I’ve played the new Zelda game for about half an hour. It’s terrific. It’s also very unlike the many Zeldas I’ve played before.
On Sunday, Nintendo reps gave me and other reporters access to the game’s two E3 demos. One lets players run around as franchise hero Link, exploring a large area that the devs said represented just 1% of the game (they say the whole game’s map is 12 times the size of the already-huge landmass of The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess).
The other demo featured the beginning of the game and gets into the action right away. Link has access to a sword within five minutes. This Zelda, unlike recent ones, doesn’t seem to be a slow starter. You can get to the game’s first shrine, or mini-dungeon, in under 20 minutes. Franchise head Eiji Aonuma told me that he guesses that it might take an hour or so to get to the game’s first proper dungeon.
Some technical stuff: the game is running on the Wii U at E3 but will also be available for Nintendo’s upcoming game platform NX, which launches next year. On Sunday, when a reporter asked if the games would differ, Aonuma said, “The users will be able to have the same experience in the NX version as they do with the Wii U version.”
That said, there isn’t much of a Wii U identity to this game. The game can be played with the console’s signature GamePad controller but can also be played with the conventional screen-less Pro Controller. Aonuma said that players using the GamePad can use that controller’s screen to move the game’s display to the GamePad screen, but that screen doesn’t seem to do much else.
For the E3 demos, the GamePad screen shows the control mappings. “Previously, when I was playing with Mr. Miyamoto, you might have seen that the map was on the GamePad screen,” Aonuma said, referring to a demo he did of the game two Decembers ago. “But after developing the game and playing the game we realized that having a smaller version of the map on screen is actually better so you know where you are at all times. So we decided to take it that route. Obviously if we find that there’s a great feature we could add to the GamePad, there is a possibility that we could do that.”
Link moves through the world freely. Breath of the Wild is meant to evoke a great sense of openness, similar to the very first game in the series. “For really the first time in a 3D Zelda game, you kind of get the feeling you had the very first time you played the original NES Zelda game,” Nintendo’s Bill Trinen had told reporters on Sunday. He said you get that game’s “sense of openness, the sense I can walk off in any direction, the sense I can do dungeons and go wherever I want. I can find myself in places that I know I’m not supposed to be in, and I can get my butt kicked. Or I can run away and try to get back.” That is indeed how the game felt in the bits of it I played.
Link now can jump with the press of a button, something absent from other 3D Zeldas. The move is most useful for jumping onto walls, which you can climb so long as your stamina gauge holds up. I made Link climb cliffs, building walls and trees. The steeper the grade, the more quickly your gauge depletes, I was told. You can also improve your stamina as you play, apparently by getting upgrades, something I didn’t see in my demos.
More so than any Zelda game since Zelda II, Breath of the Wild feels like an adventure governed by stats. You are constantly collecting new outfits and weapons, all of which have stats. The weapons you grab can break. A clock ticks forward, one second in real life serving as one minute in game time. Your health is still measured in hearts, but that health is now filled by eating various items of food that will replenish different amounts of health. You can cook the food and discover new recipes. One recipe shown in the demos lets you improve your stamina, allowing you to run faster for around three minutes.
Enemies now camp throughout the game’s open world. I came upon an encampment in one of the demos and took the enemies out. I tried to use the game’s new crouching stealth system (this and the stats and the climbing..am I writing a preview for Assassin’s Creed?) and crept up on an enemy. In another encounter, I rolled a boulder down from a cliff to kill a group. You can scavenge weapons from enemies. Camping enemies may go to sleep at night, Nintendo reps said.
The game’s map is huge and can be annotated by the player at any time. Players can drop multiple beacons to use as waypoints but can also mark spots with stamps that could indicate that a given location has enemies in it, a treasure chest or other points of interest.
