There’s only one Nintendo game to see at E3 this year but The Legend of Zelda is an important one.
Important because it seeks to refresh the entire Legend of Zelda franchise, and important because of its significance in shaping Nintendo’s future. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the game that will serve as a tombstone for the Wii U and as a birth certificate for the NX.
For that reason, it was essential for the game to make a good impression at E3.
Luckily, it does. It really does.
First things first. It’s evident that the NX will be the place to play Breath of the Wild when it’s released next year. Although it shines on the Wii U there are a few tell-tale signs that indicate the best experience will be on Nintendo’s next platform. For one thing, the Wii U gamepad’s functions have been pared back, surely to make the game as platform agnostic as possible. Elements such as the waypoint marking demoed a few years ago are entirely absent from this build – and according to Eiji Aonuma, they won’t be coming back. You have to imagine that the game is being optimised for the NX from this point forward, and therefore will also benefit from whatever technical and graphical improvements that console brings.
And yet the ghost of the Wii U still haunts the game’s design. In the demo Link uses an item called a Sheikah Slate, a gadget surely created as an in-game representation of the Wii U gamepad but now the vestige of a design path abandoned.
None of this really matters of course, it’s how it feels and plays that is most important. Fortunately, despite its reinvention as an open-world adventure, Breath of the Wild still feels very much like a Legend of Zelda game.
There are two demos at E3. The first lets you loose to get on with exploring the world, and the second takes you to the beginning with the game where you can, well, get on with exploring the world.
And it’s a delightful place to forage about in, looking much more vibrant in the flesh than it does in video footage. And despite its size, there was no shortage to things to do. During my time with the game I cleared a skull-cave of moblins, I activated a giant Resurrection Tower, and I found a mysterious shrine. I also crept up on a grazing wart-hog, nabbed a lizard who was idly basking on a tree trunk and hauled rocks around with a big magnet.
First impressions are daunting, even in this boxed-off E3 demo which only covers a fraction of the final map. It’s an overwhelmingly expansive space with lines of sight to a multitude of tempting landmarks on the horizon. You feel you can go anywhere, but it’s not quite as simple as that.
Freedom has been the buzzword around the game and yet Link is now also burdened by a whole heap of stat-changing accoutrements. For example, different types of clothing allow resistance to cold environments. The length of that resistance is marked by a countdown timer displayed on the screen. Once that reaches zero, you’re going nowhere. This might be an open-world but Nintendo are ensuring they have plenty of ways to gate progress if necessary.
Yet, these restrictions make sense. Aonuma and his team have gone to great lengths to remove the friction between Link and the game world. There are no hearts to collect in this version of Hyrule, just food to find and resources to discover – all of which have a gameplay effect, however modest. In fact, it owes a fair deal to the likes of Skyrim – there, I said it – but it must be stressed that the implementation of these ‘RPG mechanics’ is much lighter than anything seen in a Bethesda game. Hopefully Nintendo get the balance just right and the series remains firmly at the action-adventure end of the RPG genre.
My exploration was interrupted by occasional instances of combat, and it was here the game felt most familiar. Using a sword, a fire rod, a bow and some bombs – which are now magically generated from the Sheikah Slate – I took down a number of bokoblin outposts in a variety of fun ways. My favourite encounter resulted in chaos when I started a huge blaze with my fire rod.
The Wii U gamepad’s gyroscopic controls were used for aiming the bow, so we can count on that functionality being included in the NX at least.
We’ve seen open-worlds aplenty this week in the form of Horizon Zero Dawn, Watch_Dogs 2, and Steep, and in the past year Metal Gear Solid V and Far Cry Primal have also demonstrated how an open-world can be intrinsically tied to gameplay. This means that Breath of the Wild’s main selling point is not quite as unique as we had perhaps hoped. But what should make it stand out is Nintendo’s unrivalled ability of make every corner of a world yield secrets and provide opportunities for fun gameplay.
With a world this size it’s a tantalising prospect, and one I can’t wait to experience.