Impressions: Wii U

The Wii U has been public for well over a year at this point, but we only recently got to try our hands at some of its games and experiences that will be closer to those we’ll find at retail stores this holiday season.

Games aside, however, the hardware has also been finalized and we had a good chance to play with it both at E3 2012 as well as Nintendo’s Post-E3 event in Toronto last month. Our thoughts on the system are quite varied as there isn’t one overarching feeling about the quality or build of the machine, but we break it all down below, so let’s get started.

First up is the obvious and the tangible: the hardware. The Wii U is a long system. Roughly the same width and height of the Wii of yesteryear, the system adds about 25% more length to the back of the unit. It’ll still easily fit in your entertainment unit, but you might be moving some stuff around to do it. Of course, it should be noted that the Wii U, even though it’s beefier than the Wii, is still minuscule when compared to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

About six months ago, we posted an article conjecturing on what would be underneath the door on the Wii U’s face. While we didn’t actually expect to be right and find a 3DS slot under there, we were still disappointed when that was in fact the case. We did manage to get a peek under that door, and while we weren’t allowed any photos, we can confirm an SD slot as well as two USB ports on the face of the console.

Beyond those obvious aesthetics, the console is a pretty sleek and slender unit that should deliver some excellent visuals. The other big things here is the software that the Wii U is going to be running under the hood, and of course, the new Wii U GamePad and Pro Controllers.

Of course, being six months away from the retail launch of the product, we can’t comment much on the software because it simply isn’t close enough to the final build to have an accurate opinion of. However, with Miiverse, Nintendo might actually be able to pull a rabbit out of its hat in the online gaming space. It is no secret that they’ve been lacking in that area in the last while – okay, so they’ve never had a solid online offering – but Miiverse could change that.

We haven’t seen any system software running on the console without a game in the drive, and we don’t really know about any interface designs for “Free-from-TV” play such as when you want to use the Wii Fit Balance Board and the GamePad without a television backing you up. You can rest assured the interface will have the usual Nintendo charm and small, cute buttons to navigate menus. Beyond that, we just don’t know anything else.

The other piece of the hardware puzzle is the Wii U GamePad controller. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, the GamePad has a beautiful touchscreen on it to make for even more unique interactions than we’ve seen in gaming so far. But how does it stack up?

Well, the hardware itself is actually quite nice to hold. It’s got a ridge along the back that makes it easy to rest on your middle finger while your index fingers handle the triggers and shoulder buttons. The weight of the unit is nice, but it could be lighter given that you’ll be holding the thing for a while at a time. That said, we’re pretty sure it’ll never be light enough for our tastes.

The other functions of the GamePad are pretty awesome if we do say so ourselves. For one thing, the controller has a TV remote built-in which, while we didn’t get actual hands on time with the function, is pretty straightforward and something we’ve been yearning for in our consoles for a decade now. Forget about fumbling around with two or three remotes to get your game on.

There is also near-field communication (NFC) capability built into the GamePad, right below the left analog stick and directional pad. This is the same technology we’ve seen used in games like Skylanders and is similar to the new technologies we’re seeing around the block like augmented reality cards.

The GamePad also has a built-in camera for some conference call capabilities as well as an internet browser that works with or without your television, but again, those software experiences remain to be seen.

All in all, we’re impressed with the Wii U, and as with any great console, the games are what is going to make or break the system. It is easy to say what kind of games we can expect from the next generation of Xbox and PlayStation, because those tend to be similar experiences with better graphics and audio, longer story lines, and more in-depth gameplay. But with something like Wii U, it is tough to really imagine what kinds of experiences we’ll be having because we just don’t know how the system’s potential will be put to use by developers.

Be sure to take a look at our coverage of E3 2012 by clicking here.