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Black Ops 2 on the Wii U: The good! (GamePad) The bad! (Framerate) The weird! (Where is everyone?)

Black Ops 2 on the Wii U: The good! (GamePad) The bad! (Framerate) The weird! (Where is everyone?)

Black Ops 2 will likely be one of the most purchased and played games of 2012, and it’s one of the games I was most keen on testing with the Wii U. Nintendo systems have never been home to this sort of hardcore game, and previous Call of Duty titles on Nintendo’s systems have been low-resolution shadows of the “real” game the majority of the audience was playing. The Wii U version of Black Ops 2 changes things.

The game looks almost identical to the 360 version, with all the high definition bells and whistles. Black Ops 2 on the Wii U doesn’t feel like a hacked-down version of the game, made to play on a system on which it doesn’t belong. The Wii U version of the game also has a few tricks up its sleeve that can’t be replicated by any of the competing systems.

There are also some downsides to playing the game on the Wii U.

What was given up

It’s hard to make any judgments about the Wii U’s relative power, or lack of power, from launch games. Nintendo has been tight-lipped when it comes to explaining what’s actually inside the Wii U, and we have no way of knowing how much time developers had to work with the system before launch. Long load times are common on new system launch titles, and they’re certainly on display on most launch Wii U games. The question isn’t whether these problems exist, it’s whether they can be fixed in future games, after developers learn their way around the architecture.

So where do you feel the first-gen-ness of Black Ops 2? In the game’s frame rate. The frame rate takes a hit any time there are many things going on in one scene, and it’s something that’s actively distracting during play. It’s never a deal breaker, and the game is always playable, but the inconsistent performance is jarring after coming from the beauty of the PC version or the rock-solid frame rate of the 360 version.

So the question is whether these issues are the result of a truncated development cycle or weakness in the hardware itself. It will likely be a decent amount of time before we get an answer to the question. Considering Nintendo was working on the system’s online functions right up to launch it’s amazing that Black Ops 2 includes multiplayer at all, much less the impressive suite of options on display in the Wii U version.

Fans of the series have likely already purchased Black Ops 2 before the Wii U was released, however, and the amount of players online is shockingly low. As of this writing (which is admittedly 2 p.m. on a Tuesday) there are under 350 players on the servers.

The really good news is that most of them have been pretty easy to kill so far.

Using the GamePad

The inconsistent frame rate is the bad news, so what’s the good news? You can play the entirety of the game using the GamePad’s screen instead of your television, and the display is more than adequate to enjoy the game and its impressive graphics. I’m tempted to simply buy another power cable to place in my bedroom, because I often move the Wii U to my nightstand, without connecting the sensor bar or an HDMI cable, and play games in bed using only the GamePad and a set of headphones.

Enjoying a console-quality Call of Duty game while my wife watches Suburgatory on the television is pretty great. The weird downside? The rumble effect is loud, especially if you’re playing the game while listening to the sound coming through the GamePad’s speakers.

That’s just a standard Wii U feature though. Black Ops 2 takes it a bit further by allowing two players to play the same copy of the game. You can go online and have one player in the room using the television with the Wii U Pro controller, and the other player can play with their own screen by looking at the GamePad. It’s like a mini-LAN party with a single console and copy of the game, and it works very well. My friend and I spent around an hour playing the Zombies game mode cooperatively, each of us having our own screen, and talking our way through each situation.

There are a few graphical shortcuts here to get the Wii U to pump out two sessions of the game at the same time, but they’re minor. The frame rate holds up well for the most part, the lighting effects are less impressive than the single-screen version of the game, but that’s basically all the concessions made to allow the system to do this magic trick.

“This mode - indeed, split-screen in general - is not without its trades,” Eurogamer’s in-depth look at the game’s performance stated. “Frame-rate definitely takes a hit (which varies according to the map and definitely muddies controller response), but resolution is maintained and the only noticeable visual downgrade comes from the removal of dynamic shadows. Even this isn’t quite as impactful as it sounds as shadows ‘baked’ into the environments are still there.” Considering this is a first-generation game, and Black Ops 2 is the first game to offer this sort of multiplayer function on the Wii U, the game is very playable in this state. We can only hope co-op games played on the television and the GamePad increase in performance as developers learn how to optimize the Wii U, or even use the hardware as the target platform.

This isn’t split-screen, it’s something much better. Once both players get their own screen the game becomes much more enjoyable, and since both of you don’t have to stare at the television you can stretch out and relax. It’s an easy-going, very social way to play multiplayer games of Black Ops 2, and teaming up with a buddy in the same room allows you to mop up other players in multiplayer pretty efficiently.

There are some oddities here, however. The GamePad can be made the game’s primary display when you first begin play, but the game won’t allow you to play with a friend using the TV with this option engaged. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to switch back once I had enable GamePad play. It’s confusing, and if there’s a solution that doesn’t involve rebooting the game and not hitting the “display” button on the controller, I’d love to hear it.

These UI and performance hiccups could very well be fixed in future releases, but as a first pass this is very solid take on Black Ops 2. The multiplayer modes using both the TV and the GamePad are what make the Wii U special. I can invite a friend over to play, we both get to have our own screen that’s comfortable to use, and we can either play the competitive multiplayer or work together to take out some zombies. The graphical trade-off is minimal, and it feels like you’re enjoying a micro-LAN party. I can actually see myself going online to play this way with friends fairly regularly, despite the small amount of players online.

Should we be worried about the Wii U?

It depends on your expectations for the system. Nintendo doesn’t like talking about power in detail, but it looks like the system is just about as powerful as the 360. What’s clear is that developers have yet to be able match the performance of current generation systems at launch. That could be bad news for the future, or it could be that performance will improve with time. What’s clear is that the Wii U is not more powerful than current-generation systems, or at least that power hasn’t been easily tapped for the current stock of games out for the hardware.

Consoles offering split-screen multiplayer are nothing new, but the Wii U is able to put both versions of the game on different screens, and that’s a large selling point for social gamers or those who like to play with their friends in the same room. You give up some frame-rate, but the ability to use that extra screen with a buddy may be worth the trade-off.