Early Impressions Of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild

No mini-map? Just health hearts and a stamina gauge when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is set to the "pro" heads-up display option.

My emotional journey over my first four hours of playing the new Zelda: liked it, grew sceptical of it, doubted it, regained appreciation, now hooked on it.

If you love the Zelda formula you may take this same ride when you start playing The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, which comes out for Wii U and Nintendo Switch next week. I've only played a paltry bit of this gargantuan game, so I cannot tell you how that journey may end.

I liked it when I sampled it on the Wii U under time pressure last June at E3 and was quickly pleased again when I booted it on my Switch a few days ago.

It is a game of immediate action. You wake in a cave as Link, asleep for 100 years and amnesiac. You grab some clothes, go outside and have an axe in your hand in about three minutes. You can talk to an old man and receive a basic quest, but you can also wander off into a forest, venture toward a camp of enemy creatures, dive into a lake or dash through a field. You are given sudden freedom to do what you will, a liberty unmatched by any Zelda since perhaps the first one.

More stats in a Zelda game since that second on on the NES that no one talks much about.

If you, like me, are a fan of many recent Zeldas, you expect an authored experience, something that feels laid out by a designer's hand. Zelda games are the opposite of all of gaming's randomly generated content. Their landscapes are intentional, their pathways paved purposefully. We play Zeldas with some freedom but mostly with the assumption that the games' designers have crafted us interesting, specific things that all of us playing the game to completion will do.

Breath of the Wild swiftly feels that it is not that, that it cannot be that. Even in its opening area, a vast central plateau, it feels too open to be crafted, too unfenced to ensure common experience. In those opening hours, my worry grew as it began to feel too random to feel like Zelda.

The game quickly came to resemble a chemistry set, a simulation that would deliver experienced not by hand but by algorithm and maths. This is not an insult. It's what brings people pleasure when they poke at games as diverse as The Sims, GTA III and Civilisation V. In Breath of the Wild, different weather systems would roll in. I had to eye a temperature gauge, lest Link freeze.

I started noticing lots of stats. Weapons have numbered strength and can break. A pop-up message informed me that apples could generate X hearts when eaten uncooked and more when cooked. Picking up mushrooms and meat prompted new messages about recipes and adjustments to my stamina or stealth stats. What is this game?

A tiny part of the game's map at maximum zoom. X marks where I previously died. The game auto-saves often and revives you near where you croaked.

My scepticism and doubt increased as I explored the first of the game's Shrines. The Shrines are mini dungeons. There are supposed to be hundred or so of them in Breath of the Wild and even now I've only done six or seven. By the time I'd done the first few on the plateau, I'd come to think of them as the equivalent of a room or two of a classic Zelda dungeon.

They are smartly laid out and quickly teach you some of Link's new abilities such as wielding a big magnet to solve physics puzzles, but they felt small, like an acknowledgement of my taste for hand-crafted Zelda, a diversion from the more untamed world above. I feared it wasn't enough.

To get from one Shrine to another in the introductory plateau, the player can climb a cliff or walk through a valley. There are multiple approaches. To get to the fourth, I needed Link to trek through a snowy area that made him shiver and shed heart-metered health. I first approached the snow area via a cliff, learning the limits of the game's new stamina gauge, which would leave Link dropping to his death if it expired before he found a foothold. Once up there, I found an encampment of enemies, fought them and then tried to stand by a fire to keep warm. Soon I was back out in the cold and I eventually froze.

My colleague Kirk fared better, telling me he was able to go from fire to fire, lighting some on his own and brute-forcing his way to the fourth shrine.

My colleague Jason did something different. He figured out that cooking spicy peppers that were growing near one entrance to the snowy area could generate a meal that would keep Link warm long enough to survive the cold. I found a note from an old man that indicated I could find warmer clothes somewhere, but I didn't find them.

I backed up and approached the snowy area from another angle and spotted a raft with a sail. The raft was at the end of a bridge, but the bridge was out. I saw a tree nearby and grabbed my axe. You can figure out the rest.

My doubt faded. My sense that this world was as random as it initially appeared melted. There was a designer's hand all over this place, just more subtly.

I finished the game's intro plateau quests and glided out to its bigger, wider world. I had a quest marker far, far away and a road before me.

On the road I found a cave with a little puzzle inside it. I found more enemy encampments and began to recognise them as combat puzzles of their own: how to take out the sentries? Do I shoot the exploding barrels or use those metal crates nearby to win the fight? Can I kill these enemies before they rush over to their weapons to attack me?

