The Whole World In Your LAN
31st Jan 2009 | 08:12
Last year saw Nintendo get serious about online gaming. But is the Wi-Fi service worth the bandwidth it's written on? To find out, we secured three of last Christmas' biggest games, and maimed, killed and traded fruit with everyone in sight. Here are our findings...
Quantum of Solace
"Name's Bland, James Bland." "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die of tedium." Oh, the 'Quantum Of Solace is rubbish' jokes could go on and on. And yet a tedious FPS-by-numbers with the worst frame rate since the View-Master (ask Dad, or Google) is saved by a multiplayer mode which, defying all known logic, is absolutely BRILLIANT.
There are only four modes (as opposed to the eight that you get on Xbox 360), but what's there is good. There's the standard 'you against the world' option, here called Conflict, and a team-based variant called - oh yes - Team Conflict. If you tire of these, you can always opt for 'Rush' (or, indeed, 'Team Rush') - an objective-based twist on the game, requiring you to retrieve briefcases, assemble golden guns and other such intelligence officer-type things.
Does it work?
Lag? James Bond knows not of lag. The motion-sensing, as in the single-player game, tends to be a bit woolly, which can make pulling off kills needlessly difficult. Fortunately, it seems to be the case for everyone else too, so it's a level playing field.
It can be quite difficult to get a game at times, although once you find a match it tends to fill fairly quickly. Quantam Of Solace's online mode seems to be a bit of a secret, so the quality of play is quite high, although clever balancing ensures that it never devolves into a snipe-fest. The game was a relative success at retail, so there's no reason to suspect that the online community will fade away any time soon.
A more measured, patient game than Call Of Duty: World At War, with an increased emphasis on finding cover and picking your spots. At its best, it reminds us of the Xbox's Rainbow Six Vegas - and that's one of the console's best online games. What few levels are present are colourful (sometimes the wrong side of gaudy) and memorable, although the design doesn't have the finesse of Call Of Duty. The HUD is ugly and, at times, obtrusive, but overall it's an enjoyable experience. If you find a copy of the game for under £20 (hardly mission impossible), Quantum Of Solace is well worth a punt for its online mode alone.
Animal Crossing: Let's go to the City
Make your pretend world seem a bit more real and justifiable by inviting your real-life mates over for a spot of coffee and fishing. Four minutes later, after they've trampled all your flowers to death and turned your neighbours against you, show them the door.
Animal Crossing's most lauded online feature on Wii is the ability to invite up to three of your friends round to your village for giggles and gossip, but the potential of the online implementation stretches much further than that, and sometimes in quite subtle ways. Firstly, there's the auction house, where you can, hypothetically, flog your useless tat in exchange for enough bells to keep Tom Nook's pipe-wielding goons at bay for a year. Alas, the bidding is restricted to people on your Wii friends list, so it's somewhat less than amazing unless you have a bulging contact list. Of more interest is the way the Wii draws information from your friends' worlds and incorporates it into your own. Your fuzzy neighbours reminisce over your pals' habits sometimes weeks after they've departed, and tell tales of faraway lands lurking in the depths of your friends list.
Occasionally, you're given little tasks relating to your mates' villages, including one memorable incident involving a lost cat. Return it to your chum's village, or kick it? Sadly, there's only the one option. There are also plans for downloadable content, but the only item at time of writing is a Pikmin hat - a Japanese exclusive.
Animal Crossing, more than any other title, will cause you to bemoan the lack of a centralised friends list on the console. Unless you've already arranged a session by phone, email, carrier pigeon, semaphore or any other communication method more reliable than the Wii's own mailing system, you'll find yourself going into it blind.
