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E3 2011: Wii U hands-on

E3 2011

For many, Nintendo’s new console has been the obvious highlight of the show, the one standout announcement that has dominated E3 this year. The queues to get hands on with it have been the longest at the show, with people standing in line for up to three hours. On the final day of the show, we were lucky enough to get private VIP access and get hands-on with the Wii U.

I tried out three of the demo units available, the first of which was the Japanese garden. In the Nintendo press conference, this was used to showcase the graphical power of the new hardware unit. Here, it was used to illustrate how the main TV screen and the Wii U controller could show different viewpoints of the same scene.

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On the main TV, the camera followed a bird as it flew up into a tree, then down across a pond. The screen on the controller showed a viewpoint from further behind, giving you an overview of the entire environment. While there was almost no interaction present, there’s certainly potential for this kind of thing to be used in more complex games.

The next demo I looked at was Shield Pose, a mini-game that used the Wii U’s controller in a more direct way. On the main TV screen, a pirate captain and his crew were firing arrows at you. Raising the Wii U controller in front of you would then block these arrows and they would become stuck to the virtual shield that it represented. You could then shake off the arrows that you had caught onto the ground below.

The interesting aspect of this was that you could use the Wii U controller to look around you in 360 degrees by turning the device. Two other ships out of the main TV view were also firing at you, so you had to turn and examine the whole environment with the controller to succeed. While this got a little repetitive, it was a great demonstration of more than one of the controller’s functions.

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The last and most interesting demo was a third-person shooter which pitted me against two Nintendo representatives. The main TV screen was split in two, and the reps use standard Wii controls and nunchucks to play. I, on the other hand, saw my viewpoint on the Wii U’s controller and used it to move my character.

In a sci-fi environment, their characters ran around on foot, while I flew around in a spaceship above them. It was essentially a team deathmatch, except with me against both of them. I won comprehensively without being killed, in part because aiming accurately with the Wii U’s controller was very easy due to the size of the device. Subtle movements and adjustments were straightforward to make, allowing me to pick the Nintendo reps off from a distance. This demo was an interesting demonstration of how traditional shooter controls can be combined with gyroscope led ones.

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While the demos were fun to play and showed the promise of the system, they were all very much casual affairs that would appeal to the Wii heartland. Perhaps there wasn’t time to build something that would appeal to core gamers, but it was still a little worrying. The demos shown simply didn’t match up to what was said in the press conference, that the new hardware would appeal to everyone.

These are early days though, so perhaps it’s harsh to judge it just yet. One thing that can be is the feel of the new controller. It’s a comfortable size and feels good in your hands, but the two thumb sticks are likely to be controversial. Rather than tilting like the PS3 or Xbox 360’s analogue sticks, they slide horizontally like the 3DS’s. I imagine that this will be a major barrier to convincing core gamers to engage with the Wii U and play games like FPS on it, rather than other consoles.

For me, the success of the Wii U will hinge on whether or not third-party developers are able to fully realise the potential of the hardware and controller. If they are, the Wii U could provide experiences that are compelling enough for all gamers – not just casual ones – to engage with. If not, we’ll see the story of the original Wii repeated.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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