First Impressions: Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Jon and Damien go hands-on

You guys are so lucky. What you're getting here is two previews for the price of one; our dashing US Editor-at-Large Jon Wahlgren was lucky enough to attend a 3DS showcase in North America this week, and got to spend a short amount of time with Animal Crossing: New Leaf. His thoughts are below, while UK-based editor Damien McFerran provides his own thoughts a little further down the page, based on a slightly longer period of time spent with a pre-release version of the game, kindly provided by Nintendo UK.

If given the chance to vote for me as your mayor, don’t. I feel as though it is my civic duty to tell you that based on my time with Animal Crossing: New Leaf I would run a town into the ground, freely tormenting my residents by building numerous arbitrary bridges, banning shoes and constantly relocating their homes.

Off the bat I should tell you that I haven’t played a lot of Animal Crossing. I dig the Nintendo Land game, so there’s that, and when I dug in to the English language version of the fantasy life/town game setting Japan ablaze during a Nintendo software showcase recently, I was about as clueless as my main character when he arrived by train into the town of Death. I was being glib when I named it that but that’s what happens when an animal on a train asks me where I’m going. I found it to be a good source of unintentional “life in Death” remarks by the town’s care-free denizens. I regret nothing.

It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me why a dozen strange animals told me I was their ruler immediately upon debarking, but, you know, if someone asks whether you’re a god you say “yes.” So off I went to Town Hall to complete some paperwork and start running the town, but lo and behold I didn’t have a permanent address so I couldn’t enter the proper fields or whatnot. I was instructed to go find Tom Nook and have him build me a place at a location of my choosing.

Before I crossed over to the city area, where you can apparently have houses built and also buy furniture and clothing, I wanted to poke around my new stomping grounds. A river wound through the land, with few houses to the south of it and most of the activity in the north end. Not much was happening around yet — progression gates and all that — and everyone I spoke to kept going on about my lack of a home. I spent a few minutes shaking trees and picking up pears, because why not, and I poked around the menus a bit to see what kind of customizing I could do.

My avatar came dressed in a sweet flame shirt, which I liked, and wore shoes and socks, which I didn’t. Off they came, and I spent the next minute or two running around barefoot in the grass. I discovered that I could tag the ground with patterns and decals, so I made a whole section of Death where the grass was checkerboard. Checkerboard Park, I informally named it.

Jon Wahlgren, public official.

Eventually I’ve gathered my share of pears and head on up to see what Nook can do for me. I’ve heard bad things about the raccoon before but he didn’t seem so bad to me. He followed me around while I scouted locations, eventually settling immediately behind some pear trees that were probably blocking my front view. I couldn’t deforest yet but surely my day would come.

Nook roped off the area and pitched a tent home for me to stay in until construction was finished. The tent was inside the construction site so I don’t know how he planned on building that, but not my problem. The shops had opened by now so I skedaddled off to them to see what I could buy and sell. What I sold were dozens of pears, flowers and my shoes and socks, using the thousand Bells earned from literally picking up crap off the ground to buy a fishing rod.

I checked in with Town Hall again and got my Town Pass Card, which seems to be the kind of thing that you’d StreetPass with someone to show off how awesome your place is. I spent the remainder of my time aimlessly exploring my town, catching fish and shaking trees. A first day in office well spent.

Jon Wahlgren, public official.

As the demo only covered day one, and Animal Crossing is the kind of game that you can’t really judge until you’ve played it for a week or two, there is a whole bunch of content that I couldn’t see in my half hour with the game. A Nintendo rep was kind enough to clue me in on what I was missing, and I was most interested in finding out what made New Leaf different from before. Chiefly, that’s being mayor and all of the privileges that come with the job you don’t get just being a resident.

As mayor, you can decree town ordinances and public works projects, so for instance if you want to build a bridge or lamp post you can go have that done. I was sad to learn that there are limitations in areas like that, so my dream of building the most well-lit town of the animal kingdom was crushed before it began. I was happy to learn that you can change the town’s anthem, and I decided that I would at some point try to make mine the Mexican hat dance melody. They can’t vote me out of office.

Animal Crossing operates in real time, which means that your gaming time may not always align with when shops are open in the real world. You no longer have to manipulate the system clock to play the way you want, as you can issue an ordinance to change the town’s business hours to suit your schedule.

