In the first five hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I climbed a golden tower, burned a prairie, stopped time, cooked a nice meal, survived the frigid peaks of a mountain, met an old friend, snuck up on a horse, and explored the depths of some ancient shrines. Despite all that, I feel like I've only scratched the surface of everything that the game has to offer.
Like the Switch itself, Breath of the Wild is a game that it attempting to straddle two paths. It's rousing callback to the original Legend of Zelda, bringing back that feeling of wandering a vast, unknown world. Even this small snippet of the game features callbacks to some of the most beloved places and characters from Zeldas past; the 30th anniversary of the series was last year, but this game feels like the real celebration of that milestone.
Breath of the Wild is also a look forward for Nintendo, with the game pulling concepts and mechanics from other modern titles. It's a fully open-world game, with a vast stretch of Hyrule to explore. Voice acting rears its head for the first time in series history. Like many open-world games, Ubisoft towers are here, revealing the true shape of the land you're traveling on. Stealth is a strong part of the new experience, with Link having an ever-present sound meter to help you keep track of how loud your footfalls are.
A new cooking system will have you wanting to to pick up everything you come across to sell or craft with, recalling the rampant kleptomania that characterizes The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout 4.
Despite all that, Breath of the Wild is its own concoction, not just a homage to the past or a copy of the present.
The open-world is the centerpiece of The Legend of Zelda. You can tell that Nintendo is proud of what they've created here. The opening of the game begins with white text on the black background, quiet and subdued. Link wakes from his slumber in an ancient chamber, with only a disembodied voice and tablet to guide you. As you step out of the chamber and into the light, the piano starts to play and the camera pans up to show you the new Hyrule, complete with official logo. It's Nintendo saying to you, "We made this all for you. Enjoy it."
Breath of the Wild is freewheeling. There are some barriers to entry. Like Zelda games of old, some areas are locked off to you until you have a certain ability, one of which is early in this process. And some regions have foes that are far above your available equipment and expertise. For the most part though, how you get to a place and what you do there is open to you.
The first item you find is a simple Tree Branch. You can use it as a basic weapon, or you can swing it through fire to make a torch. Throw it on a bunch of wood to start another fire, or near an enemy to cause a distraction. And that's just your first weapon.
Early found items include Apples or Hylian Shrooms. Both items are found out in the wild and both give you half a heart if you simply eat them. If you drop the Apple in a fire and pick it back up before it burns away, it'll be a Baked Apple that restores more health. Drop a bunch of Hylian Shrooms in a cauldron and you end up with a Mushroom Skewer.
Kill a goat (What? It's the fate of Hyrule versus a single goat!) and you can combine the raw meat with other ingredients, to create a meal that replenishes life and offers up different effects. These effects include raising heat or cold resistance, increasing speed, attack power, and defense, or buffing your maximum health and stamina for a short period of time. You're encouraged to experiment with different foods and other items to make new things, and even if you fail, you're still left with the single-heart giving Dubious Food. Cooking and making a elixirs for temporary buffs is a strong cornerstone of Breath of the Wild.
Other pillars that form the game's infrastructure include sound, temperature, and stamina. As I said before, Link always has a sound meter down near the map. Enemies and animals can hear Link if he's making too noise. To sneak by, dispatch certain enemies, or capture animals, it becomes necessary to crouch and move slowly. Nabbing a ride in Breath of the Wild requires you to tame a wild horse, which requires mounting them, which itself requires sneaking up on the them in first place.
Temperature is one of the ways that Breath of the Wild locks you into certain areas. Intense cold or heat causes Link to slowly lose health. In the game's starting Grand Plateau area, there's a huge snowcapped peak called Mount Hylia. On a whim, I decided to scale the mountain. Stepping foot into the snow covered section caused my life to drain away and I pushed death from Link by eating most of my food. Finding a group of Moblins near a fire, I descended upon them for their precious heat. From there, judicious use of my numerous Tree Branches as torches allowed me to stay warm until I reached the peak.
Once there, I received a Warm Doublet for my trouble, which increased my Cold Resistance to a level allowing me to trek the rest of the mountain. The thing is, I could've received the Warm Doublet back down on the ground by figuring out the last ingredient in a recipe. I didn't, because I had mountains to climb. Regardless, the game didn't punich me for my curiosity. That time.
I couldn't have quite made it to where I did without Stamina. Stamina underpins most movement in Breath of the Wild. You need it for charged attacks, you need it to sprint, you need it to glide, and most importantly, you need it to climb. Link is now the goddamn Spider-Man, able to climb over nearly everything as long as you have the available stamina.
In the E3 2014 of reveal of The Legend of Zelda for Wii U, Aonuma referred to an image of the game, saying "You can even reach those mountains in the background." Cliche, yes, but ultimately true. A combination of higher stamina stores, certain buffs via food, and optimal use of flat outcroppings can find a player in places that Nintendo may not have completely intended for you to go yet. That building? Climb it. That tree? You can climb that too. That cliffside? Climb away, my friend.
Hyrule is startlingly vertical in this incarnation and you're always looking at high places and wondering, "How can I get there?" Nintendo rewards you for your wanderlust with something for your effort in most cases. Sometimes you'll find new people or the tiny little forest sprites who give you Korok Seeds. (You use the seeds to increase inventory space.) Occasionally you'll find treasure chests, lore, hints at hidden secrets (shades of the hints in the original game), or sometimes just an interesting landscape formation that you're sure will have a point later on.
This vertical bent is also present in Breath of the Wild's Ubisoft towers. You literally climb a series of towers around the land, syncing them with your Sheikah Slate tablet to reveal the topographical map of the region you're in. Nintendo doesn't just play them straight though. The map shows areas, but it doesn't clue you to what's in each area.
Instead, you want to use your Slate's scope and the tower's height to look down upon the land below. Once there you can mark your map with colored waypoint pins, or up to 100 stamps of various icons. Breath of the Wild uses the towers to encourage you to build your own map, instead of just giving you a series of waypoints. (There are quest waypoints, so don't assume that Nintendo is throwing out everything.)
This repurposing of content also extends to Shrines. These glowing physical waypoints are clearly visible from atop a tower or mountain. If you pulled a single puzzle room out of a dungeon in another Zelda game and placed it out in an open world, that would be a Shrine.
They're a quick hit of puzzle content or a combat encounter, which you can usually complete in ten minutes tops. Generally, they're focused around your unique Slate Runes, like Remote Bomb (you can choose when to detonate bombs now!); Stasis, which freezes objects and piles up kinetic energy to send things flying; or Magnesis, which lets you move metal objects around. Completing a Shrine gives you Spirit Orbs to increase your Hearts or Stamina and going the extra mile usually nets you an extra treasure chest.
The additional purpose of the Shrines is as a teleport point: you can teleport to any completed tower or Shrine and given the size of this Hyrule, it's rather important to fast travel. Having this additional reason to complete a Shrine did prevent me from simply peace-ing out of certain places. You're not forced per se, but being able to teleport is very useful.
Everything above was only five hours into Breath of the Wild. Five hours and I feel like it's barely scratching the surface of what I've played, which isn't even the entire game at this point. I could talk about combat (it works!), weapon durability (I'm not feeling it), but this preview is already 1,500 words deep.
There's metric ton of things I'm not allowed to talk about for this preview, like the game's overall premise, dungeons and villages (they exist!), or really anything you'd probably count as a spoiler. Some of that will be saved for our final The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild review, which is scheduled to go live on March 2 at 6am ET/3am PT.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be launching on March 3, 2017 for Nintendo Switch and Wii U.