E3 2016: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This is, admittedly, probably the hardest E3 2016 article I’ll have to write. I’m both a Zelda and Nintendo fan, but I’m also fairly critical even of things I enjoy. While there was a lot I enjoyed about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there were a few things that were difficult to ignore.

I’m going to start by simply noting that Nintendo’s booth overall felt the weakest in years. Far too much was sacrificed for this single title. The demo shown wasn’t bad, but given the number of other titles being released and an upcoming console still shrouded in mystery, it felt like too much was held back. While I understand that E3 is generally for hype and PAX is for getting games into the hands of players, I often feel things should be done the opposite these days. Players love to chat, and social media is very plugged in, but your average player isn’t very critical. They generally know when they dislike something, not exactly why (trust me, my MA paper ran into a few bumps because of this). This is why, perhaps, Nintendo spent so much time on a meaty demo after failing to heed the industry’s less-than-stellar input on Star Fox Zero at last year’s show. The problem, however, is that Nintendo’s other reveals didn’t make up for this. It was odd that no one I spoke to or heard on the ground floor even mentioned the new generation of Pokemon games. That should be a red flag for anyone betting on Nintendo, including myself.

If reveals for the rest of the year can’t surpass the content we were shown at E3, well, I’ll be fairly worried about the strength of the company for the next console cycle, especially when the ground staff noted that the game would not require the Wii U gamepad. This is key, as it hints at the company’s possible acceptance of the controller’s limitations while also hinting at what the NX may or may not be, given the fact that the game supports the Pro Controller. With that out of the way, let’s look at what Nintendo did bring to E3.

 

Exploration Mode

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The big change coming to the series is the bigger sandbox emphasis. Hyrule has always been in a world made for exploring, but a few key additions change this in fundamental but natural ways.

First is the ability to climb, something formerly limited to ladders. Link now seems to be able to scale anything, like trees and cliff sides. This not only unlocks more vertical space for exploration, but general scope. As items can be hidden in tree tops or caves with loot can be tucked in cliff sides, small spaces have exponentially grown as a result. While a lot of people have talked about how big the horizontal world in the demo is (1% of the total game world), adding the vertical space makes the size of the game a bit intimidating for me. In my fifteen minute demo, I barely left my campsite, while others were off finding monsters.

At this point I should note that I never finished Windwaker nor started Twilight Princess or Link Between Worlds. I did finish Skyward Sword, but didn’t have time to get a perfect game. My game time has been focused on multiplayer titles or ones that allow me to play in spurts. This is more of a personal problem though, and one I can see other older fans getting hung up on. That being said, opening up the game world vastly increased the game’s immersion level, similar to what was done with Metal Gear V, but after Skyward Sword, it feels like a logical step, especially when combined with new RPG systems.

For example, item management is a bigger deal. In the demo, nearly all the weapons aside from the bow break. They also have numerical statistics, which admittedly took away from the immersion for me. The series often had other ways of showing when an item you got was an upgrade. This isn’t gone, but the numerical value immediately brings out the min/maxer in me, and I try to keep that guy out of my single player experiences.

That being said, the system allows for other changes. Now using weapons comes with more of a price. Reckless, unneeded combat may leave you defenseless, something I’ve never had to worry about in the series. The combat is interesting when you engage though, as it felt like the system occasionally slowed down when enemies attacked to emphasize openings, but that could have been lag. Assuming it wasn’t, it gave the game a cinematic feel (thank you Matrix).

Arrows have always been finite, but feel a bit more important since the bow doesn’t break, but they seemed rarer as well. If you miss a shot, you can collect it, but even the sparkle it emits can be lost in the world’s vastness. It’s one reason I chose to explore less combat, especially after finding out that hearts don’t drop to restore health. Instead, you eat, and the game includes a vast amount of edible cookables, ranging from mushrooms and steaks to lizards and butterflies. Clearly, Link must have developed a connection with Snake during their Smash Bros Brawl days.

Cooking (and trying to determine if I could start a forest fire, which I couldn’t) took up a decent amount of my demo time, but it was quite enjoyable. You can add up to five ingredients per dish, and each dish can add something new, like additional speed or stamina. For example, you can just make steak or you can make a steak and mushroom skewer. However, you can’t just add anything you want and have it turn out to be fantastic. When I cooked up three frogs, a butterfly, and a lizard, I apparently cooked something so atrocious that its icon was censored. I sadly didn’t get to see if the stats of my experiment were granted, as I was more concerned with whether or not eating it would harm me (it didn’t). I wanted to dive deeper into the culinary arts of the game, but at this point my exploration demo ended and my story demo began.

 

A Different Story

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Link frequently takes on slightly different roles, such as soldier and sailor. However, he always feels like he is a protector of nature, frequently clad in green, assisted by fairies and other wild life, and yeah, those elf ears cinch it. However, in this story, Link wake up in some kind of fantasy cryo room, having slept for a hundred years. Your starter clothes feel granger, more human based, espeas they’re damaged. My exploration gameplay had Link eating meat, something I had never considered, and his rather open diet aligns him more as a hunter living off the land than one out to save it. The fact that your first mentor type character is human and treats you to a baked, not raw, apple, makes Link seem far different from his past selves.

And I welcome the change. I’m not sure if it’s something others are paying attention to, as I’ve yet to really read any coverage, but those of us on the showroom floor were constantly making the connection to Metal Gear. Link may not have suddenly turned into elf Rambo, but the clear presentation of his need to live off the land as Ganon or his spirit corrupts it seems to indicate a central theme for the game.

Though, of course, you’re welcome to side quest all you want. I myself focused on the story, but the kind woman to my left got so lost she feared she was doing something wrong. Apparently she’d found a tougher monster than I had in some lost cave and acquired a big ax. The college guy next to me had found a good supply of decent swords I’d missed, helping him fight through content easier, plus had opportunities to play with the game’s physics a bit via less cut scene based rock pushing. I’d gotten to a part that seemed to require a swim to advance the story, but as Link couldn’t swim indefinitely, I drowned two times before my time was up.

 

A Whole New World

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a daring change I never expected. Admittedly, it’s what I wanted from the series when it first went 3D, so it feels like a natural progression in terms of design. It’s not as jarring Star Fox Zero’s control scheme, but the depth is a bit intimidating for someone who started with the top down games. Even so, the demo not only has me anticipating the new game, but has me considering trying to open my schedule to go back and play Twilight Princess, especially after learning that the Midna amiibo will carry over progress from that game to power up a Wolf Link assistant. It’s a small but unique way of rewarding fans who invest time in the series in a tangible way, which is something I feel we’re seeing more of in modern gaming, especially with MMO companies with expanding game IPs and genres.

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