We talked about (and argued, but it’s been lost to the archives) Halo 4 on the podcast but have yet to commit anything to digital ink, as it were. This is because Halo 4 felt like it deserved a bit more than a gut reaction to gameplay and graphics. This deserved some inspection into story and polish. 343 did not have it easy here, they were following in the footsteps of a highly vaunted developer in Bungie. This is the company that along with Epic lifted the XBox up into new heights. 343 had to come in and not just keep a series fresh, but make make it their own without pissing off legions of fans. Did they accomplish this task? You’ll have to read on.
Nintendo had quite a showing at PAX Prime 2012 this year. The main Expo floor was home to the Wii U as well as some of the larger 3DS titles, like New Super Mario Bros 2. In the halls of the convention center, we also saw some unreleased 3DS games such as Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle, Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star.
The real draw for me here (aside from collecting 200+ street pass tags in one weekend) was an opportunity to actually play and experience the Wii U. Since Nintendo is just about as polarizing as anything in gaming right now, it was good to do less talking and more playing. This weekend, I checked out ZombiU, New Super Mario Bros U, and a couple of the Nintendo Land attractions.
ZombiU is the upcoming Ubisoft title that puts players in survival horror action. My first impression: this game is actually quite difficult. My first task was to navigate through an abandoned urban camp, to reach a children’s nursery in order to gather medical supplies. I was armed with a sidearm with a few bullets and a cricket bat. The Wii U GamePad is used to scan the environment for supplies and manage inventory — so, open a supply box, and the contents appear on the lower screen. I actually don’t remember seeing a HUD on the main game screen.
A cool twist on this game is that when your character dies, you respawn as another survivor, leaving your previous character in play as a zombie. Naturally, I crushed my previous-self with a cricket bat before moving onto the nursery. The environments are dark and gritty, obscured by smoke and darkness. The path from one place to another is never as clear as you’d like it to be, which creates constant tension in the game. I finally collected the medical supplies from the nursery, got lost trying to escape, and died again. That was good enough for me, ZombiU is fun and challenging and should make a great early title on the system.
New Super Mario Bros.™ U
On the expo floor, New SMBU was set up for 5 player sessions. Four players used traditional controls on the Wii Remote, while a fifth player used the Wii U GamePad. There is sort of a cooperative-competitive-ness to having four players on screen at once. You can work together, and just as easily get in each other’s way. It’s pure mayhem, and still fun.
The role of the GamePad player is a bit different. They can create blocks on screen using the touch interface to keep players from falling, or to reach inaccessible areas. Enemies can also be stunned on the GamePad. Again, I’d bet that players will use this power for both good and evil purposes.
Overall the graphics are sharp and gameplay is smooth. I also overheard that it was possible to take your single player game off the TV and play directly on the Wii U GamePad, which is a testament to the quality of the GamePad itself. SMB always has a few surprises in store, but what I did see was all solid and positive. You see, Mario Bros gets a lot of crap from seemingly presenting the same game over and over since 1985. To that I say, get back to me when Gears of War 10 and Halo 15 come out a few years from now (Personally, I also think CoD should be dated, like Madden Football). The point is, to each their own — they keep making it as long as people keeping buying it, which is true on both sides.
The Legend of Zelda™: Battle Quest & Luigi’s Ghost Mansion
Finally, I played a couple of experiences in the Nintendo Land game. This is shaping up to be the Wii Sports of the Wii U system, where gameplay ideas are expressed through a series of shorter, group-focused games.
The Zelda attraction appears to be an on-rails adventure with multiple links (a-la four swords) stomping through various Zelda environments. The Wii Remote players have swords to swing and can use shields to defend themselves. Coordination is also required between players to activate switches, etc. The GamePad player takes on the role of an archer, who targets distant enemies and switches. Controls are spot on, using the motion plus control of skyward sword for the sword-play. Teamwork is the name of the game, as it also appears as if the group shares the same heart pool. Not too shabby.
Ghost Mansion is sort of a hide-and-seek / playground tag mash-up. Up to four players arm themselves with flashlights, as they explore a Clue-like game board for a ghost. The ghost is controlled by the GamePad player, whose avatar is only visible to them on the GamePad screen. The ghost’s goal is to down the other players, while the players attempt to use their flashlights to drain the health from the ghost. Flashlights have limited juice, but players can revive one another. The ghost is invisible, but will appears when sprinting, or when lighting illuminates parts of the game board. A highly satisfying game of cat and mouse.
The truth is that I really like the Wii U and eventually I’ll acquire one. Simultaneously, I’m still feeling totally burned as an early 3DS adopter. I don’t want an ambassador program from the Wii U, I just want it to work and have great games to play. I’m also conflicted by the experience I had on the show floor. Many of the experiences emphasized local-multiplayer gaming, something I don’t really do. So it will be interesting to see how games like Nintendo Land and N-SMBU shape up when it’s just me in my living room. ZombiU will hopefully open the door for other exclusive titles that take full advantage of the hardware.
On the flipside, the hardware is great. HD resolutions, sharp graphics, etc. all that stuff is there. The Wii U GamePad sits comfortably in my hand and is lighter to hold than you might think just by looking at it. So yeah, I’m conflicted, and while I don’t think it’s fair to compare this launch to the 3DS, it’s hard to ignore as a consumer. Wii Remotes, for example, were redesigned with Motion Plus, and new colors were released for the system. The classic controller was also redesigned, and there’s even a newer Wii U Controller approaching the Xbox 360 form factor.
Maybe I’m being unfair, as both the Xbox 360 and PS3 were redesigned in their life-cycles too. Nintendo puts more emphasis on peripherals, however, so it stings a bit more. Remember, that this type of competition between the current big 3 will continue to be a huge win for the consumer (see also PS Vita and Smart Glass). In the end, at least on this weekend, Nintendo has won back some of my love with the Wii U.