Monday, 27 March 2017
Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Platform Switch, Wii U
There are few videogame series as celebrated as The Legend of Zelda. As one of Nintendo's core franchises dating all the way back to the 1980s, Zelda has become synonymous with quality, and almost every entry in the series has brought widespread critical acclaim.
It's not just that Zelda games have tended to be very good games, they've also tended to be landmarks in the industry. The first instalment in the series changed the way people looked at games with its non-linear structure and vast world. Then Ocarina of Time re-invented gaming again by successfully making the jump into three dimensions, pioneering many of 3D gaming's core mechanics that are still a mainstay of the industry today. Almost every 3D game owes something to the work done in Ocarina's development.
But it's safe to say that the series had been on the wane in recent years. The last two main entries, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, were warmly enough received, but were seen by many to be simply retreading what had already been done in previous games. Then there is the recent fixation on churning out HD remakes rather than new titles, and one can see why many pundits had begun to call Zelda a series in stagnation, lacking in fresh ideas. This was a franchise in desperate need of a shot in the arm to take back its mantle at the cutting edge of gaming.
The good news is that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW) accomplishes this, and does so in ways that wildly exceed even our most optimistic expectations.
Re-thinking core gameplay mechanics
The thinking behind BotW is clear. Zelda is a series that has always clung tight to its traditions; every game follows the same roughly linear structure of exploration and dungeons, collect 7 of some maguffin to beat the big bad, and along the way pick up the Hookshot, the Bow, the Hammer, and all the other iconic tools of the Zelda series. From the outset BotW aims to tear down all these familiar tropes and completely re-imagine what it means to be a Zelda game.
This break with tradition permeates every element of design in BotW. The inventory system borrows heavily from the RPG genre, with dozens of distinct variants of every type of item, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This works the same way for armor and clothing as well, with several different outfits to discover instead of just the usual green tunic that Link always wears. Such a mechanic ensures everyone's Link is unique and different, from the gear he uses to the way he looks. Since many of these items are discovered in the game world or picked up from battles, it also adds a certain player sentimentality to the item. I'll look at a particular helm and remember the mini adventure that led me to finding it.
There is a big new emphasis on crafting. The world is full of harvestable items, whether you're foraging for fruit, or hunting for meat, collecting insects or mining ores, and all of it can be used to craft weapons and gear, as well as cook food and elixirs. The cooking element in particular is an absolute joy, with all the different food items combining in different recipes and quantities to produce different meals with various effects. It's a deceptively complex system, and yet incredibly intuitive. It's also a surprising amount of fun. It's hard to imagine how something as simple as a cooking mechanic could be as delightful as it is, but Nintendo have somehow made a highly compelling system here.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how BotW re-thinks the Zelda formula. Instead of one preset horse, there are now several breeds wandering the wilderness that Link must catch, tame and develop a bond with in order to ride effectively, and these are all customisable as well. There is a degradation system for weapons and other items, which means they break after certain number of uses, forcing the player into efficient inventory management. There are a near endless supply of side quests, something which has always been an afterthought in a Zelda game. There is even an encyclopedia in which the player can discover and document every item, animal, plant and enemy in the game world, just for the obsessive completionists. I could go on.
But all these new mechanics and tweaks to the familiar would mean little without the big new revelation, the design of the world itself. For the first time in the series, BotW is a fully open world game. Zelda has always had a big, expansive map to explore, but until now it has always simply been a series of skyboxes with walls around it. In Ocarina of Time, if you look into the distance and see a mountain, you can't really go there, you have to go through a designated entryway to take you to a completely separately rendered world which is designed to look like you went there. By contrast, BotW is fully open. That means when you see that mountain in the distance, you can go there, no loading screens, no walls, invisible or otherwise, no connecting entrances and exits. Just one big open world to explore.
This world stretches out in all directions. It would take hours to traverse, even when familiar with the terrain. Yet despite it's size, the world is impressively detailed and has the feeling of every inch being hand-crafted. It helps in this regard that there is a lot of diversity in the locations you can visit, from sandy deserts to snowy mountains, forests, jungles, beaches, and all the classic Zelda locations.
Sure, there are many games nowadays which implement big open worlds, but none quite like this. Even games like Skyrim and Far Cry resort to invisible walls to prevent you from going where the developer doesn't intend for you to go.
Those games typically present you with an array of map and quest markers, meaning that despite the seemingly open-ended world, you typically find yourself just journeying from marker to marker, clearing quests like a chore. BotW takes a different approach, telling you practically nothing about what's out there in the world until you find it for yourself. Instead of a to-do list, the player is presented with the unknown, and forced to explore in order to progress.
