Wii U: Why Ubisoft's is Nintendo's biggest supporter
6th Aug 2011 | 16:30
A cockney wideboy empties shotgun shells into gooey alien heads. The alien attackers jibber-jabber angrily and evaporate into a bloody mist.
Later, an electricity cannon spits out lumps of raw voltage (let's gloss over the science) and lights them up like a Christmas tree. A screaming Christmas tree. This is gruesome punishment, meted out with dual analogue sticks and precise motion controls. What's wrong with this picture? It's on a Nintendo machine.
Now a team of four friends, living rooms linked by an invisible online bond, slink through the war-torn streets of a generic Badistan. Communicating via voice chat, they co-ordinate a stinging tactical assault. Hostiles flagged on one screen flash up on the other three, and all four take their position. Meanwhile, in the real world, a fifth player observes their progress and waits to hop into the game. What's wrong with this picture? It's on a Nintendo machine.
Finally, a technical architect takes to the stage. He talks about multi-core architecture and explains how memory capacity brings performance enhancements to an already stonking HD game engine. He talks about graphical shaders, increased cache sizes, pre-calculated data and natural extensions of dev-friendly API. In layman's terms: "the graphical quality is top notch". What's wrong with this picture? He's talking about a Nintendo machine.
Violent FPS fun. Comprehensive online gaming. Graphics. Nintendo fans are unaccustomed to such things. Ubisoft have them in spades. No wonder Ninty boss Satoru Iwata personally invited Ubi-pres Yves Guillemot to introduce three Wii U titles - Killer Freaks From Outer Space, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online and Assassin's Creed (a working title) - as part of their E3 showing. We talked to the teams to find out what Wii U means from a developer's perspective.
The opening second of Killer Freaks From Outer Space is a massive relief. After a hardware reveal worryingly light on Wii U game footage, we're able to see what the machine is capable of. Moonlight pours through a gloomy British night sky, glinting off the barrel of a gun with more rendered parts than the entire Popcorn Arcade catalogue.
The setting - a post-alien invasion London - reminds us a bit of BioShock. Drier, certainly, but with the same lonely sense of abandonment. You are a lone cockney warrior, a one-man rebellion with a pocket packed with ammo and a mouth rammed with slang.
Playing on Wii U's handheld screen offers huge immersive potential. While dual analogue sliders manage movement, aiming is complemented by physically shifting the screen. The end effect, from our (sadly) hands-off perspective, is of a demonstrator slowly losing his mind.
He spins, bends and contorts, as if trying to avoid an invisible wasp. In actuality, every move is felt on screen. Angle it up and down and your gun follows suit. Spin 180 degrees on the spot and you spin 180 in game, too. Ubisoft Montpellier's Guillaume Brunier calls it "spatial gameplay, a spherical dimension to what you're playing."
Nintendo's virtual garden demo applies similar controls to startling effect. Physically shifting your perspective renders the screen as a window to a world beyond. There, of course, your biggest concern was a disgruntled Koi carp. Killer Freaks' rabid (not to mention Rabbid-like) aliens require more than serene contemplation. Is Wii U really viable as a platform for first-person shooters? Brunier thinks so.
"We've used the accelerometer feature. If you move very fast the game will know and adjust movement speed. Those familiar with FPSes know how difficult it is to go around 180 degrees. With these new controls it is a thing of the past."
GET YOUR FREAK ON
Amazingly, the demo - explored over the page - was built using unfinished machines. "The Killer Freaks team worked with the early Wii U dev kits before E3, but even we hadn't seen the actual device until a day before the show," Brunier tells us. His favourite feature of the final design?
"The new controller's touch screen is cool and allows different ways to interact with menus, your HUD and so on. We also love the idea of being able to play independently of your TV and how we can explore this dimension of gaming."
We can get an intriguing taste of this independent play when a second player joins the fray.In this mode, one player arms himself with a Wii Classic Controller (Wii U handily works with all the peripherals you've already shelled out for) and fights off forces controlled on the tablet. Brunier explains it best.
"It's called Real- Time Enemy Director, or RED. It's a crossover between an FPS and an RTS - think force versus strategy. You effectively become the puppet master - the alien overlord, if you will - of the Freaks by using the pad with an RTS-style display. You then spawn Freaks tactically within the real-time map, where your opponents will have to defend against the onslaught of bloodthirsty aliens you send their way in an FPS mode."
So as a valiant warrior works a Classic Controller Pro (proving that the game can be played without motion gimmickry), another prods the tablet with cackling laughs. From his bird's-eye view of the battlefield - the view isn't some crappy map but a real-time 3D world render - he can plant freaks, hordes and spawners.
An energy cost per unit prevents spamming, because generators must be planted to earn the energy in the first place. In this particular demo, however, Brunier's offensive push is held back by a barrage of shotgun fire. In a nice touch, the words 'You lose' fill his controller screen. A private slap straight to the face.
It looks like jolly good fun, but we do wonder if local multiplayer, no matter how inventive, can pull gamers out of their lifeconsuming online worlds. Brunier, still smarting from his loss, is enthusiastic.
"Local multiplayer has a huge place in the heart of gamers," he says. "We in the team are - I don't know if I can say this - big FIFA fans, and the best experiences are sat on the couch, where you can brag, or demand a rematch because you just lost and you want to get your revenge. That's what we want out of our core experience. When I see [my opponent's] screen that says 'You win', the only thing I want to do is rematch to erase this screen."
