Right before Nintendo released the Wii, I spent a bit of time discussing my experiences with the console and its first three Nintendo-branded titles, Zelda, Excite Truck, and Wii Sports. In the time that’s passed since then, I’ll tell you that each of the games has grown on me, and not just because of the improvements wrought by the Wii’s Component Cable – all of the games do look more colorful and detailed than before, especially once you activate 480P mode in the console’s settings. Zelda has gotten progressively better since its sluggish start, and actually had a number of “wow” moments; Excite Truck has proved very popular with my fiancee, which makes me happy, and Wii Sports has turned out to be a much better multiplayer title than a single-player one. She loves (and trounces me at) Bowling, we’re vaguely competitive in Golf, and we don’t have any great need to play each other again in Baseball, Tennis, or Boxing (though I still really enjoy Boxing).
What’s new for this update is that I’ve had a chance to play a bunch of the Wii’s third-party titles over the last week or so, and though my stories aren’t wholly positive, I wanted to share my thoughts on some of them anyway. The experience of trying the titles led me to discuss them with a friend who’s a prominent gaming journalist and historian, as well as a third-party Wii developer, both of whom had some opinions to share, so I’ll include them below.
The titles to be discussed: Ubisoft’s Red Steel, Activision’s Call of Duty 3, Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. These aren’t full reviews; they’re just personal impressions of what’s out there for the Wii at the moment, along with a mini-editorial on what might need to change going forward. Even if you want to skip the game discussions and just look at my big picture editorial comments, I’m looking forward to hearing your take in the comment section below.
Red Steel: Of all the third-party titles that were announced for release within Wii’s launch window, Ubisoft’s Red Steel was actually the one that intrigued me most, probably thanks to all the hype that surrounded it and mysteriously dissipated only shortly before the title was released. It’s a first person shooter-slash-slasher initially set in modern day Los Angeles, placing you in the role of a bodyguard-slash-boyfriend whose client-slash-girlfriend is, well, kidnapped. If that wasn’t enough slashing for you, you might well enjoy the gameplay, which has you running through urban environments with guns and swords, shooting and cutting up Asian mafiosa.
(On a brief side note, it’s obvious why that sort of hype-then-letdown phenomenon happens – it’s half “cautious optimism” and half writers who are afraid to tell it like it is until it’s too late for the first day crowds to be suckered in. It would be really beneficial/nice/world-changing if people could just collectively knock this off already. Overly friendly previews don’t do a service to either readers or developers; both could benefit from some honest feedback.)
Pros: Red Steel teaches you how to use the Wii’s controllers in a first-person shooter environment, and has plenty of action to keep you busy. Cons: The game feels rushed, with a bit of sloppiness in everything from the interface to the in-game aesthetics. Despite the nice screenshots, the graphics feel like a step or two back from the top GameCube titles, and the voice acting isn’t hot. It’s a classic bargain bin game, bolstered to a higher level of interest more by its early release date than anything else.
Call of Duty 3: Now I’m moving on to the Activision titles. First up, I’m going to admit that Call of Duty 3 is my first Call of Duty game, apart from a few minutes spent in the (similar) tutorial portion of Call of Duty 1 for the Mac. And I was genuinely excited to try COD3, because I was impressed by the in-store demos of last year’s part 2 for the Xbox 360, and thought that it was amusing to see the PC version turn up on The Office this season. There are lots of World War 2 shooters out there now, but since I haven’t worn through the genre yet, this one could have been a big winner for me.
Pros: COD3’s the strongest first-person shooter on Wii right now, and a step above the better titles I’ve played on the GameCube. Visually and sonically, despite some dropped frames here and there, it’s legitimately exciting, placing you in the midst of battle scenes that feel every bit as immersive and real as they’re intended to feel. And there’s enough to play through here that you won’t feel like you’ve blown $40 or $50 if you purchase it. Cons: The control scheme is, in a word, exhausting. I never imagined that I’d actually have to carry a gun, nose forward, the entire time I was playing through a first-person shooter. In doing so, I literally felt tired after playing my first 45 minutes of the game. And when I got to a point where I had to wrestle an enemy soldier for control of my weapon – several times, because it wasn’t easy – I put down the game in frustration. Later, you’ll get to drive a jeep (sure!) and row a boat (uggggh) with the Wii’s Remote. I felt like I should have attended boot camp before playing it, which is the opposite of the experience I’m used to having with video games, or wanting to have.
Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam: This kiddified version of the numerous Tony Hawk skateboarding titles looks like a slightly higher-resolution version of its GameCube predecessors, but with semi-cartoony kids as Hawk’s competitors/friends. And it’s now focused on downhill skateboard racing (with more limited tricks) rather than completing missions. The Wii’s controller is held like a steering wheel, and you win by being the first to cross the finish line.
