Instead of the open-floor plan filled with dozens of demo kiosks we've come to expect from its showings, Nintendo's booth at E3 this year looked rather different, featuring a single space shielded from the rest of the showfloor and dedicated to a single game: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While it may have seemed like an odd choice, after we got the chance to go hands on with the latest Legend of Zelda it all made sense; in the span of less than an hour inside Nintendo's Hyrulian safe-haven, we'd trekked up mountainsides, tiptoed through temples, taken out Moblin mobs by way of arrows, bombs, boulders, and swords, made a cracking mushroom stew, and sand-surfed down a hillside on a wooden shield. Nintendo may have only brought one playable game to E3, but Breath of the Wild encompasses a huge variety of experiences, and we were blown away by our time in Link's new world.
In fact, right from the start of both of the on-site demos we tried — one focusing on the game's opening moments and one on exploration — the freedom inherent in Breath of the Wild was crystal clear. In the first, Link wakes up in a cave, and on cresting the first hill after emerging into the sunlight is treated to a breathtaking view of Hyrule expanding below him. In the second, he finds himself dropped into a forest with a bow, branch and sword, and left entirely to his own devices. Both scenarios, in their own way, showcase the defining theme of this new Legend of Zelda: openness, seamlessness, and an exhilarating sense of exploration.
A great deal of that feeling of openness comes, of course, from the open-world design, which made quite an impression on us — seeing a far-off shrine in what would otherwise be the background, and actually making our way there by trekking over hills, across fields and through valleys was striking, and immediately made Breath of the Wild stand out from any other Zelda game we've seen. But equally impressive was how the game's mechanics back-up the seamlessness of that open-world design.
A New Kind of Exploration
Take, for instance, one of Link's new skills for Breath of the Wind, climbing, which lets him scale sheer surfaces with a few taps of the 'X' button. It's tied to a stamina gauge — a contextual circle that drains when Link climbs, sprints, or swims, and refills automatically while he's not — but it's not tied to any particular points in the environment. Rather than designated 'climbable spots', Link can climb rocks, walls, boulders, trees, forts, and absolutely everything vertical we came across in our hands-on time. Paired with Link's newfound ability to jump (!) and world design that thoughtfully emphasizes verticality, it makes Hyrule seem both unfathomably vast and endlessly explorable, and we loved making our way to the tops of tall structures, taking in the surrounding view, and then hopping down to head to parts-just-noticed at full tilt.
And just as climbing makes Link's world feel entirely accessible, the addition of resources makes it feel so much more alive, malleable, and important. Cut down a tree, for example, and you'll be left with a stump and a log. The log can be split into firewood, which you can combine with flint to make a fire. Start up a fire, and you can set any flammable objects you find alight. Light up a branch to make a torch, and you can fuel a campstove. Fire up a campstove, and you can whip up a stew or a skewer — from ingredients you've foraged for or harvested along the way — to restore Link's health after a battle.
Breath of the Wild feels like much less of an abstracted 'gamificaiton' of exploration than previous Zeldas, and more like Link's actually charting his own way and living off the land.
We loved playing with what we found in Link's surroundings to create these serendipitous chains and, like climbing, the best part about this is that it 'just works' to the point that it feels wonderfully organic. We'd seen Link cut down a tree with an axe in the trailer, but were pleasantly surprised to find that a sword will do the job just as well — as it should, of course, but it's another detail that makes Breath of the Wild feel like much less of an abstracted 'gamificaiton' of exploration than previous Zeldas, and more like Link's actually charting his own way and living off the land.
That feeling kept surprising us as we played, too. In one early fight with Moblins that left us low on health — entirely our own fault, and the result of some poorly-timed bomb detonations — we instinctively started looking around for hearts in the grass. It was only after a few frantic moments of impromptu lawn maintenance that we remembered we wouldn't find any, and so we headed towards a grove to look for health-restoring apples instead. Egged on by our Nintendo rep and intrigued, we threw them on a fire to turn them into 'baked apples', which restored more health than they would have raw. It sounds like a small difference, but foraging for food instead of searching for magical organs was so much more involving, and we loved the change. Even in our brief time with the game, we kept getting happily lost and sidetracked with small quests like these — find an apple, see how high up we can get here, see if we can eat those mushrooms — and we can see ourselves spending many enjoyable hours the same way in the full game.
Of course, even for all its organic grounding, Breath of the Wild is still a game, and we're happy to report that in that respect, it feels wonderful so far. The controls shake things up a bit from other Wii U Zeldas but are instantly comfortable; 'B' performs a dash, 'Y' attacks with the equipped weapon, and 'X' is used for jumping and — when combined with the left analogue stick — climbing. 'ZL' stays on as Link's targeting and shield, 'L' uses items, 'R' throws weapons — as we discovered by accidentally slinging our sword — and 'ZR' is a dedicated arrow-shot. Item selection is handled by holding up on the D-pad and choosing with the right analogue stick, which threw us for a loop at first, but proved to be a pleasantly speedy combo in the thick of battle.