To visit another town, you have to stroll up to the town gates and talk to the stupid guard-dog thing who will, after a fashion, scan for available villages on your friends list. To invite others into your town, you have to ask the guard to open your own gates. Once they're open, you're free to go away and play the waiting game. It would be dishonest to call the process complicated, but it most definitely is convoluted - depending on the layout of your village and the location of your house, your session could be delayed by upwards of three minutes, for no good reason. Why, Nintendo? Why do you gotta be this way? Also, given that the game can read your Wii System friends list, why do we have to cultivate a separate list? It's one chore too many.
Does it work?
There's not even a hint of lag, but that's the least we can expect, seeing as Animal Crossing is hardly sitting on the bleeding-edge of technology. Perhaps more surprisingly, Wii Speak works like a charm, completely eliminating background noise and allowing you to project your voice with clarity (although there was one very traumatising incident where a housefly landed on a friend's unit. It sounded like a cross between the world's largest zip and the end of the universe itself.) Wii Speak sits unobtrusively on the top of your TV (although a big grey power unit tries its hardest to yank it from its perch) and is approximately 98% less nerdy than the Xbox 360's headset, which really shouldn't be worn by anyone who isn't the technical director of a Formula One team.
Despite its many flaws, the answer is YES! The interaction between your anthropomorphic neighbours and your friends (noticeably absent in the DS version) never fails to amuse, even if their inability to keep secrets has a tendency to land you in hot water (be careful what you say in your letters to them). It's just a shame that, considering Animal Crossing fancies itself as a 'communications game', there's no opportunity to meet new players through the game's interface. The otherwise superfluous city would have made a perfect meeting hub, but Nintendo, in their wisdom, have decided to block off all such avenues, meaning you either have to know someone with a copy of the game, or go to the Facebook groups with a begging bowl in hand. It's probably the right decision, to be honest (otherwise unsavoury types would trawl round the world, infecting innocents with their army of Truffles and exposing them to town flags like you-know-whats), but it's still disappointing all the same. Animal Crossing could be amazing. As it stands, it's merely very good.
Call of Duty: World at War
The fifth instalment in the Call Of Duty franchise is a rollicking bally-ho of a World War II shooter but, tragically, it seems destined to remain underrated simply because it falls on a 'Treyarch year'. (It's generally accepted that Infinity Ward, who share COD developmental duties with Treyarch, make the superior titles.) The frantic online multiplayer is seen as Call Of Duty's raison d'etre, and World At War brings this component to Wii for the first time.
Although the single-player campaign lacks the online co-op of its HD brethren (Wii owners will have to make do with split-screen support), Treyarch - bless 'em - have worked their little cotton socks off to bring the famous multiplayer segment of Call Of Duty to Wii, and with quite some success too. Popular modes such as Capture The Flag are conspicuous by their absence, but the core of the game is present and correct, and there's even a primitive party system. Because there ain't no party like an Allied forces party.
Very good. World At War's online modes are logically and cleanly laid out, and are sensibly segregated to keep players of differing experience levels apart as much as possible. To begin with, much of the content is locked - you can only chose from a small number of weapons, and there are just two match types: Free-For-All and the lowest tier of Team Deathmatch.
You can work your way up the ranking pretty quickly (we levelled up twice during our inaugural Free-For-All match), ultimately unlocking two more tiers of Deathmatch (which feature friendly fire and additional bullet damage) and the ability to customise your arsenal to infinity. This smart segregation allows new players to dip their toes in at the shallow end safe in the knowledge they're not going to get instantly destroyed, while satisfying more, erm, competitive gamers (and there's a handful of very competitive people on the servers) by showering them with a succession of objectives. Structurally, World At War is a big success.
Does it work?
Matches are generally lag-free, although we experienced some problems connecting to the servers during peak times (this is around 2am UK time, so it shouldn't prove a massive concern for anyone who, unlike us, has better things to do than play shooting games all night). Melee attacks are initiated by shaking the remote and, considering the remote also controls the camera, are predictably messy, so most players don't bother with them. Good news for dumbos like us, who invariably take two minutes to line up a shot, only to be coshed in the back of the head with a rifle butt.
