The Wii U is supposed to be out this year. It's never going to launch post-Christmas, so that means we're four months at most from launch. But having played it at Gamescom, I'm not convinced it's all coming together as coherently and convincingly as you would hope for a console so close to being released into the wider world. So let's look at a few key areas and the good and bad examples seen at Gamescom.
The good news: Everyone wants to know how the machine's shaping up against its peers. I can confirm visual quality has improved tangibly in ZombiU. Having played the E3 demo at an event in London a few months back, the difference is evident in the new Buckingham Palace level. The edges of the characters are no longer razor-sharp, movement seems more fluid and the game now looks about on par with a modern Xbox 360 title.
Above: ZombiU may still have relatively simple geometry, but it's looking slicker now
But a cross-platform comparison is what you want, right? Well get this: Assassin's Creed III is up and running on the Wii U. I watched a PR rep play the Battle of Chesapeake Bay section (the one with the ships from E3) and was initially impressed. Dynamic shadows and wave effects make for a very organic game world. It's busy, dramatic… the console runs it with relative ease. At least on first glance…
The bad news: The PS3 version was playing beside it – and the difference is night and day. Right now, PS3's version of Assassin's Creed III is, simply put, better. Even gamers without my robot eyes would be able to see the difference.
Above: Assassins Creed III looks better on PS3 compared to Wii U thanks to softer edges and better textures
Smoother edges, better frame-rate, more detailed textures… it's akin to the kind of difference we used to see in multiplatform games when the PS3 version would look shaky in comparison to Xbox 360 release. It could change before release of course, but that's how it is right now.
The good news: It seems that the GamePad's screen doesn't need loads of processing power to get it working in tandem with the on-screen action. Case in point: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which will apparently feature a five-player mode, with four players on the TV in split-screen and another on the GamePad. That's mighty impressive and we can't wait to see it in action.
Above: Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing runs just fine on Wii U and will have a 5-player mode
The bad news: We saw Wii U units crash more than once during the show. Granted, we're looking at unfinished and therefore unstable code, but we saw the hardware freeze up during Rayman (which was rock-solid and finished-looking last time we saw it), to which the PR rep said 'it's been doing this all day – I think it's overheating or something'. That's a little concerning – it wasn't even that hot in the room. Assassin's Creed also locked up and had to be reset. Could just be a pre-release bug, of course. Could be.
More bad news in the shape of controller lag. I played Rayman Legends with the new Pro Controller (the one that looks like an Xbox 360 pad) and it was fine – as good as you'd expect...
Above: Rayman Legends looks superb on Wii U and will likely be one of the best games at launch
...yet for the Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed demo, I was told that the hardware keeps being revised. As if to prove the point, the Pro Controller I used to try the split-screen two-player mode was reportedly a new wireless version, although it was being powered by a cable running from the machine as it doesn't have on-board power yet.
To make matters worse, this new controller iteration only works within about three feet of the console right now – and the input lag on it was dreadful. The GamePad's input response was fine – so there's something wrong with this version of the Pro Controller. It will not be like this at launch, I'll tell you that for nothing, but why is it still like this now?
The good news: The Assassin's Creed 3 demo ended with the PR rep saying "That's the Wii U version, you can play the PS3 version on the showfloor and the Vita game is at the back of the room. Release date is October 31 for all versions." So I asked: "Is that Wii U as well?" to which he replied: "Er… that one's TBA, I think". What do you reckon - a little tongue slip revealing an October release for Wii U, or just a flustered PR forgetting about a staggered release schedule?
The bad news: If it is meant to be launching in October or even November, there's a lot to be done if it hasn't been fixed already. Any of the above can be put down to unoptimised code running on hardware which hasn't had its specs set in stone. No problem, that's the way pre-release gaming is. But surely things as fundamental as the hardware would be tied down by this late stage? Should developers still be unclear whether the GamePad will feature rumble or not? Sonic Racing dev Sumo Digital still don't know. They told us so.
Above: This was the hardware a few months ago - its features have changed since then
This was admittedly a collection of third-party showings instead of super-slick, ultra regimented demos from the Big N itself. But in terms of how the Wii U is being presented to the press so close to launch, the overall impression I took from the show is that the machine isn't quite there yet. And at this late stage that's a bit worrying.