Hands on with the Wii U: Nintendo goes hardcore

Special to The Globe and Mail

Nintendo's next video game console, the Wii U, is demostrated with the Measure Up game at the Nintendo booth at the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 8, 2011. The console will be put on sale in 2012. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

I spent less than an hour with Wii U on Wednesday, but that was more than enough time to know that I like it more than Wii. A lot more.

If you've read much of my Wii coverage over the last five or six years, you'll know that I'm not the biggest fan of the system. I've never fully warmed to its motion controls, and I've criticized the device's dated graphics and lack of adult-oriented content on more than one occasion.

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However, my first impressions of Nintendo's upcoming console -- the highlight of which is a tablet-sized controller with a full complement of standard gamepad controls plus a built-in six-inch touch screen, gyroscope, accelerometer, and microphone -- suggest that it will address all of the issues I've had with its predecessor.

To be sure, it will still appeal to the casual gamer base that Nintendo has carefully cultivated over the last half decade. Several of the eight technical demonstrations on display at E3 prove that Nintendo is still thinking about creating easily digestible gaming experiences. One is a rhythm action game that sees players using the controller as a shield to block incoming arrows, while another has one player looking at the controller's screen to see a bird's eye view of a maze filled with four other players trying to catch his avatar. These are the sort of accessible activities you'd expect to see on Wii.

However, the potential for deeper, richer experiences is clear in another demo that shows a scene from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess remastered to take advantage of the system's improved processing power. It looks gorgeous -- easily on par with what we're used to seeing in games available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. More importantly, it demonstrates some of the advantages conferred by Wii U's innovative controller, which can be used to display a full map of the area and switch between cinematic camera angles.

I was further impressed at a Nintendo developer roundtable I attended Wednesday evening, at which Ubisoft -- seemingly Nintendo's primary third-party partner for Wii U -- showed off a trio of very adult-focused games currently in development.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Online, a third-person military shooter, uses the controller's screen as a map, with targets popping up as allies identify them. Players can tap a specific area of the map to create an icon that will appear in the game world showing a rallying point. The screen can also be used to show images captured by a drone that hovers over the battlefield. Plus, players can scroll through weapons and upgrades by swiping and tapping the controller's screen, never needing to pause and enter a menu.

Another Ubisoft game called Killer Freaks from Outer Space, which is filled with dirty humour and visceral violence, uses the controller's gyroscope and accelerometer to augment navigation, speeding up turns and enabling more precise targeting. It also has a multiplayer mode with a feature called "real-time enemy director" that allows a player wielding the tablet controller to look down on the map and choose where and how to send in wave after wave of enemies to attack another player viewing the action on the television.

The Wii U version of Assassin's Creed, meanwhile, will use the controller's screen to provide players with a large, persistent map, offer an "eagle eye" view of current locations, find and switch weapons, and act as an alternative way to interact with certain puzzles.

And keep in mind that in all of these games standard, traditional controls still apply. The Wii U controller has a pair of thumbsticks, two shoulder buttons, a directional pad, and a typical set of four action buttons. It's basically a gamepad with a big screen where the start and select buttons would normally be.

When I first saw it at Nintendo's E3 media briefing on Tuesday I was concerned that it would be heavy and not particularly ergonomic. But once I held the thing in my hands I was pleasantly surprised by its lightness.

What's more, the contours around the edges and underside felt good in my hands. My only real concern are the shoulder buttons, which seem a little too far from the triggers to make switching between the two with an index finger completely comfortable. Other than that, it seems nicely suited to be used just like a standard controller.

Issuing a final verdict on the Wii U at this point would be foolish and premature. Nintendo and its partners are shying away from answering some pretty basic questions, such as console specifications, ballpark price, and whether or not two tablet controllers can be connected to one console (Ubisoft's developers simply refused to answer this question at the roundtable discussion, leaving one to assume the likely answer to be "no").

However, there's no question that Nintendo is trying hard to draw core gamers back into its fold -- and it's doing so without risking its new casual gamer base (assuming the system's price isn't too high). I'm on board with the plan... so far.

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