Pros: By recent Tony Hawk standards, Downhill Jam’s stunts and tricks are easy to control, and the game is inherently accessible to younger players. The game’s international settings are visually varied enough to remain interesting from stage to stage, even if some of them (such as Edinburgh, Scotland) aren’t exactly idealized excerpts. Cons: Skating with a steering wheel-style grip on the Wii’s Remote doesn’t feel exactly right – an analog stick would have made this decidedly more fun – and even though I’m not a big skateboarding fan, I’d sooner have been racing against Hawk pals like Bam Margera and Tom Green than the generic characters found here. More backdrops would have been great, too.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance: Think classic arcade four-player Gauntlet (an overhead “hit the buttons over and over to attack hordes of villains” game, or any of its more recent sequels) mixed with Marvel’s super hero comic and cartoon characters, and you’ll have Ultimate Alliance… mostly. The difference is that there are always four heroes on screen at once, and you can switch between them at any time, capitalizing on their varied powers. You can also change team members, selecting from more than 20 different characters, including Avengers, X-Men, and stand-alone heavies (Wolverine, Colossus, Spider-Man, Thor, and Captain America are only a handful of the package).
Pros: Ultimate Alliance’s character models are fully realized versions of their comic book selves – with rare exceptions, they look just like you’d expect the super heroes and villains to look if they’d jumped out of the pages of their better artists’ renditions. And you’ll get a chance to see lots of them, thanks not only to the ability to toggle between (and unlock) many heroes, but also the presence of enough stage-congesting enemies that you’ll wonder who’s up next. Younger players with healthy wrists may really enjoy the gameplay. Cons: Though it makes for more constant on-screen action, four heroes at once on screen always feels like too much, given the modest quantum of strategy here; the screenshots here are misleading in that they’re crops from full-screen images that have lots more going on. Battles constantly feel shallow, given that many of the personalities here have appeared with larger movesets in other games, and all you’re doing is mashing buttons to dispatch your foes. Playing as Colossus doesn’t feel that much different than playing with Thor, or even Spider-Man; fighting one super villain feels like fighting the next. And oh, you need to shake the controller in a bunch of directions for different types of attacks, which just feels gimmicky.
Editorial Comments: So why did I find it necessary to talk with a couple of friends after playing some of these titles? I wanted to get an independent perspective or two on whether a feeling I was having – namely, that third-party developers aren’t quite figuring out how to intelligently use the Wii controllers – was right, or whether I was just being too sensitive to change. The answer seems to be the former. My developer friend commented that the big challenge for Wii development has been striking the right balance between traditional joypad/joystick/button-based gameplay elements and use of the Wii’s motion and pointing features. Call of Duty 3’s constant use of the controllers for motion and pointing is the “wrong” way, he explained, because your hands and body are going to feel tired after an hour or less of play. Nintendo doesn’t have you constantly point the controller at the screen to move Link’s head or change his direction; it’s only once in a while, as with his sword-swinging motions.
Beyond agreeing with this point, my journalist and historian friend had another take. His feeling was that the challenge for developers going forward will be to find ways to keep making the Wii’s controllers – arguably its only positive distinctive feature relative to the PS3 and Xbox 360 – fun to use for the next several years of the console’s life. In his opinion, the Nintendo DS’s similarly unique, double screened design has barely been used appropriately since it was launched, and for Wii to survive, it will need to continue to offer experiences you just can’t get on the other machines.
My view is this: even if my friend was correct in his belief that the DS’s unique features weren’t being appropriately utilized in current games, there’s no disputing the fact that DS Lite has been extraordinarily popular since its release – more so than the otherwise more powerful Sony PSP. Pricing, battery life, and its perception as a fun little portable console have been at least as important in popularizing DS Lite as its hardware distinctions – Nintendo’s upgrade of the hardware to include great screens in the second-generation DS was also key. And what of the claim that DS games don’t do enough with its special features? Well, the games I’m playing tend to make good use of one or two unique features at a time, rarely more, but that’s enough for me. Sometimes they don’t do that, and yet, they’re still good games; not every title needs to be touch-sensitive or span two displays to keep my attention.
Similarly, it’s my feeling that Wii is not going to succeed or fail based on how innovatively companies use its controllers – it’s priced better than its competitors, and aggressively for a machine with wireless Internet and apparently free networked gaming – but it will fail if a perception develops that many of its games leave you exhausted or frustrated. In fact, I sincerely believe that many – most – developers need to re-think their approach to Wii control, because good racing games and shooters are already getting mucked up by fatiguing default control schemes and the lack of alternative (read: try the analog and digital joysticks, guys) options. Let those who want to throw their arms around do so, but give the rest of us an option to – wait for it – relax while we’re playing our games. Do that, and you’ll have a chance at winning my purchases on day one at full retail price. Otherwise, you could release the next Virtua Fighter or Halo title, and even if you have the best graphics on Wii, you’ll lose my interest (and, obviously, others) just because we won’t want to suffer through the control experience.
Readers with Wiis, your thoughts?