Debate about the technical capability of Wii U has been taking place ever since it was revealed at E3 2011, but we're now in a better position after seeing plenty of game footage at E3 2012. The Digital Foundry team at Eurogamer.net has been picking apart footage from the event and assessing the power that Wii U is potentially offering developers.
The general assessment is that Wii U, although based on more modern technology than Xbox 360 and PS3, only represents a relatively minor boost in graphical capability. Interestingly, a decent portion of the extra power in the system seems to be taken up running the GamePad screen's output, in a similar sense to some of the processor grunt of the 3DS system being used to produce stereoscopic 3D. More power but extra functionality means that not all of that processor capability can be invested in graphics that are significantly improved on Wii U's HD rivals. Below are some key points from the article.
However, the reality is that the picture is very much different for third-party publishers - and it is here that the Wii U appears to remain on shaky ground. E3 2012 demonstrated clearly that the current-gen HD era is coming to a close and, to remain relevant to third parties once Durango and Orbis appear, we really needed to see a significant step beyond what was revealed last year. But Nintendo's E3 showing effectively confirms that there is no unambiguous, generational leap in raw processing power here compared to the current HD consoles, and prior claims that the machine hosts twice the power of the Xbox 360 clearly ring hollow.
Instead, the assets released by Nintendo in particular are notable in how "lo-fi" they are: its own screenshots confirm that some of its most simplistic titles are running at basic 720p resolution with no kind of anti-aliasing whatsoever, just like its demos were a year ago. A closer look at the showcase titles Nintendo debuted at its E3 press conference also shows a puzzling lack of consistency in performance that we wouldn't expect to see in a console based on mature tech less than six months out from release, which we can only explain by the idea that the second screen is imposing more of a drain than we might have otherwise thought.
... However, to survive the upcoming transition from the current HD consoles to their enormously improved successors, Wii U needs enough grunt to at least part-way bridge the generational gap - and there was scant evidence at E3 that the raw power required to do this was on tap. If it is a matter of getting to know the hardware and coaxing out maximum performance, the question is whether the third parties are prepared to invest the required time and effort. Looking back, it took a long, long time for the average standard of PS3 multi-platform titles to match what was being achieved on Xbox 360 and some might argue that Wii U doesn't have the luxury of time on its side.
In the medium term we should expect to see a new range of "cross-gen" titles come to market - the likes of the Unreal Engine 3-powered Star Wars 1313 and Ubisoft's spectacular Watch Dogs are likely to be amongst their number. These titles are almost certain to arrive on the existing HD consoles, but Wii U versions for these and many other key 2013 titles remain unannounced and there was a palpable lack of more current games in the launch line-up.
If you want full-on analysis that assesses frame rates and v-sync, amongst other things, be sure to check out the full Digital Foundry article. Meanwhile, what do you think of these findings so far? Are you worried about the graphics that Wii U can produce short-term and long-term, or is it all about the gaming experience?