Tuesday, November 21, 2006

First Impressions of Nintendo's Wii & Excite Truck Mini-Review

I went into a Gamestop today, hoping that I might splurge and make an impulse purchase of a Nintendo Wii. Alas, they were sold out. To be honest, I should have expected this given the various news reports I had heard about the console launch. I've also heard that there are many more in the supply chain than the tempting (but currently out of my price range) PS3, so that made me somewhat hopeful. According to the clerk, they should be receiving more Wiis this Friday. This sounded good for a moment, until I realized that this Friday is the dreaded Black Friday, wherein suburban shoppers decay into Hobbes' state of nature over under-produced and over-marketed gift items. I really don't want to brave a power shopper riot (let alone wake myself up early after gorging myself on the uniformly high-carb vegetarian items available to me on Thanksgiving), so I may have to wait even longer if I want to snag a retail-price Wii.

Even though I may not be bringing home one of the sleek white boxes just yet, I did get a chance to pick up one of the "Wii-mote" wireless controllers after surrendering my driver's license as collateral at Gamestop. The in-store demo unit had Excite Truck in the drive, and I plowed through 4 of the game's basic courses. Excite Truck is an odd little racer. On the surface it looks very similar to the excellent (if a bit mindless) arcade racer Burnout: Revenge, which I played last year on the XBox. Like Burnout, realistic physics and handling are nowhere to be found, the game barely penalizes you for crashing (you can tap a button on the Wii-mote to get a burst from your truck's boost jets just as you come out of a crash), and your final place relative to the other racers is only one criteria among several that determine your final score (the others being points awarded for drifting, jumps, slamming into rivals, etc.). Excite truck even imitates Burnout's "stars" which appear on screen to tell you that you've just scored bonus points for some risky driving stunt.

All this isn't to say that Excite Truck is Nintendo's clone of Burnout, though. There are a number of small differences and one huge, obvious one. The small differences relate to ET having, from what I saw, largely rural environments as opposed to Burnout's often traffic-packed city streets. This means that you'll be running into trees a lot more often than other cars, and you'll be afforded plenty of opportunities to sail over dirt jumps, then steer your truck in midair to try to score a perfect landing. ET is also more forgiving than the already pretty loose Burnout. Burnout rewards razor-sharp reflexes and taking calculated risks to snatch first place from your rivals. In Excite Truck, it's mainly about driving fast and loose, chaining together a bunch of ridiculous (and pretty damn cool-looking) automotive stunts. The inevitable wipeouts and crashes are basically inconsequential; if you can avoid them only enough to at least stay with the pack and pull off a sufficient number of acrobatic maneuvers along the way, you'll make progress.

Of course, where Excite Truck is extremely different from Burnout, and from pretty much any other racing game on the market, is the control scheme. The controller is held sideways and turned like a steering wheel. You can press on the gas or brake with your right thumb, and hit the boost with your left. When you launch into the air, you can also tilt the controller back and forward to align your wheels for a perfect landing. The control scheme works admirably well, but that's not to say that I was instantly attuned to it. If I veered off the track, I would often try to twist the controller all the way around in an attempt to turn out of the skid, only to find myself turning right into the wall of the track (apparently I had turned the controller a little too far, and it was now registering an orientation in the opposite direction). I had to force myself to tilt the controller only a small amount in order to stay on the track and catch up to the AI-controlled trucks. Once I got the hang of this, I realized that the controller isn't really a representation of a steering wheel so much as it is a rod sticking through a toy truck. Twist the controller 30 degrees left, and you can expect the truck on the screen to turn 30 degrees left in short order.

By the end of my time with Excite Truck, I was getting good enough that I was winning races on the game's easiest difficulty setting. Although I have no doubt I would improve with more practice, I'm not yet prepared to say if the Wii-mote is capable of matching the precision that I've accomplished with years of experience on a thumbstick. How much of the deficiency is simply my own inexperience and how much is an inherent limitation of the controller is something I'll only be able to figure out once I get my own system home and get more practice.

Before I handed the controller back in, I also tapped the home button and poked around the Wii's built-in interface. The visual style features a lot of friendly-looking rounded buttons (similar to Wi-Fi setup on the DS). The home screen gives you access to the currently inserted game disc, a settings menu, something called the Mii channel (I only saw this briefly, but it looks like an interface for creating a personal avatar and customizing the system), and several Internet-driven channels like weather and web. The demo unit wasn't set up to access any Wifi network, so I didn't get to try these features firsthand, but they are apparently powered by a version of Opera. I'm a Mozilla fan myself, but Opera seems to have been doing a lot of work on their embedded browser to get web pages designed for a PC with a high-res display to be usable on a more constrained system, so it was probably a good choice here. Using the Wii-mote as a pointer is probably a welcome change from navigating around with the D-pad on the Sony and Microsoft consoles, too. That gives me a thought just now... the 360 and the PS3 already support USB keyboards and mice, why not market wireless ones for them?

Speaking of using the Wii-mote as a pointer, it's definitely an interesting experience. On the one hand, it's the most literal and direct form of "point and click" that you can imagine. On the other hand, the cursor was a little jittery as I moved it around the screen, and I sometimes had to consciously try to steady it to click on a button. I managed to get into the Wii's settings menu and adjust the aiming sensitivity, and while this helped somewhat, it still left something to be desired. This behavior could be the result of an abused and/or poorly calibrated demo unit, and it also might have something to do with my constant fidgeting. Just the same, it might benefit Nintendo to roll out a software update for their menu system that smooths out the cursor a little bit (perhaps by averaging samples over a very brief period).

So, in the end, what do I think of the Wii? Well, it's hard to say conclusively without playing more games for it. In particular, I can't wait to try out the new Zelda, which is by all accounts breathtakingly great. The pack-in title, Wii Sports, is also apparently a good showcase for the system's controls (which makes you wonder why it's not sitting in the demo stations instead of, or alongside, Excite Truck). Based on my very limited playtime with the console, I'd say that it holds a lot of promise, but developers are going to need to spend some time refining their controls so that the Wii-mote is a joy and not a nuisance. In all likelihood, the Wii will follow a course similar to that of the DS: the early crop of third-party titles will be a mix of half-ass ports and underdeveloped gimmick-games that try to exploit the new controller without much success. Nintendo is going to have to lead the way with some great first-party content (again, everything I've heard suggests they're off to a great start with Zelda) before the system really blossoms with a plethora of truly innovative games. Fortunately, if the DS is any indication, the Wii is headed for just that sort of pleasant future.

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