Mario Kart Wii Online Hands-On
Mario Kart Wii features an online multiplayer mode boasting races, battles, and leaderboards. We tossed a few shells onto the Net to find out how well it held up.
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Although Mario Kart Wii offers a great deal in the single-player mode, it really comes alive when you're playing with others. Like previous Mario Karts, there's support for four-player split-screen, but thanks to the beauty of the Internet, your friends don't have to be in the same room as you anymore. Mario Kart Wii offers online multiplayer for up to 12 people, with two players able to play split-screen on the same console during the same online match. We got hold of a finished version of the UK game, and headed online to see how the multiplayer experience is looking.
First of all, it's worth mentioning just how popular Mario Kart Wii is right now. Although we've had trouble finding people to play in games such as Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, it's refreshing to see a mass of people from all over the world making the jump online with this game. Given that it's currently available only in European, Australasian, and Japanese territories, the worldwide option isn't actually running at its full capacity right now. In our experience, the split between the continents was in favour of the Europeans, although we'd usually encounter one or two people from Japan or Australia in most of our global games. There are two options in the online multiplayer mode: VS Race and Battle Mode. The VS Race seems to be slightly more popular, possibly because it's the one that Mario Kart people are most familiar with, but it's never hard to find people to play either mode.
The versus mode uses 32 tracks, with a good mix of new circuits in addition to classics from the N64, GameCube, and SNES versions. Each player can vote for a specific or random track to play on, and the game then makes a choice based on all the votes that have been cast. The battle mode works slightly differently because it's split into two game types: Balloon Battle and Coin Runners. In Balloon Battle, you start with three balloons and lose one every time you're hit by an item such as a shell or a banana. In Coin Runners, you have to race around the track collecting as many coins as possible while firing items at other players to make them drop what they've collected. Players are automatically split into teams in the battle modes, so you're all competing against each other while watching out for your teammates at the same time.
The online setup for Mario Kart Wii may be simple, but it works very well. Points are awarded or deducted based on your finishing position in each event, and the game uses these points to automatically pit you against players of a similar ability. You start the game with 5,000 points in both VS Mode and Battle Mode rankings, and if you finish in the top three of each race, then you accumulate points to add to your total. But if you finish outside of podium position, then your total will drop.
Mario Kart Wii does an excellent job of keeping you in games once you've gotten started online. When you're first paired up with other players, you sometimes have to watch them complete a race before you can begin, but from there on in you spend the majority of your time actually racing. You're given a short amount of time to choose options, so the downtime between races is short, and players who want to stay together can do so automatically. The game also gives you an indication of how many people will be in the next race; new players are able to join as old ones drop out.
Because you can unlock new characters and vehicles by playing through the single-player game, it's worth spending some time there to begin with, before heading online. However, the game's balancing means that it's not strictly necessary to unlock all the vehicles to compete online. Some might also take comfort in the fact that all 32 tracks are available in multiplayer regardless of your single-player progress. You can also choose to race online with your Mii, which is good if you want to express a bit more personality in multiplayer races.
The online performance is top-notch, and we experienced little to no lag during our races. There's no voice chat in the game, which is always a bit of a shame if you're playing with friends, but you can create a private lobby room for friends and send text messages to each other. This is especially useful if you're all trying to decide on a game mode or map to play, and it can also be nice to recap a particularly good race. In addition, players who are in a communal room can split up into team races if they're bored of going alone and want to gang up on rivals. It really is worth registering friends in Mario Kart Wii, because with WiiConnect24 enabled, you can track all of your friends' lap times and ghost data as they play.
In addition to the multiplayer races, the Mario Kart Channel tracks all game activity online. From here, you can register up to 30 friends to play against, as well as see what they're up to in the gameworld. You can also download the best ghost data in the world to play against in Time Trial mode, and if you beat them, you can then make that ghost available online too. Overall rankings data for each individual track is collected and displayed on a graph that uses Mii heads to show the spread of data. Though you can't see individual times for people outside of your friends list, you can download the ghost data of the top 10 players and see how they're achieving those top times. In the future, Nintendo will be creating Mario Kart Wii competitions online, but at the time of writing they were not set up. Nonetheless, all you will have to do to compete in these is connect your Wii to the Internet and then make sure WiiConnect24 is enabled in your system menu.
We're really impressed with the online features in Mario Kart Wii, and we can see its popularity rising once the game is available worldwide. The full game is available in Europe and Japan now, and in North America on April 27th.
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