Preview: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Published by Jack Taylor January 21, 2017
A shining new chapter in the history of the Zelda franchise is nearly here.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is less than six weeks away. It's taken its sweet time getting here, but the end product is almost upon us - and as with Twilight Princess, it'll launch for two systems, this time on the same day worldwide. At the recent UK premiere for Nintendo Switch, we had some precious hands-on time with Breath of the Wild - the first time the Nintendo Switch build has been available for anyone to play - and sure enough, it was a completely breathtaking experience.
Anyone who watched Nintendo's E3 2016 offerings might remember how the game begins: Link awakens in a room called the Shrine of Resurrection, stirred by a mysterious voice. Inside the room is a glowing pedestal from which a tablet called the Sheikah Slate - a vital part of your journey - appears, and by using this, you're guided to the outside world for the first time. It's a scene that's likely to go down as one of the most memorable Zelda moments: you walk out into the land of Hyrule and see the landscape around you, a vast area that can be traversed in its totality. Even better, that's just a tiny portion of the overall world.
One way in which Breath of the Wild stands out is how it lets you start your journey: you can do anything and go anywhere. Even in the preview we played, the game started out at the very beginning, simply because you're not forced to do anything in particular for most of the time - you can hunt, explore, fight, collect, all at your own pace. As you'd expect, the game does gently guide you toward the next main story point, which in the first instance is a mysterious old man sitting by a fire - otherwise, you're given free reign to do whatever you want, whether you want to run with the story or anywhere but.
Almost immediately, you're introduced to some of the ways in which Breath of the Wild differs from past Zelda games; after leaving the Shrine of Resurrection, you're met with two chests, one with a shirt and one with some trousers, indicating how clothing is utilised in order to boost your defence and provide other benefits. Shortly after that, we picked up a stick - to be equipped as a weapon - and some mushrooms and fruit, as food now replaces recovery hearts as your method of regaining health. Providing these items from the off is really intuitive, and we were able to pick up the gameplay and make some progress fairly quickly thanks to this. Also found early on is a boulder on a cliff, since you're now able to quite easily push these into enemies and other obstacles.
By taking a little bit of time to explore and learn about how Breath of the Wild is so different, you can quickly grasp how the gameplay has been adapted here. As well as the stick we found to use as a weapon, we also found a woodcutter axe nearby, and these have different uses - you can set a branch on fire to then set fire to woodland or campfires, and axes can be used to chop down trees. Weapons don't last forever, and you're informed whenever the quality of your equipped weapon has decreased, whether it's badly damaged or altogether broken. Once you've chopped a tree down, it's even possible to harvest the fruit that drops from it, and chop the felled tree into firewood. Already the thought that's gone into the game is tremendous - and we'd been playing for less than five minutes at this point.
One example of how the game lets you explore early on - at your own peril, no less - is that by the end of the 20-minute play session, we'd encountered a frozen wasteland, another part of the massive overworld. This time around, though, you need to be prepared for the harsh conditions: Link will lose health quickly if he isn't wrapped up warm in the freezing conditions, which is highlighted by a temperature gauge on the screen and warnings to alert you to the problematic situation Link is in.
When we started the game, we were playing using a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, which is extremely comfortable and isn't too light to hold either. It has all the same buttons as the two Joy-Con controllers, meaning you can easily switch (sorry) between the two. You use the Y button to attack with your equipped weapon, since B is used to dash - the stamina gauge from Skyward Sword is back - while A is used for actions and X is used to jump. You're informed of the different controls only when you first need to use them - for example, when you've gathered a few weapons, the game will tell you how to quickly swap between them.
Roughly halfway through our session, we rather giddily switched (sorry again) over to the Switch itself, and it's an absolutely incredible experience. The screen is one of the best you'll see, and everything about Breath of the Wild looked stunningly beautiful on it. Even though the Joy-Con buttons are a little smaller than on the Pro Controller, it was still very comfortable to hold and to control the game, particularly aided by the fact that button placement is exactly the same. Battery life on the go with Breath of the Wild is estimated to be about three hours - that'll vary by game - and we'd definitely recommend spending some time with the game on the Switch itself. It's just gorgeous.
The short time we spent with Breath of the Wild made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The beginning is understated - no big, fancy cinematics like Skyward Sword or The Wind Waker - and intriguing in equal measure, and what follows when you step out into Hyrule is just as exciting. Even after less than half an hour with the game, it's clear that this is a reinvention of a classic franchise, insomuch that rather than try to change a tried and tested formula that already exists, Eiji Aonuma and the team at Nintendo have created something unique from the ground up. We can't wait to get our hands on the full game - just six weeks to go, folks.