Since Nintendo’s announcement of their latest venture at E3 2011, the internet has been abound with rumours about the WiiU. I’ve ended up reading most of them, from the plausible to the downright ridiculous, so when I finally got to pick up the fabled controller whilst sitting in the comfortable sofas of Premier’s Berwick Street offices, I was rather underwhelmed with what lay in my hands. And that, to my mind, is a good thing.
I came expecting a big, flashy beast of a controller that jumped up and down screaming ‘look at me, look at me!’, but what I got was something a little more subtle and understated. Okay, perhaps those are the wrong words to describe a large, glossy, white rectangle with a thwunking great screen in the middle, so let me elaborate.
The WiiU controller manages to be big without feeling too cumbersome; to be sturdy without feeling heavy. It’s very comfortable to hold, and the contours on the rear make it feel like any other controller, despite the fact that your hands are quite a distance apart. There are, as is the norm nowadays, two control sticks, 4 face buttons, two bumper buttons and two triggers: it’ll feel like an old friend to anyone well versed in console gaming, and nothing too complicated to those who aren’t.
Of course, the pièce de résistance is that 6.2 inch display that Nintendo have managed to shoehorn in. Don’t think that it’s just for show: every WiiU game will be fully playable on the screen itself, meaning no more petty fights over who got to the TV first and, if you’re feeling really private, you can even plug your headphones in so that you don’t disturb the outside world at all. The screen does its job well: colours pop satisfyingly, the picture is very clear, and touch functionality works well.
The WiiU GamePad, as it’s officially known, comes with a whole host of fancy bells and whistles. Motion sensing, accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope come equipped as standard, meaning the only limit as to how useful the controller is will be the imagination of developers. How games implement all this fancy hardware will make or break the WiiU, and I got a chance to see exactly how this will work by playing Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, the sequel to the 2010 game by near enough the same name.
It’s a stylish kart racer that will be ready for the WiiU’s release later this month. It takes the traditional frantic, action packed affair that is kart racing and gives it an interesting makeover: the tracks you’ll be zooming across consist of a number of distinct sections that can each only be traversed in a set type of vehicle.
You’ll spend a lot of time behind the wheel, but you’ll also be riding waves in the aquatic areas and practising your barrel rolls in the numerous plane segments. By you, of course, I mean the game’s long list of SEGA characters. You’re bound to find your favourite very quickly with the usual suspects such as Sonic, Tails and AiAi flanked by some newcomers, such as Ralph from the new Disney movie ‘Wreck it Ralph’.
The transitions between car, boat and plane happen automatically numerous times in any given race, and feel very natural. Each vehicle type poses its own unique challenges and they all feel nothing alike in their handling: karts will nip around corners and drift (with the push of a button) around sweeping turns, boats only turn in appropriately wide arcs and can be thrown into the air by particularly violent waves, and planes react nicely to gravity, gaining speed as they descend and losing it as you point the nose towards the sky.
Meanwhile, you’ll be dodging the traditional array of karting power-ups, most of which can be traced all the way back to the days of Mario Kart although, thankfully, there’s no sign of those bloody blue shells. There are homing devices, straight line attacks and boosts, but you’ll also get some more unique weapons, such as a semi-homing tornado that will invert the controls of anything that gets in its way, and a ‘Super Pick Up’ that is specific to each character.
The tracks are the stars of the show. You’ll visit venues from many SEGA classics such as Panzer Dragoon, Super Monkey Ball and Jet Set Radio, and each race is ‘dynamic’, meaning the track will change between laps, which is a great feature. All the tracks are visually striking: there’s always a lot going on both in the foreground and the background, which, when combined with the malleable nature of the environments, means you’ll never be short of distracting eye candy.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the WiiU version of the game (PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are also available), it’s clear that the devs haven’t pushed the technology very far at all. In fact, the only thing the controller does other than, well, control is act as a rear view mirror, but even this requires you to hold it up at an uncomfortable angle. I didn’t use it once in an hour of racing.
In multiplayer, the standard modes are all present: you can embark on online races and enter the Battle Arena to destroy your friends with items, but there’s also some WiiU specific modes here too. The one I played was Monkey Ball Mode, which allows the one person with the GamePad to roam around the level trying to turn everyone else (using the old Wii Remotes or the new Wii U Pro Controller) into virtual road kill, while they collect as many coins as possible.
I can see it being fun when you arrive back home late after a Friday night bender but, to me, it felt a bit stale. It’s as if the developers realised at the last minute that they had to make the WiiU version different, and this is the best they could come up with during a hasty Monday morning coffee break. Admittedly, there are a number of other multiplayer modes that I didn’t have the chance to try out, so there might be some improvement on release day.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Tranformed is clearly a very competent racer. Tight controls and interesting tracks mean that, if you’re planning on buying a WiiU, this should probably end up in your game library. However, the WiiU specific functions were very uninspiring. As a kart racer with a cartoony art style it was never going to test the system graphically, but it would’ve been nice to see the GamePad being used in more imaginative ways.
Let’s hope that this failure to utilise everything the WiiU has to offer is not going to be a common theme throughout the consoles life span. Sure, Nintendo’s own creations, the likes of WiiU Sports, will use the system in inventive ways, but the hope is that 3rd party games can also push the envelope. Otherwise, what’s the point? The WiiU is going to cost a lot of money, and, in order to rip gamers away from their favourite Sony or Microsoft product, it’s going to have to do something very unique and with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Tranformed, while a very good kart racer, it simply hasn’t done enough.