Review: Wii U Saves Christmas? - 1

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Review: Wii U Saves Christmas? - 1
Let's face it. With no XBox 720 or PS4 until Christmas 2013 and no flagship title waiting under the tree, gamers could be forgiven for putting a tablet or a phone at the top of their wishlists this year.

But the Wii U is no joke, so don't sleep on it. There's a $299 Basic Set, but you'll want to spring for the $349 Deluxe Set, which upgrades your internal memory from 8GB to 32GB, comes with a game (Nintendo Land), and includes a charging cradle for the GamePad. This is the one I tested.

I don't own a Wii, although I've had plenty of opportunity to play and enjoy it over the years. The concept of the Wii Remote and Motion Plus controllers was unique and fresh. But the novelty factor was overshadowed by the lack of power and high-definition graphics that were already available in the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Next to those, the Wii felt like a kids' console, and it found a suitable niche right there, from which it expanded out culturally.

So there's two ways to look at the Wii U. If you're a a Nintendo fanboy, you should probably stop reading this review and just purchase the Deluxe Set right now. It's that good, and I'm just going to tell you to do that later on anyway. If you aren't, the Wii U isn't specifically designed to push you over the edge. It's the first next-generation console out of the gate and, like the Wii before it, it ups the ante, but shatters no earth. Yet.

The Wii U steps to the high-definition gaming available on the Xbox 360 and PS3 today, and introduces second-screen/unique-role gaming with its GamePad, which is basically a controller with a 6.2-inch, 16:9 touchscreen in the center. It's like a pimped-out tablet for gamers, with wireless built in, accelerometer, gyroscope, a front facing cam (Hello Skype), NFC, and so on.

But this is not a DS, a tablet, or a Vita. The GamePad works with the console. And while you can take it around the house and play where you wish (well, within 25 feet or so), you're not taking it on the road and playing it standalone. Furthermore, you only get about three hours of battery life, and you can't charge and play like you can with the XBox. So even within the confines of your house, you're still somewhat tethered to the console.

Now, enough on the limits of the controller, let's talk about the fact that this is a controller, and serves not only as an enhanced controller in many games, but also adds functionality to games. This is true for games designed specifically for the Wii U and for games that weren't, like Madden, where you can call plays on the small screen and play them out on the big screen.

Review: Wii U Saves Christmas? - 2
In other instances, the controller allows one person to take on an entirely different role within the game. In Mario Chase, a hide-and-seek mini-game within Nintendo Land, the player with the GamePad is hiding, using the controller to see the maze and everyone's location. The remaining players are seeking, and can only see a first persion view on the big screen.

The GamePad also introduces touch screen gaming, and while the traditional stick-and-button controller is not going away any time soon, it's a great idea to incorporate the primary interface of phone and tablet gaming, which has grown exponentially since the last generation of consoles.

So, much like the Wii's motion controllers brought your entire body into the gameplay and ushered in a new genre of games, the GamePad is introducing additional interfaces and capabilities to the player, and yet another new genre of games.

This type of gameplay is definitely different and new, and the Wii U does a good job of defining each role and giving instructions without overwhelming either player. The concept felt kind of repetitious after a dozen or so games of Mario Chase and the other mini-games on Nintendo Land, but the kids loved it. They could have played all day.

Which again, is Nintendo's sweet spot.

But it's not their only spot. Games finally look amazing on the Wii U, which is reason enough for dedicated Wii owners to upgrade (See? I told you). You've got a nice slate of top titles at launch, including Black Ops II, Assassin's Creed 3, Batman Arkham City, and Madden and NBA 2K13. And I've heard raves about the Wii U Super Mario Brothers.

Although the process is rigorous, you can port everything over from your Wii, including your profiles, Miis, points, game saves, and downloaded games. The ported games present you with the exact Wii experience you're used to. It's ugly, compared to the new beauty of the Wii U games, but it's HDMI, at the least.

Outside of gaming, MiiVerse has graduated to a more decent social and online experience, which had been lacking. You've got a gamertag now, and the online and social interaction can be done from the GamePad. This includes messages, notes, and video calls with friends from the GamePad.

Just as the XBox 360 attempted to take over your living room with Live and its various music, video, and web capabilities, Nintendo is banking on the fact that the second-screen phenomenon is the next logical step in that progression.

The GamePad, for example, can control the TV and cable/satellite, bringing gaming, streaming, and traditional programming together in one device. As Nintendo's TVii, which debuted yesterday, evolves over the coming months, this will allow you to choose your programming by searching for content across all services.

You can also browse the web with the TV or just on the GamePad, but again, this isn't anything you couldn't or wouldn't do on a tablet or a phone.

Overall, Nintendo is facing the same issue it faced last time being the leapfrog innovator in the console wars, although this time they're out of the box way before Microsoft and Sony. The good news is they caught up to the XBox and the PS3 in terms of power, graphics, and the online and social playground. The bad news is they really didn't do anything to pass the competition, and certainly not dramatically so.

They've entered new territory, namely, the additions of a dedicated second screen, a unique player role, and the touchscreen to the console gaming experience. But last time they innovated, they gave Microsoft enough lead time to run with the motion controllers and realize the Kinect.

Review: Wii U Saves Christmas? - 3
As I said, if you've been waiting for a new Wii, the Wii U will certainly make you happy. If not, then as of right now, this is a definite leader, with initial sales eclipsing both the initial runs of the Xbox 360 and the PS3. However, you have to consider, with new entries from Microsoft and Sony on the way within a year (reportedly), the risk of obsolescence is pretty high unless the GamePad innovations really take off.

But even if they don't, worst case, you get a very new and different experience in gaming.

Plus the kids will love it.