At One With Hyrule
Speaking of battle, what we played in terms of combat was excellent. The openness of the world was mirrored especially in the open approach to dealing with enemies, and we ran through the gamut; in our various encounters with Moblins in the demo, we approached them head on and sliced away with a sword or axe, we stood above them and lobbed some of our unlimited bombs their way, detonating them when they came near, we rolled boulders off of ledges and squashed them with gravitational might, we snuck past and ignored them entirely, and we lit adjacent objects on fire and hoped for the best. The clear highlight, however — even for a pacifist like this writer — was the bow and arrow. Using 'ZR' to zoom in and a Splatoon-like combo of the GamePad's gyroscope and the right stick to aim felt wonderful, and aiming for headshots — which deal the extra damage you'd expect — was incredibly satisfying.
The GamePad also seems to be put to good use elsewhere in the game, particularly as a real-world proxy for Link's helpful Sheikah Slate. The biggest use of this device in the demo was to serve as a Xenoblade Chronicles X-style interactive map, which, like the land it charts, scales beautifully. When we zoomed out fully on the suggestion of our Nintendo rep, we got an almost overwhelming sense of the vastness of the explorable world, but even better, when we zoomed in, we were treated to a topo-map display that showed distances and depths in lovingly-lined detail. The cartography is customizable as well; you can set 'stamps' anywhere on the map — using either the top-down plan or a first-person scope — and choose from a variety of symbols and colours to represent whatever you'd like to remember. Finally, we also used the GamePad to scan in a handy Wolf Link amiibo, which brought in the hairy hero as an AI-controlled canine companion who howled and ran alongside us. Though we didn't get to really put him through his paces, we love the idea, and it looks to be a really fun feature — we can't wait to take Wolf Link on extended adventures across Hyrule.
From mobbing Moblins to mountaineering, we had a blast with what we played of the game's mechanics, but more than anything, playing Breath of the Wild conjured up an incredible feeling of exploration.
From mobbing Moblins to mountaineering, we had a blast with what we played of the game's mechanics, but more than anything, playing Breath of the Wild conjured up an incredible feeling of exploration. A large part of that was down to the sound design, which represents a sea change from previous Zelda games; we put in headphones for our demos, and rather than the familiar Hyrulian tunes we've learned to hum over the years, were treated to an incredibly immersive, dynamic soundscape. Both demos began with only ambient sounds as music; the wind whistling, distant water rushing, and grass brushing out of the way as Link ran through it. As we approached a crumbling temple, however, and almost without noticing it, melodies began to lilt in and out of focus; Satie-style shimmering piano and calmly Celtic chords provided an eerie, atmospheric accompaniment to our exploring, and then, as we left, vanished just as swiftly and subtly again, replaced by bird chirps and tree rustlings.
The graphics certainly help that feeling too; Breath of the Wild looks lovely, with a watercolour softness that gives it its own style, and demonstrates impressive technical performance — especially considering its ambitious vistas and the Wii U hardware it was running on. We didn't come across any noticeable framerate drops or pop-in, and we were particularly charmed by the animation; Link's shivering in the cold and stirring up stew were full of personality, and transitions between actions felt impressively seamless as well. In an early portion of the first demo, we ran up to a cliff's edge, leapt off, landed in a lake, swam across the water, and climbed up a rock face to get out on the other side, all in one smoothly-animated chain of motion. We also really appreciated how items and resources blend into the environment, rather than standing out; periodic glimmers of light will point you towards items to pick up, but there's no conspicuous cel-shading, outlining, or any other visual indicators that they wouldn't be there if Link wasn't.
That may sound like a small detail, but it makes a big difference, and that was a consistent theme in our time with Breath of the Wild. From the fireflies that appear at night to plants brushing out of the way as Link steps through them, from the flocks of birds that fly overhead to the new treasure chest theme — which keeps the iconic rhythm and scale but switches up the melody slightly, as if to harmonize the one that's already in your head — these little details really add up to something special.
This Is Only The Beginning...
Even with all we saw in these demos, there's still so much more to explore with Breath of the Wild, both in the rest of the game's world — our Nintendo rep told us our demo represented 1% (!) of the final game's geography — and in terms of its features and content. We still know almost nothing about the story, for instance, or how the traditional item-based puzzle chains will come into play (if at all); we don't know what the mission structure will look like, what familiar faces we'll see, or where this new world fits into the series' lore. What we do know, however, is that after our handson time with this re-imagination of the Legend of Zelda, we're beyond excited to find out.