the Wii U felt free of faults. It was probably the most complex demo to wrap my newly Wii U-versed head around. Tap the left bumper to engage detective mode. Hold LZ...ZL?...RZ?...ZZRZLZLR? Anyway, hold the left trigger down to engage a gadget that you've selected on the GamePad's touch interface, and hit the right trigger to release it. No big deal, Nintendo has always used their own vernacular and setup with controls/controllers. But as a first timer, you might run into the same initial confusion I had. Even the PR representatives seemed confused, racking their memory for the correct button combo and orientation I was looking for.
My best experiences with the Wii U were with games that were built specifically to take advantage of the dual screen concept. A game like Luigi's Ghost Mansion makes sense, where fighting against players as an invisible ghost necessitates a private screen. Or a game like Rayman Legends, where players take on the assisting role of Murfy need catered visuals to play the tailored experience.
I love the interesting mechanics that the GamePad affords other games, including ZombiU, but I can't help but be reminded of the lofty, dreamy-eyed perspective taken up by Microsoft when they revealed Kinect. The Wii U does indeed provide certain titles with interesting and unique gameplay additions. But it feels like Nintendo is taking up a "Better With GamePad" tagline to sell these ideas. Microsoft's "Better With Kinect" has never really rung true. Most of the additions are gimmicky. Did Mass Effect 3 really need Kinect commands to make it a better game?
Nintendo has potential with the concept of multiple perspectives, but I wonder if that can be the case with all their titles, or only with titles specifically made to take advantage of the Wii U console + GamePad combo. Multiplayer games, so far, seem to work best.
I get this impression playing ZombiU or Batman: Arkham City. It's the difference between asking a developer to build a game specifically for the Wii U, and asking a developer to build a great game and then, oh hey, why don't you add a few features to incorporate the GamePad, too. Cause, you know, it's there anyway.
ZombiU, to take one relevant example, is great-looking so far. I'm just not sure how much value there is to having a second device that fractions your attention.
The Wii U has a lot of potential, so long as Nintendo and third party developers focus on using the GamePad as a fluid, parallel experience to what goes on on the TV screen rather than as a marketing gimmick.