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Plugged In

Review: Innovative Wii U is a work in progress

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Six years after changing the game with the release of the Wii, Nintendo is aiming to give the game industry a much-needed shot in the arm with the ambitious Wii U. To do so, they're waggling goodbye to living room calisthenics and taking a bold step into the future of dual-screen gaming.

Releasing Sunday, the system's chief selling point is the GamePad, a wireless tablet-like controller that boasts a 6.2-inch touchscreen. This might seem like an innocuous gimmick, but the built-in second screen opens the door to a wealth of interesting features, including several that reach beyond the console's gaming focus.

Unfortunately, focus has been missing from Nintendo's attempts to explain what the Wii U can and cannot do.  This wasn't an issue for the original Wii: you picked up the controller, you swung it around, you hit a tennis ball, you smiled, you did it again. The Wii U seems to have everyone a bit baffled. What, exactly, is this new gaming gadget, and should you get one?

Let's clear up one misconception about the Wii U right away: it's not just a controller, it's a brand new console. Two models are available: an 8GB Basic Set for $300 and a 32 GB Deluxe Set, which includes a copy of Nintendo Land and a few other extras, for $350.

The hardware itself looks a lot like the Wii, but it's a couple of inches longer and enjoys a sexier silhouette that's more rounded than its angular forbear. It also brings Nintendo up to speed with competing consoles by outputting in HD and pleasantly comes packaged with an HDMI cable. It's certainly more powerful than the Wii, but don't expect the graphics to outperform the Xbox 360 and PS3.

The GamePad is surprisingly comfortable and fairly lightweight, and you'll hardly notice the plethora of standard sticks, triggers, and buttons since most of the real estate is taken up by the touchscreen. The screen looks great, often delivering a tighter, brighter image that what's appearing on your TV.

When it's charged, that is. The GamePad's successes are torpedoed by a lousy battery that produces only about three or four hours of play time on one charge. Oddly, charging forgoes the console's four USB ports and instead inconveniently requires a separate AC outlet. The console comes packaged with only one GamePad, but it's fully compatible with standard Wii remotes for multiplayer games (it's also fully backwards compatible with regular Wii games).

Speaking of which, the system's 23 launch titles offer a handful of innovative experiences. Nintendo Land is a terrific collection of 12 mini-games (we know, we know) that do a great job of showing off the Wii U's bread-and-butter: dual-screen play.  In the surprisingly fun hide-and-seek game Mario Chase, for instance, one player controls Mario on the GamePad, while the others chase him down using Wii remotes.

[Related: The 5 Wii U launch games you should buy first]

Other titles use the GamePad in more daring ways. Ubisoft's excellent frightfest Zombi U turns the GamePad into a survival tool, letting players switch weapons, track zombies, or scan the environment by holding the device up to the TV. The critically-acclaimed New Super Mario Bros. U aims to bring gamers together by letting GamePad users summon blocks to help Mario reach new heights.

Several games, including a revamped Wii U version of 2011 hit Batman: Arkham City, can be streamed directly to the GamePad's screen and off the TV entirely. The GamePad's got a decent range of about 25 feet, effectively untethering your console from the living room, a boon for families endlessly bickering over TV time.

Nintendo is further positioning the Wii U as an all-in-one entertainment box by including apps for Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Youtube and Netflix. [Update: Netflix functionality is now live.] Unfortunately, these features aren't available yet, nor is Nintendo TVii, an app that turns the GamePad into a robust programming guide by putting your cable and online entertainment options in one handy, searchable spot. It's a frustrating delay, though it's reportedly coming in December.

[Related: TV, movie features on new Wii U delayed until Dec.]

Nintendo hits another speed bump in delivering the Wii U's online experience. Online functionality is not operable out of the box -- you'll have to download a chunky patch to get it working. Essential elements are tucked away here, including Friend Lists, an 'eShop' granting access to downloadable games (including same-day digital versions of retail releases), a solid web browser, and a Twitter-like social network called Miiverse. It's a big step up from the lackluster online environment of the Wii, though the Wii U currently does not have any sort of unified gaming achievement system, a ubiquitous feature that's been ingrained in gamers through the Xbox 360, PS3, and even Apple's iOS Gamecenter.

It's also hard to overlook the sluggish interface. Navigating the various apps and screens can be a bit awkward -- do you look at the TV or the GamePad? -- and launching programs seems to take a few seconds longer than it should. I've also experienced two very jarring crashes while trying to load apps, both requiring me to unplug the console itself to reboot. Not cool.

But is the Wii U? As is usually the case with a Nintendo system, that depends greatly on your particular needs and interests as a gamer. At its best, the Wii U offers several innovative features that can fundamentally change the way your family deals with its diverse entertainment needs, plus it finally brings Nintendo into the HD era. A handful of its launch games are genuinely unique and offer a glimpse into a compelling future, while the online options, limited though they may be, are promising. Nintendo fans staring at a dusty old Wii will doubtless be pleased with the Wii U.

However, the console lacks the instant appeal of the original Wii, and the missing features and hefty patch give it a distinct 'beta test' feel. The clock is ticking, too: upcoming consoles from Microsoft and Sony are expected to be announced next year. Will the Wii U have enough firepower to stand up to whatever's coming next? That's as tough to call as the Wii U is to recommend in its current state.

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