The general standard of play seems to be slightly lower than on your average Xbox shooter, even on the higher difficulty settings. So if the experience of having your face chain sawed off every three minutes in Gears Of War has put you off the idea of online gaming, this might be a good title to rehabilitate yourself with.
As is to be expected, there's no support for Wii Speak, but the anonymity this brings seems to discourage bad behaviour rather than encourage it, albeit at the expense of any hope of tactical planning during Team Deathmatches. (They quickly degenerate into a round of 'rush the opposing dots', but at least this time you won't have to be scolded by someone half your age when you spanner things up.)
There can only be eight players on the map at any one time (hence four versus four in team matches), so players more used to 32-men scrambles on the PS3 might begin to feel a bit lonely. For us, unused to much online play, it made little difference. There are only so many people you can point a gun at at any one time, you know?
Despite a dearth of game modes and the strict eight-player limit, Call Of Duty: World At War is a runaway success on Wii - it's easily the best third-party Wi-Fi game on the system. Although there are only a limited number of maps, each one is expertly designed - large enough not to be over-familiar, but small enough to ensure that you're never far away from someone's crosshairs.
A few old favourites are still knocking around online. Are they striding purposefully into the online age or is it time for them to hang up their boots?
Super Mario Strikers: Charged
Horrifically exploitable, cheaper than a Russell Brand gag and so complex you need a PhD in Randomonics to play. In 2009, servers for the Wii's first ever Wi-Fi game are as empty as the JJB Stadium. Still, log on during peak times and you should have little trouble finding a match, but try not to have the temerity to take too commandeering a lead or your opponent is likely to quit out on you. There are weekly leaderboards that provide some impetus to keep playing, but with no defined penalty for quitting out they receive more abuse than Bowser's hapless team-mates.
Super Smash Bros Brawl
Even the likes of Capcom have struggled in recent times to get the problematic fighting game genre working online, so it was incredibly optimistic of Nintendo to think that they could get their madness festival working online with any consistency. The end result is somewhat of a lottery - at times the online play is passable, with very little lag; at others it rolls like a pyramid.
Whenever Nintendo's bandwidth is at a premium, it does seem that Smash Bros' servers are the first to buckle under the strain; the game was down for much of the Christmas period, leaving us wondering if Nintendo ever intend to issue a fix. The punching bag training session that's displayed while you wait for your opponents is nice, mind. Which is just as well, seeing as how you spend so much time staring at it.
Mario Kart Wii
Nintendo learned well from Mario Kart DS's Wi-Fi woes (dare to inch ahead of the opposition for even a second in that game and everyone would quit out, leaving you on your lonesome), introducing a permanent scoring system (beginning at 5,000 points, increasing or decreasing depending on results) that offers sharp penalties for quitters. Occasionally you'll find yourself disconnected through no fault of your own, incurring a harsh points deduction with it, but this is rare enough as to not prove an annoyance.
Lag is virtually non-existent, but this is largely due to the game 'predicting' your opponent's position, which means that often you can finish, for example, second as your TV screen sees it, but actually only sixth or seventh overall, which can prove frustrating. The Mario Kart Channel, which provides a steady stream of monthly challenges, helps improve longevity. The time trials are carefully and thoughtfully arranged, but all too often it's the cheaters that prosper.
Drop any preconceptions you might have had about Wi-Fi - Nintendo's online service is so far removed from the one that keeled over after five minutes of lag in mid-2007 as to be unrecognisable. While it obviously doesn't have the features of Xbox Live and is still prone to unacceptable levels of downtime (during the period we tested, which admittedly was Christmas weekend, the entire system was down two evenings out of six), when Wi-Fi is working perfectly (which is becoming a more and more regular occurrence) it's capable of providing just as many thrills and spills as its peers. And with the likes of Red Steel 2 and The Conduit already signed up to become members of the blue-badge brigade in 2009, the future is looking pretty peachy. If you haven't already, make sure you get yourself connected.