Nintendo faced a big challenge when developing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Primarily a Wii U project, since Summer 2014 series producer Eiji Aonuma has spoken of the most ambitious title yet in the franchise, of an open world that's truly alive and fantastical. Some remarked that we'd heard bold statements before The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and then realised that, although a game with many merits, it was arguably the same-old established series structure with a fresh lick of paint. The second concern regarded Nintendo's ability to create a systems- and physics-driven world, especially as the open-world genre has been established and arguably mastered by other companies. What could Nintendo do differently and, more importantly, could it apply the magic that accompanies Legend of Zelda titles?
Well, the pleasing news is that Nintendo appears to have hit upon something special with Breath of the Wild; either as a fond farewell to Wii U or as a launch title for Switch, it has extraordinary potential to deliver. Nintendo is keen for many of the game's mysteries to be kept hidden until review time, however, so this preview reflects on our opening hours in the game on Switch - there'll be no story spoilers here.
The opening 20 minutes are certainly familiar, as it's the same as the 'E3 demo' that had previously done the rounds. You are free, naturally, to wander off and play in the initial sandbox, but there are also clear prompts and directions. What comes next is an extremely hands-off learning session - not much of it is a 'tutorial' in the conventional sense - as you set about some early tasks. The opening area - the now familiar 'Great Plateau' - is hefty in size, and you have targets but no instructions or recommendations on how to reach them. Nintendo wants you to learn by your actions, and from your many mistakes.
You'll see the game over screen a surprising number of times, and very early. Veterans of the series may be used to playing through conventional adventures with nary a single Game Over, but you will die in this game, often. You simply hit continue and try again, with the game's frequent autosaves ensuring that you often lose less than a minute of progress, sometimes merely seconds - you can save manually, too, with one save per 'user' on the system, mimicking the Wii U approach of giving each user their own unique save data.
Dying doesn't feel like a defeat, but as a lesson learned. You learn to appreciate Link's stamina gauge after he falls from a climb that was too high. You realise that spamming the attack button doesn't always work, so you experiment with jump attacks, strafes and blocks. You also learn to appreciate your environment - gauges in the bottom right show the noise you're making, the temperature and so on, and you start to pay attention. You crouch so enemies don't know you're coming, and you chastise yourself when you charge into a cold area and Link collapses from exhaustion.
You discover cooking, with the intricacies left to your instincts and experimental approach. You can try apples and mushrooms together, and when you create a favourite dish you can check the manual and snap a screenshot with the system's capture button. Different food qualities emerge, too - as you approach the aforementioned cold areas you'll see chilli growing, and so you create food that makes Link resistant to cold. The game isn't afraid of throwing in some peril, however, as food-based buff effects have time limits and you strive to keep Link warm enough to reach your goal.
Survival is a surprisingly tricky business, then, and you find yourself hoarding, gathering and managing items in a way that can seem daunting at first but soon becomes natural. Weapons are found and stolen, for example, but they all have varying strengths and break, some after more punishment than others. Link, such a slim hero, can only carry a small number of weapons, shields and bows / arrows; in fact here's our only minor complaint so far. Inventory management to 'drop' one item and pick up another isn't quite as snappy as we'd like, though you can avoid the menu by simply quick-selecting and hurling away your spurned weapon, if you master the controls to do so quickly.
Utilising the D-Pad allows you quick swap between weapons and Link's Abilities, which were showcased extensively during E3 last year - such as bombs, stasis and so on for manipulating the environment. With practice it becomes easy to utilise all of these controls, mechanics and menus either on the fly or in a battle (quick-swapping weapons prompts the action to pause briefly), so despite every single button and input being put to work the mechanics fall into place and become intuitive. Fans of precision bow-work on 3DS and GamePad will also be pleased to know that motion controls can be used alongside the right stick when aiming shots, too.
The mechanics, importantly, retain that Legend of Zelda feeling despite the substantial evolution that's taken place. For example there are areas - like those Shrines shown off at E3 - with fixed 'Zelda-like' puzzles that raise a smile and feel familiar, and other challenges that make you think and improvise in the wider world. The series DNA is still here, but in a more creative, surprising environment.
Link controls rather like his Skyward Sword iteration, so he's dynamic and athletic - he's also been adapted to suit the new demands of the world he inhabits. He instinctively starts to climb when met with a steep surface or even a tree, while you can take a leap of faith towards a wall for him to grab on and start climbing. This prompts a very different assessment of the world - it's no longer A to B, but rather A, figure out where B is, and then get there via C, D, E or F. Approaches can vary wildly when heading towards a goal, whether it's the long steady route or a gutsy but risky set of climbs.