The game constantly displays a little gauge that shows Link’s body temperature. He might go somewhere cold and the meter will drop into the blue. But if you’ve found a heavier shirt, you can forge ahead without losing health. “The idea of cold and hot comes into play a lot. In the past titles it was very clear, blue or red. But there’s a lot more steps and gradations to this. So if you go in thinking you’re prepared for this coldness, you might go to a place that’s even colder so you need to be even better prepared. And so for example if you’re at a mountain, the base of the mountain might be warm a nice but as you climb it will get colder and colder and if you have to be prepared for that as well.”
You’ll also have to deal with weather changes. You can set fires to cook food, but if it rains, the rain will put the fire out. If you are carrying a sword in a thunderstorm, Aonuma told me, you are more likely to get hit by lightning. “On the other hand, you can throw your weapons,” he said. “If the enemy were to pick it up, you can try to make it so that the lightning falls on them.”
There are no heart pick-ups. You gain health by eating food you’ve gathered, hunted or cooked. You also won’t find any arrow or bomb ammo pick-ups when you chop down grass.
The developers have made a Zelda that is a bit more survival-based, but you don’t need to worry about Link getting perpetually hungrier. This isn’t Don’t Starve. You eat to regain health but only need to eat if you’ve lost health by getting hurt in combat or from the environment. You don’t have to sleep in the game, but if you do, you can advance time and replenish your health.
There are dungeons, but they didn’t seem to be in the game’s demo. It was possible, though, to access a “shrine”. The shrines are mini-dungeons full of puzzles and that dole out rewards that amp up Link’s health and stamina. There are 100 or so shrines in the game, according to Aonuma. Their entrances also serve as fast-travel points. In the one I entered, Link could use a new magnet item to pick up blocks and break down a wall. I didn’t get much further, though, because these E3 demos are on short timers. I also used the magnet ability to identify and then pull a treasure chest out of the bottom of a small lake.
In the parts I played, I had access to swords, a spear, an axe and arrows. I saw a glider, too, that I could use to drift down from high points. And I could generate bombs using Link’s new high-tech iPad-like Sheikah Slate. But I didn’t see a boomerang and wasn’t sure just how many more items there will be in the game.
Most Zelda games include menu screens that are initially full of empty outlines representing where the various weapons, items and other gear that you find will go. Breath of the Wild’s E3 demos don’t have that, and it seems the game may not either. “There’s a lot of things you can collect in this game, whether it’s food, clothes, weapons,” Aonuma told me. “So in past Zelda titles we put all of that under the umbrella of ‘item.’ We separated that out in this one. And in terms of items that are necessary to solve puzzles, that you kind of get early in the game. And then you can actually later upgrade those. Even the number of weapon slots is limited in the beginning. Doing something later in the game will increase that and let you collect more weapons.”
It’s not clear how much structure Breath of the Wild will have. The talk of dungeons implies some sort of progression, but Nintendo reps continually emphasize that you can access a lot of the game in any order, so long as you can survive.
They’re barely talking about story. You start the game waking up nearly naked in some sort of bathtub in a dark resurrection chamber. It’s clear that a long time has passed in this world. A woman’s voice tells you that Link is “the light that must shine upon Hyrule once more.” You’re Link, of course, and there’s evil in the world. One dialogue sequence I saw mentioned Ganon.
Perhaps the story just won’t matter much, because it feels like this Zelda more than any before it is designed for emergent story that just comes from messing around with the world. I found myself not caring much about what the plot was as I took my axe and swung it at a tree that was growing atop a cliff. There was a body of water below that I decided to dive into. I did, and as I came up for air, I noticed a log floating by. That was the tree I’d chopped. I’d made a makeshift bridge. I was surprised and intrigued. Here’s a Zelda world I can tinker with, which is perhaps the most interesting new feature of all.
Bonus Amiibo details: If you tap the Twilight Princess Wolf Link Amiibo into the game, Wolf Link will appear and will hunt animals and attack enemies. Wolf Link has three hearts by default but will have more if you completed the Wii U Twilight Princess’ new trials dungeon and earned Wolf Link more hearts. Nintendo is also making a set of Amiibos based on Breath of The Wild, including one of Link on a horse, one of him airborne with the bow and arrow and one of the massive guardian enemy featured in the game’s 2014 debut trailer.