Console transitions can be awkward affairs at the very best of times. They're even weirder when the platform release dates don't overlap very cleanly - and when one of the machines comes with an inventive set of features.
Pity current developers and publishers, then. The Wii U's probably enough of a headache if you're making a game specifically for Nintendo's new console. It's even worse if you're porting a game from hardware which doesn't offer, oh, I don't know, an odd new controller with a screen set in the middle of it.
So how are many third-party publishers approaching things for the first wave of Wii U games? I went to Frankfurt last week to find out. Here's a clue: I hope you like maps!
That said, what are developers to do, really? Mass Effect 3, Darksiders 2: these games are already finished, already released on other platforms, and they're pretty whole and coherent too (original endings notwithstanding, I guess). Rather than bolt on bizarre new gimmicks, then, both EA and THQ are playing it safe. The second screen's your map and your menu. Go nuts!
It's not exciting, but it works better than you might expect. With Mass Effect 3: Special Edition you've got the option to move your squad around and assign targets with a tap of your finger, for example, which will be a boon if you're either seriously tactical or dementedly imperious. You can also hot-swap skills in and out for your team. I'm using the term "hot-swap" here without really knowing what it means, incidentally, but it sounds kind of appropriate: you can do this stuff on the fly.
With Darksiders 2, the GamePad stuff actually makes a pretty big difference. The menus in Darksiders 2 can be a faff to navigate with a standard controller or a keyboard, so now you can tap your way through your loot, re-equipping things as often as you want and even better, changing your skills and gadgets without bringing up that annoying radial sort of menu thing that pauses the action and doesn't work as well as the developers think it does. Since the game is 95% dungeon on your first play-through, having a map waiting for you whenever you look down isn't too bad, either. Unimaginative, perhaps, but useful.
Both games allow you to transfer the action from the big TV to the GamePad, and they both come with a bit of DLC bundled. Mass Effect chucks in From Ashes and the Extended Cut as well as three content packs for the multiplayer modes, and it allows players who missed the first two games to work their way through an interactive comic that brings the narrative up to date and lets them make all the necessary choices along the way. Darksiders 2 will contain Argul's Tomb, which is hopefully a real dungeon rather than an icky monument with a corpse floating around in it. Oh, and Mass Effect 3 even adds a brand-new rocket launcher that targets up to six foes at once. If you have six enemies that like to hang out together in futuristic locations, this is probably the game for you.
Assassin's Creed 3 sees Ubisoft taking a similar approach to EA and THQ, but since it's Assassin's Creed, the GamePad display is a bit more stylish, with those Animus-y spiderwebs of light and brooding cyberpunk data clouds. And since the game isn't actually out yet on any platform, other concrete details are a little harder to pin down. You'll at least get a map, weapon selection and your Brotherhood management options on the GamePad, by the look of things, and the map in particular could be a nice inclusion for this kind of open-world experience.
When a game's already promising you the chance to drop down out of a tree and shiv a founding father, though, it's quite hard to get too bothered about anything else it might contain. I'm sure I'll love the GamePad stuff, but not as much as I'm going to love giving Benjamin Franklin a shoeing.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a bit more interesting, even if it's not a bizarre literary crossover with everyone's favourite W. Somerset Maugham potboiler. There's no map, as far as I could tell, because who needs a map in a game about killing everybody in linear environments? Instead, there are on-screen buttons for stuff like Ninpo attacks and a Ninja Sense skill, which basically points you in the right direction, and there's a full move list that scrolls along as you work your way through battles. You can shuttle this up onto the main screen if you're some kind of purist.
If you're some kind of purist, incidentally, you might be more excited by Ninja Gaiden 3 than you expect. It's hitting the Wii U with a host of tweaks that are based on the original game's not entirely glorious reception. It's much faster and much harder, dismemberment and character development are back at the forefront of things, and Ayane's now playable in a series of Paris-based levels. Online co-op's included alongside death match, too, I gather - but you'll have to make do with Ryu and Ayane rather than wandering existential everyman Larry Darrell. That particular dream will have to wait. For now.
All of which might make Trine 2: Director's Cut the surprise winner when it comes to the ports. Frozenbyte's gloriously pretty physics platformer has even less need for a map than good old Ryu Hayabusa - so instead, you can use your finger on the GamePad like a mouse. That means conjuring blocks if you're playing as the wizard, say, or moving objects around with swipes of your thumb. (You can still use the sticks and buttons for this stuff too, of course.)
It's beautifully implemented, and beyond that you'll also be able to play all of the PC and Mac DLC and updates for free, which means new stages and new powers for each of your gang along with an entirely new level designed exclusively for the Wii U. I bet Mario's in it. (I bet he isn't.) Oh, and there's online and offline co-op. How do you like that?
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