This is a game, ultimately, that suits your playstyle, whatever that happens to be. We played the opening with others in the room doing the same, and each individual tackled the tasks at hand in different ways. What was common across the different systems, though, was the fact that the game was drawing players into its world.
As you'd expect, you get to leave the Plateau eventually - again, we won't say when or how this happens. You then realise that you're only at the beginning of an enormous journey, whatever direction you take and whatever areas you 'reveal' on your map, you'll gain an appreciation of how far there still is to go. What we can say is that you do have ways to follow objectives and push on with key events, even if you take detours. Some will simply pick a direction and go exploring, others will target key progression points, while others - like this writer - will head in the vague direction of a primary objective with an allowance to get distracted.
For example, while a player near us was setting off plot points, we explored some nearby woods, protected two strangers, triggered an unexpected game-wide collection quest, and tamed our first horse. After seeing off a surprising variation on a foe we saw a group of four wild horses; at first they saw Link coming and scarpered, so we began to crouch and sneak. We had no idea what to do when we reached one (again, no 'tutorials' as such) but followed button prompts. Even after harnessing the horse and 'soothing' him, to build a bond, he still bucked and occasionally rebelled. We eventually learnt that if you find a stable you can board your horse there and register them as yours, giving them a name and in the process ensuring you can whistle them over (as long as they're in hearing distance). All of this just happened, as we explored, experimented and talked to locals.
So while one player was watching a cutscene, we were chatting to locals about horses.
Once you arrive in the broader world you appreciate that it is genuinely systems-based, and often spontaneous. Sometimes you'll meet characters along a certain path, sometimes you won't. Places and people behave differently depending on the time of day, rocks become too slippery to climb in the rain, and bokoblin camps can be infiltrated with stealth at night when half your foes are asleep. You can spend time cooking, resting, taking on small jobs, or you can target major events. What is for sure, though, is that unpredictable things happen, you get distracted by something interesting - and perhaps mark it on your map to revisit - and progress is rarely simple and linear.
As it's an important topic, we'll also touch upon performance. We're yet to play a retail build of the Wii U entry, but were concerned by the performance of the E3 demo. On Switch we have better results and a generally solid 30FPS, which holds true for lengthy periods. There are occasional dips, however, normally for a second or so, that seem to trigger when the game is streaming assets or - less commonly - when particular effects kick in. Generally we've been pleased with how it runs, all told, as it's enabled us to get immersed into the experience.
Visually, we have two key points to make. On a technical level you can see the Wii U roots, and it's unclear how much further Switch could go in a bespoke project. Some textures are mixed in quality, and the 'jaggy-free' photo-realistic visuals we've come to expect in games like The Witcher 3 or Horizon Zero Dawn are a different matter altogether. However, Nintendo's done some incredible work with art design, with a slick and painterly look, while the environments and lighting are breathtaking at times. The dynamic world means you'll see flocks of birds at different times, or you may be gazing upon the landscape from a high point when you see a group of wild horses running in the distance. Playing in portable mode, the visuals transition very nicely indeed, with the quality of the screen helping the visuals to pop. The 900p resolution looks attractive on our large TV, while the 720p portable resolution suits the console's small screen just fine.
Audio is another key point. Much was made, from E3 demos, of the shift in approach to music in this game, moving away from fixed transitions and bombastic tunes. Like the ever-changing and adaptable game world the soundtrack dips and rises to match events, but it's a game very much boosted by a pair of headphones or good speakers. The sound design is impressive, subtle enough to let the imagery lead the way while also contributing to the atmosphere and impact of the action. You can hear the sounds of animals, but occasionally a small piano riff will suggest an upcoming change in circumstances; it's clear that great care was taken in this area of development.
This is a game we could write and talk about almost endlessly, as in its early stages it has truly drawn us in - Breath of the Wild blends true open-world mechanics with the touches and fairy dust that makes Legend of Zelda games so special. It's an intoxicating combination, and the exciting thing is that this has just been an early taste; we can't wait to experience all of what it has to offer.
The adventure is only just beginning.
This preview was completed on final retail code on the same copy and system that will be used for review. Nintendo provided the game and a Nintendo Switch at a press event, as a precursor to us taking the system away and completing the review in our own environment. Nintendo provided some refreshments and accommodation while we paid for our own travel.