If you’re fortunate enough to StreetPass with someone then you can visit their house in your game just past the downtown area, and you can buy a duplicate of whatever cool furniture they may have for your own nefarious use. Nintendo has promised to deliver goods over SpotPass as well; for added social networking, you’ll be able to hop online to visit other towns and entertain your own visitors.

If you visit my Animal Crossing utopia, you’ll find that the shops stay open so late that the proprietors never get to see their families, the anthem is the Mexican hat dance, Checkerboard Park takes over all vegetation, trees are shaken at all hours of the day, the mayor sells trash to shops for a high amount and also may as well be a homeless, barefoot fisherman.

Don’t vote for me. You can’t vote me out.

This second preview comes courtesy of our editor Damien McFerran, and is based on a slightly longer amount of playtime, thanks to the fact that Nintendo UK kindly gave us access to a pre-release version of the game for a few days.

For all of the revolutionary features promised in Animal Crossing: New Leaf — enhanced customisation, the ability to act as Mayor and robust online features which allow you to share your experience with other players — it’s striking how comfortably familiar the game is once you actually sit down and play it.

Those of you that have played previous Animal Crossing instalments — especially the infectious DS version, Animal Crossing: Wild World — will be instantly at home here. Despite the addition of mayoral duties, the general premise remains the same; you’re a newcomer to a hamlet packed with anthropomorphic animals. One of your first tasks is to decide where your home will be, but until you’ve raised the cash for the down payment, you’re forced to slum it in a tent.

Being mayor does come with some additional responsibilities — and some tangible benefits. You can commission community projects, decide when stores open and close and even adjust buying and selling prices in the town. Although it’s obviously not quite as deep as a title like SimCity, the way in which you can shape your new township is appealing, and adds yet another layer of addiction to Animal Crossing’s already compelling world.

Civic duties aside, Animal Crossing is the same as it ever was. You’ll find yourself foraging for saleable items — such as fruit, flowers, shells and insects — and using the bells you earn to acquire furniture for your home. Tom Nook’s store remains, although it’s now run by his extended family while Tom himself has relocated to a Real Estate office. Re-Cycle is where you’ll be selling most of your goods, as the store offer better prices than Nook’s and even allows you to put your items on sale for other customers to purchase — hence the store’s title. Other outlets — such as the gardening store and K.K. Slider’s nightclub — add even more variety to proceedings.

You can also customise the way your avatar looks, with a selection of cool new clothes and shoes to purchase (our personal fave is the shiny red motorcycle helmet). Your home can also be spruced up with new external and internal features, such as new tiles or even a basement. As mayor, this degree of customisation extends past the boundaries of your humble abode and into the town itself; it’s possible to erect lampposts and other street furniture to brighten the place up, or construct amenities such as a police station.

Interestingly, if you create a new save file on the same game card, that player is treated with a more traditional Animal Crossing experience — they enter the other player’s pre-created town as a regular citizen, without having the title of mayor bestowed on them. They even get to mess around inside the other player’s house, and we can imagine there’s other crossover elements, too — sadly, we didn’t get enough time with the game to find out.

Although New Leaf retains the cartoon-style aesthetic which has characterised the series, steps have clearly been taken to imbue the visuals with a little more punch. For example, water is rendered with drastically improved realism — and a good thing too, as you’ll be spending a lot more time on the beach thanks to the fact that you can now swim and dive to collect items. Characters are very much the same as before, albeit with increased polygon counts, but the detail on trees and the way in which the grass seems to shimmer slightly as you move around the town result in a game with a surprisingly high level of graphical opulence.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf packs in so many new features it’s impossible to recount them all during a preview session, but what struck us the most during our time with the game is that despite all of the changes and improvements, the deliciously sedate nature of the series has been maintained. Even with the additional burden of being mayor placed on your shoulders, the game refuses to bombard you with tasks and is quite happy to allow you to take things at your own place, gently prodding you from time to time with distractions and assignments. As was the case with Wild World, we found ourselves simply wandering the landscape and soaking up the gorgeous, laid-back soundtrack.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf launches in North America on June 9th and in Europe on June 14th. We can’t wait to become a citizen once more.