Animal Crossing games don’t come around all that often – at least not mainline games – so it’s hardly an understatement to say that hype surrounding Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been a touch feverish recently. Well, we were lucky enough to get our hands on it for a short time at Nintendo’s UK offices, and the gossip is just too juicy not to share, so strap yourselves in for a time of goodness.

We played three different save files so that we could see the game in various different stages, one when you’ve just started out on your island, one a fair ways down the line, and a final one where even the supremely exciting terraforming systems are unlocked; and yes, we terraformed, baby.

The first thing that hit us is just how pretty the game is. Yes we’ve seen screenshots and video footage in various different areas, but none of that really managed to do it justice. Seeing it in person showed just how sharp the whole game is, despite all the rounded corners on just about everything. Colours pop out at you, details as fine as Timmy and Tommy’s face fur are crisp and refined, the various lighting effects cast a wonderful array of different feels across your character and the surrounding environment, the entire thing is nothing short of drop-dead gorgeous.

This trend also carries over to how the characters behave and move; you’ll see villagers milling around as they usually do, but everyone seems to be living their own lives as well, rather than just waiting for you to interact with them and give their existence some semblance of meaning. Tom Nook can be found reading a book as you walk into Resident Services, Isabelle was diligently dusting her work area, they’re much more real, at least as real as giant anthropomorphic animals can be.

The animations have also had an upgrade, albeit less obviously. Running now carries real weight as your character snaps their arms back and forth rather than doing that strange ‘floaty’ sprint in New Leaf and pole vaulting over rivers feels substantial; it all aids in making your actions feel that much more true-to-life.

But what was most impressive was how in the earliest save file the island felt serene, calm, but properly isolated. You’re not walking in on an existing town and reigning over the occupants as the rightful dictator that you are; you’re hand-crafting this whole area from scratch, right down to the land and waters themselves (eventually). This is your island, your vision, and it’s more flexible than it has ever been before. Crafting is also an interesting addition; we didn’t fully realise just how much we’d need the resources found on the island to get by, so farming wood, stone, metal and other materials looks like it’s certainly going to bulk out your daily endeavours significantly. No more playing the game for an hour and feeling like you’ve done all you can do, yahoo!

Moving further on to the second save file, we started seeing a slightly more ‘traditional’ Animal Crossing layout to some degree. More houses, more villagers, fewer structures made of canvas, but absolutely littered with objects on the outside. This really felt like the island we were playing had a lot more personality to it, a far more personal endeavour than just having the Museum in the top left-hand corner rather than the bottom right.

Oh and the Museum, the Museum. We don’t want to gush about the visuals too much but we can’t let this slide by without a mention. Having perused through the halls we were utterly floored at just how atmospheric, original, and downright real the museum felt. Vents on the walls, small gratings where you might expect them, ants surreptitiously stealing sugar from an unattended cup of coffee; it is without a doubt one of the most wonderful visual experiences we’ve had in a game.

And now we get onto the most exciting reveal of the past Direct, terraforming – we’re not sure if that’s what it’s called in-game, but that’s what we’re calling it and we make the rules around here. We were only able to play around for a short time with all this, but suffice it to say our curiosity has been sufficiently tickled. The whole notion of your choice of town in past games being an unshakeable, unchangeable decision has come crashing down, and we were able to not only build or carve out whatever we wanted, but we could at long last place flooring down without fearing that someone’s going to kick it into dust.

It seems almost too much freedom coming at it afresh, but considering how developed the island was when we were playing, we’re fairly certain you’ll be introduced to the concept slowly and gracefully rather than being dropped into it like we were. The scope is borderline endless, and when combined with the whole fruit-eating to move entire trees about the place, we can only imagine what wondrous creations fans will be crafting.

All in all, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is shaping up to completely and utterly usurp its predecessors. There seems to be almost no reason we can think of why we’d return to the other games once we own this proper, it’s improved upon every single aspect from past titles, and thrown in a whole host of new lovely little quality of life features to boot. If when it comes out it can hold our attention even half as well as it managed to in our short time playing it, we’re all going to be in for a treat like no other.