So whereas in most open-world games the desire to explore ultimately comes from a marker on your map, or a checklist of quests to complete, BotW has a more intuitive guidng purpose: a mysterious light on the top of a mountain, a pillar of smoke rising from the jungle. You see these things while wandering about the world, and instinctively you want to go find out what's there. It doesn't even matter if there's little of importance to be found (though fortunately this is rarely the case), the mystery of the unknown and the adventure of discovery genuinely gives players its own reward. It's a cliche to say "it's the journey, not the destination", but in this case pure exploration is legitimately such an unqualified joy. It taps into something altogether more fundamental than most open-world games, an instinct to explore and discover what's out there, and it's something this game pulls off brilliantly.
To give an example: on a whim I decided to go explore a region where there was seemingly no relevance to the main story, a secluded jungle where, even after way too many hours of playing I had never had reason to venture. On this random excursion I managed to find in the heart of that jungle waterfalls, incredible scenic beauty, a powerful legendary weapon, a gigantic beast that I had no idea even existed, and ultimately stumbled upon a lovely beach-side town with a series of unique quests and items. It's the sort of thing that you can play the entire game without even realising it's there if you don't go look.
But what really brings the world alive is the attention to detail. Among many little touches, Nintendo have gone to the trouble of implementing a temperature scale which has an impact on the type of clothes you need to wear in order to maintain health, the types of enemies and NPCs, and countless other subtle effects. Food cooks itself when you're in a region of high temperature, wooden weapons burn, metallic weapons attract lightning. Fire weapons can be used to light your way, as well as burn wooden objects. Electricity carries through water. The player is additionally given a number of powers like magnetic levitation, water freezing, time stasis and others. These skills are useful in the main questing and puzzles, but additionally offer new ways to interact with the world.
It is truly remarkable how all these distinct, complex systems interact with one another, often in surprising, probably unintentional, but perfectly valid ways. This is one of those games where the developers really have though of every tiny little detail, no matter how seemingly innocuous. BotW is the type of game that years from now people will still be playing and discovering new things that no one knew existed, things that even the developer probably didn't know you could do.
And this is what surprised me more than anything, because after many, many hours in this game I have yet to see any bugs, yet to see a fall-through-the-floor glitch, or bugged AI. Everything just somehow works. Compare this to a Bethesda RPG like Skyrim or Fallout, great games, but always horrendously buggy. Yet here is Nintendo, a company with no experience in open-world games, somehow making a huge and complex world, polished to near perfection. And all this on a cartridge the size of my thumbnail. I have absolutely no idea how they have managed this. For all the game's other successes, it really can't be overstated what a remarkable technical achievement BotW is.
But this is by no means a perfect game. The story is pretty by-the-numbers Zelda, and the writing is generally mediocre. Worse still, Nintendo have decided for the first time to implement voice acting in a Zelda game. I'm not necessarily opposed to voice acting in Zelda, but the voice acting here is generally poor by modern standards. This is a huge videogame franchise, they could afford proper actors if they wanted.
It can also be a pretty lonely journey. Previous Zelda games featured a much more interactive supporting cast and character interaction, whereas in BotW you will mostly have to content yourself with paper thin NPCs. It's a pity, because BotW actually features one of the better and more fully fleshed out supporting casts of the series, particularly Princess Zelda herself who is a surprisingly complex character this time around. The trouble is that these characters are all given about two minutes of screen time throughout the entire game, and almost always under quest-specific conditions, disappearing forever immediately afterwards.
In addition, while there are many side quests, far too many of them resort to the tired fetch quest formula of "collect x number of grasshoppers for no apparent reason" that I think we all could have lived without.
But while these flaws are legitimate, and worth mentioning, they really don't detract from how excellent the rest of the product is. Long after the main story is completed and gone and you've forgotten the dodgy story presentation, you'll still want to go out and see what else is waiting to be found in this world.
And this is really what makes the game great. The main story is just so so, there are only a handful of main story dungeons, but the world in which the story is set is just so incredibly well realised, so interactive and rewarding that you'll want to spend hours losing yourself in it. It's the delightful NPCs you encounter, the endless secrets and surprises you'll stumble across in the wilderness, and the fact that every adventure, every keepsake you collect marks your Link, your story, as unique.
Nintendo have pulled something of a wonder here with another landmark in the gaming industry. They've managed to pull off open-world gaming at the first attempt, and in a way that few if any games ever have. Breath of the Wild may just have supplanted Ocarina of Time as the definitive Zelda game, and will undoubtedly go down as one of the all time greats.