I took the game with me to work and shared it with more colleagues. Bold Patricia got off the road and ran toward the center of the map, eager to see if she could beat the game, as teased, straight away. She got chased by massive enemies. One booted her/Link ahead. "Speedrunning strat!" she exclaimed, but soon another enemy appeared and killed Link. You actually die a lot in this game, since you can often go where you're not supposed to go.

Of course you should climb it. Of course it's a subtle part of a puzzle you don't even realise you're beginning to solve as you go up the ladder. Poke at this game world and you shall be rewarded — so far!

I've gotten back on the road then wandered off it. Little things keep catching my eye, and when I approach a suspicious hut or a curious chain or an odd ridge, I'm usually rewarded with a puzzle of sorts. This wild world has definitely been hand-shaped.

The game is beautiful and quiet. You hear the wind and the animals. Music rarely plays. It's subtle, not shouting that it is a bona fide Zelda game packed with a heap of authored wonder, but instead letting you learn that for yourself. At least early on, that's how it is going. It's hooking me. And I've just made it to the first town, so eager to play on.

It will be out in a week. For now, just listen to a tiny little bit of it to get the mood:


Comments

    My body is so incredibly ready.

    Stephen, did you notice any slowdown? I know that the version that showed in the Nintendo Treehouse had some slowdown problems. Some reviewers are saying it's fixed.

      From all the previews I've read (too many) it seems like there are no framerate issues when playing in hand-held mode.

      HOWEVER, there are a few framerate drops in busy sections when docked.

      The jump up to 900p must be the issue, I guess?

        I saw that this morning too. That's a shame, but I guess it's expected from a smaller console. I'm okay with it though as most of my playtime will be in handheld mode.

      If you want any chance of the yanks reading/replying at you, you'll have to comment on the US article.

    Copy pasted from yesterday's Switch review:
    How does playing an open world style game as intricate as Zelda translate to a handheld?
    I have some serious concerns about that screensize and playing such a detailed game.
    Unless I'm booting it up to do some farming of mats for cooking in a few spare moments I can't see the handheld option being anywhere near replicating the immersion of a large TV?
    Tell me I'm wrong Stephen please!

      That is completely up to the user.. I am pretty much on the side that the larger screen will be far more immersive - but again, you cant get a game like this on a handheld anywhere else. Are we really going to be upset about having an "Option" to take it on the road? I'm sure there is going to be times I cant be arsed sitting at the TV playing this game and would rather lay in bed quietly doing a few missions.

      Dude, try playing Monster Hunter on the 3DS. Cramped as hell UI, map and inventory right in the middle of where you need to look. If a few million managed to play that fine, Zelda on the Switch screen will be a breeze.

    Also - holy snapping batshit I am ready for this game!!!!
    Apologies in advance to work, family and friends

      I, uh, took the week of 6-10 March off from work... I am so, so ready.

      Dang it, I've been ready since 2015.

        I just gave them a warning that I'll be tired and playing in my lunch breaks. They're cool with it. I even purchased a dock so I could connect it to my computer screen at work.

        Last edited 25/02/17 12:13 pm

    it was very nice of nintendo to release this on the friday before a long weekend in WA.
    i have taken the friday off and will have close to 4 days to play.
    very excited

    and now no matter where i have to go i will be able to keep playing (within reason)

    Looks pretty much like the essence of gaming to me. A beautiful world, filled with adventure, that takes you away from our (at times) crappy real one.

    I wasn't going to get a Switch but the experience of playing through this game with my kids looks easily worth the price of admission. In 20 years i'm positive i won't care about the $600 or whatever it is.

      Say what you want about Nintendo not catering to the older crowd, but they were there for us kids and are still there for our own.
      Best thing is we get to be big kids again and relive a big part of the magic that many think lost.

      Sitting down to play Mario Galaxy with my nephew took me back to playing Super Mario bros and Duck Hunt with my Mum.
      She has my Wii now to play with the grandkids as well.

        Yep, absolutely! Having kids has really brought the joy back to gaming for me. The way it sets off their imagination is so awesome. Mine will play one hour of a game and then spend the next three using whatever stuff they happen to have to keep the game going around the house. BotW looks perfect for that!

    I had a great day planned - getting a Switch and BotW, had Gold Class booked to see 'Logan'... then a friend died and now I have to go to a funeral. The dead can be so fucking inconsiderate.

    are we forced to play with the English dub? I really would prefer to play in Japanese with Subs.

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