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Hands on: Nintendo's Wii U impresses, but perhaps not enough

Nintendo's Wii initially took the lead during the last round of the console wars with a double-barreled blitzkrieg of innovation and accessibility, refusing to bow down to the gods of high-powered technology and even higher-powered price tags.

Now, six years and a lot of bored gamers later, the stage is set for the next round, a questionable half-step called Wii U. I recently was able to get some hands-on time with Nintendo's latest machine to put it through its paces ahead of the Nov. 18 North American release date, and found that while the Wii U is an improvement, it may not be enough to justify the gotta-have-it Christmas toy hype Kyoto is hoping for.

The most notable change, of course, is the switch from the ­Wiimote to Nintendo's new ­GamePad. This sizable improvement touts several features, chiefly its 6.2-inch touchscreen, which opens up a world of new ­gameplay options.

Not only can the GamePad serve as a menu or map screen, its gyroscope and touch capabilities allow players to control onscreen actions or ­augment two-player games.

The addictive NintendoLand, for example, contains minigames that each use the GamePad in different ways. Donkey Kong's Crash Course uses the GamePad's gyroscope to control a small cart through a platform obstacle course. Takamaru's Ninja Castle allows players to virtually flick throwing stars at the television screen. Luigi's Ghost Mansion lets one player use the GamePad screen to play while remaining hidden from up to four other players using backward-compatible Wiimotes.

This mechanism succeeds to varying degrees. A map and inventory screen on Ubisoft's ZombiU is a great help, providing a point of reference at a glance without taking the player out of the action. On the reconfigured Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, however, there's a steep learning curve to using the GamePad to control your scanners and weapons, the most salient of which is figuring out how to pilot the remote-controlled Batarang or pointing the GamePad's camera at the screen to scan for evidence. With a little more time to get the hang of it, this would only be a temporary issue.

It is nice to see Wii games in high definition for once. New Super Mario Bros. U looks great, and also offers a two-player experience magnified by the GamePad. Players can choose to assist their counterpart by placing platforms on screen, aiding jumps or tripping up enemies, or do the opposite and hinder them instead. It's a compelling option that has the potential to really keep both players involved.

The GamePad also allows players to switch off the TV entirely and play games on the touchscreen, which is more than sufficient, as I found myself looking at the controller instead of the television, anyway. Unfortunately, Arkham City demonstrates that many games won't be able to do this, because the second screen is an integral part of those titles' gameplay.

The big drawback of the ­hands-on, though, was the lack on online functionality. I couldn't test the GamePad's camera for video chat. I couldn't compare the system's ­Netflix interchangeability to Microsoft's SmartGlass. I couldn't try out any of the Miiverse features, like uploading a Mii or matchmaking, or the online store. That precludes me from ruling on the system in its entirety.

The Wii U feels like what I called it a couple of months back — an incomplete evolution. There are some great features already, but nothing that extends it past the current generation to the point of must-have status. Eventually two GamePads will be able to play future games at once, but so much of the functionality is nonexistent, it's difficult to evaluate the full potential.

What I can do is weigh the marked improvements over the Wii and decide if the console is worth $300 for 8 GB of memory and a GamePad (or $350 for an added 32 GB and a copy of NintendoLand). That verdict is pretty simple: If you can't find one this Christmas, don't go bidding on eBay. Wait a spell, and buy some games for your current gen console instead.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Hands on: Nintendo's Wii U impresses, but perhaps not enough 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 3:55pm]
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