GHOSTLY GOINGS ON
Over in Ubisoft Singapore, the Ghost Recon Online team are flying the flag for longdistance killers. The game, based on a free-to-play PC title launching in early 2011, is pitched to us as the online shooter with brains. "Ghost Recon's core tenet," says senior producer Hugues Ricour, "has always been think, then act.
With the advent of modern technology, the 'think' part is not that cumbersome any more for elite soldiers on the field - there are a whole host of tech tools that bring information and decisions to your fingertips. So the game then becomes about being aware of the situation and reacting to it."
Deathmatch reveals a blur of outlandish future gadgets - from invisibility suits to Aegis bullet deflectors3 - and some geographical
outmanoeuvring. Three character classes - Specialist, Recon and Assault - are designed to bolster one another in a way that punishes the lone wolf heroics associated with Call Of Duty.
Recon picks out hostiles with his motion detectors, Assault clears them out with a shielded charge, and the Specialist claims the prize from the comfort of his bullet-deflecting shield. Bagsy the specialist.
Behind every great soldier there's a great tactical map, the Cross Com 2.0. Here, says Ricour, we see the Wii U difference. "The new controller especially resonated with us - for us it is the physical manifestation of the Cross Com 2.0 device. It is an actual physical device that elite forces around the world carry with them to give them a tactical advantage.
With Ghost Recon Online, it's not just tactical, but also tactile - the Cross Com and its entire arsenal of cool new tech are now literally at your fingertips." As with so much Tom Clancy waffle, it's much cooler in action than on the page.
A 6.2-inch map screen alone is a cool addition. Used to squinting at COD's navigational postage stamp, our eyes gawp at the open playing field, plotting clear routes between the friendly green arrows and the nasty red ones. But don't forget this is a touchable map.
Any markers added to the map - identifying enemy activity, for example - update the televised world in real time, augmenting levels with beacons and flashing icons. Online friends will be able to chat through the in-built mic, but this ability to directly brand the environment is a far funkier, and more accessible, idea.
Not to be outdone by Killer Freaks' RED mode, Ghost Recon Online also lets us take to the skies on the second screen. Only here you're not some omnipotent git raining down alien scum, but piloting a spy drone over unknown territory. With your 'ghost' safely cowering behind a lump of rock, the drone pootles along unseen, its digital eye streamed to your hands. And if the softly-softly approach does nothing for you, the same screen enables you to steer surgical missile strikes into the exact pixel of your choosing. Make it a fleshy one.
IN LINE FOR ONLINE PLAY
What's interesting is how Ubisoft bring all this together online. Talking to Forbes magazine, Nintendo Of America pres Reggie Fils-Aime described a relatively 'open door' online policy, wherein publishers would be free to implement online networks of their own design as opposed to bowing to a Nintendo-enforced template.
Whether or not this is best for the gamer - we'd prefer a more unified Xbox Live-type experience - Ubisoft are taking the freedom in their stride. Along with trusted online norms - persistent character progression with unlocks, perks, upgrades and the like - they're trying to foster a community with an always-on social network called GhostNet.
Ricour describes GhostNet as a handheld window into online activity. "Through the touch pad, our fans will always be connected at home with their social network and with the activities happening in the game. It's always on, even if your TV is off." At its heart is a live feed of friend activity, their in-game progress, achievements and online activity.
A mock-up depicts options to invite players to parties or ping their controller to tell them to boot up the game. Gone are the days of trying to corral mates with text messages and forum meet-ups - an electronic call to arms lets us instigate combat any time we want.
Killer Freaks and Ghost Recon Online are fine looking games. Especially with potentially 18 months of development to go (both are scheduled for Wii U launch). But for lovers of shiny things, all eyes are on Assassin's Creed. Ubisoft won't divulge which Assassin's Creed game is sneaking Wii U's way - a fresh outing or an anthology of previous games? - but promise it'll look sexy. Marc Parenteau, a technical architect from Ubisoft Quebec (he worked on Prince Of Persia: Forgotten Sands), Wii U is more than able to handle the visually intensive open world stab-'em-up.
"The multi-core architecture of the console is a natural fit for our in-house HD engines, such as the Anvil engine used in Assassin's Creed," he explains. "In addition, the large memory capacity of the console will be used to bring performance enhancements, such as pre-calculating data or increasing our cache sizes."
To put it in context, he says that "Assassin's Creed has a distinctive look and we want to get it just right. I'm happy to say that all the graphical shaders we used in development are fully functional." He's tight lipped on specifics - Nintendo see to that - but paints a pretty promising picture.
There'll be brains to go with beauty. Wii U's controller will prove as handy as the iconic blades the game's hero hides up his sleeves. Assassin's Creed revolves around a virtual reality managed by a device called the Animus. The concept of supplementing a digital world with a futuristic interface is a natural fit for the second screen.
"When navigating, it's natural to look at an on-screen map on the controller," Parenteau says. "And also, if a database entry pops up [the world hides a treasure trove of historical info] you can display it on screen and it won't disrupt the game flow." In 2006, Ubisoft proposed similar support for Wii.
Red Steel and Rayman Raving Rabbids, for their flaws, brilliantly embraced the unique character of the waggle wand. And both remain rare third-party franchises able to stand up to the terrifying might of the Nintendo mascots.
Ubisoft are nothing if not daring in their embracing of the new. And with a machine like Wii U, where the sheer scale of potential threatens to tip us into befuddlement, it takes practical examples to guide us through. At E3 we believed Wii U was capable of great things. After talking with Ubisoft, we know it.